Talking to strangers
A couple of weeks ago I was on a bus at night in San Francisco -- a 1
California to be specific. There was an old guy in one of the front seats
talking about baseball with another passenger a few seats away. The man
had white hair and some white bristles. He was talking about the
difference between then and now. Babe Ruth eating 25 hotdogs and drinking
beer before the game. This guy grew up in an orphanage in Ohio and Babe,
an orphanage veteran himself, came to visit and pitched a ball and a nun
hit a home run and Babe offered to sign her. This was printed in the
paper, a Scripps-Howard paper.
Discussion of the press ensued. The old guy said the job of the press is
to report and it's for us to decide if it's true or false.
He made a quip -- "Let he who is without a stone commit the first sin." I
said, "Nice twist."
The guy asked, who was the general who died in 1944 at Normandy? Turns out
it was Theodore Roosevelt's son (though actually when I looked it up, I
found the junior Roosevelt died of a heart attack in his tent a month
after the famous battle). Roosevelt lost two sons in war -- another son
had died in an air battle in World War I. The guy asked what other
presidents lost sons in battle? Someone guessed Washington. (Washington
had no biological children, though a stepson died of dysentery soon after
enlisting. So far as I've found, no other presidential children died in
the line of duty.)
The guy asked what's the fifth article of the Constitution. Someone asked
Declaration of Independence or Constitution. Constitution. Nobody knew. It
allows for amendment. "People say if you don't like it here, leave, but I
say if you don't like it, change it." He pulled out a breast pocket copy
of the constitution the size of a checkbook -- where do you get one of
those? It was his stop and he got off.
After he left, I said to my friend I was traveling with, but loud enough
to benefit others, why should we sit bored on the bus when we could
talk to other people? We are all intelligent adults.
Maybe he sparked something in me, because I've been talking to strangers
more since that night.
The other night I was walking down Castro Street and there was a punk
panhandling outside the burger place by Ben and Jerry's asking for money
for a veggie burger. I stopped and reached in my pocket, mentioning that I
was a vegetarian also. I was asked if I'd be interested in buying this
person a burger and staying around to eat together. I had nothing much
better to do, so I said yes.
I was told, "I just got off the train -- hopped a boxcar." We ordered our
burgers and took a booth to wait for them to be ready. My dining companion
showed me pictures of the train-hopping journey -- pictures taken inside a
boxcar of traveling companions including 12- and 14-year-old runaways who
had jumped the train without sufficient blankets or food, but were
fortunate to meet more experienced travelers. They had ridden at times in
boxcars and at times in Canadian grain cars which have little alcoves in
which people can huddle. At one point, the train went through an eight-mile tunnel. People have died from carbon monoxide poisoning in the
tunnel, but if you know what to do -- breathe through a water-soaked cloth
and stay warm in your sleeping bag -- you'll be fine.
Our burgers were finished and we went to the condiment bar, which allows
you to load your burger with extras like onions, peppers, and so on. I
hadn't eaten here before -- it was nice to find a new place to eat.
We started talking more, and I revealed my connections in the queer punk
scene, and it became clear there were connections. Although my comrade had
initially told me a female name, he revealed that he identified as a guy.
In the Castro, he wasn't sure of acceptance. A lot of people had ignored
him panhandling. He had read that there was a study showing gay people
were less accepting of trans people than straight people.
He had lived in Philadelphia and worked in an anarchist bookstore I've
visited. He silk-screened patches to sell. He had been riding the rails for
five years. He'd been at a concert I'd been to at tire beach during the
Dirtybird festival in the summer of 1996, seeing the band Behead the
Prophet and slamdancing with their singer, who had declared the kid queen
of the pit. We had also both been at queer punk band Limpwrist's last show
in Minneapolis in December of 2002. Someone looking at us might not
realize it, differentiated by his tattoos and my dockers, but we were
Last night on a Haight Street bus headed downtown there were three punks,
two guys and a girl. One of the guys had band patches for Crass sewn to
his pants. They asked me what was the best way to get to the Castro. We'd
already passed Divisadero. At that point, we might as well continue to
Market Street so they could take the underground or a streetcar back
there. They had just got to town -- last place they were at was Santa
Cruz, and one was from Wisconsin, the other two from Arizona. I gave them
some recommendations for what to do in town -- Tribe 8 was playing at the
Eagle that night (they initially didn't know who I was talking about, but
then one remembered the story of the band's ride on rapper Luke
Skywalker's boat, when they freaked him out with their strap-ons.) I
suggested a visit to Amoeba, though they were probably too broke to have
much besides commodity fetish frustration from such a visit. I also
mentioned Rainbow Grocery and a certain underground music venue. They got
off the bus and we said our goodbyes and headed off in our own directions.
Later that night on the Haight bus home I started talking to what looked
like a straight couple whom I overheard talking in a non-English language
in hushed tones. They were visiting from Amsterdam. I volunteered that I
hadn't been there but mentioned my other European visits. After I'd gotten
them talking, two other people on the bus joined in who might not have
otherwise had the conversation. A young woman mentioned that her best
friend had recently married a guy from the Netherlands and was living in a
small town there. She had visited there but hoped that they would move
back to San Francisco. She herself wasn't interested in living in Holland.
There was a young guy on the bus who started talking, not too
articulately, about some music venue in Holland -- perhaps he hadn't been
there himself, but knew of bands playing there. He suggested they visit
Golden Gate Park. The couple were staying with the woman's sister near the
park, actually. As I got off the bus, there was still a flame of
conversation going which I'd sparked.
We all have information, and our knowledge can be useful to other people,
and their information can be useful or interesting to us. Why sit on the
bus alone in a crowd? Start talking to strangers.