Tuesday, March 8, 2011

AIDS. What's That All About?

Dressed in grey Sta-Prest pants and an old cowboy button-up, he explained the rules for catching the bus on the way back: “If you want to get back, listen up. Someone pointed out to me that due to construction, I may not be able to pick up some of you on the way back from Reno. That’s where I’m returning from. If that’s the case, Amtrak will send out a van or another bus.” He paused, observing the 30 or so of us who fit the description of long distance bus riders. “Let me ask you a question. How many buses do you think Amtrak owns?” Scanning the crowd, we collectively shuffled our feet and looked away from his gaze. I wanted to say something – maybe 30,000, but I was out of my element.

Undeterred from the lack of participation, he continued: “Zero! That’s right, zero buses. Pretty smart, eh?”

This got a reaction. The people with traveling companions conferred with each other, speculating on the validity of his statement. Traveling alone, I pondered the question in my head. Knowing my lack of logic, I quickly dismissed the question, preferring to bathe in the circumstance. I was at an Amtrak bus station in Sacramento at 9:50 am on a Tuesday morning and the bus driver was asking us question about Amtrak’s business practices. This was worth the trip alone.

The bus driver caught my eye and gazed upon my smirk. I tend to smile largely, when I’m nervous and excited. Not wanting to be the dick that gives a smart-ass remark, I shook him off, quickly moving my head back and forth. He moved on.

Exhausting any chance of an answer, he continued: “Yep, Amtrak doesn’t own a single bus. They contract to other bus and transportation companies, so the vehicles coming to get you many not say Amtrak on the side. If you’re waiting for the bus to return, and a bus, van, taxi, whatever pulls up next you, tap on their window and ask, ‘Are you Amtrak?’ You’re welcome.” And with “you’re welcome,” he walked off, like he was on stage. All of us weren’t sure what do. I wanted to clap.

He appeared a few minutes later as a bus pulled into a large bay. This was our bus. He murmured, “Stockton bus. We’re always waiting on the Stockton bus.” A few regulars chuckled and the rest of us nodded, acknowledging the reference. For the last 2 years, Stockton was voted the most miserable city in the U.S., taking over cultural hot spots like Fresno and Bakersfield as the shittiest city and butt of all jokes.

This was the first stop on my way to Roseville, California, to pick up a vehicle at a car dealership. The plan was rather complex: drive to Emeryville and take the 7 am Amtrak to Sacramento. From there, catch a bus to Roseville and then call a cab to take me to the car dealership. Pay for the vehicle with a $40,000 dollar check and drive the new vehicle to a parking lot in San Francisco. Take the BART Richmond line to Ashby and walk the mile or so back to my car in Emeryville. I figured this would take 10 hours. All this could’ve been avoided if I just enlisted a co-worker to drive with me to Sacramento, but the thought of awkward discourse and great lulls in conversation for the 2 ½ hour drive lead me to choose this path, the 10 hour path. It was well worth it.

Roseville was 30 minutes from the bus station, with one stop in Citrus Heights. Exiting the freeway, I paid close attention to the street names. This knowledge would come in handy if I had to walk to the dealership. Given that it’s not easy to get a cab in San Francisco, I assumed it would be twice as hard in Roseville. And there was always the good possibility that cab service didn’t exist.

The bus station looked like a drive-thru coffee shop, the ones you see in the middle of parking lots. Inside there was about 10 seats pushed against the wall, one occupied by a young, fat Goth kid, incessantly looking at his laptop while listening to indie metal on his headphones. I got the feeling that he was only there for the free Wi-Fi and air-condition. My presence annoyed him.

On the wall was a phone with a number for a cab company. I picked it up and dialed. After a few rings, a grumpy, sleeping sounding man answered, “Hello?” I hate it when you call a business and they answer the phone like this.

“Is this the cab company?” I had already forgotten the name of the company and i was pissed about how he answered.

“Yeah.” That was it. I should’ve known better. I was a cabbie when I was 25 and I was well aware of the gruff nature of answering the phone.

“I’m at the bus station. Do you offer cab service to this area.?" Still trying to polite, I hoped to salvage the call. Getting up at 6 am had left me tired and cranky and I was in no mood to walk an unspecified distance in the valley sun.

