To say that “I make him uncomfortable” would be an understatement. Plain and simple, he out-and-out hates my guts. He’s the little old man who always dresses in suits, no matter what the season, no matter what the day, and stands waiting at my bus stop downtown each night. I’m heading home from work, and he’s heading home from whatever occupies his time at age 84.
We live in the same neighborhood — I, in one of the apartment buildings filled with burgeoning professionals who haven’t yet saved enough money to move to the ‘burbs; he, in one of the elder housing high-rises down the street, filled with Russian immigrants and Latino/a elders, not many of whom speak much English.
He speaks English — and plenty of it. I hear him each night as we ride home on the same bus, telling the stories of his life to anyone who will listen. Each night I stand at the commuter stop kiosk, watching as he approaches his potential audience at the bus stop, feeling out their receptiveness to a withered old man with stories of Depression survival and comparisons of baseball players over the decades and tales of trips he took with his late wife in 1954 and his opinion of the current president. One night, he accosts a young man… the next, a young woman, his tone of voice changing from ole-buddy-ole-pal camaraderie to my-dear-sweet-young-lady condescension, depending on the sex of his conversant. He talks with an air of automatic entitlement, assuming others will want to listen to him, because he’s a man — a venerable old octogenarian Caucasian chap. He tells whomever will listen how his dear departed wife passed away five years ago, and now he’s an old man on his own.
He’s never said a word to me, nor I to him. We both steer clear of each other, but I overhear him talking to everyone else on the bus — each night to a different person, a different regular on this route. He’s made the rounds a couple of times, learning some of his fellow travelers’ names, but often forgetting them in short order. He seems genuinely excited when he recognizes someone whose name is still fresh in his mind, and that buoys his vigor for a few moments as he approaches them.
He’s never spoken to me once.
Not that he hasn’t had the chance. Like every other night of the week, I wait in line with the rest of the commuters, that day’s newspaper in one hand, my satchel in the other. I’m distracted as the rest of this crew, worn out by the day of work, not much for conversation. The first time he ever saw me, he took a step towards me, wearing a look that considered me a comrade… then recoiled sharply when I looked up, met his gaze, and he saw I wasn’t the man he thought I was.
That happens frequently. Dressed in work clothes that, to the untrained, unexposed eye, i.d. me as a man — a suit (not unlike his) and a button-down dress shirt loosened at the collar with a white t-shirt peeking out from behind my slack tie, sporting wing-tips and close-cropped hair, I’m often called “sir” but I’m rarely bothered by it. Those mistakes typically bother the makers, more than I. And this old man is no exception. What’s different about him, is how much it bothers him. In his eyes, at the moment of his realization, I saw the bitter disappointment that I didn’t fit into an ole-buddy-ole-pal category. Then came the confusion that I didn’t fit the bill as a dear-sweet-young-lady. Then I saw the hatred. His was — and still is — the reaction of one who felt duped, fooled, foolish in his assumptions about me, who had two ways of identifying and dealing with the world, and resented being able to use neither.
Since that first revelation, every time he’s seen me, he’s fixed a beady, hateful stare on me.
I wonder if he has an inkling how similar our situations are. Of course, he’d never admit that my eight-year, committed, monogamous, lifelong relationship with a wonderful woman bears any resemblance to his holy matrimony of yesteryear to his dearly departed wife who probably loved, honored and obeyed him with all her heart — and likely did so willingly without coercion. I doubt he’d put much stock in my picks for the post-season baseball playoffs this year, although I’ve won our office pool two years running. I know a thing or two about WWII, and one of my great-uncles was decorated posthumously with the Purple Heart for his service on the beaches of Normandy. And I have plenty of my own opinions, too, about our current president.
Still, he hates me. Still, he never comes near me. One night, we were the only two riders waiting for the 20-minutes-late bus. Still, he didn’t take a step in my direction or so much as nod ‘good evening’ to me when I did as much out of routine politeness. Still, he keeps his distance, standing off by himself till a familiar face comes along, regarding me narrowly from several yards away as I rustle through my newspaper, clear my sinuses and spit in the street.
Doesn’t he know how much he has in common with me? I wonder almost aloud, as I brush the lint from my suit and remind myself to polish my wingtips. Doesn’t he realize that the things he holds dear are just shells for what truly matters — that what’s inside is what counts, not the trappings they’re wrapped in and rites used to sell them? Doesn’t he realize that I, his neighbor from the same part of town, could do him a good turn if he ran into trouble, trying to back his car out of an icy parking space, or losing his footing on a snowdrifted sidewalk? I do good turns for the elderly when I can — when they’ll let me. This guy would never let me, and is aloofness saddens me as much as it puzzles me.
Doesn’t he know he’s as marginal as me? I ask myself — almost aloud. I’d love to walk up and ask him, “Don’t you know that people would just as soon dismiss you as they would me? If we were both injured and lying in the street, what makes you think you’d be any more likely to get help? What makes you think you’re any safer or more worthy in the world than I? Times have changed, old man. So, you’re a geezer and I’m a butch dyke. Lose the ‘tude.”
