Whalechaser's Musings

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Monday, April 6, 2009

A Mental Health Day

It was a day trip. Destination: Atlantic City. Purpose: A little harmless fun, perhaps a special lunch and pick up a “mystery gift” offered by one of the casinos I visit occasionally. I like these little getaways because door to door it is roughly twelve hours. I don’t have to drive, it is safe and if all else fails I can enjoy a stroll on the boardwalk and savor the ocean views.

I never travel if the weather isn’t perfect. When things go well I come back with more than I started with. Not so well means: it’s the cost of having fun.

By now, my umpteenth trip, it was pretty routine. Arrive ten minutes before the bus comes, park the car, get the ticket and put the parking pass on the dashboard, then join the others waiting in a disorganized line. It is disorganized because no matter if I am there first or last, I always end up at the end of the line. It must show. I don’t go often enough to know the process.

At this early point of the route there are always plenty of empty seats and I, as a matter of course, grab a window seat on the drivers side three or four rows in. I do this so later if the bus is crowded I will not have to get up to let someone sit next to me. It is an old trick I learned from my commuting days. For the moment I use the empty seat for my backpack of stuff.

I use the three hours or so to daydream, sometimes it is about my job, but mostly it is about retirement, vacation fantasies or if I could do anything, I’d… Sometimes I have a seatmate. It’s only happened three times before. Always women. Twice they were pleasant companions, once stony silence. You never know what you’ll get. Today was such a day.

At the last stop before the express part of the trip, 23 people boarded. I knew I would not be traveling alone. Several people pass my mid-bus location looking for a single seat, some are successful, but only for a short while. I was surprised when a heavy-set man indicated he would take the seat next to me. There were plenty of seats available (with men in the adjacent seat) that would have been more appropriate. (Haven’t you read the unwritten bus riders etiquette book?) Men sit next to men; women sit next to women, whenever possible. Then, and only then, do you sit with the opposite sex.

He is apparently a regular on this run…already greeted three people before he got to me and started a conversation with the lady across the aisle and back one row. His friend, a guy, takes a seat a few rows up, closer to the exit.

I now have my backpack on my lap, since the seat next to me is no longer ”mine”. He is telling me that he will not scrunch me, while he lifts the armrest on the aisle-side. I guess he needs lots of space, he is quite heavy. Not scrunching me is a good thing though and I am happy for this courtesy.

He’s telling the lady behind me and across the aisle that he is divorced and his girlfriend has passed away. Phew! I thought I had troubles.
It didn’t take long for him to start talking to me. He complained that his sister had kept him on the phone for almost two hours the night before. I mentally noted to keep any comments short as I nodded at him.

The rest of the trip was spent listening to his work history, his divorce, his girlfriends and what casinos are his favorites and why. He also went on at length about the “procedure” he had to have on Thursday. The fear of a cancer diagnosis was apparent. He interspersed the conversation with tidbits about his other illnesses: diabetes, high blood pressure and circulatory problems. He made it a point to tell me his age. Sixty-two. He wanted to know if I was somewhere near that number. Close I said, but several years younger. He nestled into the seat a little as if all was right with the world and rambled on. I shouldn’t have concerned myself about taking the floor in the conversation, there was little space for me there either.

After an hour or so he opened a bag containing a long Italian roll, sliced but not buttered. He offered me some. Thanking him, I said the omelet I had for breakfast was very satisfying. He seemed surprised that a single person would cook a meal. It was about this time that I noticed how really heavy this fellow was. Cheeks, neck and body became one. There was no defining line between one and the other. I could not tell how much of him was in the aisle, but some was for sure.

He said, as a matter of fact, you learn something from everyone you talk to. In a sense I suppose this is true, if you pay attention. Sensing I was gong to have no peace for my daydreaming, I decided a nap was the best escape. Closed my eyes, took a deep breath and hoped for quiet. The conversation continued without eye contact. He talked all the way. It was incredible, yet as we got off the bus he gave me his tickets for a drawing at one of the casinos and made sure as he got up to let me out in front of him. Courtesy unbounded.

He went his way. I was glad to wander off alone into the caverns of slot machines, tables and craps. Most people have a kind of ritual that they perform when the take a day trip to Atlantic City. Mine varies very little, the timing of my constitutional walk on the boardwalk depends on my success in the first hour. All else remains pretty much the same. Some playing, then a walk, lunch at Bill’s (the best gyros on the boardwalk, possibly in New Jersey) then a return walk, some more play, maybe some shopping or picking up a mystery gift and home again.

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