“About a half hour” and he hung up. Dick!

I walked outside, sat on a bench, observed the small parking lot and then came back in and cancelled the cab. It wasn’t coming, it never was.

I pulled my hat out of my bag and headed east. According to the map, it was about a mile on one road and then another mile on a second road. Hopefully it wasn’t much longer than 2 miles. I already had to go to the bathroom and peeing on the side of the road was out of the question.

With the dealership in site, I took off my hat and quaffed my hair, blindly pushing the patchy follicles upward. I was aware what a sweaty hat would do to my balding crown and I wanted to be somewhat presentable. Presentable was new-ish sneakers and a laundered stripe shirt.

The irony of taking a train, bus and then walking 2 miles to pick up a $40,000 dollar vehicle was not lost on me. Therefore, I snuck onto the lot, acting like somebody dropped me off. Nobody noticed.

Larry the salesman met me in the lobby, looking like a non-bloated Luke Wilson. He appeared to be a nice guy. We sat next to a floor-to-ceiling aquarium and he went over the process of purchasing the vehicle. First I would meet with their finance guy, explaining that this might take a while because he was busy, and then he would go over the vehicle with me. Pretty simple.

Feeling a little uncomfortable at the prospect of making small talk with Larry as we waited for the finance guy, I said, “You don’t have to sit here with me. Just tell the finance guy to come get me when he’s ready.” He had no problem with this. He left to pull around the vehicle and get it ready.

Darin didn’t look like a finance guy. With a tightly trimmed goatee and taught skin, he gave off the impression of ex-military – hard living and hung-over. He probably owned as many tank tops as t-shirts and spent his weekends on the Delta, captaining a speedboat.

I took a seat and he laid out his resume: car salesman from the age of 19, worked at various dealerships and eventually moved into the finance side of car sales. Made sense to me.

Like a good salesperson, he asked about me and where i worked. We had lots of common ground: we were the same age, having grown up in the same high school district, and frequented some of the same places, as kids. When I told him about my do-gooder job he became noticeably distant. He looked down. Slowly raising his head, he looked me in the eye, as if he was going to confess.

“Whoa, AIDS. What’s that all about?” It wasn’t what I expected. As ignorant as the statement sounded, I could tell AIDS had affected his life in some way. He sat silently, running through his past: “You know, it was the 80s. You know, right?” looking at me for confirmation. No I don’t know, dude. I was punk as shit in the 80s. I shook my head yes.

“We drank and got high all the time. It was the 80s. I had unprotected sex with lots of women. It was before AIDS. We didn’t know. We didn’t know. It was the 80s.” He had a bad case of survivor’s guilt. I’m not sure what he wanted from me, but I took on the roll as counselor and wanted to tell him it was all right. If I were his friend, I would’ve offered a hand.

I was also preparing for the gay bomb that some of these swinging heteros would occasionally drop on me. I’ve come to realize that when strangers find out I work at an AIDS organization, they assume I’m gay. Only after this do I get the straight boys dropping their drunken gay dalliances.

Larry got a hold of himself and moved onto to safer subjects, while trying to up-sale me on various warranties and three-year deals.

I signed, initialed and dated various documents. Standing to leave, I shook Larry’s hand and moved toward the door. He said, “Take good care.” I took “take good care” not “take care” as an extra special goodbye, given the content of our conversation. I was a little worried that he might invite me for a boat ride on the Delta.

Darin was out front waiting for me. He kicked the tires and walked me through the vehicle. The transaction was done and I was eager to get going. I would learn about the vehicle through driving it and consulting the manual.

While Darin and I circled the vehicle, I noticed a young salesman watching us. Any time I looked over at him he would give me a big smile. Given that he didn’t shy away when I noticed him, I assume he was in training, watching Darin close the deal.

Darin and I shook hands. Before I got in the vehicle, the young salesman approached and said, “Can I take a picture of your shoes? My girlfriend would love them.” So this was why he lingered. A bit startled and embarrassed by the request, I said, “Sure, they’re just vans. My wife got’em at the outlet store in Gilroy.” While leaning down to take the picture, he said, “No, she’d love the whole package – the shoes, socks and jeans.” So much for dressing up.

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