Touch me? Vaya Con Dios inbound on the 22 Fillmore!
Michael Chacko Daniels
wingless word flopped out Gray's mouth a fledgling ostrich
with dreams of impossible flight.
shook his close-cropped silvery head, disappointed, and felt
his heart pick up an extra beat.
driver in the municipal-brown uniform rolled the steering
wheel, the outbound 22 Fillmore performed a saucy turn. Taken
by surprise, Gray tried to ride the pronounced trolley-wiggle,
shifting his stance as best he could.
can't forget, he reminded himself, I ride an erratic beast,
periodically fed shots of electric-adrenaline and the reins
are held in the fists of a wild-eyed rough rider whose
arteries seem to have fused into the trolley's, sucking up
each power surge and dispensing scabrous words to even gentle
Gray inquired, examining his own wingless response to the
What kind of idiot-one-word sniping protest was that from me?
nothing but a dud, old fella. It neither soars, nor educates,
nor inspires. At its best, it's no more than a call to war.
You need more than one negative word, if you want to go
anywhere with it other than down into the gutter.
hovered over the seated, tall, wiry man the most recent
object of the driver's fury, his blue-gray eyes flicking over
the young fella's smooth as silk black face. The man's
features, visible under the mass of straight, jet-black hair,
were a serene composition in soft angles, not a single,
familiar signal of hidden distress.
up empty in his visual investigations, Gray decided to go at
it directly from his heart.
sent out a wave of soothing warm feelings of silent
commiseration toward the young man for having been the target
of the driver's hateful words.
a few seconds, Gray felt his heart grow heavy and his legs
tremble. Next, he knew would come doubts, sneaking into his
mind on a wave of thoughts seven decades old, wandering back
in from old family quarrels with doses of brine and vinegar
words sticks and stones? Why sweat blood the young victim
feels not a single slight? He's used to it; outrageous words
bounce off of the likes of him, leaving him unscathed.
no, Gray fought back. That's all hogwash and sewer trash!
Impossible! Sure, the pain's there, perhaps buried deeper than
in most. I must pass something his way that'll dissolve what
surely is an immigrant's public mask, contradict the driver's
incivility, heal the hidden wound.
pale, craggy face clouded, broad brow furrowed, beard
what if he's already in a deep electric-trolley-induced
poor, poor boy! Gray almost said aloud.
eyes set in deep, worn craters filled; his little
rolling universe blurred.
on! Come on! Move it! Move! I got a schedule to keep!"
yelled the driver through the window at a car blocking the
bus, and Gray felt again his revulsion over the man's
explosive words, earlier, to the young fella "Don't .
then, the trolley surged forward, almost smashed into the car;
Gray's shoulder screamed as he was yanked, blotting out, for
the moment, how the driver's words had felt when he had heard
to sit, old fella. Time to rest. Time to get off your feet.
Relax! Let it all go! Get over it! Soon you'll be home, ready
for a nap.
on my life! Got to use it, or lose it. As part of my daily
regimen, I plan to stand as long as I can, as this mechanical
bronco goes through its paces and the juiced-up driver gives
it all he has.
feet spread, more like an aged giraffe than an ostrich
replaying his first baby steps, Gray prepared for the worst
quakes the outbound 22 Fillmore trolley could hit him with.
Any moment now, his beloved San Francisco zero emission
vehicle, white-brown-and-cream inside, red-trimmed on the
outside would jerk into motion after picking up passengers and
resume on its rollicking trip, climb betwixt fog-hugged
buildings leaning into the hidden sky, and then hurtle down
into Peet's-Starbucks-Noah's-Royal Ground coffee wars, where,
God-willing, the driver will resist the temptation and refuse
to abandon his riders to pick-up a pre-ordered cafι lattι.
