I don't like being messed with on the Metro.
I have a confession to make: I just made up a whopper of a story to a complete stranger out of cognitive dissonance between telling her to shut the F up and mind her own business or just ignoring her.
When I have my headphones on, it's a no-brainer. Very rarely do people ask you to remove your headphones to speak to you because they know that those earbuds might be the only plugs between their universe and the concentrated evil leaking from your head. But earlier this week, I had misplaced my headphones and had to go a whole day without them. Thus, crazy people slanted towards me like a gravity well that dispenses lithium. One type of crazy I get are people handing out business cards to their church. This is one of the reasons I am studying the Bible in my spare time: to hurl their quotes back at them. Matthew 21:12-13 is my favorite whenever anyone tries to sell me something religious. Sometimes I pretend not to speak English, an approach I use when politicians and their volunteers haunt my metro stations close to election time. But in this woman's case, she used a tactic that is not as uncommon as I would have liked.
"Sir?" she started out. When I said nothing and avoided eye contact, she got up from across the car and took up the seat next to me. She was an older woman in a thinning fur coat. She was wearing a child's Hanna Montana backpack and carrying a carpet-bag style suitcase. "My brother is in North Carolina, and I am going to see him," she started. She had a soft southern accent that was touched with a hint of Carolina and brushed with crazy googly-eye egg wash. "He has diabetes, and they had to cut off his toes, and then his whole foot." That's not the usual tone one starts in a conversation with a stranger.
Because her shocking introduction was launched with a reference to amputation and podiatry, I assumed this would be a usual shill begging for money for bus fare to see her family, who are all like those sad-eyed orphans in oil paintings one buys in Tijuana. But actually, I was wrong.
"He had been eating fried and fatty foods all his life because we grew up in Atlanta," she continued. I am not sure if that is a mutual inclusion: fried foods and Atlanta, although someone having a diet heavy in such fare would probably find the pickings easy in a large southern city like that. She went on to describe such delicacies as large deep fried meat products, hot sandwiches, junk food, and all manner of sweets. While a life of such dietary opulence was making my mouth water, it seems her brother nearly killed himself with his diet and now is an obese, footless man who sits in a lawn chair in a bad part of town. Maybe she just needed to talk to someone?
Then it started. "I found my faith in Jesus who set me on the right track..." Here it comes. I have to admit, the whole, "You're a fat guy, find God," is a rare and risky tactic, but I guess she assumed as a fat guy, I am unloved. This is how the Church of Scientology gets recruits, I am told; they target the unloved but rich like dentists, lawyers, and actors. Her approach to church having friends who would help me lose weight and find fellow brother and sister sheep who worship the Lord and have very little goals other than, "look this way, fat man!" She wasn't preachy or condemning, but she was rather assumptive in her verbal portrait of me. Fat, lonely, socialist, old, and without a dead man nailed to a cross to sacrifice time and sanity to. She was also fumbling for something in her pockets, and then she pulled out a small stack of business cards, and I knew they were the familiar calling card that states, "our church doesn't have an entrance policy."
At some point, she used the phrase, "... at your age," and I snapped into improv mode.
"Just how old do you think I am?" I asked.
She fumbled for a second. I guess she was used to fat people telling her to go away and mind their own business or they would eat her with butter and an assorted whipped topping. She wasn't so completely off her rocker to realize guessing a person's age after she just called them godless chunky monkey was like dancing in a mine field. So she offered a clever counter tactic: "I am guessing you're about my age... 49." Well played, woman who smells vaguely of burnt plastic. If I am offended, I can't be because she just admitted HER age. See?
But I am 41. Ouch.
Of course, all humor aside, I don't consider my age to be a detriment, just a milestone of surviorship against impossible odds stacked against me. In my mind, I asked the Gods for permission to mess with this woman, and the voices came back, "Don't be cruel, but we would love to see the show." I heard the scraping of wooden chairs and the munching of popcorn from the Heavens.
"I am 69 years young," I said with a boastful smile like a cougar who just got carded at a bar filled with young men.
She looked at me deadpan. "Nuh uh."
My brain went into overtime as I started doing math. "I was born in July of 1940 in a northern down in Sweden called Kiruna. You ever been there?" That was a stall tactic, I guessed this woman had never left the east coast, much less the country.
"No..." she said. This wasn't going the way she planned. She was in the action of handing me the business card, which described some church I confess I didn't read. Had a church logo, an address, some message in italics, and was no different than any other card I have ever gotten in Silver Spring.
In my head, I was thinking, "You can't out-crazy me, lady. I got crazy for blood!" My mind lit up like a Houston Mission Control data panel. I could hear the generators starting up and the snapping on of fluorescent lights down a huge media library as my creative juices started to flow like a fuel.
"I wouldn't recommend it," I said. "Very cold. But all my relatives look young. The joke is we all get frozen that way, like a TV Dinner. My little sister? 45. She still gets carded at bars. Married a Greek guy who was 75, and his family disowned him because they thought he was committing statutory rape."
She wasn't buying it at first, but I wasn't stopping. "I came here in the winter of 1962. I was 21, and this was a year before we lost Kennedy." We passed by the train yards and I pointed out the old Washington Coliseum. "See there? The Beatles played there in 1964. The screaming was amazing. You were probably just a little kid then--"
"-- I am not from here," she said with a hint of panic like she was being accused of local citizenship without her consent and might be called out on fraud. I knew I had her. She was "off script" in a mental derailment that would be better left for the NTSB.
"Well, the Beatles were a singing group from England. Very popular for a while." I took on a slight European tone to my voice. Even though I had been a US Citizen for a long time, I mused, some things were hard to shake. I might even refer to liters and spell color with an extra "u."
