My first clue that the man sitting next to me on the Greyhound bus might not be just another law-abiding citizen was when he turned to me and asked, “You want two Xanies?”
The second was when he turned his back to me, and I saw the letters “D.O.C.” in bold print on the back of his shirt.
On a seven-hour trip from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, I had plenty of time to spend with my companion.
He was curious about phones.
“Let’s say I buy an iPhone on the street,” he said. “Could I use it if I have a SIM card?”
I had no idea but tried to answer him anyway. He asked about monthly plans, pre-paid plans, nights and weekends, and so on.
When I pulled a pair of headphones from my backpack, he really hit his stride. He asked me if I liked this or that song, and if I didn’t recognize the title, he would sing it. He covered everything from Toto to the Goo Goo Dolls.
“I love music, man,” he confessed.
Later, after holding a similar conversation with two African-American passengers across the aisle, he turned to me and said, “See, I can talk to them about black people music, and then come back to you with white people music.”
I didn’t bother to point out that, while I wasn’t a huge fan of the Goo Goo Dolls, he, a black man, had just told me he loved hearing its song “Give a Little Bit” on the radio during his two-year stint in jail. He even knew Supertramp had sung the original, which was news to me.
As he asked me about music, I asked him about jail.
He told me about guards who provoked him on his last day to try to get him to lash out so they could write him up and keep him longer.
He described a meal he said was great, but I wasn’t exactly convinced.
“Everyone who had money, we would buy bacon, cheese and those Oodles of Noodles containers. Cut up the bacon, cut up the cheese and cut up the noodles, and put it into a bag. Then, there were these water fountains that had 190-degree water. It would burn anything. You would cook it with that water,” he said.
My companion was a paradox, but maybe it was just how his life had shaped him.
He opted out of buying Burger King at a rest stop when he saw there was no dollar menu but repeatedly offered the bag of gum he bought to anyone in range, whether they had previously accepted or not. I ended up taking half a dozen pieces. He was polite, apologizing for his language.
He seemed to care about those around him. Every time the infant girl in the next seat dropped the paper she was holding, he picked it up for her. Every so often, after we had both been sitting in silence, chewing gum, he would turn to me.
“You OK, Eli?” he would ask. Early on, he gave me the nickname “Eli Manning” and stuck with it.
I never asked him what crimes he had been in jail for. He was in three times, once for five years.
Later, I looked up court records, which showed he had been convicted of breaking into a car and, another time, a home.
I’m not condoning what he was convicted for, and if it were my car, I probably would have felt less amiable during the trip. But college students so rarely get to see the other side, where people made all the wrong choices somewhere along the way, and now live out their lives one Greyhound bus ride at a time.
Stephen Zook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .