Last week I celebrated my birthday. I had a car to deliver to Indianapolis, and I was excited because it would give me a chance to see Karen, my first love. But when I arrived at her Cafe to surprise her on the day of my birth, it was me who got the surprise. I was told by an employee that she and her girlfriend had taken off for a week at their lake house. Admittedly, the news left me feeling a little low.
I climbed on the city bus a block from the Cafe, trying to decide how to spend my birthday alone in Indy. The bus went through downtown, and then into a bad neighborhood. I engaged the driver, a friendly Hispanic man named Joe, in conversation about the highlights of his city. I was hoping to find something fun or interesting to do.
An old man stood at the bus stop when we turned a corner. He waved and jumped up and down, as if he wouldn't be seen by the driver otherwise. Joe laughed and murmured, "This guy." When Joe stopped and opened the door, the old man hopped onto the bus with an agility that frankly surprised me. The man looked to be in his late 70's, and his hair was a mess. It stood straight up, sort of like he stuck his finger into a light socket, only less well-groomed than that.
The old man stood next to Joe. I sat back and watched as he began to ask Joe a barrage of questions rapidly. Joe tried to answer, but the old man interrupted him. "You talk funny."
"You people, you all talk funny. You don't talk normal, like us."
"Yes, you, all of you, you're the ones. With your crazy accents and your enchiladas. You know what I'm talking about."
"Sir, you need to take a seat."
"Don't you tell me what I need. You can't tell me what to do."
"It's for your own safety, sir."
"You need to mind your manners and watch your station. Know your place."
"This is America, by God. And I love it. I love it!"
"I love it too."
"You? You don't know what the hell you're talking about. You're talking out of your ass, you stupid SOB."
"Sit down, sir."
"No! No! I won't do it, and you can't force me. I fought for this country, by God, and I will die for it. Do you quite clearly understand me?"
Joe looked at the old man. "Sit down, now."
"You talk funny."
"You already said that."
"And I'll say it again, you talk funny, damn you. I'm tired of it, I'm sick of it."
Joe was being extremely patient. I was very impressed. "America is my home, and it welcomes a diversity of cultures. That's what you fought for, to protect and preserve that principal. I salute you for your service to our country, and am honored to have you riding on my bus."
This stopped the old man cold. He sputtered and tried to say something back to Joe, but nothing came out. He looked confused, flustered, absolutely dazed. Joe made eye contact with me in his rear view mirror, and we smiled at each other. The old man saw me smile, and suddenly he came to life again and found his words. "And you!"
"Me?" I asked.
"Yes you, don't think I've forgotten about you. Why do you think you have the right to smile? What do you have to smile about? You go too far, you push the issue."
"No more, do you hear me? No more! It's enough, it's all I can take. And you, you're always there, always stirring the pot and causing trouble."
"But yes, yes, yes you do! Damn it, you drive me crazy."
"Not on purpose."
"A dolphin is not a porpoise!"
"No! Absolutely not, and it never will be! Chico, let me off this bus. I have to get off this insane asylum on wheels!"
Joe pulled over and opened the doors. The old man jumped off, then ran down the street flapping his arms. I watched and hoped that he might get lucky and actually take flight. "That's Ernie, he rides this bus every day, and throws a fit each time," explained Joe.
"You handled the situation very well."
"Thanks." Joe scratched his chin. "So you want to have a good dinner tonight, eh?"
"It's my birthday, I'm on my own, so I might as well treat myself right."
"Yes you should. So I want you to come to my house, my family all gathers on Friday nights and we make a huge feast. There will be music and dancing."
"Yes, but don't get your hopes up too high."
"Joe, all I have is hope. But if you are serious, I'd love to come over."
And so I did. I met Joe's wonderful family, and they made me feel so welcome in their home. It turned out to be one of the best birthdays I've had in years. I drank too much, and I know I'm not supposed to do that because of past problems. But that's another story.