So, the other day I’m sitting on the Slow Boat to China (also known as the #1 bus up Bank Street) when I see two elderly people get on who look like this is going to be their last trip anywhere while in an upright position.
The two, a man and a woman, ever-so-slowly and laboriously heave themselves onto the bus and drop down in the priority seating area on either side of another elderly woman who looks to be in much better health and physical condition.
The two old people who are clearly late for an appointment with the Grim Reaper don’t appear to be together, but are similarly afflicted with what can only be double pneumonia or the final stages of Victorian-era tuberculosis.
They cough and wheeze and hack non-stop. Their faces are ashen-grey, their eyes rheumy, their bodies thin and bent. Their clothing is old and shabby and not too clean. They are alarming everyone on the bus who isn’t young, plugged into their iPods and/or totally wrapped up in themselves.
The woman sitting between the grisly pair looks especially anxious. I am sitting well out of the immediate contagion area, and am still trying my best not to breathe too deeply. The woman in the middle is doing everything she can to make herself very small; to will the closure of all her pores; and to bury her mouth and nose in a thick bundle of tissues. I don’t know why, but she tries not to be obvious about shielding herself by pretending to wipe her nose with that thick bundle of tissues for a really, really long time without stopping.
As the coughing pair continue to cough and cough and cough, I try to send the woman in the middle an urgent message with my non-functioning telepathy: “MOVE! Why don’t you move? No one would blame you. You look terrified. Save yourself!”
Those people look like they have something horrible, I think to myself. I hope I can’t catch it from way over here. Why are they out in public? I see each of them has a bag from the grocery store. Don’t they have anyone to care for them? To get them some groceries? How awful. But still, what if one or both of them just stops breathing altogether?
I picture the old woman (who seems marginally closer to death than the old man) gasping a final, desperate breath of stale bus air and collapsing in the slush-covered aisle of the vehicle. Would someone step up and give her CPR, I wonder? Would I?
In any case, it doesn’t happen and she continues, just barely, to survive.
Why doesn’t the woman in the middle move? I think. I always move if someone near me looks or sounds like they have the plague or is particularly smelly. XUP Jr. is horrified when I do that.
“MOTHER!” she hisses, at me. “That is SO mean!”
I don’t think it’s mean at all. I wouldn’t blame someone sitting next to me if they moved because I looked green like I might hurl into their lap or something.
“MOVE!” I try again to beam my message to the healthy woman in the middle.
Then the sick woman coughs something into her hand. It has colours. I’m halfway down the bus in the high seats, but I’m pretty sure I can see her examining wet hues of red and green in her hand.
She wipes her hand on the seat between her and the other woman.
This sends the healthy woman shooting out of her seat like a projectile. She repositions herself out of the danger zone.
“Yay for you!” I silently cheer.
The healthy woman looks grim and roots around in her bag for more tissues which she thrusts with both hands at the sick pair. The old man waves them away in a paroxysm of coughing. The old woman grabs them all and commences to coughing into them with even greater fury.
“You should both be home in bed!” the healthy woman says to them gently and with much concern.
“Fuck off!” the sick, old woman manages to rasp, quite clearly and loudly.