A Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie story
“I married myself a quiet man. He told me so himself, many times. When he was drunk, he’d shout it to the world.”
Mary Canary said that. She says stuff like that just to make sure no one’s listening. And no one on the bus was, no one except me.
And Mary Canary is not her real name. It’s Maria Carnase, and I had to work on her quite a while to get that out of her. She’s not quite homeless, not quite penniless, not quite elderly and only mildly odorous. She’s bone thin and desiccated, and her flowered tent dress fit her like a tent. Her hair is not quite white and she wears it under a net. She had on cheap sneakers and compression hose bunched up at the ankles; seemingly, there was no flesh on her legs for the hose to compress. She has a bus pass and a mission. The bus pass is paid for by the taxpayers, but the mission is all her own.
“I like the sound of a pedal steel guitar. It makes me think of a cat curling up for an ear-scratching.”
A college girl with a black ponytail stared hard at her paperback book. An office geek whistled softly through his teeth and looked every which way except at Mary Canary.
“When it gets too quiet, I can barely hear. I can’t hear myself sigh for the roar of the silence.”
A very tall, very thin black man got up and walked to the front of the bus. He stood hanging from a pole as if he were about to get off, but he didn’t.
“If I look behind my eyes, I can see the naked face of god.”
A portly little man who had gained a pound or two since he’d bought his suit adjusted and adjusted and adjusted his necktie.
And Mary Canary said, “I think you’re noticing me.” She said that to me, of course.
“Yes, I am.”
“You’re not supposed to do that.”
I shook my head and smiled a gentle smile. “Everybody does. And you know it.”
She shook her head, too, but it was as if she were throwing something away. She said, “Would everyone who notices me please stand up?”
Ms. Ponytail snapped a page and read even harder. The office geek discovered something fascinating in his fingernails. The black man stooped over and peered out the window, as if he were trying to decide if this was his destination. His Portliness adjusted and adjusted and adjusted his necktie.
Mary Canary threw her palms out. “You see?”
I said: “I do.”
And I do, too. I’ve never left America, but I’m old enough to have lived in a different country. In the America I grew up in, “democracy” didn’t mean “one man, one vote”, it meant “all men are created equal”. When I idealize the America of my youth, I like to think of the Diamondback rattlesnake or the Saguaro cactus: Heavily armed but peaceable unless provoked.
But the actual symbol of that America gone by is the mongrel dog. The myth of the mongrel dog is the myth of American democracy: The mongrel has the good qualities of all of the pedigreed breeds, but none of the crippling disadvantages of generations of inbreeding.
Probably, the Americans of the nineteenth century prospered so well so quickly not because they were mongrels but because they were the first humans in history to be let off the leash, at least for a while. But the creed of democracy — one person is fully the equal of the next — persisted well into the twentieth century. Snobbery and social distancing were never fully banished, of course, but from the Revolutionary War right through to the Second World War, there was a more than countervailing spirit of a democracy we might call Jacksonian. If we weren’t equal in the quality of boots we wore, we were equal in the quality of mud we slogged through in our boots.
And that democracy is gone from America. Among the most perfectly Jacksonian class of people, the class to which Mary Canary and I belong, social distancing is the rule, rarely broken. Not by us, mind you. To us. This is so much a part of the air I breathe that I rarely think of it, except when someone like Mary Canary calls it to mind.
True fact: My fellow citizens have outfitted me with the most fundamentally perfect disguise. They refuse to see me, and therefore they don’t see me. Except they do. Except they don’t want to. So they don’t, damnit!, no matter how much effort that takes.
“I’m going to feed the pigeons today,” Mary Canary said. She held up a huge clear plastic bag filled with bread crumbs.
“Wow! Where’d you get all that bread?”
“Food Stamps,” she said solemnly.
I stifled a chuckle.
“I have an energy allowance from the state, so I can afford to toast it all. It takes a long time to toast this much bread.”
“And I have a bus pass to take me down to Tremont Park. That’s where the most pigeons are.”
Everyone on the bus was not listening to Mary Canary, not listening with all their might.
“Admit it,” she said. “It’s funny isn’t it?”
“Feeding the pigeons. No one wants pigeons to live. Why would anyone want filthy, disgusting pigeons to live? No one wants them to live, they just don’t want to see them die.”
I believe in holding people accountable for what they say and do. “Why is that funny?”
She held up the bag of bread crumbs again. “Who paid for this?” She cackled.
I said, “I see.”
“They don’t want me to live. They just don’t want to watch me die.” She cackled again, louder, and the portly man shivered.
Speaking loudly enough to carry up to the thin black man still hanging on up front, I said, “Everyone you treat with this scorn is somebody’s mother or somebody’s brother or somebody’s niece or somebody’s son. No one wants to believe it, but it could happen to you, too.”
And everyone except Mary Canary was not listening to me, not listening with all their might.
She said, “When I close my eyes, I can see all the way to the edge of the universe.”
“Oh, give ‘em a break,” I said.
And Mary Canary treated me with the perfect injustice that is the hallmark of the America that has finally distanced itself from democracy: She pretended to ignore me.