The People We Remember When We Travel
Monday, December 26, 2011
Last night I sat awake on the red-eye Bismarck, North Dakota-bound bus from Minneapolis and watched as snow flakes collided playfully with the bus’s glass front. Behind me passengers shuffled in search of that ethereal position that brings escape from an arduous bus ride and entrance to dreams.
To me, the bus was escape enough. I love the limbo of planes, buses, cars and trains. It’s here that I can reflect on where I’m coming from and where I’m going to, both in terms of geography and in deeper, philosophical terms regarding the metaphysical roads we embark upon (puff, puff, pass).
To ease the bordem I took out my camera and scrolled through the past two weeks. Since leaving Guatemala I had had stopped off in D,C., New York City and Minneapolis. Some of the trip was spent on human rights work and promotion of my poetry book, but most was spent on networking, seeing friends and performing some new songs I’d cooked up over the past year for U.S. audiences.
I stopped at a photo of a woman whose name I didn’t know. My last night in New York ended up being a late one — made later by taking the wrong train (classic me). Past 5 a.m., I waited with a few dozen others. All of us had expressions of the late night — many coming down off different highs and looking exhausted at still being awake. A few out-of-place people were beginning, not ending, their day.
One woman saw me smiling at her and waved me over to her. She asked me for change. I reached my hand in my pocket and gave her an apologetic look. “Sorry,” I responded.
“Come on!” she said undaunted, “I’m homeless, you gotta have some change for me.”
“No, I’m sorry,” I said, “I just have credit cards.”
“Well, I’ll take one of those,” she said laughing.
The she noticed a camera dangling from my neck, “Well, take my picture at least then.”
I raised the camera to my eyes but she held out a halting hand. “What a minute,” she said. Carefully she ran her hands through her hair, adjusting stray strands. She pulled out a scarf and wrapped it around her neck before resting her chin gently in the palm of her hands. “Okay, now I’m ready.”
I took a few photos and was turning the LCD monitor towards her when she stopped me again. “I don’t need to see that,” she demurred, “that photo’s for you. It’s your Christmas present.”
This caught me off guard. Partly because I’ve come to see viewing the photos instantly after hitting the shutter button part of the photo taking process. Remember this photo? We took it two seconds ago. Look how young we look! Can you believe that it’s really been two seconds since this? Things used to be so great back then!
While I thought I was giving her something when she asked me to take her photo, what was actually occurring was that she was giving me something, the only thing she knew to give me. Though she seemed happy that I had her photo, I felt like I needed to give her something.
I had seen her smoking earlier on the subway (which according to Matt Stabile circa 2010 is a huge no-no), and remembered I had a few Marlboro packs in my satchel (read: man-purse). I don’t smoke, but when I’m in the States, I tend to come armed with them. When you live in a country where cigarettes run you $2 a pack and travel to a city where they cost $12, it just makes good sense.
I handed her a pack and a spark of happiness flashed in her eyes. “Now these I can use!” With that my train came and she was reduced to a photo and an enjoyable memory.
Now a week removed from her on a late-night bus, I looked into her beautiful eyes on my camera’s LCD screen and thought not just of her, but of the many people I’d met along the way who would fall into a similiar category.
There was Santiago, the beggar in Mexico who told me he was smiling because “life was so beautiful.” There was Angel, the Chilean prostitute who’d offered me her services for $6, which I had declined but still spent the afternoon talking with her about her life. Several months ago it was Julian, a lifelong drifter from Nicaragua who had shared a Coke with me outside a homeless shelter and told me of his last 20 years of shiftless travels.
There was the time in Valparaíso when my friend Jordan “busted” me on a secret indulgent. He had been walking home from the bars and stumbled upon me laughing in a circle of bums passing around a bottle clothed in a paper bag. (The next day on the phone he asked me awkwardly, “Umm, was that you I saw last night drinking with the bums . . . ?”
Several years ago I wrote that I seem to attract these sorts, but upon further reflection, I probably had that wrong. It’s they who attract me, and cause me to pause, wanting to know their stories. They spark an interest in me the same way reading Kerouac or the other Beat poets does from me.
I could try to diagnose what honey they hold for me, and would likely only change it a few years down the road. But part of what draws me into conversations with them is that some primal part of me realizes how close they are to life’s jugular. In being cast out, willingly or unwillingly, of what most call society, they are also free from it, for better, and more often, for worse. Though I wouldn’t trade places with them, they have access to experiences I will never have (hopefully).
I hesitate to write on this subject, because it requires walking fine lines. It’s common for the privileged to romanticize the unprivileged — to see poverty as freedom; destitution as disenthrallment. These aren’t spectator sports, these are sad situations that arise from unfortunate circumstances.
So beyond attaching values to any of the unprivileged, drifting souls I’ve met along the road, I do know for sure that they are the ones who will be unlikely to be forgotten. In some strange way, I treasure my interactions with them as gifts, like the photo I have that I’ll be printing and framing for me as the woman who gave it to me would have wanted.
About the Author
Luke Maguire Armstrong lives in Guatemala directing the humanitarian aid organization, Nuestros Ahijados. He is the curator of the high energy humor site, Rabble Rouse The World. His book of poetry, iPoems for the Dolphins to Click Home About (available for sale on Amazon.com) is especially enjoyed by people who “don’t read poetry.” (@lukespartacus)