I beat the knee-bender! That was easy! applauded Gray, taking
a moment off from commiserating, and battling his cravings, to
acknowledge his mastery of the lively beast.
that was too easy! Gray retracted, his mind buzzing.
up, old fella! Wake up! You want to override this young
fella's memory of that bus driver's cruddy crudeness? Hear
that concatenation? What good is a solitary word of protest in
this quotidian racket? For Pete's sake! Uncivil? That's all
you could manage! Like the ineffectual sounds you made six
decades ago that fueled Dad's vitriolic anger. You can do
better than a fledgling ostrich fuddled by the urge to fly.
only good thing about my flightless bird, he consoled himself,
was that the saliva my ill-fitting dentures sprayed, didn't
strike anyone. Perhaps, it was all the imagination of my old
mind gone vacuous there was no slight from the driver, no
idiot word, no spittle-spattle.
stop. Gray observed the driver staring at him in the mirror,
his eyes distended.
going to turn his rude attentions on me? Is it because my word
did get to him? It wasn't my intention to make him angry. Or
shook off the driver's probe and the unwieldy mix of tempers
roiling inside him as the door slammed-clamped shut. The new
passengers hurried and elbowed to the empty seats. An
occasional "Excuse me!" softened the air.
anchored himself. No matter; a powerful jolt knocked a
"humph!" and a loud "ouch!" out of him.
to go!" the driver roared and pumped a fist. Gray saw him
rock in his seat, and was gratified.
Gray thought. The uninhibited pleasure in my discomfort proves
my one-word comment spun and wove from passenger-to-passenger
to the driver.
the young man, no more than a hand's span away from the driver
at the time, must have heard it, too. Their ears are sharper
than an old man's.
. . touch me!" Gray heard a fragment of the whisper of a
voice rustling in the front row.
the trolley quietened, as if in anticipation of a duel.
lonely, wingless word was back. This time, a haunting echo.
turned his head and looked over his shoulder, and picked out a
little, old man no bigger than the word sounded in a
thin black tie and undertaker's suit, which hung over his
seated body in loose folds like a North African dishdasha.
hear in Germany they arrest people who express hatred of
another," the little man continued sotto voce, the words
directed to everyone and no one.
at the revival of his word and its magical effect on the
racket in the capsule universe of aluminum, plastic, and
steel, Gray found he couldn't shift his attention back to the
young man from the little mensch tugging at his slate-colored
French cap like a kid who wanted to hide after his words had
bounced back to him from grownups unable to understand a
tiny fingers pulled at Gray's heart and his eyes grew wet.
Austria, they give you 10 years if you question the
holocaust," Gray heard a woman patching into the little
mensch's sound from the opposite bench, and watched,
fascinated, as she lowered her halo of white hair towards the
little man, and he caught in that fragment of a moment the
passing image of his own mom trying to rediscover and
reveal to the world the eyes secluded under the French cap
and his heart wanted to fly to her.
No! Gray told himself.
got to get to the young fella's hurt before it transforms into
a canker in his soul. If not me, who? I'm the man on the spot,
the responsible party. Isn't this what I've been praying for
an opportunity to empathize and reduce suffering? Youth is
a hard enough place, even when unencumbered; piling the
hatred-of-the-day on him is a cruel, cruel infliction.
pulled his head and heart back a bit and noted the young man's
entwined fingers, resting on his lap, were relaxed; his white
cotton shirt, tucked into dark-brown corduroy pants, enveloped
him in a loose, effortless embrace.
battled Gray's deep-seated public reserve. His long, frangible
white fingers tightened his purchase of the overhead metal
tube as the trolley rocked.
heart palpitated; under his skin and in his chest a wild
rhythm paced the trolley's.
pressure to speak mounted. Just as he was about to open up, he
felt his ancient legs quiver, hands grow cold, and, instead of
entering into the battle to reduce suffering, he surrendered
to the trolley's audio system giving its periodic security
warning, and he reverted to his late-blooming caution about
his personal safety on San Francisco's public transit. The
stored, unreleased tension inside him unwound rapidly,
uncontrolled. He looked furtively right and left from the
corner of his eyes for any tell-tale signs of a
quick-fingered, flagitious artist in mufti who might snuggle
up to him, unabashedly, like a lover, under the cover of a
sudden press of riders of all sizes and shapes.
sighed into the crowded air when no one fitting a sneak
thief's shifting form or ways caught his volitunt eyes.
360 degree security check completed, Gray slid his senior
discount monthly bus pass into the inner recesses of his
light-blue denim vest, close to his heart, in the company of
his elegant, cautiously spare, leather-free wallet and a
slender bottle of pills.
extracted a white tab from the bottle with the ease that came
from months of practice, and popped it under his tongue.
the pain in his chest eased, he scolded himself, I must have
raised the hackles of everyone around me! How stupid I'm
getting in my dotage! If I did recognize a pickpocket, he
wouldn't be a very good one.
why should I be worried? All my wallet has are my California
ID and MediCal card plus 10 single bills and no more. All else
social security ID, debit card, photos, telephone numbers .
