After traveling primarily on foot for two months, reacclimating to the bus has been its own adventure—entertaining if not perilous.
Last week, a 60-something driver wearing a fur Cossack hat and sunglasses missed the light turning red at First and Pike. Unfortunately, the man seated to my left stood up to exit at the next stop; as the driver saw his mistake and ground the brake into talcum powder, I was thrown into one of the metal grab bars, which left a bruise that is still purple today. The man, who fell onto a passenger across the aisle, scrambled to right himself when we finally came to a halt.
With new wariness for side-facing seats and distracted bus drivers, I was delighted when a man offered me a front-facing seat coming home on a packed bus this week. As I sat, I wondered if he had given me the seat because of the young man I discovered sitting next to the window. Tall and stringy, he looked like the kind who can eat a refrigerator full of food and never gain an ounce.
He wore a brown knit cap pulled nearly over his eyebrows; his clothes were non-descript —jeans and a dark rain-proof jacket— all a little rumpled but clean. His shoes were tied sloppily, but they didn’t have holes in them. What caught my eye was the large pumpkin in his lap and that fact that he spooned himself around it almost protectively, gently petting it.
Soon after I sat down, he slumped over his pumpkin and drifted off to sleep, affording me a closer look. He didn’t seem homeless, but he looked lean, pale, and exhausted. Why he was so tired? Did he work a double shift? Who was he bringing the pumpkin home to? He didn’t wear a wedding ring; in fact, he was barely able to sprout the few faint mustache hairs that lay across his upper lip.
Only then, staring at his sleeping frame curled over the pumpkin, did I realize that Halloween was less than a week away. On Friday, costumes emerged: a pretty black kitty cat served me a chicken salad sandwich at Cherry St. Café and my office was invaded by Alice in Wonderland’s crew, including the Queen of Hearts.
After work, I was determined to catch the #18 bus idling at First and University; I ran through the very last of the pedestrian cross light, hopping on the rear coach just before the doors closed. The back of the bus was filled with costumers young and old: superheroes, ghouls, witches, more cats, and a zombie.
As I watched a toddler smear her black nose, I thought of the power of masks and costumes. We all wear them, to some degree. On Halloween, we don sexy outfits and allow ourselves to assume otherworldly personae—often ones that are despicable or grossly exaggerated: blood-sucking vampires, crooked politicians, philandering sports stars, Bill O’Reilly.
It’s not just fun to be bad, it’s fun when everyone else is bad, too—and it’s refreshing to display our badness in plain sight.
To me, what’s scarier is not the one day a year that we dress up as murderous queens or the Unibomber, but the other 364 during which we wear masks that aren’t as easily discerned. Disguising one’s true nature, feelings, or desires can be frightfully easy—even to ourselves. We wear facades of bravery in an uneasy economy; we show the world platonic relationships when we’re actually having affairs; we don masks of friendship with people to whom we’re secretly attracted because we’re afraid they might not love us back; we smile outside when we’re sad or lonely inside.
Though our masks can hold us secure —our wit, our looks, our intelligence become a necessary armor for navigating the world— they can also trap us inside. One illusion leads to the next, and the question becomes: which is real, the illusion outside…or the one inside? Returning from Civita, I was conscious about leaving behind many costumes of my own. Even three weeks later, I continue to feel deliciously revealed—unfettered by the heavy cloaks I wore before I left.
As I rode the home Friday night, it was standing room only. A teenager embraced his girlfriend protectively against the thrust of the bus, allowing me to read the tattoo on his forearm: All saints have a past. Sainthood itself is a mask. By the time a person becomes a saint, she is depicted as a shining example; before sainthood, she faced a tortured life or a violent death, like Santa Cecilia whom I saw in Trastevere, the patron saint of music, tra-la-la, slumped over with axe wounds in her neck.
Achieving sainthood or dropping one’s mask like Darth Vader to reveal his delicate humanity underneath—these are about trials and transformation: the resilience to survive and a willingness not only to acknowledge all that came before, but to cast it off in order to start a new chapter with a fresh face.
This year for Halloween, I’ve decided to be me.