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Giving thanks for my bus stop characters

Gary Caruso | Friday, November 19, 2010

Typically, the third week of November uneventfully passes as Americans adjust to the dark days inherent to standard time zones and prepare for Thanksgiving gatherings or the predawn chaos of Black Friday’s Christmas shopping season kickoff. We contemplate our reasons for giving thanks, but oftentimes mull through our daily routines without much of a reflection on our personal blessings until Thanksgiving Day abruptly arrives. In days long past, many at Notre Dame anticipated the match-up with those evil Trojans of Southern California or the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys traditional Thursday gridiron clashes. Giving thanks had its place among our other events and festivities.

This past week I was dragged into Thanksgiving reflections well before my usual routine with an unusually weird series of activities and characters at my local bus stop. Just yesterday, I had no bus service when several blocks surrounding my glass shelter at the corner of Rhode Island Avenue and 14th Street were closed to investigate a suspicious package. It dawned on me during my walk to the subway exactly how starkly revealing the characters at Metro Bus Stop 1393 have been by prematurely shaking me to recognize the good works around me.

While it rained one morning early this week, commuters stood under umbrellas exiled outside the bus shelter where a homeless man camped with his many plastic bags and strummed an imaginary guitar. He repeatedly sang, “Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-da, da-da, da-da.” The impromptu concert was too much for commuters to dare huddle with him in the glass enclosure, except for one — a federal employee commuter from a law enforcement agency as evidenced by the days he displays his badge on his lapel.

The officer walked into the bus shelter, closed his umbrella and while standing close to the homeless man said, “Sounds like Pink Floyd to me.” The homeless man shook his head in disagreement without interrupting his repetitious arrangement. Finally, the shelter musician announced that he was playing cords that could be played with many types of songs including jazz arrangements, blues or hip-hop. The conversation ended when the bus arrived, but it was the event that sparked me to reflect on the officer’s other engagements with homeless persons at stop 1393.

On two other occasions, I observed him walk up to a homeless person slouched over on the shelter seat with a weary world’s belongings in tow. Each time he held out a $5 bill while saying, “Looks like you could use a cup of coffee.” Both times the homeless person just stared downward without a response. He repeated by holding the money lower in their lines of sight. Both grabbed the money and dragged their belongings off toward the Seven-Eleven. One said nothing, but the other sheepishly replied, “Thank you.”

Last spring, my fellow commuter encountered a homeless woman chatting into the air about going to North Carolina and finding a new home. He held out another $5 bill and said, “Why don’t you get some warm soup before your trip?” She chatted that sometimes she smokes, but she promised not to buy cigarettes this time in favor of warm soup. Each morning for weeks after that initial North Carolina discussion, the bus shelter was her home base.

Later that month she sported large sun glasses and a big floppy hat. The officer greeted her by noting, “You look like Greta Garbo today.” She replied, “You look like Clark Gable.” When he asked her why she wore sunglasses on an overcast morning, she removed them to reveal a swollen black and blue bruised face. “I ate something I’m allergic to,” she explained. “Do you think I can get some soup this morning?” she asked.

Mysteriously, she disappeared from the neighborhood throughout the summer only to reappear again at our bus stop last week. This time, her face was deeply tanned and leathery wrinkled. I nearly did not recognize her, but our resident officer commuter greeted her with a barrage of questions and a $10 bill outstretched for her. I could see that he was thankful for her safe reemergence, and frankly, so was I.

As official Thanksgiving Day nears next week when families gather to stuff themselves, I am more aware of my blessings this year. I am thankful for the successes hard work at Notre Dame has afforded me. I am also thankful for family, friends and health. But I am especially thankful for witnessing the many encounters of my fellow commuter who engages everyone each morning, regardless of economic status or enslavement to smart phones. He has taught me how to better treat others. And this year, I better understand the genius behind, “Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-da, da-da, da-da.”

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ‘73, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at GaryJCaruso@alumni.nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.