. . are hidden away either at home or in my safety deposit box
at the bank. Waking from the meditation on a bus with a warm
stranger's fingers in my posterior pocket was enough of a
One well done, Gray snapped his vest buttons and turned his
attention back to the young fella.
air of calmness that surrounds the young passenger, he told
himself, even amidst the trolley's chaotic movements, is all a
deeply-cultivated make-believe; beneath the mask rises a
mountain of hurt.
then, with a rush of fog-dissipating wind, delicate Italian
and French scents wafted from the two older women in the front
row, and tantalized his nostrils seared by so many
different vapors over the decades before he was overwhelmed
by the intense, gastric-juice-pumping aroma of spices floating
in from the street and the stomach-churning rank alcohol fumes
from the familiar figure of the beatifically smiling,
middle-aged man with several layers of clothes, crouched in
the rear like an itinerant, penitent, mendicant monk, who as
usual had the bench all to himself because no one had chosen
to share it with him.
that he'd seen him, Gray agonized over whether to shift his
focus and take his position next to the excommunicated,
de-frocked Jesuit on his long road sometimes up, sometimes
down. But the young man's newly absorbed pain, he decided,
again, needed immediate attention.
struggled to block the distracting scents, aromas, odors, and
potatory visions from his recuperating mind. He knew soon it
would be the heady airs of the brown bean that he'd have to
contend with as the Fillmore's coffee gulch approached. Be
heart smart, his doctor had warned; tea yes, coffee no.
feeling a burst of confidence, Gray prepared to speak in a
comforting voice to the young man. He aimed cropped silvery
eyebrows and chin at the young passenger and said in a raspy,
loud voice, "What he said inexcusable!" and found
his sentences fracturing, his knees wobbling as the 22
Fillmore trolley danced stop/go/stop before finally
coursing up San Francisco's Fillmore Hill.
sorry," Gray managed, finally.
Black eyes in a black face drilled Gray. "Driver
offended, not you."
the terseness, Gray launched a smile he hoped would be seen as
kindly; his brittle voice jiggled-joggled with the bus:
"Sorry I remained silent, everyone remained
probably, most agreed."
said the shrunken old man, again. For a moment it seemed to
Gray that was all he was going to rebroadcast this time. Then,
the transmission expanded: "I hear in Germany they arrest
people who express hatred of another. I hear in Austria they
give you 10 years if you question the holocaust. What he said
inexcusable! I'm sorry. Why? Driver offended, not you.
Sorry I remained silent, everyone remained silent. And,
probably, most agreed."
the trolley waggled; younger passengers bopped and twirled;
Gray's legs buckled.
and tarnation!" Gray said, wincing; intentionally aiming
his words at the young fella. "Ride these electric
contraptions all the time. Haven't yet got the hang of
it. Capricious like the drivers. Do you mind?" Gray
inquired, pointing to the empty window seat, which no one had
sought to occupy.
black-complexioned young man with the black eyes said,
lowering his voice, as if concerned his words would get
replayed instantly, "You paid, you got it. But thanks for
mile-wide smile followed the cryptic, rapid-fire words.
enchanted, thought, He has pearls in his mouth. And what's
that I hear in his vowels? Shades of Bombay panthers!
times we live in," Gray began, toning down his voice,
now that he was seated. It wasn't easy; he could feel the urge
to heal grow with each passing moment.
must whisk the driver's cruddy crudeness, San Francisco's
descent into big city incivility, from the young man's mind,
he told himself.
trolley stopped. The woman who had spoken alighted and a woman
with a breathing tube slowly rolled a walker with a portable
oxygen tank into the bus. She sat down opposite the wizened
the obligatory pause, the trolley pranced.
voice vibrating, Gray hurtled on; battling the vehicle's
rhythm, his desire to heal burning a hole in his heart, he
resumed, "Everyone's edgy especially on transit.
Paradise-hungry bombers. Explosions in Spain, London . . .
