It's a beautiful day in Manhattan and I'm waiting on West 33rd Street for my bus back to Washington, D.C. For those who have taken the DC2NY bus, or one of the others that shuttle between the two cities, you know this spot. It's right in front of that strip joint. For those who haven't, these rides are decked out with free wi-fi, flat screens and comfy seats. Not bad for $30, one-way.
I arrive early not knowing what traffic hell I'd find coming from the Lower East Side. It's September 10 and the whole city is bracing for 9/11 events. That's why I'm here. I've accompanied a Chinese film crew from D.C. to Pennsylvania and finally to New York City as they cover 9/11 events.
In Pennsylvania there's an interview with the lawyer representing families of 9/11 victims suing Iran for its involvement in the attack. The lawyer confides that he won't know how the case ends because he'll be dead in three months. Cancer. The interview ends in tears all around.
Then it's on to New York City to interview 9/11 rescuers at O'Hara's, an Irish bar across the street from Ground Zero. I meet Terry, a first responder who describes how his buddy standing just six feet away was killed by a falling body. He still wakes up every morning with the smell of burning buildings in his nose.
After these emotional, haunted conversations I ache to see my husband and son back home in D.C. So I buy a seat on my new iPhone and wait for the bus. I'm looking for a not-so-vile spot to park my bags and where my girly white raincoat won't get dirty when a middle-aged black man sitting on a folding chair eating a sandwich asks if I want the seat next to him. I hesitate, not sure if I have it in me to make polite conversation. Oh, why the hell not. Sure, I say, then dive into my Chinese dumplings to avoid speaking. But then I tell him he's lucky to have found these chairs.
"Oh, no," he explains. "These are my chairs. I'm waiting for my bus back to Virginia."
We both offer food to each other. We both decline. We introduce ourselves. Arthur tells me, "You looked sweet. So, I offered you the seat." There were plenty of people waiting for buses but he picked me. Either I have "sweet" or "sucker" stamped on my forehead, I say, because I usually get singled out one way or the other. He laughs.
Then I notice an older black man dressed head to toe in bright orange standing by the strip club's dark doorway. I can't resist. Do you see that man all dressed in orange? I ask Arthur. You know, black men have it hard enough without looking as if they just broke out of prison.
I'm really not sure how this is going to go over. But Arthur lets out a big laugh and slaps his knee. "I thought the same thing when I saw him!"
We're laughing so hard that people start staring.
Then we start on the mega-high heeled shoes on some of the women walking by, their gaits resembling that of a wounded waterfowl. They're going to get bunions, I warn. He tells me he has bunions after being homeless for 12 years. I say that high heels and homelessness are both hard on the feet. We laugh again. It feels good to laugh so much.
I finish my dumplings and give the other ones, the pork dumplings that I've been dying to eat, to him. They're fabulous. I insist. He tucks them in a plastic bag.
We talk more. He got himself off drugs and off the streets. He's been married to Mary Ann for four years. He has a job as a custodian and is getting his GED even though he doesn't read so well. At the same time we both open our phones. He shows me a picture of his bride. I show him pictures of my son. "We're showin' pictures!" He's practically giddy.
We're still looking at pictures when a man comes up to us begging for change. We both say no but offer food. I give him one of my pork-stuffed rolls. Arthur gives him the dumplings. And a fork.
Arthur confided so much that I thought I should return the favor. I tell him that one of my half-brothers recently got an apartment after living homeless in San Francisco for nearly 20 years. When the earthquake hit in 1989, he saved others by pulling them from the rubble. That's gotta suck, right Arthur? You're living under a bridge and then an earthquake collapses the bridge on you.
"It's a tough life," he agrees, shaking his head.
Then I tell him about my large family and growing up in a dying steel town in West Virginia. I ran as far as I could, to China actually, to get away. He looks right at me, all joking gone, and says that I should write that story because it could help someone.
As my bus pulls up, I promise him I will and hug him. Then I thank him and hope he knows I'm not talking about the seat.