There’s a bar in the center of DC’s Union Station’s soaring atrium. It’s the kind of place that collects all the passersthrough and commuters and the odd federal employee who has finished a day of calculating labor statistics. It serves cheap happy hour specials and the kind of food that travelers want. Wings. Chips and salsa. Crab cake sandwiches. None of it’s that good, but it’s hot and salty and so satisfying, however briefly, when you’ve skipped lunch after a day of meetings.
I sat there last week. I had about a half hour to kill before hopping a bus home. I started a new job Monday: a little more money, a sleek new tablet computer thrown in to sweeten the deal. I was brooding. Transitions do this to me, throw me into a tailspin, even though I technically have everything under control. The new job is intense, but probably good for me, professionally. I love the “food stuff”, though, the cooking, the garden, my home, and I worry I’ll be taken away from that. I’m plagued by a guilty sense of privilege despite the “non-profit” classification of my work, like the swag that comes with the new job is too much, and moreover like I don’t belong in this world.
The conversation around you at any given bar in DC is absurd: “Oh no, I don’t want anything to eat, I just had some nibbles at both the Ukrainian embassy receptions.” “So I said to Senator Dodd…” “The situation in Turkmenistan is tenuous at best, but we’re working on it.” (These are all real conversations I jotted down in my notebook.)
I’m not anywhere apart from this world of privilege. I am flying to Ghana, tomorrow, a week after starting my job. But even though I’m kind of the same as the Ukrainian embassy nibblers, I feel decidedly apart from them. At home, the wonderful folks running the veggie farm in our town don’t seem to understand why I won’t leave what they consider the “establishment”. Yet , in DC, everyone at my workplace has degrees in medicine or public health and doesn’t seem to care about where their food comes from or how it’s grown or how we get access to it and cook it and eat it.
I’m nursing a beer, decidedly not the healthiest way to kill time until my bus, but whatever. My backpack is on the chair next to me. A man approaches. “Sorry,” I say, hastily moving it to my feet as he scrreeeeeks the stool first toward him, sits heavily down, then screeeeks it back in, toward the bar.
The bartender comes over. “A—a—jimbeam,” he says, haltingly, just as screeek-y as his chair. “With cuhhh-coke.” The bartender adds, “And lots of ice, right?” and then, placing his hand on the man’s forearm, says, “Joking, just kidding,” and the man laughs, if you can all it that, hoarse, thin. He brings him a Jim and Coke, no ice.
I’m still brooding. I have my arms folded and I stare into middle-odd distance, I haven’t even looked at my new neighbor. “I’m Jimmy, too,” he says, possibly to no one in particular, but I turn and he’s looking at me. Jimmy is hunched and has wrapped an American flag bandanna around his frizzled, long grey hair, with a pair of holographic-lensed shades resting on top. His beard threatens to swallow his thin lips. He has a vague southern or country drawl, and I say, “I’m Sarah,” and turn back to the beer. I take another sip.
“S-sarah,” Jimmy says. I turn to him again, and he’s lopsided, half-grinning. “DC,” he says, and it sounds like “DT”, “Marijuana?”
“Yeah, there’s marijuana here,” I say. He grins larger. His teeth are ruined. Meth head? I wonder. “W-where?” Jimmy asks me. I gulp my beer. “I actually don’t know,” I say, somehow sorry I don’t have the street sense to tell him. He shakes his head. “In California…you…can have a card.” He holds up his hand in the manner of holding a card. “Yeah, medicinal. They have that here too, “ I tell him. “They just legalized in Colorado.” “Oh y-yeah?” he says. “When?” “Just this last election,” I tell him, and he looks confused.
I go back to my beer, and Jimmy to his drink. Then, a tap on my forearm. “How do you get the c-c-…the c-c-…” he can’t get it out, and makes the shape of the card in his hand again. “You have to see a doctor,” I tell him. “You need to have a prescription.”
He sighs a little and rubs the base of his spine. “Have pills,” he says. “Still h-h-urts. Two…h-h-…” he then makes the motion of taking a hit on a joint. “Two of those and…better.”
