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.

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