Le Flaneur Mal

“Night on the El Train,” Edward Hopper, Etching, 1918

A few years ago while visiting me at Berkeley, a friend chided me for not being the thing that a writer most needs to be.

We were sitting on the worn forest green cloth seats of the BART, heading home from the city after a long day of shopping and eating. I was tired from walking all day and glad to have finally found a seat on what I, spoiled from Asia’s sleek, clean, well-lit and on-time metro systems, still see as a sorry excuse for public transportation (Bay Area Heresy, I know. What are you going to do about it). The two seats facing us were empty for one or two stations until a homeless man got on and decided to park both him and his stench in said empty seats. I rolled my eyes. This is precisely what I disliked most about any city: the homeless. And in the Bay Area they were everywhere: riding with phantom money on public transit, lying inconveniently across sidewalks and storefronts and sometimes, emerging from the restroom at public libraries, hair dripped wet, faces freshly washed, crumpled paper towels trailing behind them. A plague upon society, my snooty upper-middle class Orange County-raised-self often thought.

This homeless man on the BART was not as tired as I was. He had not spent the afternoon shopping, nor was he in a mild food coma induced by black cod and gnocchi from a famous but moderately priced Italian restaurant. He had ample energy which he directed at us, and if he had been a handsome scholar with thick tomes of literature tucked under his arm, this attention might have been more welcome. But he was not a scholar. He was a bum. He smelled bad and looked bad and would most likely, I feared, behave badly.

It was not so late that the rest of the car was empty, and a young man around our age sat in the row next to us, a battered guitar case between his sneakers. He was dressed in typical Bay Area lost-but-trying-to-find-himself young man fashion: thrift-store clothes, boots and thick framed glasses. Self-administered haircut. I don’t remember exactly, but he was probably wearing a plaid shirt that had belonged to someone’s dead uncle. Had the homeless man been clean shaven, bathed and given clean clothes, he and the young man might have come from the same neighborhood. Macklemore was probably sitting a few seats away, taking notes.

Interestingly, at the same moment the homeless man began to badger us, the young man decided it was a good time to take out his guitar and start strumming. This diverted the homeless man’s attention for a moment, but after looking back and forth between the two of us, he decided it was a more entertaining for himself, to speak to us. Or at us.

Ask me now what the homeless man said and I can only respond, very seriously, “Homeless man gibberish.” So much of it is because so many of them are insane. I slumped down low in my seat, my eyes deadened, though inside, I worried that he would do something frightening; lurch forward and touch us, or perhaps rifle through our giant yellow bags from Forever 21. An alarmed look flashed over my friend’s face, but seeing my purposefully relaxed body language, she too, relaxed, and in the enviable ability to tune out the unpleasant, began to bob her head to the young man’s tune.”He’s pretty good,” she said, nodding towards the guitarist.

A young man in the Bay Area with a guitar who can strum a few chords without embarrassment on the BART. How original. At the moment his utter lack of self-consciousness was only tied with the bum’s. I was impressed by neither and willed the BART to go faster.

The young man began to sing a song, obviously self-composed, and tapped one scuffed toe on the BART floor.

The homeless man shifted uneasily in his seat. I rolled my eyes. This was so quintessentially Bay Area BART crap and I was sick of it. Crazies wanting attention. Young poet musicians wanting attention. I didn’t want to give them any and so tuned out too, looking forward to being back in my room to put my new clothes away.

My friend leaned back to look at me, surprised by my scowl.

“Are you okay?”

I sighed, my exasperation with the homeless man and the guitarist’s little show barely contained.

“They’re doing it on purpose,” I said, almost childishly.

My friend looked perplexed, “Doing what on purpose?”

“This,” I waved in their general direction. The Bum was still talking and I shuddered at his brown, moss-stained teeth. The young man was really enjoying himself too and had shifted his body so that he was now playing directly at the three of us, or at least to the homeless man.

My friend shrugged and smiled, “It’s kind of nice,” she said, “It’s kind of weird, yeah, but interesting.”

Interesting. Of course it was interesting to her. She had been working for a year already at a technical editing firm in Irvine, in a beige building that was only one in a thousand beige buildings that Irvine erected to contain its corporate entities. She spent roughly nine to ten hours a day in a small cubicle scrutinizing technical manuals, taking the occasional five minute water break to chat with her obese boss, a woman who was two hundred and fifty pounds after losting one hundred pounds. Her boss insisted that her employees keep sweets and snacks locked up in their desks, out of her line of sight so as not to tempt her. I was fascinated by my friend’s work stories, but to her, it was her everyday. The same faces, the same, fat people. She drove to and from work everyday in the relative isolation of her car, listening to the sterile, friendly voices of National Public Radio. If she drove pass any bums, they were gone within the hour, whisked away by the city street patrol, who were instructed to pick up any unseemly “solicitors” and drop them off in neighboring, poorer cities.

Unfortunately the Bay Area offered no such services and we regular folks were forced to share the downtrodden, often-delayed public transportation system with people who had no discernible methods of income or means to bathe. How they embarked was a mystery, but no one ever came to take them away or even chastise them. They shouted, wailed, slept and sometimes, sometimes, shat on the cloth green seats and it made me very angry each time I saw a dark, mysterious stain on a seat which would obviously prevent me from taking it.

“They ruin everything,” I said.

“Betty!” My friend laughed incredulously, “I’m surprised by you! I would think you’d be soaking all this up, taking notes and stuff. I mean, this is some great material.”

“Bums?” I said a little too loudly. I eyed the bum but he was lost in his own world by then, though still chatting away excitedly with the broken neurons in his head, “This guy is just one of thousands, and they’re all the same. I used to wonder about them, I did. ‘Oh what’s this guy’s story?’ ‘How’d he end up like this?’ ‘Where is his family? His wife? Kids?’ I mean, yeah, everyone’s got a story. But dude, you live here too long, run into too many, have your nostrils violently assaulted by the stench of too many and you kind of just get tired of them. I just want to board the BART with other clean people and get home in peace.”

My friend nodded towards the guitarist, “Okay, but what about people like that? I mean, he’s like, so happily playing guitar to the bum.”

I looked at her, “He’s weird, but in a common way. People at Berkeley pride themselves on how weird and alternative they can be. Except they all shop at the same goddamn thrift shops and read the same battered, second-hand books: Kant, David Foster Wallace, Haruki Murakami…stuff they think no one else gets but everyone else reads it too, and they all just don’t get it but pretend to get it together.”

I was getting really worked up, “These people! Yes they’re not generic for anywhere else in the world but trust me, they’re a type, quite common to the Bay Area. Up here, they’re generic.”

My friend raised an eyebrow and leaned back, shaking her head in amusement. Here I was, the self-proclaimed “writer” who rather than getting to down to the nitty-gritty of the supposedly fascinating individuals around me, was obstinately shutting my eyes to the stories I might tell. I was prejudiced by a handful of sour-smelling experiences and saw types now, rather than individuals. I boxed them up and put them aside, thinking I knew quite well the contents of those boxes. The dirty, insane bum. The wandering guitarist, who was most likely also a philosophy and/or rhetoric major. I felt judged, but at the same time, sensed a dawning realization that I was heading down some wrong way of looking. Forcing myself to see through blurred lenses. “These’ll do.”

Still, it was late and I was tired. Whatever changes I needed to make to my writer’s mindset could take place later.

I crossed my arms and looked out the window, though there wasn’t much to see. And it didn’t matter because I knew what was out there in the darkened streets of Oakland and then Berkeley. I’d walked those streets, I’d seen it all. There were no questions to ask. Nothing to be curious about. Nothing. At. All… right?

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