a story

After the Readercon mess (short version: somebody sexually harassed a woman, she complained, trusting that Readercon’s zero-tolerance policy would be implemented and the guy would be banned for life, it wasn’t, people rightfully got furiously upset, went viral with it, Readercon recognized their mistake, banned the guy, and I believe the entire Readercon board has now resigned in apology), my friends lists have been filled with a lot of discussion about rape and harassment and the problems people deal with day in and day out.

I’ve been lucky, and let us not make any mistake: it’s a sign of a broken culture that I’m lucky to have not experienced much in the way of harassment, but the point is more that I was reminded of an encounter on a bus trip years ago, when I was living in California. I wrote it up at the time, and thought I’d repost it.

There is no particular object lesson to be taken from this, mind you. I just like the story.

June, Y2K

I tell you what, it’s starting out a good weekend. I got a bonus, then left work early today to head up to Sacramento to spend tonight and tomorrow with Sarah, going to an RWA meeting. Nice walk down the Embarcardero; a lot of tourists peering through their car windows and looking around. Saw a car full of gay guys who finally got to the right corner to pick up a friend of theirs; You gettin’ in, or what? Fuck you, man, I been waiting here like a whore on the corner for half an hour….

Barely get my ticket in time to get on the bus to Emeryville. Me, an Asian kid about my age, and Gary, a fifty-something drunk black guy, sit on the floor. Gary attempts to engage in conversation with the Asian guy–very tall, that kid–and the Asian guy tries really hard not to look at him. So Gary sings along with the bus radio for a while–Don Henley? You can’t come around here, ‘cuz you don’t look like they do . . . standing in the welfare line, just for fun I say, “Get a job.”
Whomever did that song, and yeah, I got the lyrics wrong, but so did Gary. He tells a story about a movie of some kind, where the kid in the movie listened to rap, not jazz. Jaaassss, long and sibilant and sexy, is how he says it. Like jazz ought to be said. Can you believe that? He listened to rap, not jazz. No jazz. No jazz.

We go around a corner and he leans over and warns me he might tilt right over into me. I think that’s pretty likely, and smile. He laughs, and goes back to singing and talking about jazz.

The Asian kid won’t look at him. When he accidentally does, he performs a tolerant smile that turns up the corners of his mouth but doesn’t get near his eyes.

So after a while Gary gives up on singing and on the Asian kid and tries talking to me. Asks how old I was first. Twenty seven, I say.

What! he says. Twenty seven, I say.

“I thought you were in high school.” He’s got a great laugh, kind of a dry little cackle. It sounds happy. Drunk-happy, but happy. I tell him I get that a lot. “What’s your name?” he asks.

I always think this part is weird. Do I tell the weird drunk guy my name? Does it do any harm? Do I want to lie? I lied once and somebody told him my real name. He called. That was high school. Gary’s probably not going to call. “Catie.”

“Catie!” he says. “I’m Gary.”

Hi, Gary. I’m still trying to read; in fact, I read 25 pages while I’m talking to Gary, who asks, “You going up to Sacramento?”

“Yeah,” I say, and then because I’m psychologically incapable of not carrying on a conversation, not even if I don’t really want to, I add, “Going up to visit a friend.”

Hah-hah! Boyfriend or girlfriend? I laugh. I can’t help it.

Gary laughs too. I don’t answer, though; I want to say, “Now that’s getting personal, isn’t it?” But that’s carrying on the conversation, and I’m trying not to.

“You don’t want me to talk to you, do you?” he asks, and y’know, the thing is, I don’t _really_ mind. So I say that, I don’t mind, and I give up on reading, at least on concentrating on it. Lucky for Gary, I guess, I can read and talk at the same time. Or maybe it’s lucky for me. He asks again if it’s a girlfriend or a boyfriend, don’t matter to him. This time I tell him it’s a girlfriend.

“I got a friend,” he says, “my roommate. She rolled me for my wallet again, and now I gotta get all my phone numbers all over again.”

I wonder if he’s angling for _my_ phone number, but I’m not about to ask _that_.

“Stole my money,” he says, “my roommates do that when I’m drunk.”

Maybe you should stop drinking, then, I don’t say. Maybe he’s got a reason good enough to drink. Maybe if I say it he’ll get maudlin on me, and I’d rather have a happy drunk breathing on me, if it’s all the same. “Still,” he says, “she’s okay. A friend.”

“Some friend,” I say.

He leans over towards me. His head’s almost on my shoulder. “So if things don’t work out with your friend, there any chance of you and me getting together and getting to . . . know each other a little better?”

This, I was waiting for. This part is fun. I duck my head towards his, and in complete confidentiality, say to him, “I don’t think my husband would understand.”

He sits up. “You’re _married_!”

I move my book and show him my left hand, the wedding band and the diamond ring. “Well, I didn’t know you were married!”

I’m laughing now. Hell, through the whole conversation I’m grinning. My face still aches from the smiling. “It’s okay,” I tell him, though I think: It’s okay to hit on me if you think I’m in high school, but not if I’m married?

“You tell your husband I hit on you,” he tells me.

I laugh again. “I don’t _usually_ tell my husband when people hit on me.”

“Naah,” he says, “you tell him. You tell him about how you were on the bus and this black jerk hit on you. You see how he reacts. How somebody reacts, how your significant other reacts, that’s a sign of how mature he is.”

I think he might be right, and tell him so. I don’t think he’s a jerk, either, but telling him _that_ seems like encouragement, so I don’t.

“You got any kids?” he asks. Nope, I say. Maybe someday. “Oh, I’m getting personal now,” he says, and I laugh. Asking if I’d sleep with him wasn’t personal, but asking if I have kids is?

“I like your hair,” he says. I happen to be absurdly fond of my hair right now (ed: I’d just done the Rogue strip for the first time, when this conversation took place), too, so I’m
pleased and say thanks. “It’s all sharp,” he says, “I like the two colors. That’s why I hit on you, y’know?”

I look at him over the top of my sunglasses. Gary’s not a bad looking guy, really. Greying, but his eyes are bright and he has a lot of smile lines. He’s wearing a coat I couldn’t stand to wear in this weather, something with real weight to it. He laughs again. “Your hair,” he says, “it’s jazzy.” Jaaaaassssy.

Well, if that isn’t a compliment and a half. “Thank you.”

And then we’re at the train station and I get up. Gary climbs to his feet behind me. “Don’t worry,” he says, “I’m not gonna grab your ass.”

I laugh out loud. “It didn’t occur to me that you might.”

“I thought about it,” he tells me. And that’s the last thing Gary says to me.

In the train station, two different women talk to me about Gary. One is a plump brunette, wearing the same color blue shirt I am. She comes up and says, “You handled him beautifully. That was great. I was really impressed. You handled that beautifully.” She’s got two kids with her. I’m flattered; I hope I was a good example for the kids.

The other one might be with her; she has short blonde hair and purple-lensed sunglasses. “You need protection on the rest of this trip?” she asks.

The brunette laughs. “She’s got it under control. She can take that guy.”

“Nah, I’m okay,” I tell them. “I think he’s pretty harmless.”

So I got on the train and turned on some blues music to write this to. Don’t have any jazz, but I think Gary’d like the Jim Byrnes Band just fine.