As a teenager, I used to catch the bus home from university every day. If I was lucky, I could catch an early bus, then a second one and be dropped almost neatly at my front door. If class ran late, I’d have to wait around for the last bus that went into my neighbourhood and then hope that my dad would realise I wasn’t home, and be waiting for me when I stepped off the bus.
If I tell you that I’m highly neurotic about time, you can predict that, pretty often, I was keen to get home on the early bus, so I was regularly at that dirty little bus stop a little more than I should’ve been (with apologies to my lecturers. I’m sure your classes were great).
It was during this time that I started to notice what my mom would call “nice face disease”. Random people would walk up to me and start talking to me. I never once had a bad incident with this, as I could generally sniff out someone who wished to do me harm from five paces away, and it led to interesting conversations while I waited for either the early or the late bus(if it was the late bus I was waiting for, you can bet your bottom Yen that the number of crazy people around increased exponentially. It’s science. I actively calculated this to highlight how important it was for me to get on the early bus once). My mother and father had the Nice Face too, and I know both my siblings have it too. They’ll have a barrel of these stories to share too, if I asked them. I remember my mom saying it’s because “we have open faces, that invite the world in” once.
The bus stop wasn’t the safest place in the city, but it was what I had to work with, if I wanted to get home. I tried to apply the don’t talk to strangers rule, but it didn’t always work out that way.
There were quite a few of these Nice Face situations, but two people who will forever stick in my mind are Flower Man and Bag Woman. I have no idea what their names were, and I hope they can forgive me for calling them this. I spotted Flower Man walking towards me, dressed in his dark suit, and green tie. He walked as though he’d not been off his feet since last year, and yet had a smile that made me think of the colour yellow as he ambled along. Flower Man walked up to me, smiled, sat down next to me and gave me a purple flower. While my mind raced thinking that it might be laced with something, he said:
“So many people walk up to young girls and tell them to smile. I’m telling you that you don’t have to, but that this flower is for you. You look like you could use one.”
Then he got up, walked away and I never saw him again.
Bag Woman sat down next to me a few weeks later, opened her bag, tapped me on the shoulder and said:
“I have everything in here that I will ever need. Except for my husband. He’s dead. I haven’t emptied my bag since he died because I can still smell our house a little bit when I open it. The house is gone, he’s gone and I have nothing to do except go to work and catch this bus.”
I hugged her, held her hand and together we picked through the contents of her bag, and she showed me bits of paper (the last time they ordered KFC)and the lipstick she was wearing on the day she got the phone call. He’d died three years ago, but she clung on to those things like they were gold. They were her gold and all she needed was someone to acknowledge her treasures. I missed the early bus that day, and waited with her for hers to come. I looked out for her every single day thereafter, and never saw her again.
I’m long past the days of catching buses and avoiding boring lectures now(oops, sorry, I mean, you were great! I learnt so much!) but “You Have A Nice Face” has stuck with me. Just yesterday, I had an inspiring conversation with my cashier around her ideas on how to change the world. I told her to write them down, so we could write a business case for them, because they sounded really cool. I never expected she’d email me this evening, but there it is, sitting in my inbox.
I often wonder what happened to Bag Woman and Flower Man. Sometimes, if I doubt myself too loudly, I start to think they were figments of my imagination, dreamed up to save my mind from wasting away while I waited for the bus home. But if I look into my scrapbooks from 1999 and see the pressed flower, I’m reminded that these people were not imagined. They were as real as the ideas contained in the email just sent to me, and the young woman who is determined to be far more than a cashier in her life.
If you’re reading, Flower Man and Bag Woman, and the host of characters who once peppered my days at that smelly and dreary bus stop, I want you to know that I remember you; that your treasures are real and your life is worth more than those grey afternoons that couldn’t go fast enough.