It was Saturday night, and I'd gotten off work later than usual. Given the evening and the hour the crowd around me on the bus had morphed from the going-home-after-work general mill of folks to the It's-Saturday-Night-in-the-Big-City-and-we're-out-Looking-For-Trouble types, plus the regular sprinkling of interesting characters one finds on public transport in any metropolis.
One such character was sitting in front of me, in fact, in the area reserved for wheelchairs and special needs riders (the seats fold up against the wall and we're quite close to the driver in this area.) She was not in a wheelchair, but rather on one of those motorized personal scooters used by people who have trouble walking on their own. The brand name I'm most familiar with is "Jazzy" but I'm not sure that's the kind she was riding.
That certainly didn't stop her from bringing her own kind of Jazz to the party, though. She was wearing purple. I mean everything she was wearing was purple, from top to toes: Purple barrettes and a purple plastic flower in her hair (I do not mock. If you have trouble walking and have to Jazzy your way on and off the bus just to run your errands, and you can still feel festive enough to want to put a flower in your hair, plastic or not, then I think you are pretty terrific, actually. Maybe not so much aesthetically, but definitely actually, if you follow.) Purple eye shadow, scarf, blouse, spangled tube top -- worn over the blouse, in an interesting combination of layering and what appeared to be bust support. Candidly, I think just going with the tube top alone would have been a mistake. Every body is beautiful, in it's own way, but some beauty should remain a private matter, enjoyed in the intimate confines of one's own home, rather than on the #4 heading west at 10:30pm on a Saturday.) Purple sweat pants, purple socks and purple Crocs. Purple purple purple. She was a very big woman, and the unfortunate comparison to "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory's" Violet Beauregarde came unbidden and uncharitably to mind. She was chatting away to whomever would listen, trying to draw anyone who responded into conversation with her. The bus was crowded, we kept picking up more passengers, all seats were taken and the aisle was filling up as well, so she had plenty of people to engage with.
But even she wound down when the huffers got on the bus.
There were maybe six of them (at first). Two girls, four boys, young and lean and dressed to impress, which, since this is the early part of the 21st Century, means that everything the girls wore was very tight and terribly tiny, and everything the boys wore was comically big and impossibly baggy. I have no strong opinions on the styles, it's all mating behavior anyway. Young people have been inventing ways to display themselves and flirt, with the sweet bonus of irritating their elders, forever. If the young ladies want to practically flash me the good china when they sit and the young gentlemen want to show me what their favorite pair of underwear is it's no issue to me. I'm saving my outrage for things that seem outrageous in the world, like [insert outside issues here], not for the vagaries of urban fashion.
But, proving that some styles are not only fashionable but functional, the young men produced a veritable wet bar of mood enhancers and party supplies from within their voluminous attire. A small bottle of vodka, half way gone. A couple of cans of beer, already opened (dexterous! As an old drunk I always admire the coordination involved in sneaking an open beverage around in your pants without looking like you wet yourself. As a man I hoped that the cans weren't cold though. Ouch!) And an aerosol can of some cleaning product, which one boy turned upside down, held to his lips, depressed the nozzle and took what appeared to be a deep and -- for him -- satisfying hit.
Enough people were on the bus now that the young partiers were standing, pressed around Princess Purple and myself, and the rest of the riders in the front, once the party began, started the standard urban defense posture of looking at nothing, so as to neither witness nor engage.
The huffer and friends were boisterous, but without malice or challenge to most of their banter (thankfully), and as they chatted, drinking and huffing and teasing each other, it came out in their conversation (impossible not to listen to as it was occurring right over my head) that one of them was going into the service in a few days (weeks? wasn't clear) and a part of this evening's party was a bit of a send off for him. Looking at them with the practiced eye of an old drunk, though (and that would be my eye, not some hypothetical eye) I could tell that this send off, while real, was just tonight's excuse. These were not kids doing any of this for the first time.
More young people got on the bus, a couple of other young men already feeling no pain. The huffer amiably offered a hit off the can to them, one declined and one shrugged in the universal language of "sure, anything that gets me loaded" and took a hit, though he needed some instruction from his host.
Princess Purple was not staring out into the distance, pretending not to see or trying to be invisible. Princess Purple was watching. Not frowning, but not not-seeing, either.
The revelers noticed her noticing.
"Would you like some, M'am?" the practiced huffer gestured with the can, no snark in his tone at all.
Huffer courtesy! Who knew, right?
"Oh my Lord, no!" P.P. replied. "But it breaks my heart to see you doing it. You're so young."
He shrugged and smiled -- his gaze a little glazed and his smile kind of lopsided -- and said, "I'm a victim of society."
Seriously, that was his response. The future service member had had enough to drink for the mood-change to happen, and was talking about how his old man never did anything for him, so why should he do anything for his old man, right? Right? Every so often one of the girls would break off from their own conversation and offer a "Right." in response, so he kept going. They all could have been ugly, or aggressive, but they weren't. Princess Purple chatted on with the young huffer, who would shrug or shake his head and kept offering his "victim of society" response, but had pluralized it now, and commented that we were all just victims of society. As he said it, he eventually looked at me, and I looked back, my own lopsided grin offered in answer to his and said, "No, man. Society is a victim of all of us." Both a word trick and a truth, I guess. (My stock in trade, maybe.) That seemed to give him pause, and he nodded, considering. My stop came up.
Huffer and company realized that they hadn't been paying attention, and had missed theirs, so they got off, not waiting for the light to cross the street, but rather darting through the traffic to catch the bus going the opposite direction and drop them closer to whatever club they were aiming for. Princess Purple disembarked as well, which is a lengthy process on the Jazzy, involving the handicapped ramp extending like a tongue from the open door, while some insurance company mandated safety sound beeped too loud and too long.
The bus pulled away and the Princess and I stood, waiting for the crossing light to give us the little white man rather than the angry red hand.
"It just breaks my heart." She said again. We were bonded now, it seemed, given our ride and the huffer.
"I understand." I said.
"So young." She said.
"Yes." I said.
"Such a waste."
"Yes. A shame to see them wasted." A ghost of a smile probably floated at the corners of my mouth at the pun, and the Princess caught it and laughed.
The little white man flashed into life, giving us stick figure permission to cross. I could easily have outpaced her in crossing, neatly and neutrally severing our connection, but I kept pace with her Jazzy as we made our way.
"I'm going to say a prayer for them!" The idea seemed to strike her as a surprise. The exclamation point is warranted.
"That's nice." I said.
"You should too." The princess looked up at me from her Jazzy throne.
"Oh, I do." I said. I thought of all those circles I've stood in, over the years, holding hands with friends and strangers alike, offering, often sincerely but sometimes by rote, a prayer for "the alcoholic (or addict) who still suffers" at the end of every meeting. "I do."
Just because you're young and party hardy, drinking in public, clubbing with your friends, does not at all mean that you are an alcoholic or an addict.
I think it's a little unlikely, however, that anyone just huffs socially, though. I think that might be, as the expression goes, "a flag on the field."
"Good night." And she turned her Jazzy east, and I turned west toward home, and after a few steps decided that the flower actually didn't look half bad.
There are more stories like this one in "Mr. SponsorPants: Adventures in Sobriety and The 12 Steps for AA's and Others." Available as an eBook on Kindle via Amazon. Download a Kindle reader for free on any device or platform, from PC to Smartphone, and enjoy eBooks anywhere you have time to read.