Another few seconds. “Veteran,” he informs me, pointing at his American flag bandanna. “Oh!” I say, “When?” “Korea,” he shakes his head at me, knowingly. All the wars in my lifetime have barely affected me, but I nod too.
I’m starting to feel bad for Jimmy and I look at him that way, pityingly. He shakes his head and grins. Smiles, wider, again, lopsided. Pulls something from his pocket. It’s a harmonica. “You play, Jimmy?” He nods, vigorously. Puts it to his mouth. “I love harmonica,” I tell him. “Me and my boyfriend mess around with guitar and banjo. You know that setup Bob Dylan had? I would love to have that so I could do both at the same time.”
He nods again, more, puts it to his mouth, and then, then, Jimmy is playing me harmonica in the middle of Union Station at rush hour. People in the center bar at Union Station turn and looks at us, Jimmy playing some beat-up rusty harp and me leaning onto my elbow. Playing, of all things, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” after I told him I like Bobby D. I have strange tears welling up behind my eyes and reach for my beer as social security blanket, only to realize it’s drained.
“Don’t Think Twice” stops suddenly. Jimmy reaches for my glass, taps it, motions the bartender, and points at the glass again. “Oh, no Jimmy. Seriously. I appreciate it, but you don’t have to do that, really.” I look at my phone, and I’m supposed to be leaving to grab my bus in ten minutes. Jimmy orders another Jim and Coke and smiles at me. I order another beer from the bartender. I slug down three gulps.
He points to his spine. “You—youuu know…” he trails off. “No,” I say, “What do you mean?” “St-oke,” he says. “St-st-oke,” he repeats, pointing, again, to his spine. Jimmy had a stroke. I nod in recognition. “Stroke, I’m so sorry,” I say.
He shrugs. “One side…up. One side, down.” And a half laugh, half sob escapes me, because what a way to describe the hemispheric differences stroke survivors sometimes have. I am chugging my beer now, cognizant that I have to leave to grab my bus in three minutes, and cognizant that I really, really shouldn’t be running to catch a bus punch-drunk, but that I ordered that beer to stay here with Jimmy.
Jimmy is sliding out the cocktail napkin from under his glass, and painstakingly, painstakingly produces a ballpoint pen from his leather jacket pocket. He leans over the napkin, the entirety of his body leveraged into the effort. I drink more, deeply, the beer almost drained. In four minutes. He slides the napkin over. In shaky handwriting he has written:
and then, a phone number, which I can’t read. The condensation from his drink dampened the napkin, it wrinkled and tore under the pressure of his pen, and I can make out probably 3 of the 10 digits.
I look at it. Jimmy presses it into my hand. “Thanks,” I say, and I need to go. I stow the napkin safely in the front pocket of my purse. I tell Jim as much, and he reaches to shake my hand. I surprise myself and hug his smelly self, and he presses a wet kiss on my cheek. I smile, I don’t know what to say, I shoulder my bags and walk away, fast, standing up for the first time since I started drinking the beer and feeling that peculiar head rush.
I run down an escalator, through a hallway, up some stairs, headrush, more, lump in my throat. I see the bus, I run, the doors close, the driver starts away, but then, impossibly, stops, doors open, let me on.
“It’s okay, honey,” the driver says, encouragingly, “You made it!” And I’m wondering why he’s saying it as if I should be so happy about it, and realize that a big fat alligator tear is running down my cheek. I must look ridiculous. The whole bus is looking at me curiously and I sit down, hugging my bag to my chest.
When I get off the bus at home, Ben stands leaning against the car, a bouquet of winter field flowers in his hand, fluffy white bits beginning to float away from yellow-green grasses arcing up prettily and seed pods hanging open, and I start crying, first tearing up and then shaking, hard. Food, nourishment, health, poverty, privilege, whether or not, I am here, and I don’t deserve any of it. I wished I had told Jimmy something, anything, but the truth is I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.