On public transportation, people tend to cluster.
I don’t know why. My personal inclination is to find a seat as far away from any other passenger as possible and when I got on the bus the other day, I did precisely that — I walked past a half dozen people sitting in the first few rows and took a seat in the very back.
The bus continued along its route, and a few more people got on, each of them sitting in one of the many empty seats still available in front.
A couple of stops later, the bus picked up a single passenger — a heavyset guy, probably in his late twenties or early thirties — wearing what looked like work clothes: Navy-blue Dickie’s chinos and a long-sleeved navy blue work shirt. They were filthy, but it was hard to tell if the dirt was fresh or permanently ground in. Despite the work attire, he was carrying a basketball, which, much like his clothes, was covered with greasy handprints. As the bus pulled away and lurched into traffic, the guy ping-ponged down the aisle, bouncing against the shoulders of the other passengers, leaving a swath of irritation in his wake.
When he reached the final row, he pointed at the window seat next to me and said he wanted to sit there. I stood up and let him squeeze past. When I sat down again, I left an empty seat between us. “You can sit here,” he said, tapping at where I had been sitting.
I shrugged and told him, no worries, I’d be getting off soon. I saw no reason not to leave us each a little breathing room. In fact, I thought about moving to an entirely different row.
He seemed insulted that I didn’t want to sit next to him. He's going to have to get used to that.
“You got something sticking out of your ear,” he said.
“Yeah, it’s a hearing aid.”
“Hearing aid? What are you part deaf?”
He looked out the window briefly, then back at me.
“Are you French or something?”
At first, I thought the two things were related — that he thought I was French because I was wearing hearing aids — but I realized it was a total non sequitur and that he was just making conversation. It was funny either way, and I laughed.
“French?" I said. "No. Why did you think I was French?”
“I dunno, you look like a French dude. What are you from California or some shit?”
I went from being mildly amused to utterly insulted. “California?”
I laughed again, which seemed to embarrass him.
“I don’t know,” he said. “You’re not from New York.”
“Yeah, I am.”
He seemed unconvinced. Although I wasn’t born here, I’ve lived in New York long enough that I didn’t feel a need to elaborate. In any case, I’m not from France or California, or any other place he was likely to guess.
“What do you think of the Heros moving to New York?” he said.
At least I think that’s what he said. I really had no idea what he was talking about.
“The Heros,” he said. Or he might have said Zeros. Or maybe something else entirely.
I asked him to repeat himself one more time but still couldn’t figure out what he was saying. If it was a test of my New Yorker-ness, I failed. I pointed to my hearing aids and said in my defense, “My ears aren’t very good.”
He mumbled something. Intentionally mumbled from what I could tell.
He looked out the window again before turning to me and holding out his fist for a fist bump. I gave him one.
I don't know why he was inspired to share a fist bump, but I know why I was: Not only are my hearing aids allowing me to engage in random conversations again, they are actually provoking them.