"I know who they are," she said, slightly annoyed. "Why did you leave Sweden if it keeps you looking so young?"
"You said earlier you had never been to Kiruna. It's north of the Arctic circle, it's very cold, and there's nothing to do there. Well, there is now. They have a Volvo test facility up there, but in the 1950s, it was dull little town. I left first, followed by my kid sister who came here in the 1980s; she was born after I left and came looking for me. I came from a big family, I felt they wouldn't miss me. She was the only one who cared enough to find out what happened to me, and she had never met me. Now we are good friends. She lives in Mykonos, now, with her husband. You ever been to Greece?"
I felt taking on the "rambling old man" would disable her approach. I spoke fondly of America, stating it gave me and my sister great opportunities to make something of ourselves. I spoke of the 1970s, how I hated disco, and how in the 1980s, I worked under a government public project and got to shake hands with Ronald Reagan. I mixed true stories from my life with completely made-up ones. I mentioned one of my relatives used to live on a mountain and walk down the mountain every day to collect cloud berries and fish for dinner, even at age 94 (this is true, may Henna rest in peace). I mentioned places I hadn't really traveled to, but saw a lot of TV about them. I kept meandering on the conversation, disabling her attempts to get me back on track. She tried to interrupt me by getting on track with the whole "Abs of a Savior" approach, but I'd disarm her again with something tangentially related to what she had just said.
"My brother in North Carolina--"
"Where in North Carolina? I've only been to Hatteras. Beautiful down there. Long, uncrowded beaches. I got chased out by two hurricanes, Dennis and Bonnie, I think. You from the east or west part of the state?"
"... the Bible being the word of God--"
"Who makes your Bible? You ever heard of the Gideons? I used to work in a book store, you know. I saw Bibles made of white leather with gold leaf lettering, imagine that. They have so many versions, and not all the books in the Vatican made it to the final Kings James Version like most people have now. Ever read some of the poems of Solomon? Book of Jasher? Amazing stuff, you can read it on the Internet you know."
Eventually, she started to short circuit from the overload of "rambling old man" who started to refer to her as "pretty young lady." She probably had a handful of scenarios in her head about how her side of the conversation would go, and buddy, this wasn't one of them. She kept handing me the business card without talking about it, I guess as a way to get me to grab it and maybe shut up for a second while she extolled the virtues of a desert religion formed 1800 years ago. At one point, this annoyed me, and I took action with my own handout:
"But you know what can keep a woman like you young for a long time?" I asked. I didn't give her time to guess, but she muttered something under her breath that was thick with dread. I reached into the pocket of my backpack and pulled out a DC Roller Girls club flyer. "Roller Derby," I answered. In my head, a lone Mexican trumpet played a bullfighter tune. I keep the flyers handy because when I wear my DCRG jacket in milder weather, people sometimes ask me about them. I feel as a DCRG volunteer (I am on their security), I should have material on hand. I deftly eclipsed her small business card with the DCRG postcard. "You know, the women's suffrage movement made it possible young women such as yourself to broaden their horizons--"
"Oh, I-- I don't have time for... I--" she withdrew her card at first in a mild panic, but that only made me push it more towards her. It was like dueling swords, but with cardboard.
"Take it," I said, wiggling it in classic flèche form. "I got lots of them. We have a bout March 6th, you should come. It's only $12, and a lot fun."
"I don't have time... I am not from here! I am going to North Carolina."
"No pressure, just take the card. We have other bouts you can see when you return. They are listed on the back, see?"
That, my friends, completely broke whatever confidence she had left in the conversation to get me to be a skinny church pew warmer. She even put away her cards, possibly convinced she had lost control and accidentally opened up a bag of Chesapeake crabs that were still alive and crawling like mad all over her kitchen table.
"Does anyone know how to get to the Greyhound bus station?" she suddenly asked aloud. People ignored her. "Does anyone know if this is the stop?"
I did. Lucky her! :)
"No, miss. Miss... I didn't get your name?"
"It's the next stop. See, we'll pass over it. Get off at the Union Station stop, and follow the signs. See, we're passing over the terminal now. That's what it looks like. See the Peter Pan and Greyhound signs?"
She sighed and slumped into her seat. "Thank you," she said. She looked like she had lost a marathon, and the winner had dedicated the race to her as an inspiration to better herself and eventually win.
"Well, send mine and God's love to your brother. I hope he feels better. You know, many people lose limbs and it turns their life around. There's a surfer who lost her arm to a shark when she was 13, and still competes professionally. Her name is Bethany Hamilton, and... hey, she attributes her faith in God to getting back on her board. You should look her up in a book store or something."
She looked at me, and we bumped fists. I am not sure what that meant to her, and I only returned it because I felt it would have been rude to keep hanging. It was an non-sequiter, I felt, to end our conversation at a fist bump. Maybe it was a sign of respect from one crazy rambler to another, I don't know. When the train rolled to a stop at the station, she left with pursed lips and and rolled eyes like I had completely lost my marbles and she was just going to write it off when we parted ways. She got off of Union Station, and my commute continued.
Sadly, I wasn't done. I was still punchy.
When I got on the Orange Line, some nebbish woman whined how crowded it was, and I replied back that it was because there were so many people on the train. This drew a chuckle from a few commuters.
At another point, two people passed by me to get from one set of doors to the next. This was inconvenient, and I was completely unsure why they were doing this. When the second guy passed me, I asked, "where are you going?"
"What?" he asked.
"You're the second guy who has passed me that were at those set of doors, now you're at these sets of doors just a few feet away. Is something going on? I don't want to miss anything exciting."
"Uh no..." he said, in a moment of self reflection. "I don't know why I did that," he admitted.
Thankfully, WMATA commuters, I found my headphones, and you can continue your normal boring commutes.