I was writing late at the Java House Friday and began walking home around 12:30, dodging packs of stumbling, singing youths in matching bar-crawl tee-shirts. I walked up Linn to Market Street, where I noticed a car swerving and a guy running out in front of it, blocking the car every time it tried to go around him. "I love you!" he was hollering, slamming his hands on the hood. Somehow the car squirmed around him and took off.
That's when he turned his attention to the Greyhound bus barrelling down on him. He calmly stepped into its path, in the middle of Market, hands waving in the air, until the bus hissed to a stop right in front of him, a la Tienanmen Square. Guy started smacking the bus windows, yelling, "I love you! I love you!" He walked around to the driver's side and was nearly clipped by a car cruising by in the left lane. When he was out of the way, the bus roared to life again and left him, bereft of reciprocating bus love, in the middle of the street. Backed up on Market were stopped cars, their drivers waiting to see what he would do next. By now I had crossed Market and was standing in front of George's. The dude, facing the glare of wary headlights, finally dropped his hands, turned, and began staggering in my direction.
Naturally I slipped into George's, took a seat at the bar, and threw anxious glances out the front window. But the guy did not come in. The bartender, Jenny, asked what I wanted. I found two dollars in my wallet and ordered a La Crosse.
"Hey, did you see that drunk out there flagging down traffic?" I asked her.
"Scrawny, tall, goatee?"
"I just tossed him out of here!"
"He wouldn't leave Steve here alone. Kept pawing at him, saying he loved him." She grabbed a thick stack of bills from behind the bar. "On his way out, he threw fifty-six dollars at me. Idiot."
"Probably in the drunk tank by now," observed Steve. "Or the ER." He and I then got caught up in a muted, captioned Sandra Bullock movie.
Down the bar to my left, an old guy slapped a friend on the back and wheezed, "You know the difference between a Jew and a Gentile? A gentile goes out and looks for work. A Jew waits for an offer."
"Hey, who's the racist down there?" someone on the other side of me piped up. "Racism is ugly and ignorant."
"I'm not a racist," the old man protested, though he sounded somewhat chastened. He sat down beside his friend and nursed a beer.
"Sounds to me like you are."
The matter was dropped. Back to Sandra Bullock, some lame crime flick on the Oxygen Channel. I finished my beer, and Jenny approached.
"No cash, I'm afraid."
"Here, let's let the asshole buy you one." She peeled bills from the stack and replaced my glass under the tap.
"If someone had told me," I said, "while I was watching him stop that bus, that he would be buying me a beer within fifteen minutes ... there'd be no way I could have imagined how that would work."
"And yet it did," she said, pushing the glass toward me. "Fate is funny."
As I sipped that one, I heard two guys talking in low voices on my right -- one of whom had called the racist on his lame joke. "That's rididulous. He's not coming down here." "What if he does?" "All I said was the truth." "I want to leave." "Don't be so scared!" "I don't like it." "Look at him, he's pathetic." "But I'm uncomfortable now." And so on. From their voices, I inferred that they were gay, maybe a couple, maybe not. Which made the guy's challenge to the racist all the more admirable.
I drained the beer bought for me unknowingly by a man who was likely getting used to a jail cell and on my way to the door, on a whim, stopped beside the two guys.
"Who's the one who called that guy on being racist?" I asked.
"I have no idea," said one with a weary smile.
"I did it," the other said, turning on his stool. "I called that fucker a racist. Why?"
"I just wanted to say I admire what you did. Most people don't say anything when they overhear something like that."
"Why don't they?" He was looking at me fairly severely.
"I -- I don't know," I said. "They want to avoid conflict and tension. Take me, I was sitting closer to him down there, and I never made a peep."
"Why didn't you?" He was definitely frowning at me now. He wasn't letting up. It seemed I had made a mistake in stopping to say something.
"W-well, I'm not proud of myself. I grew up with that kind of stuff, and I guess I just found it not worth calling him on. But I just wanted to say I respect that you did. That's all."
He just shook his head at me.
"Okay, well," I said, backing away, "I'm gonna get going now."
He just stared at me. The other one raised a half-hearted hand and turned back to gaze philosophically at his beer.
I walked home feeling slightly uneasy. Why hadn't I said something? At what point would I step in and correct the stupid and the foolish? And why had I stopped to praise someone who had done what I had not? Was I trying to ingratiate myself, to let a little brave behavior rub off on me by association after the fact? I was only in the bar at all to duck a confrontation with Mr. Tienanmen Square in the first place. Like a pinball, I had been passively bounced about, winding up with a free beer on the one hand and a nagging conscience on the other. The free beer was good though.