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Winter 2006

Fall 2005

The Miracle of Public Transit

Erika Jahneke

Rumor had it that there was a prophet working on my usual bus route to the University. At first, I only bore witness to get a byline.

I really wanted to impress Justin, editor of the State Press, despite the fact his hair looked like a bleached mop and his nose ring always made me want to flick my own nose to illustrate the best way to remove the "speck" on his face. It was amazing how much effort I put into a relationship built on rejection.

Every few weeks, I and my tank of a wheelchair rode the legally-mandated afterthought of a freight elevator down into Student Publications' cavernous depths. Although it wasn't a good feeling coming in with the monthly copy paper delivery, I left my clips like epistles and hoped one of these incidents would convince Justin to let me write for the paper. Sometimes he would leave comments, but no matter how gentle his counsel, being rejected made me feel as though my copy had morphed into dog shit.

The previous week, I'd had a networking conversation with Justin, instead of our usual quick greeting I dropped my printouts on his desk,and slunk off into obscurity.

"Hey," he said.

"Hey." I replied.

"More samples?" he asked, and sat beside me.

I blushed. "Yeah. More samples.'

"I thought I'd seen you around."

I would be hard to miss, but I appreciated him for not making me into the Wheelchair Clip Girl. "Guilty."

"You know, some of your stuff is really kinda cool." I opened my mouth to make a self-deprecating comment, but he held up his hand to stop me. "But you know this is a student pub, right?"

"Write like it. Find out what students are talking about and write about it."

"They're still really pissed that the McDonald's in the student union raised its prices again."

"Oh, God," he complained, to nobody in particular, "spare me another fucking food-service story. I told John if he sent me another one, I was walking...hasta la vista on the whole editing thing...screw my resume. I did not become a writer and hone my craft to climb in this place's damn digestive tract."

" But it's important," I pitched. "It doesn't get more basic than food."

"Okay...I'll give it to Eduardo. He's still cheesed off that I didn't use his Nike editorial anyway."

Fabulous. I'd made my first successful collegiate pitch. For Eduardo.

After that, it seemed that Justin got hypnotized watching his foot swing off the edge of the table. Eyes closed, he asked "Do you have anything else?"

"Well, it's not very interesting..."

"Does it feature food services in any way whatever? Or our rep as a party school, deserved or not?"

"No. Although I'm sure this guy eats sometimes...prophets aren't like angels, right?"

"Then you're golden. Knock yourself out...did you say 'prophet?' Witness a miracle and you're going above the fold, page one, absofuckinglutely."

"So you believe in..." I couldn't bring myself to say "miracles" in here, not with the desktop covered in Chiquita banana stickers and the longer one that said "Free Tibet". I wasn't sure what I thought, but talking miracles felt like a cliché combined with my wheelchair.

Above the fold. Cool. That might be worth getting holy for.

"No, see, that's the beauty. Either way it's a story for me. But I've gotta tell you, debunking mass delusions will only get you page one below the fold."

"Yeah. I'm hip."

"Cool. Have it by Monday."

The next day found me on the bus bright and early. Fortunately, this meant a less crowded ride, since it was common for upper-division students not to have class on Fridays. Unfortunately, though most of the seats weren't taken, the ones that were, were filled by giant frat boys who carried on as though they were much younger than they appeared. I locked them out because it took a lot of mental focus to fit my chair into the tiny slot.

"Hey, Prophet," the loudest frat boy said.

I smelled the Prophet's homeless-guy funk -- a little bit like garden-variety B.O, crossed with chicken soup and marijuana - before I saw him.

The strong smell of these transit nomads could upset my stomach; But I was here a reporter, so I was grateful my stomach remained calm.

The Prophet nodded, more thoughtful than I might expect given that his mismatched clothing and the gray in his beard suggested a vet who had not come all the way back from Vietnam.

"Is my friend Jeff here gonna get laid this weekend? Finally break his streak?" Frat Rat number one said, making rude hand gestures.

"He will if he pays the quim the proper respect. Respects the power of the pudenda." It was so awful, I chuckled. Not that these guys didn't need a lesson in respect for things female, but I had to be the biggest sucker in the world to think there was anything worthwhile in Student- Union gossip. Miracles. Right. The real miracle would be if anybody from the newspaper ever spoke to me again.

"Hey, guys," a woman's voice said. "You wanna watch your language? I'm here with my kid."

"I told you that in confidence, Dave." His friend said, pained.

"Suck my dick, Jeffrey." Number one said, and looked forward as if to show the mom in front of him that he was untroubled by what she thought. She gave him a Mom Glare that knocked him back a bit, no matter how much he bluffed as if it were otherwise. Even pigs had mothers.

