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Tales of the City Bus

Carmen May Speer

Monday, back in business, a man said to me,
the fat riding in smooth hills through his jealous
rage-filled cheeks, "I like a woman who smells of bread," and I shifted in my black
skirt and tight cream shirt with the shadowed hole hidden by my shoulder
a roof for where the hairs poke out, three days defiant
of the razor.

Tuesday it was an old man with tar-paper skin
and uneven hair, a white curl among the black like a surprised eye.
He watched me, watched the way my lip curls
and my eyebrows play with each other, one up, one down,
skipping the ropes that criss-cross my forehead.
He kept watch like a beacon on a lighthouse, my little
aching savior, homeless and as anonymous to the bus driver
and the rest of us on our way to jobs and friends'
as the bedroll perched beside him. He watched me
weary but fascinated, and I felt privileged
that in such a dried-up casket of a man I could light
a remembered spark, a fire in the funeral home,
and told him that I loved him when he was a boy
who fished off the docks in Portland, who put out his tongue to taste the air
of every woman who walked by.

Wednesday it was a bleary-eyed junky, who gazed at me out of one puffed
eyelid, red forks stabbing the plate of his iris,
forearms flecked with holes concentrated over one vein like the work of a woodpecker.
He fixed me with his heart-stopping eyes, asked me over and over
to help him, to break the needle
off in his arm and give him
no surrogate, to be tough
and scrub him until he shone
like a chrysanthemum, until he was enough
to lean forward for.

Thursday it was a man in a wheelchair
whom I tested with my newfound
callousness. "Life is hard," I said, "we all
have it hard, but we aren't missing an arm or a leg
to prove it," and waited to read his face, for the crinkled
pained paper of his skin,
for the cliff of his forehead to wrinkle and push his orange curls forward, listened
for his ghost toes to throb and call out
vengeance from the leg-shaped dirt in the battlefield where he lost them.
Instead he said, "That's right, that's right, I'd rather be legless and happy
than full-bodied and divorced," and laughed with his uproarious
mane thrown over the metal chair.

Friday it was a black-haired boy on his way to joining the ranks
of panhandlers on Fourth Avenue. He was the dearest,
with a dovish swoop of neck and a lank
fringe of hair, soft eyes like coins of jelly
sewn into his face, and a muted way of speaking, as if his words were first filtered
through flowers, and then through air.
I helped him up with my hand as he boarded the bus
and let a light into his eyes which was never there before.

Saturdays and Sundays
there are no desperate dear girls with their babies big as they are
and no troubled young men with their cautious cell phones
and self-conscious pagers. There is no bus-laced scent of sweat, no aroma
of ground-out cigarettes and sorrow, not in the streets where I use my feet
to walk off the scroll of cares that stretches me
like taffy. Saturdays and Sundays
there is no smell
of unwashed hair, feet, bellybuttons and beer slurped too quickly,
no oil-based reek of ridges and a thumb's
print loops on the yellow bleeping tape, no flashing light
of politeness, "Stop requested," no walrus bus driver
smelling like whiskey.
There is only me, sunning myself
hedonistic in the back yard,
far away from the rows feet fall in
forced to cramp together in the back seat.

About the Author (click here) Poem © 2000 Carmen May Speer, all rights reserved
 appears here by permission

Author Notes

           I wrote this poem about my interesting and manifold experiences on the bus. It details one typical week of riding the bus, day-by-day. Most of the people who ride the bus are either college students like myself or too poor to afford a car. The homeless and the mentally ill often ride the bus as well. I have struck up a relationship with many of the patrons of Route 3 and this poem is written for them (and for others who would scorn them -- reminding people to take a second look, beneath the surface).

           Language is my first love. Not only English but all language, the mechanics of it. Learning other languages has helped me to understand the workings and origins of the English language. I enjoy ferreting out the roots of words and tracing back relationships between seemingly unrelated words to their Latin, German, Moorish or Celtic origins. I enjoy all things having to do with language-- reading, writing, acting, learning. I write prose and drama as well as poetry, but poetry has a special fascination for me-- using language to juggle visceral imagery, thought connections, and music, all in a relatively short, tight format. Poetry is my favorite form of writing, the essence of language, refined and exquisite.

           Hope I didn't ramble on too long. I can't really express what poetry is to me, anyway. I need to invent the words for it first.

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