A few weeks ago I was standing at the bus stop at Ninth and Vine streets, waiting for the 17 to show up. It was a cloudy but warm afternoon; kids were playing with their skateboards on the sidewalk close to my stop. I watched them with amusement, wondering if a middle-aged guy like me could master the flips and turns they were doing on those slim pieces of wood.
I noticed a black man watching me. I looked at him and smiled. It's sort of a habit I have at bus stops, wanting to feel that all of us waiting there have an urban life in common.
The man watching me was older and there was anger in his eyes. He slowly walked in my direction.
He was standing close to me, so close I could smell the alcohol on his breath. He put his arm around me and turned me in the direction of a car parked over on Vine Street in front of the Garfield Suites.
"See that car there?"
"Yes," I said.
"You can't see inside it. That's how they want it. There are cops inside that car, mister. They want me to rush you, bring you down."
I looked at the white car with the tinted windows. I think it was a Lincoln. The hubcaps shone despite the fact it was a cloudy afternoon.
I looked at the man who still had his arm around me. He was now smiling. One of his front teeth was missing. He had dark freckles on his face and was wearing a dark suit with a white, open shirt underneath.
"I don't wanta do this," he said, finally removing his arm from my shoulder, "but I have to listen to their voices. I'm gonna have to rush you, give you to them."
"You look familiar to me," I said.
The man stepped back a little bit and stared at me with the anger coming back to his eyes. But then suddenly the anger was gone and his smile returned.
"Didn't we use to work together?"
"When was that?" I asked. "72, '73?"
"Had to be '72. You were my boss, right?"
"Yeah, I think so," I said. "Man, it's been awhile. How you been?"
"We worked together at Jeckles, over in Hyde Park, right? You were my boss."
"I always liked Jeckles," I said, "was sorry to see it close."
"You were my boss, right?"
"Yes," I said.
I looked down Vine Street to see if a bus were coming. I saw one. I got out my wallet and pulled out a dollar. The man was staring at me, sometimes smiling, sometimes looking confused.
As the bus approached, my heart sank. It was a 78.
He had his arm around me again.
"You were a mean son of a bitch to work for," he said, "but you always paid me. I'll say that for you."
"I was just trying to do my job," I said.
"The cops, they must have something on you. You must be a mean motherfucker for me to have to bring you down."
"Where you living these days?" I asked. "I always thought you lived downtown."
"I haven't lived downtown for ..."
Confusion again took over and he released his arm from around me.
I looked down Vine Street again and another bus was coming. I tried to make out the number and could see it was a 19 — not the 17 I wanted, but good enough to get me home to Clifton.
"You were my boss, right?" he wanted to know again.
"It's been nice talking with you," I said, "but this is my bus. I'll see you later."
As the bus approached, he put his arm around me again and said, "It's my bus, too."
The bus stopped and I smiled at the man.
"After you," I said.
He released his arm from me and when he got on the bus, he started talking to the bus driver. I quickly backed away from the bus and told the driver to go on. I looked up Vine Street again; there was the 17 making its way, and my body felt a sense of relief.
Now, I've eaten at Jeckles a few times, but I wasn't this man's boss, didn't know him at all. I'm pretty sure he would have done me harm if I hadn't distracted him, hadn't used his state of confusion to my advantage.
It's occurred to me to change bus stops, but I'm not going to do that. I'll just keep to myself and not make eye contact anymore, be more like other people downtown. Maybe that's sad, but it's probably safer.