" I didn't know you cared," Jeff was funny. "Sorry about my friend, ma'am. We're just on our way to the Nervous Hospital to check his dosage right now, as a matter of fact. He has elective Tourette's. Very sad."

So as not to draw attention to my eavesdropping, which having my chair tied to the floor made impossible to avoid, I looked out the window. I had been wrong all along. If I had been at Lourdes there'd be stained glass, not me tracking a sunbeam across key-scratched profanity and gang tags. Although, considering the wobbly nature of local bus fasteners, it felt miraculous to get somewhere in one piece, but I didn't think Justin would settle for that .

I couldn't offer much useful information on the accident that followed, whether as a result of another driver's sudden stop or bus-driver ignorance, only that my world looked upside down as the chair came out of its restraint. I thought I was going to fall and I heard a crash as the bus hit a parking barrier. The seat in front of me stopped my slide, but my leg burned from being pressed against it so firmly.

I barely recognized my wrinkled notebook or the hand that carried it, which upset me, though I was used to being disconnected from parts of my body . I was no longer the only injured person on the bus. Jeff and Dave had been preparing to get out at the next stop and were bleeding from cuts from broken glass.

I wished I could disconnect from my leg, which continued to burn from the knee down like I'd set it on fire. I spotted the prophet moving toward me out of the corner of my eye; for a crazy second, I wanted to ask him if the frat boy was going to break his streak. The homeless man came up behind me, funk and all, tapped me on the shoulder and chanted some words in a language I didn't recognize.

"Don't." I told him, too late. "It's neurology, not demons."

"It's going to be all right. Not perfect though. I lost some power in Da Nang."

"Don't worry about it," I said, too shocked to be skeptical, "Mom says lots of guys did. It's not your fault."

"Fuckin' McNamara." This was the first thing I heard all day that had the comfort of childhood familiarity.

In that moment, I noticed my leg was back to its old self. I pictured myself walking briskly through the parking lot the bus was stalled in, but my thoughts didn't stir any unaccustomed muscles. Instead of feeling knotted and inflamed, however, my leg felt cooler, like a feverish forehead with a wet cloth on it. It was nice, but not an epic scoop like standing up for the first time as an adult.

I felt American enough to be disappointed amidst my relief , but I still felt well enough to refuse a police officer's suggestion that I make a trip to the hospital. The young patrolman seemed disappointed at my refusal, as though someone who got around like I needed to be repaired.

"I was like this when I got here," I explained. "It's okay." I wondered at my impulse to console other people.

"Ok, ma'am, if you're sure," he replied. We were about the same age. He looked as though I was deciding to commit a crime.

"But I would like to get home sometime today." I told him, wondering where I got my nerve from, but I was always more assertive when I was working. "Will they be sending another vehicle to collect us?"

"Of course, ma'am. But for right now, I'd really prefer it if you stayed where you are."

"I don't know anything, though." I reminded him. "Except exactly how disgusting these floors are."

He smiled briefly at my quip, but somehow I knew I wasn't talking to the guy who worried about me anymore; I was talking to The Law. "I'd really prefer it. Will that be a problem? With medication or something?" I was torn; it had been a very long day. But I had a story to get, and I figured it was a bit early in my career to start lying to police.

"Absolutely not." I replied, showing lots of pearly whites and more certainty than I'd felt in six months. Once again, something bad had happened to me and I had to make everyone else feel better about it. Sometimes that pissed me off, but if I wanted to go home that night I couldn't allow everyone to protect me. "Do what you need to do."

"Way to go, kid. Don't say anything to The Man," the Prophet muttered.

I wasn't sure if the cop heard what the man said or if his appearance made him suspicious, but all of a sudden, he was front and center again "Is he bothering you?"

"No," I replied. "He's been...great." The Prophet smiled.

The cop gave me a skeptical look, but he had to take some more accident statements so he left us alone. Now that I wasn't in pain, but still not ready to turn on my reporting-student camera brain, I was angry on behalf of this stranger. "That really burns my butt. He bothered you for no reason. I should totally get his shield number."

"It's always like that," The Prophet shrugged.

"Oh, you mean since you got back from...in country?" I waited for him to tell me about scaring his wife with his screaming flashbacks and gun collection.

"No," he corrected me. " Always, always. Growing up. In Fresno. I did my first healing there when I was 12."

"Wow...Healings in Fresno. Not exactly the kind of place you think of, is it?"

I wondered why I didn't pick up my pen, but he was talking so comfortably that it was probably better just to listen and wait. Besides, I could've died. There were some things even page one above the fold wouldn't make up for. "Have you ever been to Fresno?"

I admitted that I hadn't.

"The earth is beautiful and fertile there, but the people's spirit works against it a lot. There's really no better place to try to do a healing, if it weren't for...society. You know."

