Friday, May 29, 2009

Never what it seems....

In the above-street pedestrian skyway system of downtown Minneapolis over lunch today, I found myself following behind a young woman, whose appearance begged to be described as "sharp" in every scary sense of the word. I'm not sure if the word for this style is "punk" or "goth" or what, these days; but her hair, dyed jet black, was spiked in spear-shaped shards. Her lipstick and nail polish was glossy black, and rivets and nails and safety pins and railroad spikes seemed to pierce most every bit of exposed skin. The tattoos that covered her neck , upper back and arms were the stuff of horror films: dragon's fangs and barbed wire and thorns. Black leather and black denim comprised her wardrobe.

As she passed through one of the doorways over the skyway tunnel over 5th Street, her right hand balled into a fist and she punched the handicap button that opens the door automatically for disabled folks.

Aha, I thought to myself. Another spoiled young person, too damned lazy to even open a simple door for themselves.

But then I saw coming toward us a elderly pair riding single file in motorized scooters. Clearly husband and wife, they were almost certainly in their late 80s or 90s, and they now aimed their rides toward the door that had opened magically for their passage.

The scary girl didn't even acknowledge the old folks as she strode past them with hobnailed boots, but both the husband and wife each gave a small knowing smile as they rolled past toward the door she had kindly opened for them.

Reality is rarely exactly what we think it is.

Friday, May 22, 2009

An Old Man Rants

Okay, so I'd like to not sound like a grumpy old man, but what's with kids these days? Does nobody teach them the basic manners of existing in the world? I'd very much like to collectively scold the parents who raised the current generation of young adults.

Very often it's on the bus that I observe this rotten behavior on the part of young adults, but sometimes it creeps over into the workplace itself. Cases in point:

• Last week, I found myself surrounding by young working people on the bus, each of whom was wearing ear-bud style headphones for their i-pods, but each of whom was playing the volume at such high levels that everybody around could hear the music clearly. What in the world this was like inside their heads is anybody's guess. Do these kids actually imagine that the rest of us need to hear their music, too?

• Next to the bus, a car driven by a young man pulls up. Windows are down, the better to boom out hurricane-level bass tones from huge speakers mounted inside his car. It is deafening to everyone one the street, even to passengers sequestered behind closed bus windows. WTF! If you want to blow your brains out with hip-hop music, could you not at least close the damned car windows?

• A frequent happening, on the bus and almost everywhere these days, is the young adult who thinks nothing at all about having a private cell phone conversation in crowded places, where the details are impossible for the rest of us to avoid. I'm hear to tell you that if you riding the 4F downtown bus, you just are not important enough to annoy the rest of us with your stupid phone calls. Save it until you get off the bus, already. Older folks seem to have some sense of decency about public phone calls——most of us turn off the phones when in crowded places, or we seek an out-of-the-way corner to have the conversation. No so with the youngsters. They are just too self-important to consider other people.

• And I arrived at the office to find a young female coworker painting her toenails a bright shade of scarlet....seated in the company lunch room.

Honestly, folks. Feral children raised by wolves have better manners than this crop.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Citizens of 4F: May 12, 2009

John doesn't ride the 4F northbound bus every day. When he does, though, he is always quietly memorable.

John never has correct change, and always goes through an elaborate routine of asking bus passengers for the exact change for the fare meter. Sometimes, he travels all the way to the back of the bus before finding change. This morning, I'm digging through my pockets, but John hits paydirt two seats ahead of me. This elaborate ritual is only one of several strategies for making sure John is noticed.

The most ironic strategy is his clothing. John wears Vietnam-era army camouflage clothing, trousers and a field jacket, over a leather motorcycle vest. Designed to keep the wearer hidden in the jungle, the clothing stands out like a beacon when you wear it on an inner city transit bus. John aims to be seen, pure and simple, and uses the accoutrements of hiddeness to do so.

John also wears a black ball-cap with "POW" printed on the bill. This morning, he noisily opened and examined a printed flyer announcing some local event for Vietnam veterans, just in case somebody on the bus misses the point.

I have some obvious skepticism about John's history. He is roughly my age, and I'm just a little too young to have served in Vietnam. It's very, very unlikely that somebody JOhn's age would have been a POW. I do have friends and acquaintances who served, though, and I have noticed that most of them go out of their way NOT to be recognized as Vietnam veterans. With lots of veterans, you can know them for a long time before they talk about these experiences with you.

The fact that John makes such a loud display of this, along with his somewhat young age, makes me wonder if it's a ruse, if he is simply seeking attention by dressing as a veteran from this ghastly American time.

This morning, John politely but very audibly asks some passengers near the front if they will vacate the handicap seats, since he is "a disabled veteran." They comply, although John's disability doesn't seem to be anything that is physically evident. It does create attention, though.

I'm not particularly offended by John's actions. His masquerade, if that's what it is, is a bit heart-wrenching, and I find myself interested in what desperation in John leads him to seek attention in this way. If it is a mental illness, it is a subtle one, as his general demeanor doesn't resemble the occasional schizophrenic you might see on a city bus. He really doesn't make a loud scene, ever. He just goes about making sure he is seen, at all times.

I have a theory that much of the general angst of human life occurs because we're quietly afraid that we don't really exist in the world. We seem to be constantly testing this out, checking in various ways to make sure we exist. At the very least, we're very definitely unsure of exactly HOW we do exist, and unsure of exactly who we are. Am I husband? Father? Friend? Boss? Seeker? Depends on circumstances, and on how I feel at any given moment. Rarely, though, am I the same person this moment that I'll be in the next.

So it seems to me that John is just a slightly extreme example of the same impulse that causes us to buy a car brand for what it says about us (subaru, or Humvee?), or to pick clothes because they make a statement about either our frugality or devotion to top quality. It's why we color our hair, and why we trim our beards in a certain way——because we're concerned about how we're seen and recognized in the world. We convince ourselves we exist because we see that we're seen by others.

I realize that this morning, I'm wearing my red Tibetan/buddhist ballcap. I thought it was because the eastern sun is awfully bright in the eyes when walking to the bus stop. But now I realize that I've been noticing other passengers looking at it when they walk by me on the bus.

And on some quiet level, that was the point. My cap is both practical, but is also a statement, and a mirror by which I know I exist. I have several caps, but chose this one for reasons of identity.

John and I are different only in technique and degree. In essence, we're brothers.