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The Renegade Idealist

By Larrybob (larrybob@io.com)


May 28, 2003


Talking to strangers

A couple of weeks ago I was on a bus at night in San Francisco -- a 1 California to be specific. There was an old guy in one of the front seats talking about baseball with another passenger a few seats away. The man had white hair and some white bristles. He was talking about the difference between then and now. Babe Ruth eating 25 hotdogs and drinking beer before the game. This guy grew up in an orphanage in Ohio and Babe, an orphanage veteran himself, came to visit and pitched a ball and a nun hit a home run and Babe offered to sign her. This was printed in the paper, a Scripps-Howard paper.

Discussion of the press ensued. The old guy said the job of the press is to report and it's for us to decide if it's true or false.

He made a quip -- "Let he who is without a stone commit the first sin." I said, "Nice twist."

The guy asked, who was the general who died in 1944 at Normandy? Turns out it was Theodore Roosevelt's son (though actually when I looked it up, I found the junior Roosevelt died of a heart attack in his tent a month after the famous battle). Roosevelt lost two sons in war -- another son had died in an air battle in World War I. The guy asked what other presidents lost sons in battle? Someone guessed Washington. (Washington had no biological children, though a stepson died of dysentery soon after enlisting. So far as I've found, no other presidential children died in the line of duty.)

The guy asked what's the fifth article of the Constitution. Someone asked Declaration of Independence or Constitution. Constitution. Nobody knew. It allows for amendment. "People say if you don't like it here, leave, but I say if you don't like it, change it." He pulled out a breast pocket copy of the constitution the size of a checkbook -- where do you get one of those? It was his stop and he got off.

After he left, I said to my friend I was traveling with, but loud enough to benefit others, why should we sit bored on the bus when we could talk to other people? We are all intelligent adults.

Maybe he sparked something in me, because I've been talking to strangers more since that night.

The other night I was walking down Castro Street and there was a punk panhandling outside the burger place by Ben and Jerry's asking for money for a veggie burger. I stopped and reached in my pocket, mentioning that I was a vegetarian also. I was asked if I'd be interested in buying this person a burger and staying around to eat together. I had nothing much better to do, so I said yes.

I was told, "I just got off the train -- hopped a boxcar." We ordered our burgers and took a booth to wait for them to be ready. My dining companion showed me pictures of the train-hopping journey -- pictures taken inside a boxcar of traveling companions including 12- and 14-year-old runaways who had jumped the train without sufficient blankets or food, but were fortunate to meet more experienced travelers. They had ridden at times in boxcars and at times in Canadian grain cars which have little alcoves in which people can huddle. At one point, the train went through an eight-mile tunnel. People have died from carbon monoxide poisoning in the tunnel, but if you know what to do -- breathe through a water-soaked cloth and stay warm in your sleeping bag -- you'll be fine.

Our burgers were finished and we went to the condiment bar, which allows you to load your burger with extras like onions, peppers, and so on. I hadn't eaten here before -- it was nice to find a new place to eat.

We started talking more, and I revealed my connections in the queer punk scene, and it became clear there were connections. Although my comrade had initially told me a female name, he revealed that he identified as a guy. In the Castro, he wasn't sure of acceptance. A lot of people had ignored him panhandling. He had read that there was a study showing gay people were less accepting of trans people than straight people.

He had lived in Philadelphia and worked in an anarchist bookstore I've visited. He silk-screened patches to sell. He had been riding the rails for five years. He'd been at a concert I'd been to at tire beach during the Dirtybird festival in the summer of 1996, seeing the band Behead the Prophet and slamdancing with their singer, who had declared the kid queen of the pit. We had also both been at queer punk band Limpwrist's last show in Minneapolis in December of 2002. Someone looking at us might not realize it, differentiated by his tattoos and my dockers, but we were kindred spirits.

Last night on a Haight Street bus headed downtown there were three punks, two guys and a girl. One of the guys had band patches for Crass sewn to his pants. They asked me what was the best way to get to the Castro. We'd already passed Divisadero. At that point, we might as well continue to Market Street so they could take the underground or a streetcar back there. They had just got to town -- last place they were at was Santa Cruz, and one was from Wisconsin, the other two from Arizona. I gave them some recommendations for what to do in town -- Tribe 8 was playing at the Eagle that night (they initially didn't know who I was talking about, but then one remembered the story of the band's ride on rapper Luke Skywalker's boat, when they freaked him out with their strap-ons.) I suggested a visit to Amoeba, though they were probably too broke to have much besides commodity fetish frustration from such a visit. I also mentioned Rainbow Grocery and a certain underground music venue. They got off the bus and we said our goodbyes and headed off in our own directions.

Later that night on the Haight bus home I started talking to what looked like a straight couple whom I overheard talking in a non-English language in hushed tones. They were visiting from Amsterdam. I volunteered that I hadn't been there but mentioned my other European visits. After I'd gotten them talking, two other people on the bus joined in who might not have otherwise had the conversation. A young woman mentioned that her best friend had recently married a guy from the Netherlands and was living in a small town there. She had visited there but hoped that they would move back to San Francisco. She herself wasn't interested in living in Holland. There was a young guy on the bus who started talking, not too articulately, about some music venue in Holland -- perhaps he hadn't been there himself, but knew of bands playing there. He suggested they visit Golden Gate Park. The couple were staying with the woman's sister near the park, actually. As I got off the bus, there was still a flame of conversation going which I'd sparked.

We all have information, and our knowledge can be useful to other people, and their information can be useful or interesting to us. Why sit on the bus alone in a crowd? Start talking to strangers.