Bus Tripping – San Francisco ’60s
Blind Howard & The Drunk
Bruce Louis Dodson
I’m on the 7 Haight this morning, on my way to work. The pale-blue sky is streaked with pastel colors borrowed from a rainbow. Golden crosses glitter from cathedrals drenched in early morning sunlight. Stately mansions from the San Francisco past drift by. I love this city, and am hopelessly addicted to its infinite variety of forms: the hills and architecture, crooked streets, the bay.
Blind Howard’s on the bus today. He’s standing halfway down the aisle, near the back door. I see him every week or so aboard these buses. Soon he will engage some unsuspecting passenger in conversation.
“Uh, excuse me,” he will say. “Could you please tell when we’ve come to Market Street? That said, he’ll try to get a conversation going. “My name’s Howard Smith. What’s yours? It’s certainly a lovely day. Don’t you agree? I work at the Emporium,” he tells them. “Where do you work . . . ? Oh, how interesting.” Once engaged in conversation he’ll attempt to sell some candy bars. “The money’s not for me,” he will explain. “It goes to the Foundation For The Blind.” He always scores a buck or two.
We make a stop at Haight and Fillmore, and a drunk gets on. He stands unsteadily before the coin box by the driver, trying to get some change out of his pants. The bus makes a jackrabbit start and he goes hurtling towards the back with one hand still inside his pocket, but he grabs a pole and makes an almost graceful, swing halfway around it before slipping off and stumbling backwards into Howard.
“Well, hello there. My name’s Howard. What is yours?”
“Harraaggh,” the wino answers.
Howard is confused and wary, listening carefully for further clues, but now the drunk is making his way back toward the front by grabbing onto seats as he goes by them, pulling himself forward as the driver hits the brakes to miss a yellow Volkswagen that’s leapt out of a side street. Drunk goes flying frontward, crashing into the glass coin box and a rail that’s put there to protect the thing.
“You tryin’ to kill me?” he berates the driver. He deposits change and then staggers down the aisle again, stopping a yard or two from Howard. He’s grasps the safety bar above him, hanging like a soused King Kong beside a young, attractive Japanese girl.
“Uh, hub ubba flubba wubba.” He attempts a bit of conversation, but she isn’t having any and abandons her aisle seat in favor of the standing room still left . . . as far away from him as she can get. The other seats have all been taken.
“Hey, ubbbaaa . . . Lady. . . I don’t need no seat,” he says, then drops into it like a bag of Jell-O, eyes closed, drifting off into another world.
By this time Howard senses we’re about halfway downtown and makes his move, nudging bearded man that’s standing on his right. “Hello, my name is Howard.”
There is no response to Howard’s introduction.
“Uh, excuse me,” he continues. “Could you tell me if we’re getting close to Market Street?”
The bearded man ignores him, and Blind Howard asks again but gets the same result. “Why don’t you answer me!” He’s getting loud and people start to look around to see what’s going on.
“Because I do not like you.”
“Because you take advantage. Will you please leave me alone?”
“How do I take advantage?” Howard asks. “I want to know.”
The beard’s not answering. He tries to move away, but there is no space left.
“Just tell me!” Howard pushes up against the guy. “You hate blind people don’t you?” Now the bearded man’s embarrassed and attempts to get around him. Howard will not let him pass. “Why won’t you tell me?”
“Wumfih!” The wino wakes up, unaware of what’s been going on. “Got to get off,” he mumbles. “Wubba. Get off here.” He rises awkwardly and starts to squeeze behind Blind Howard as the bearded man attempts to get by on the other side. Beard makes a lunge that’s worthy of a Dallas lineman, glancing off of Howard, who falls back and knocks the drunk into the lap of a black woman who’s been reading a computer manual.
“Son of a bitch!” she shrieks. “Get off me, damn you! Off!” She swats him with her book.
The wino makes it to his feet, but Howard’s been confused in the commotion and believes the drunk to be his man.
“Why won’t you tell me!”
“Humma . . . uuhhhma.”
Howard jams his shoulder squarely into the disoriented wino’s chest. He’s knocked off balance and falls back into the woman’s lap again.
“Get off, you pig!” She catches him a good one with the manual. As he tries to gain his feet she shoves him from behind.
By now Blind Howard knows that something is amiss, and has moved back enough so that the drunk goes lurching past him, into a bespectacled executive dressed in a smart black suit. The bus now makes a stop. The doors hiss open and the businessman stiff-arms the wino into several others who are trying to get off. The drunk goes with them, stumbling down the steps, onto the sidewalk.
The back doors hiss shut and we move on. A man tells Howard there’s an empty place beside him, where the drunk was sitting.
“Thanks. That’s very kind of you. My name is Howard Smith. What’s yours?”
“Jack Tuttle. Looked like you were having just a bit of difficulty there.”
“Some people hate the blind. I don’t know why. Just sick I guess.”
“I guess so,” Jack agrees as Howard takes a couple chocolate bars from his coat pocket.
“I sell candy for the blind,” he says “Do you think that you might take these off my hands? I don’t keep any of the money for myself. It goes to the Foundation For The Blind.
Published in Northern Liberties Review – 2012