My husband has a song called “20 Demons.” It’s a bluegrassy number about being chased by your past and by your personal issues. It’s pretty standard emotional fare in a very catchy tune. I say “pretty standard” not to diminish the impact of the song, but just to emphasize that it’s relatable.
This morning on the bus, we got a dissertation from a different set of demons.
It happens sometimes, people feel the need to talk to you on busses or trains or planes. If it’s a plane, most often it’s just a chatty, friendly person sitting next to you who does not have a hobby and wants to pass the time. Pete does not mind this—he’s a bit of a friendly chatter. I hate it. I want to be left alone. I don’t like planes, and I always have plenty to do, so I don’t need to “pass the time.” The idea of a “single serving friend” is not appealing to me. I suppose as a writer, I should seek out such experiences, but I am 36 years old, and I don’t feel like changing. Anyway, it’s not in my nature.
When you are on a bus and someone starts talking to you, it’s more likely that the person in question is a little more… interesting. Sometimes, it is clearly insanity. Sometimes, it’s more like loneliness gone horribly awry. Usually, it’s somewhere in between. This morning when we got onto the bus, I could tell that a gentleman at the back of the bus had been talking to the gentleman across from him as he was saying “All right… I’m done.” I thought about not going to the back to sit down, but I did not feel like standing. I weighed the options and decided to sit. As I suspected, the gentleman started talking to me almost right away. He was a big white guy (6’3”, 250 pounds, as he would tell us) with big meaty fingers, a little bit of a beard, short brown hair turning to a dishwatery grey color.
“That’s a girly bag,” he said, gesturing to the Hollie Hobbie giftbag I had just put on my lap.
“It’s my knitting.”
“I can see that. What are you knitting?”
“I am teaching myself to knit,” I said, “So I am making a scarf.”
He evidently thought that the green stocking cap perched on my head was an example of my knitting, as he gestured to it and said that it looked like I was doing a good job.
“My grandmother made that.”
“Grandma knew what she was doing.”
“Oh yeah, she was always knitting.”
“Well, back then, they had to. They made their stuff. Things were expensive. You couldn’t just walk down to Target and buy it.”
He had a deep, carrying, pleasant voice. I was leaning toward “lonely friendly talker” for this guy. He seemed nice enough. Not like the guy who had given a loud dissertation at the front of the bus that included his barbecue fetish (“I barbeque, get drunk, and howl like a wolf”), Christian dating experiences (The woman in question, though “some sort of reporter downtown,” nonetheless went into the bathroom and started smoking dope), and a recipe for crack (72% baking soda, 8% vitamin C, 3% ammonia. I don’t know what the other 17% is, but I suppose when you are on crack, you don’t have time for math). His tone was not angry or belligerent either, he was just oversharing. I am sure he was nice enough, too, in his way.
“My grandfather had the last outhouse in St. Paul.”
The things you can learn before 8:00 in the morning.
“He held onto it until I was 12 and then he had to get rid of it. Then he died when I was 14 and my world fell apart. See, I didn’t have a mom, and my dad worked a lot, so my grandfather was my buddy…. You ‘U’ people?” he asked, meaning “University of Minnesota. We said “yes.”
“Yeah, I got an engineering degree from the U, then I went overseas.”
“I can’t believe they are turning these into condos,” he said, pointing to buildings that were just being finished up in their conversion from warehouse to spendy “artist lofts.”
“$180 thousand for a condo. Can you believe that?”
“Yeah, you could pay 50 thousand for a house, back in the day.”
“My parents paid that for the house they are in now,” I observed, though they actually paid 60. Amending my statement would have been quibbling, I thought.
“I live in an apartment now. I guess it’s ok. Things are maintained, there’s a garbage unit on every floor. It’s a senior high rise over on Minnehaha. It’s quiet. Too quiet. But that’s ok.”
He was in the Marines, in Lebanon back in ’83, he said “when all that went down… Did a lot of killing that day. 267 good men lost their lives. We were somewhere else when it happened, and when we heard, all the Marines, we were all just ‘lock and load’ you know? I tell ya,” he lowered his voice and spoke out of the side of his mouth “if you were Lebanese, you were dying that day. Not to say… I mean, I love everyone, but that was our mindset, you know? But these guys over in Iraq, I mean, they don’t… We gotta get those guys outta there. They been killing each other for thousands of years. There’s been secular violence. We gotta get out and secure up our borders and settle down for the long haul or something. When I was in the service, we had Reagan, and he was military, I mean, he signed all sorts of stuff… Star Wars… it’s still up there, you know. We have it. It’s operational. The Chinese were all saying that they could blow up a satellite, and they blew up one of their own just to prove they could, but they would never blow up an American satellite. Some were saying that they hit one of ours, but no way. They would never do that because it would be all over. The things I could tell you. The things that are out there. People don’t know. I mean, people are dumb. The Feds, they’re all over this place. With the Iron Range—there were nukes on the Iron Range, we were number three on the list in the Cold War. The Feds came in, and they never left. If you think you seen guys in sunglasses and black suits, you did. The things I could tell you. The things people don’t know. You know there was a guy bought an old missile silo and turned it into his house?”
Pete said he had, indeed heard of this. I remained quiet, doubting. (It’s apparently true, and for more than one person. Just put missile, silo, and house into a search engine.
“My ma left when I was a kid. When my dad was on his second divorce, I went into the military. He and I don’t really talk. I think it’s because I am not working and I’m not ‘successful’ anymore. I used to work but now all these injuries have caught up me and whatever. Which stop is this? I need Harvard.”
We told him it was the next stop, but he got off the bus all the same.
“Gotta get my shoulder checked out. Thanks for listening.”
I turned to Pete. “Do you think it’s the personality that goes into the military, or what the military does to the personality?”
Pete said “I think it’s both. Because there are plenty of people who were in the military…”
“…who are not like that,” we said together.
It’s experience and genetics that make the demons. This is what I meant by saying that the demons in Pete’s song are pretty standard. I don’t have killing demons or exploding demons, or world crashing around me demons. I don’t have abandonment demons, or war demons, or even outhouse demons.
Paranoia, while necessarily all encompassing in its scope, is narrow in its conversational opportunities.
It’s more of a monologue.