Frightened people hit back, respond to worst
black young man, wiry and tall, shook his head.
my poor bagatelle, sir, but you think what we've here is"
a long black finger rose and fell "Quick on the
trigger/ Terrified London bobby shoots Brazilian?/ Tongue
primed to batter/ 'Don't touch me,' shouts paranoid Friscan?"
gets used to it."
the young man's smile and shrug, the soft shifting of ebony
and ivory, gray-blue eyes welled, his heart squeezed tight.
a mountain of hurt for one so young! Gray thought. 'Twill
destroy him. I must respond PDQ. Go telegraphic! Heal young
man's new wound when still fresh. In no time, as certainly as
each morrow that is granted me, that I accept with gratitude,
will bring its share of morning fog, this fine young man'll
get off this municipal electric horse-buggy, disappear
trolley had a prolonged seizure. The driver growled.
tapped hidden reserves, grasped the stanchion attached to the
seat in front of him, tightened his thigh muscles as a
precaution against sliding off his seat, and blew out his
words toward the front of the bus with more vim and vigor than
he had wanted to muster for a long while: "Driver, how
like a bucking bronco! Grew up with them. Can take it;
don't know others can."
vibrations grew as if to shake off his words.
God, I can't take this anymore!" cried the ex-Jesuit from
the rear of the bus, rising and waving his many-layered arms.
you! Thank you!" he intoned to riders who fell away,
trying to form a cordon sanitaire in the impossibly cramped
space. As he swayed toward Gray, he blessed with bloated
fingers one passenger at a time.
out! Get out!" screamed the driver. The trolley jarred,
Granddad, my friend, Gray! Like the Pope took a dislike to me,
our Great Helmsman up front has taken a dislike to you. Ask
his forgiveness, immediately, or else all these pilgrims will
end up as trash in a crash," he warned.
Git! Git! Get out! Get out! Now! I call the cops!"
Christopher, my dear friend, I didn't see you," Gray
lied. All to good purpose, he told himself. I'm sure the
long-time Jesuit will understand.
kindred seeker after truth, but I'm sure you smelt me! Ho, ho,
ha, ha, ha. I can't take all this infernal shaking anymore.
Make your peace with him, pal, before his transport from hell
comes to no good."
out! Get out! Get out! Git!" the Great Helmsman screamed.
must go smell the beer," Christopher said.
held out a grime-encrusted, swollen hand.
the silent request, Gray had four quarters from his jean
pocket ready, which he placed firmly in Christopher's inflamed
palm. "Take care, my dear friend," he said. A long
time ago, he'd given up exercising tough love with the
Get! Get! Get out!" the Great Helmsman roared louder, as
Christopher lumbered to the front exit, passengers falling
away from him.
up! Shut up, if you want to ride my bus again!"
sainted traveler turned, light as a puff of air.
traffic signal blinked.
on the bus stilled.
a window a thunder of pigeon wings.
driver lowered his head, a many-layered arm rose.
our Great Helmsman more room and he'd genuflect, Gray thought.
Minister-of-the-Streets-and-Buses made a gentle wisp of a sign
of the cross with thick, coated fingers, and said, "Bless
you, my son! Bless you! Aren't we all mulligrubbers today? May
St. Christopher protect you and lead you and your passengers
safely to your destinations on earth and heaven. And improve
our dispositions. Free us from our disquisitions. No more time
to talk, the sidewalk beckons and I must go."
blessed the whole bus and then shuffled off as the mechanical
cob knelt for him.
those few quick words," said the driver, his voice
softening. "I forgive everything. Vaya Con Dios, padre of
yesterday. Vaya Con Dios."
the window blew the airs of . . . Araby? Italia? Mysore? Or is
it Ethiopia? Gray's coffee-starved brain wondered.
visions taunted him.
the two elegantly scented women exited after Christopher,
retching sounds penetrated the electric craft, and a voice
from the rear seats began a soulful rendition of Vaya Con Dios.
I hear in Germany they arrest people who express hatred of
another," the little man renewed his broadcast, weaving
in and out of the song. "I hear in Austria they give you
10 years if you question the holocaust. Our Great Helmsman has
taken a dislike to you." He stopped, screwed up his face,
shook his head several times, then resumed, on a different
note, "In the 1980s, Australia and New Zealand had a war
of words over a mulligrub bowled by an Australian to a New
Zealander to prevent the Kiwis from winning on the last ball
of a cricket match. Not very sporting, I said. Never
understood the game of cricket. What is a mulligrub? he said.