If he only knew we were in the same boat in this social milieu, I think. He’s an old man who’s long past his prime, and I’m a young butch who the world hasn’t yet learned to fully appreciate, the thought comes to me each night, as he pushes past me onto the bus and stakes his claim on the seat behind the driver, all the way home discussing his dearly departed wife and baseball teams and scores and other manly-man things with the driver, who is polite, half tolerating his banter, half amused by it. I wonder what the driver really thinks of him… if he’s any more inclined to indulge this elderly white male, than me… if he’d stop any quicker for him, than he would for a dyke who absentmindedly stepped out in front of the bus.
I’d stop for this old man, if he stepped out in front of my car. But I’m not so sure he’d stop for me.
God, but he despises me. Each night, glowers at me when he first catches sight of me jogging to the stop just in time to catch the bus. Each night, I’m surprised at how much energy his venom has. Listening to his tales, I started to kinda like the old guy — he reminds me of my great-uncles who tell tales of years working in armaments plants and visiting their old battlegrounds decades after The War. But he’s never returned a single smile I sent his way. His animosity seems strange, out of place. Pointless. Odd. At first, I was taken aback by the meanness in his look, and I thought about approaching him, asking “What’s the matter? Got a problem, sir?” But when I took a step in his direction, his wariness sharpened, his guard went up, and I shrugged off his hatefulness, not seeing the point in redeeming his acceptance, or lack thereof. My lover said she’d stare him down, if he ever behaved that way towards her and I thought of doing the same the next time he turned an evil eye on me.
But then he disappeared for a while — went to see his grandchildren in Peoria or something like that (I heard him tell the bus driver) and by the time he got back and I got around to thinking about taking him on, his attitude just seemed hackneyed, tiresome. It bored me. By the time he was settled into the routine of our neighborhood again and had rejoined the rest of us commuters on our evening ritual rides home, I was long past wondering what I ever did to him. He posed no physical threat, and I’d heard enough of his opinions to know they were neither novel nor of interest to me. But I’m of intense interest to him — I am an unfeminine young woman with short hair who plainly doesn’t give a shit about propriety or behaving like a young lady, or even what he thinks about me, and that provokes him to distraction.
It’s strange, pointless, odd. Yet in some twisted old-world-vs-new way, it makes perfect sense. For the stare he locks on me when he thinks I’m not paying attention is a look that springs from investing a lifetime in forging rules that suit him and living by guidelines that ensure his complete and incontrovertible supremacy… only to find, in his advanced years, that people like me have come along to spoil it. All that effort invested in guaranteeing that in his golden years, his life and accomplishments would count for something… shot to hell by insolent young guns like myself. Impertinent transgressors of common decency who scratch themselves and clear their sinuses in public, spitting in the street. Violators of the sacred roles of man and woman, whose social graces are hardly what he considers social or graceful. Undisciplined mavericks who care nothing for propriety and courtesy and wholesome values.
He’s probably lived his life for eight decades under the assumption that one day he’d garner the respect he once showed his elders… only to find the whole framework of right-and-wrong and either-or turned on its ear and nothing that used to matter, does anymore… all that invested effort lost to the four winds and elements of uncontrolled change.
Yes, his intense animosity makes perfect sense.
After all, people like me are a pernicious influence. We instigate and show no appreciation for those come before, and the customs that got us where we are in the world. People like me have sprung up to toss a wrench in the works and throw everyone into chaos and confusion. It’s people like me that started mixing boys with girls in college dorms and thinking nothing of it. Creating co-ed public restrooms — one single unsanitary room holding a grimy sink and sticky toilet with a dual sign on the door… Blurring all the once-sharp lines between crass and polite. Jumping the fences of common decency and throwing everyone into a state of uncertainty about what is and is not socially acceptable. Not knowing or minding our place. Not playing by the rules. His rules.
His is the look of one accustomed to being invincible, suddenly brought low and made unexpectedly and inexplicably vulnerable. His is the revulsion of one who thought all his manners and entitlements counted for something and would last forever, only to wake up one morning and find they haven’t, thanks to people like me. He is the loser facing the winner after a contest that seemed to be rigged. He is the bidder at auction who’s out of the running ’cause his currency was lately devalued. He is the deposed dictator, reduced to scratching dry soil in the fields alongside commoners — and I’m the most common of them all.
Each night it’s the same — that little old hateful cuss trains his beady eyes on me, boards the bus, talks a blue streak to the person he’s chosen for the night, then eventually runs out of steam and sits silently in his seat. He never misses a chance to shoot me a wicked look, even when he’s deep in discussion with a feminine young woman about my age, addressing her with his usual air of entitlement. I could tell him a thing or two about married life, baseball and combustion engines, but he never sits beside me.
And I don’t invite him.
His curse is my blessing.