this morning

          I had my headphones in as the 24 Divisadero wheeled from Castro and 16th to Duboce, so what I noticed first was not the sound coming from the back of the bus but the way that every head had turned toward it. I put away my iPod; the bus slowed to a halt.
          "She won't wake," yelled a voice, gravelly and uneven. "She won't wake up."
          In one of the rear-facing seats a woman had slumped toward the window. She wore a brown sweater and house slippers. I couldn't see her face--only her dark hair, which had been wound into a bun, and the small rectangle of cinnamon-colored skin underneath.
          "I said she won't wake up," repeated the speaker, a middle-aged black woman in a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt. She placed her hands on either side of the unconscious woman's head, rolling it back and forth. She let go; the head bounced and hung heavy, unsupported as a stuffed animal's.
          "Stop the bus!" someone shouted.
          "Don't touch her!" cried another.
          "Is she breathing?" asked a white woman with blonde hair and braces, standing.
         "There's a pulse," said the first woman, "but she won't wake."
         "I volunteer at a halfway house," the blonde woman said, clattering down the aisle in a pair of high heels. "I see this type of thing all the time. I'm calling an ambulance."
          The woman in the Mickey Mouse sweatshirt pressed her hands to the unconscious woman's cheeks.
          "Wake up," she ordered. "Come on, now. Wake up."
          The blonde woman wedged a cell phone between her ear and shoulder, squinting down at the two seated figures.
          "Yeah, I'd like an ambulance to Castro and Sixteenth. It's an emergency. A woman is unconscious--black, mid 40s--"
          "Fifty-two," said the first woman.
          "Fifty-two, heavy-set, unresponsive--"
          "Has anybody got water?"
          A scruffy-bearded man in a Patagonia sweatshirt offered an aluminum bottle. It read, in block capitals, GO GREEN!
          The first woman shook water out onto her palms, then slapped lightly at the motionless woman's cheeks.
          "Don't do that," said the lady with braces.
          "Shut up," said the other.
          "I'm on the phone with the ambulance. They said not to do that. You should really stop it."
         Water droplets rolled slowly down to the unconscious woman's chin, where they grouped and clung like icicles before puddling on her pants.
          "I told you don't do that," repeated the blonde woman. She covered her mouth and whispered into the phone. "Listen, I can't stop her. Maybe you should send the police over here, too."
          "You sure can't. And you can tell them that, too. Wake up, sister."
          Outside a knot of clouds had bruised purple. The rest of us sat hushed and reverent, staring at the trio in back like people in prayer.
          An ambulance, a fire engine and a cop car careened around the corner, shrieking violently. They skidded to a stop in an open trapezoid.
          "Everybody off the bus!" shouted the driver.
          We all filed out onto the street. The blonde woman hung up her cell phone and left the bus next, picking her way carefully down the ridged stairs. The paramedics jumped out of assorted front and back doors, then ran up the steps with duffel bags full of resuscitation equipment. Only the two black women remained, their turned backs silhouetted against the window.
          We stood on the sidewalk, scattered like stars. I tried, unsuccessfully, not to watch the paramedics fit an oxygen mask's elastic band around the soft skin of the woman's neck.
          Beside me an elderly lady snorted. She wore a fur coat and held a small clasped purse.
          "When I was a girl," she said, "we were taught to ignore the homeless. If you saw someone passed out on the street, you were told to kick them in the boot. Just kick them to see if they'd stir."
          Her voice carried loud through the silence. A white man with a briefcase and large, rabbity teeth walked up to the bus and pressed his nose against the window. Inside the slumped woman's head bobbed unsteadily to and fro, then fluttered, bird-like, to an upright position.
          "She's awake," someone called.
          From the sidewalk the scene was a pantomine. A swarm of paramedic hands grabbed hold of her shoulders, her arms. The woman in the Mickey Mouse sweatshirt was pushed out of the aisle as they pulled the patient to her feet, then walked her to the door.
          We all watched as she came out, controlled like a marionette by the arms of others. I don't remember the faces of the paramedics, or the sounds made by the passengers outside, or the way the woman moved. Only this: her eyes, stunned open, the whites round as twin moons. She didn't blink once. The lids seemed peeled back and pinned, like staked butterfly wings.
          She stared at us all with those eyes, even as they carried her up into the back of the ambulance. The driver reopened the doors of the bus. We filed back in, tentatively at first, and sat down in the same seats we had before. Everyone carefully avoided the back seat by the window. The blonde woman with braces sat down next to the old lady in the fur coat, chatting easily. The woman in the Mickey Mouse sweatshirt had not left the bus. She walked back and forth through the aisle, then sat down next to the driver, as we all continued on to Duboce.


Derrick said...

that was the most intense short story about a bus ride ever.

Evander said...

This is a great post.

And it all happened because you took off your ipod and stepped out of your iworld (where the focus is comfort, self, entertainment and the dismissal of everything else).

All it took to do it was someone nearly dying.