It's a low ball, I said. Give me a highball, any day, he said.
Vaya Con Dios was written by Larry Russell, Inez James, and
Buddy Pepper. It was published in 1953 . . ."
wish someone would give me 10 years," said the woman with
the breathing tube, cutting off the old man's run of words.
"My doctor says I've got only six months. I'll probably
end up spending half of it on Muni riding back and forth to
a heavy heart, Gray turned from all the sounds suddenly
buffeting him and fixed his gaze on the young man.
world life-long fascination," Gray said, feeling the
tremor in his heart as his voice attempted to counteract the
throbbing-juddering trolley and his reviving reserve.
"We, Westerners wronged it grievously: British
subjugation divide-and-rule imperial policy America's
own contribution to a costly brother-versus-brother nuclear arms race.
every right to be angry."
paused, wondered, Is the young man with me or not? Do I sound
small smile brushing the smooth ebony skin enthralled Gray.
his mind's jumble, he careened onward, blue-gray eyes
aglitter: "Seven eleven no, no, 9/11 random
violence South Asians mistaken for Arabs. Nightly, Lou
Dobbs crying foul about American jobs going to India,
Indian high-techies invading America yada, yada, yada.
Masks of patriotism, refuge of weak minds. I hate it.
We marched against it in the sixties. After London bombings
Westerners suspect South Asians. Stupid! A billion South
Asians a few million in the West majority non-Muslim
more law-abiding than the rest of the population. Right to
young man took a moment to decipher the torrent. Drawing his
thick eyebrows together, he said, "You sound absolutely
sure. Are you?"
And plenty angry!"
hands clapped. "Goodbye silence! Hello, Pilgrim!"
heart now a balloon of good feelings, he continued, as the
trolley shuddered and stopped, and his voice steadied:
"Angry and hurt. In fact, I feel angry and hurt even
though I'm not from your part of the world, and although my
practice of Buddhism is supposed to steer me from the famous
twins: Hurt and Hate."
driver got up from his seat and swiveled.
prepared for the worst.
driver burned Gray with a quick glance, donned thick gloves,
exited the bus, and re-connected the trolley to the overhead
electric lines and then stopped to converse with a bus driver
of a motor coach.
Great Helmsman has an electric posterior bug, doesn't
he?" Gray said, mimicking the trolley's shakes, and
gaining temporary reprieve from a relapse into caffeine hell.
un-Bodhisattvic expression! But very human! My friend, you're
okay! What's your good name?" the young man said.
hear in Germany they arrest people who express hatred of
another." The wizened voice in the tiny frame began.
"I hear in Austria, you get 10 years if you deny the
holocaust. . . ."
if I got 10 more years, I'd not deny the holocaust," says
the woman with the breathing tube. "Many of my folks died
call me Gray," the ex-Jesuit's kindred spirit
extended a long, bony, pale hand enriched with age spots to
the young man.
once again sparkling, pearl-perfect teeth, the young man
clasped Gray's hand firmly and said, "Call me, Black, in
be tootling off in a couple of stops," Black continued,
warm smile and hand lightening Gray's heart. "Let's split
a pot of tea or coffee, someday. We're looking for a few good
people, Mr. Gray. But before I go, three little-big sound
you're a good man, Mr. Peace Warrior! Good heart. No weltschmerz!"
touched the space in front of Gray's chest with his free hand,
making the old ticker beat faster.
Gray inquired loudly, smiling, thinking Black had said,
weariness, pessimism . . . ," began Black, but was cut
off by the bus braking with a screech and a bounce. The driver
shouted, through his side window at a car that had stopped
suddenly to let a woman with a pit bull out.
spotted the little old man doff his French cap, reveal a
head-full of gray hair, rise up, and let loose rapidly in the
sing-song, confident voice of an auctioneer, "Weltwhat? I
hear in Germany they arrest people who express hatred of
another. I hear in Austria they give you 10 years if you
question the holocaust." A small pause, an adjustment of
knobs, and then he continued, "I hear even if I got 10
more years, I'd not deny the holocaust. Many of my folks died
in it." Another small pause. A finger probed his temple.
