A million strange strangers

Salt Lake was a weird fucking town. I’ve seen stranger, but this had a certain flavor of off. Everyone seemed more or less aimless, glassy eyed, and utterly bored. Granted, this was only within one square mile of the bus station, but it was an interesting thing to view either way. Apparently it is quite the hub of rail hopping and transient kids, crashing in run down apartments or warehouses til some other seasonal job calls to them from far away.

It all started with one little group of self-professed punks…

Pretty sure they "borrowed" over a pack of smokes from me.

Pretty sure they “borrowed” over a pack of smokes from me.

… and ended with the strangest walk to a gas station I’d ever taken (and I’ve taken many.)

The boys above painted rocks with anarchy symbols, cats and a few random squiggles. They bummed smokes, kicked each other in the balls and sold what appeared to be stolen cell phones to a kid we’ll call James.

James was the quieter one of the group, and apparently newer to them all. He was no stranger to life on the rails. I had been speaking with them for a while when James came back from a short walk, coffee and snacks in tow. Having been stuck in this god awful station for 7 hours now without food or the sight of my best friend caffeine, I flat out begged him to show me the gas station.

Note: When you’re doing shit like this, you put far more trust into strangers than you normally would. Asking a nice homeless man to take you through back alleys for a donut shouldn’t be a daily occurrence.

Regardless, I asked, because fuck it. Social conventions suck. Off we go, wandering along — me and my new buddy James.

Except James is a full blown paranoid schizophrenic. I learned this the moment he opened his mouth.

James: “What do you think of Israel?”

Me: “In what c–”

James: “THESE GUYS HAVE A GROUP NOT UNLIKE THE CIA AND TALIBAN THAT ARE GOING TO INFILTRATE OUR GOVERNMENT BUT LUCKILY MY UNCLE IS IN THE CIA AND I CAN HELP THEM BECAUSE I KNOW TH–”

And this continued. For the entire walk. I tried to keep pace with him as he threw his arms up and yelled to the sky along the way to the gas station. Everything was punctuated with  “y’knowhamean?” Too concerned to ever say SWEET JESUS FUCK NO WHAT DO YOU EVEN MEAN? I made do with constant nods of approval and “Yep!” Luckily not everything he spoke of was conspiracy– he was fond of flowers, weed, and the stars as well.

We finally manage to get to this station. I rush in and grab as much crap as I possibly can, swearing silently to myself that I needed enough to ration off as to avoid doing this again. I noted the security guard there was now trapped by his very confusing words, and he gave me a wide-eyed stare as James rambled off at him. I just shrugged and shook my head, offering my best I’m so sorry look. I just wanted to get out of there and back to the mass of people that could be witnesses in case he figured me an Israeli spy and shanked me.

This kid needs help, I thought, as we made our way back through the run down streets and abandoned buildings. I felt bad for him, his family, for his life.

“You know? Isn’t it nice out? Isn’t this great! Most people just like… don’t listen to me, yaknowhamean? They think I’m stupid and I know I say a lot of shit bu I ain’t stupid, yaknowwhamean? Right?”

Right there. He stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. The sun was shining, and the wind blew dust around us. It was cold and alive, and so was he, eager and hoping for someone to validate him. I realized how often this man must be dismissed, passed over, forgotten and written off. He had nobody in the world to just say “you’re okay, man,” and so many must view him as subhuman. He even said so himself: “it’s like I people don’t want me to exist.” I felt like the biggest piece of shit for considering, even for a moment, that I needed to get far away from him. He hadn’t shown any sort of malice, no violence, and even spoke of his deep fear of confrontation.

“You’re not stupid, man. I know what you mean. You’re a good guy.”

I couldn’t think of some great, inspiring speech to give him. I had nothing to offer, standing in the middle of nowhere in my unwashed clothes and dire need of sleep. I was lost too, far from anything I knew, and I felt like that’s all that was needed. It was just us, two strangers with nothing to give. He smiled at me. I smiled at him. We walked back in silence, his gaze on the asphalt and hands in pockets. But he was smiling. We were friends now.

I lost track of him soon enough. It’s a busy station. Eventually, the bus arrived for us all. I rushed into the rear to take the tiny seat nobody wanted in an attempt to be alone with it, maybe sleep some. James was the last one to get on the bus, and not much was left for him. He made his way to the very last seat and quietly, expecting to be turned down, asked if he could sit next to me.

James, despite, or because of, his delusions then became a sort of bodyguard. He saved the seats, kept watch over the bags, and left me to my attempts at sleep.

Then I fucked up.

We made a few stops, and slowly people trickled off. Finally, more seats opened, and there was enough space for us to spread out. James had come back on the bus as we were getting ready to pull away again, and without thinking he would take it the wrong way, I asked if he’d want one of the open seats so he can sleep more comfortably.

To him, right then, I rejected his company. I watched his face go from neutral to utterly dejected in a matter of seconds. Before I could clarify that I was only asking for his benefit, not to get rid of him, he grabbed his stuff and moved to the front of the bus. Every other stop we made, he kept a distance. I didn’t push the issue, and at first I was a little angry. I didn’t do anything wrong, I told myself. He took it the wrong way. You don’t even know this guy, why are you so worried about him?

But I was worried. I felt bad because by then, he was just glad to be able to talk to someone. The other guys he was travelling with poked fun at him and used his kindness, and while it visibly upset him he didn’t know how to stop it. He seemed resigned to it. I couldn’t help but end up protective.

After another night it was time for me to part ways with the group of rail chasers. They were headed off to California to pick berries of some sort, and keep moving along. With them slipped my momentary friend, a crazy fucker with wild delusions. A few people told me was crazy for talking to the dude, but they didn’t even try. I didn’t do anything special or unique, I just talked to a lonely stranger. Maybe it bothered me because I’ve been in his position before, alone and unsure how to communicate that (minus the crippling delusions.)

I hope someone befriended him. I know I don’t owe the guy anything, and he’s “just another stranger”, but it meant something to him to have someone to talk to. It meant something to me to gain his trust when he trusted nothing. So I’m sorry, James. You’re gonna be alright, dude, somehow.

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4 thoughts on “A million strange strangers

  1. I’ve spent much time with such folks, mostly at work, but many other places. Conversation can be a little unusual, but they’re mostly harmless – they get hurt far more often than the other way around.

    1. Agreed. People tend to view folks like this as always a danger, but in my experience at least there isn’t much to worry about (unless you specifically set out to do them harm) and it’s the main reason the encounter bothered me. I had no intention of causing him to feel bad, but sadly that’s exactly what happened.

      1. Misunderstandings are hard to avoid. So many accidental ways to step into one, and some folks have much distrust: some of it paranoid, some based on lots of hard experience.

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