I’ve been receiving my dental care at a clinic at the Montefiore Hospital on the other side of the Bronx. I get there in one bus ride that begins just a block from my house and lets me off in front of the hospital. The same 10 Bus that brings me to and from the 4 Train. The care has been excellent. I got into trouble during the first three or four years after my breakdown. Frankly, I was too disorganized emotionally to show up for a dental appointment. Dr. Rubin was on the lookout for every aspect of my overall health, but about this there was just nothing he could do. The end result, all these years later, is that some extra visits to the dentist are required. For the most part, they have been a positive experience.
The aspect of all this that interests me was my return trip on the 10 Bus. It was November 2012. I boarded, as was my custom, at a stop on East Gun Hill Road down the block from the clinic. I didn’t have long to wait. These buses run pretty frequently during the afternoon. The number 10 arrives largely empty of passengers, so I assume it’s near the beginning of the route. I stepped up the two large steps into the bus and inserted my reduced fare metro card. I did not choose to acknowledge the bus driver. I’m confident the acknowledgment would not have been returned. From there, I walked to the middle of the bus and took a seat next to the window along the left-hand side. I was seated in a row of double seats, so there was an empty place beside me. I knew the bus would be filling up. It always did.
I was coming back home at around three o’clock, which meant that the local schools were just starting to let out. As the bus turned left on Jerome Avenue and headed toward Lehman College, it started to fill up. I figured I’d be sharing the double seat with a junior high school student with a backpack, which would have been fine with me. The bus pulled up to a stop below the elevated 6 Train. Across the street was an entrance to Van Cortlandt Park, which seems to spread out with enormous width and breadth across this borough. I was minding my own business, looking out the window, thinking relatively peaceful thoughts, as I recall, when a guy slid into the seat beside me. I was neither pleased nor displeased. It was bound to happen. As it turned out, I was in for much, much more.
I don’t remember exactly how the conversation started. I think it had to do with him apologizing for bumping into me as he reinserted his wallet into his rear left-hand pocket. I obligingly responded that it was no problem at all in a spirit of good cheer, and we were off. It turns out that in his own way, he was a professional well accustomed to striking up conversations with strangers. I, too, had experience in that line of work.
We did indeed have more than that in common. We had both been hospitalized for mental illness. Exactly how we worked our way into this sensitive area, I couldn’t say. I know he said something about spending some time “upstate.” In certain contexts, this refers to spending time in a state penitentiary. In this case, it did not. I picked up on what he meant when he referred to the institution as “Saint something.” Penitentiaries are not named after saints. There was also something in his manner that conveyed that he had been through the wringer.
I didn’t chime in right away. I let him keep talking, as he did in his slightly disjointed, slightly spaced-out kind of way. I learned that he had been a student at Bronx Science, one of the three best public schools in the city, for a couple of semesters and that he had left on account of “the stress.” Details were not provided. I further learned that he had been married and that he had a daughter. I learned that the marriage had ended when he was at his worst. He had earlier explained that the hospitalization had been voluntary, but things must have been bad. He was on his way to visit a cousin on a visit of goodwill, and he explained that he was inclined to strike up conversations with old people on buses. He made a passing reference to God. In many ways, he struck me as a thoughtful and goodhearted man.
The bus crossed Broadway, the dividing line between Warren and the rest of the Bronx, and started up the hill. At this point I felt inclined to pitch in. This was just the kind of fellow sufferer I would meet if I ever managed to get involved with a Twelve Step program for people with mental illness.
“I had some rough times, too,” I said, looking over at my seatmate.
He left it alone, out of the kind of respect born of experience.
The bus was passing below the Century apartment building, which had been around a while, but not as long as me. I remembered when it had been built. They had originally placed a series of signs along the inclined road below, introducing motorists to the rental office at strategically chosen intervals, an advertising brochure that unfolded gradually as the motor vehicle sped south. The signs had been defaced. One of them was gone.
“I was in a hospital, too,” two undercover spies connecting in the lower level of a parking lot in Eastern Europe during the heart of the Cold War.
“You look normal,” the guy said.
I did look normal. I was aware of that. I fully believed I owed that to the Steps, but there was no time to go into that. My seatmate had already missed his stop, but just by one. He got up to leave, and we parted on friendly terms, each of us off to negotiate, as best we could, through a world where open acknowledgment of our personal reality was not acceptable.