Then, as if he'd found the record he was looking for: "I
hear in the United States of America there are some outfits
that allow you to give your sick co-worker your unused sick
leave. I hear - I wish someone would give me 10 years. My
doctor says I've got only six months. I'll probably end up
spending half of it on Muni, riding back and forth to see
whole mulligrubs segment was smartly elided, Gray noted.
young man said to Gray: "Sad, but thought-provoking,
isn't it? No weltschmerz there! Right? Though his affect
nodded, thinking, If God had such a rule on sick leave, the
poor woman could have a goodly chunk of mine.
driver, returning with a large McDonald's coffee cup, shot
Gray with his eyes.
resumed immediately, "Back to what I was saying. You also
have an empathetic mind, as we say in my profession. Second,
Sri Lanka - Ceylon-is my home country. No, I'm not Buddhist.
Nor Hindu. Father's Catholic, Mother's Muslim. No, not Tamil
Tigers. They're Tamils from Nuwara Eliya, fabled home of
Ceylon's best mountain-grown tea."
to re-tag his brain, Gray tried to seek comfort in the
Fillmore flashing by, but the young man's close attention
woman with the breathing tube and the crumpled broadcaster got
true the driver repulsed my taking the bus transfer from his
hand, saying very loudly 'Don't touch me!' You probably didn't
hear the rest. Not at all about terrorism. He inserted the
transfer under his improvised rubber-band-ticket-dispenser on
the fare machine, and said, 'I'm very sick, don't want to
felt a flush blaze across his face.
the fire in his hand held in the unbreakable handshake
intensified, as Black sealed his grip with his left mitt, and
continued, "What hurts? Tickets he hands to everyone
else. To me, he announces: Don't touch me! Betcha, he was
wound up tight by that Examiner article about an
immigrant-imported, deadly, drug-resistant tuberculosis for
which our team at the City's General Hospital is fashioning an
to extract his hand from the vacuum-tight clasp, the old peace
warrior thought, Must keep talking. I can't seem to be worried
about marauding, mutating tropical bacteria. Not me, I
marched, was prepared to lay my life on the line, go to
managed: "No longer read dailies get news straight off the web."
young man reassured, "Not to worry. Not from
Mycobacterium tuberculosis. I guarantee as much as a
physician who has been tested can provide. HIV positive,
though. Not to worry. Completely under control. No, I didn't
get it from a Western sex tourist as many kids all along
coastal South and Southeast Asia have, if that's what your
good mind is thinking. Caught it as a teenager from a
parsimonious doctor reusing his needles. Got to go. Call me.
Love to talk about Sri Lanka's long terrorism nightmare and my
war against sex tourism and the Third World's reuse of
needles. Join our campaign. Love to have Peace Warriors. Viva
la sixties! Here's my card. Good talking to you. Shalom and
Salaam." Then joining his palms and slightly bowing his
head, he said, "Vanakkam."
" said Gray, finding the foreign words eluding his
22 Fillmore shook. Shuddered. Halted. The young man waved from
daily anxieties in retreat, Gray fell into a reverie in the
belly of the rocking 22, his lost lips discovering a faint
he dismounted from the municipal monster, his heart light and
full, he said to the bus driver, "Thank you for the ride.
Missed my stop," and to himself, I helped Black address
healing work was well worth the extra rides he'd have to take
to get back to base first, the 22 Fillmore to Market Street
to do some errands, then the F streetcar to Fifth and Market
to catch a 27 Bryant home.
the young man's smile and accent, Gray turned away, the smile
growing completely oblivious to the driver's laugh, his
parting shout . . .
there's much to do, Gray thought, as he re-entered a sedate
world, observed the wide sky above . . . I will surf new
worlds; classify Sri Lankan-Muslim-Catholic; embrace new
dreams. Maybe, drink a cup of mountain-grown Ceylon tea from
Nuwara Eliya picked by black Tamil hands.
with St. Christopher! Gray said silently to his recent,
white-and-brown-and-cream on the inside, white-and-red on the
outside capsule world in which he had spoken up. His smile
held steady as he recalled the timbre of his voice during
those moments he had silenced the gunshot words ricocheting in
his memories of childhood.
22 clanged and clattered, finally hurtled on.