You should notice her right away. It’s 80 degrees, it’s humid for this time of year, everyone is shifting their weight, looking for a bit of shade, a little breeze, and it’s early so the day will be warmer in no time. But she’s wearing a quilted winter coat. It’s got long sleeves with close knitted cuffs, buttoned up to her chin, the hood lying flat against her back. Most of these people just aren't paying any attention to her. They are waiting for a bus that should have come long ago and nobody's interested in this woman.
And a hat. She's wearing a hat and it’s dark, knitted with some kind of fuzzy yarn like mohair or angora, and it covers her hair like a snood. A heavy, out of season signal that there is something wrong, something not right. How could she have thought today was the day for this suffocating hat?
She smiles at the man standing next to her, the one with the pork pie hat. She's trying to get his attention. That’s how she does it. A deliberate smile goes out, a reflex kind of smile or a nod goes back, and she’s hooked you. She reels you in, making you think it’s all about the small talk of waiting for the bus here on this corner.
“Looks like rain." She starts. "Should have brought my umbrella.”
“I always forget mine." He smiles. "Should just leave it in my bag, right?”
Smiling, congenial. Now they’re acquaintances, closest friends. They share something, have something in common, have enough of a conversation going. She can keep talking long enough to look like she belongs. But she doesn’t belong. These people are going places, but she’s not going anywhere really.
He steps aside as the bus pulls up to the stop, gesturing to let her on the bus just ahead of him.
"Ladies first," he tells her as she climbs in, now standing just next to the fare box. He notices the fuzzy hat.
“Driver?” she asks. “Does this bus stop at Penn Station?”
“Yes, ma'am, it does.”
“Can you give me an idea of how long it will take to get there?” she asks.
“Probably close to 45 minutes,” he responds, not looking up now, but watching the steady stream of passengers board and pay their fares.
There are mothers taking children to school, or daycare, then they will go on to work. Some high school girls are next, comparing photos on their phones, giggling about the boys, making plans. Everyone is clearly grateful for the air conditioning and the quick flush of cold air on their faces and the back of their necks.
“Looks like rain, right, driver?” She has slowly, imperceptibly, edged around to the side of the fare box, her body now closer to the empty front seats just behind him.
“Yes, ma’am, I guess it does.”
Then she slips right by him and he doesn't notice she never paid up. She has just evaporated into the chill, disappeared. She looks right at the man from the street corner, but he has already buried his face in his book, not to speak with her again. The jig is up. He's on to her. He knows and she can't use him anymore.
The bus pulls away from the curb as she makes her way to the very last seat in the back, smiling at every rider in turn. There’s just one new man sitting there, nearest the window, holding a neatly folded up free newspaper. He looks relieved to be in the cool air of this bus. To her, he’s fresh meat.
She takes the seat directly opposite him.
“Looks like rain, right?”