Finding Poetry on the Bus

With my two-pump, no-whip mocha sloshing down my hand in foamy dribbles I ran for the 255 bus from Kirkland toward Seattle, trying to make the first Saturday session of the AWP writer’s conference. I fed two dollar bills into the flat slot, dropped my quarter down the neck of the short slot, and took my flimsy transfer ticket from a poker-faced driver. As I licked foam from my fist I chose a seat close to the front of the bus and plonked down ready to caffeinate.

by Cynthia Rosi

There’s a period of adjustment when a new person gets on the bus. Surreptitious glances as I got checked out, and checked out the people around me. To my left was a young man with funky dreads and white earbuds looped to an iPhone; his eyes flicked up and flicked back down. Nearby two women in walking sneakers and matching ash-blonde bobs sat together with capacious handbags on their laps, and they assessed me in a nano-second from the corners of their eyes. I clocked them too, noting that Walking Sneakers closest to me had glittery gold swoops and new black shoelaces.  Very Kirkland, I thought.

Across the aisle from me another young man wore a green down jacket and jeans, with a somber expression on his face. He had a broad, worried forehead, and high cheekbones, and interesting brown eyes. I shifted myself in the seat, and he shifted too. In this moment of unconscious mirroring I felt a ping of curiousity about him.

The bus dipped down into the Kirkland Park and Ride and people got on to fill the seats at the back. As the bus chugged up the hill toward the 520 Freeway entrance, the man in the green down jacket got out of his seat and pulled a bus schedule from the rack by the driver. He sat down, held the schedule in front of his face like a hymn book, and began to read aloud, in a clear, steady voice:

Upon boarding, pay your fare with exact change, tickets or a convenient regional ORCA card. ORCA cards and ticketbooks are sold in downtown Seattle at Metro customer service offices in King Street Center and the Westlake transit tunnel station.

I leaned forward and cocked my head to hear him better. When he finished I asked: “Are you a poet?”

Seattle was awash with writers from the AWP conference, and the day before I’d seen a Human MicroPoet (she had a cardboard sign) wandering through the main floor with a tall, black-clad man who fed her lines from an opened book.

“No,” said the schedule reader. “I read out loud because everyone thinks I’m a retard, and I want to show them I’m not a retard. I usually carry a book that says “NOT A RETARD” on the front, but I left it at home.”

“I thought you were a poet,” I said, trying to digest the idea that anyone would call this young man a retard, digesting the humiliation of that epithet. “I thought you were doing ‘found’ poetry. Like when you circle words at random in a bus schedule and make a poem from it.”

We stared at each other, like we were trying to figure out who moves next in chess, like we’d lost our places and might have to flip a coin.

“Do you have a pen?” he asked me.

I pulled a green highlighter from my bag and handed it over to him. NOT A RETARD, he wrote on the front of the bus schedule.

“Darn. It’s a highlighter. It’s going to smear,” he told me. He held the pamphlet back up in front of his face so I could see his sign as he read:

Night Rider Tip. You can help drivers spot you when it is dark or during times of reduced visibility by wearing light-colored clothing and by standing in the most visible area of the bus stop. We don’t want to miss you!

I listened to his clear tenor voice, the way he read the words with such ease and skill, and I wished for a book of poetry. I am such an idiot, I chastised myself. I’m going to a writer’s conference and I don’t have even a simple chapbook in my bag to read on the bus! At that moment, if someone had tried to sell me a book of the world’s most terrible poetry for $60, I would have paid it. Instead, I pulled out my phone. A poet followed me on Twitter a couple days ago. I waded through a stack of Tweets but I couldn’t find the poet’s name.

Suddenly, the man got up and crossed the aisle with his hand stuck out. “I’m Kenneth,” he said.

“I’m Cynthia,” I said, and shook his hand from my seat, my stubby pale fingers clasped in his long, fine brown fingers, and I could feel the resolve of his grip. I watched the beauty in the contrast of our skins as we shook hands in that moment of palm-to-palm communion.

I opened my dicey browser and hoped for a decent connection. Poetry, I anxiously typed in. Up came the site Poetry Out Loud and mercifully, it loaded. I pulled up a poem at random, and handed my phone across the aisle.

Kenneth read After Apple-Picking by Robert Frost, his level voice scanning the lines. He handed me back the phone, put the schedule with NOT A RETARD in green highlighter back in its rack, and sat down.

“Would you like to read another?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. The second poem was: After working sixty hours again for what reason by Bob Hicock. As Kenneth read the poem I could see his mind opening, layers of it unwinding as Bob’s words – which I had never heard before – rolled from Kenneth’s tongue in mellifluous syllables, stumbling only when the browser timed out, the screen went blank, and I had to press the “refresh” button.

I listened to Kenneth read Bob’s poem about meaningless work, about busy work, and mind-numbingly bad logic, and I thought about my friend Jay who’d told me that when he was homeless, men in trucks used to pick up homeless laborers and refuse to pay them at the end of a working day.

I wondered whether Kenneth had any experiences like that.

“You could be a poet,” I said to Kenneth.

“No,” he told me, and then he tilted his head to one side. “Do they get paid?”

“Yes, if you win a poetry slam, where everyone reads their poems and then votes on them. But you have to get to know the other poets, and work your way up like in other things. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t win the first time.”

By now the bus had come off I-5 and entered downtown Seattle. My stop was next. I handed Kenneth a certificate for $5 off at the University Book Store that I had planned to use that day. I’d written www.cynthiarosi.com on the back of the card. “You can contact me if you want through that. Buy yourself a book of poetry.”

“Thank you,” he said. “I will. But I don’t have Internet access.”

I gathered up my two-pump mocha cup, my bag of pens and notebooks and AWP panel schedules, and put my hand out to Kenneth.

“Good to meet you,” I said, shaking his hand.

“Good to meet you Cynthia,” he replied.

“Be a poet Kenneth,” I said, and released his hand, and got off the bus.

Cynthia Rosi’s The Light Catcher is available through her website The Light Catcher Novel. Her author website is at www.cynthiarosi.com.

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