In a way, I did, but I didn't say anything. I wasn't there to get converted. Just the column inches. I dug around in my fanny pack and found a pen, and scratched something in my notebook as if I were Christiane Amenpour on assignment in Gaza. Instead, I kept feeling tender and welling up.

" You could cry," he advised, "if you wanted to. People I touch often do."

"No, no, I'm fine." I lied, to stiffen my upper lip.

"Why do you do that?" the Prophet asked. "Lie all the time?"

"I do not lie all the time. But if I don't seem all right, people will think I'm helpless...or, or..."

"Or?"

"Crazy." I said in a small voice.

"My family thought I was crazy. Which I did not help with my teenaged narcotic indulgences. But they also thought that getting drafted might be good for me. So who's really crazy?"

"Them?" I asked.

"Yeah, well, me too, probably...but... I couldn't believe it when people started taking drugs to get the experiences I was trying to avoid...the visions and shit, excuse me, stuff."

He moved up a few seats so I didn't have to crane my neck; that was touching too, because I didn't even have to ask.

"Mama, " the little girl across the aisle whined "I'm *starving*.

"Chloe, don't bother people. You'll have to wait. I forgot to bring anything. I didn't expect to be out here since God was a boy, okay? Lay off."

"Tell your mama to check her pockets, squirt," the Prophet said, sounding both fonder and more drawling.

Chloe's mom said "You know...sir, I don't know if you know how hard being a single mother is. Sometimes it seems like one step away from..." she motioned toward him but then seemed embarrassed. "Well, anyway, it's easier without people encouraging her to want things she doesn't have."

"If there's nothing in there," the Prophet said, "I won't take it one bit personally if you decide I'm harassing you and want to get the officer back. A woman on her own has to be careful."

"I'm 99percent sure I left in such a hurry I forgot."

Whether his calm certitude inspired her, or if she just wanted to seem too nice to send a fellow creature to the lock-up on the strength of thousands of grisly "Dateline" reports, I could see that she was at war with herself.

"But not totally, right?"

"No," she replied, softening. "Not totally." She reached in her own jacket pocket like she'd never been in it before, and pulled out a granola bar packet, mumbling "I could have sworn..."

Had anything really happened? I couldn't know until I started to write it up; it seemed that my life only made sense in type. Miracles? I should be the one person in America who didn't believe because I had been let down by both doctors and the more charismatic members of the God Squad. I was most prepared to believe the miraculous was bullshit.

By the time I saw Justin that Monday I was exhausted from writing and rewriting. I didn't breathe for the whole time he held the pages.

"This is absofuckinglutely brilliant," he praised, and I didn't think about his nose-ring once. "One thing, though...could you get a quote from the Prophet?"

"He's a loose cannon." I objected. "I don't know what he'll say."

"That's even better. People like that make great copy."

"He's not..." Even as I started to argue, I wondered what my opposition was. He was probably good copy, either way, by virtue of the many different sides of him I'd already seen. "He's not people 'like that'. He's just a guy." I didn't say that I was wondering if he were more than a guy.

"He's converted you."

"No!" I snorted.

"Well, try, then...a written statement, at least."

"Okay, I'll try. But I'm not twisting his arm."

When Justin spoke again, his voice was gentler. "You know, this business isn't kind to true believers," he advised me, speaking as if he were the product of an illicit union between Edward R. Murrow and Lou Grant instead of a young guy whose significant First Amendment challenge had been a smutty Valentine's edition.

"I get all that," I snapped, irritated by the lecture, "but I have to be able to live with myself, don't I?"

"Some of us drink instead."

"I've got to go," I told him. "I'll try for tomorrow."

"Bated breath," he replied. "Seriously."

"Yeah. Whatever." Let him think whatever he wanted of me. If I disappointed, he could just add me to his List of Bitterness.

The Prophet and I spoke when I got on the bus the next day. "How's your knee?"

I didn't follow my old instinct and say "Fine, about as well as could be expected, thank you, uh..."

"Lewis. I still wish I could do more for you, but you know..."

"Da Nang. Yeah. I appreciate that, Lewis. Thanks." I'd only halfway learned to be cynical in journalism school, but I had learned to use someone's name right after learning it, as a memory aid. He went back to reading intently.

Closer inspection showed it not to be the magic book I expected, but a trade paperback of Batman comics.

"I'm like Batman's mirror image, man. He started out normal with everything and ended up with powers, and I started out with powers and..."

I broke in, thinking in terms of great quotes, and said "But you still don't have everything."

He looked irritated at me for the first time. "No, not in this reality."

Okay. Whatever that meant. I couldn't believe I was back on a bus so soon anyway and now this guy was going full-on Jabberwocky on me. Maybe he had good days and bad days? I was decided by a sweet young overdressed thing that got on the bus and said "Oh, my god, you're that guy! Read my palm..." and thrust her hand in his face.

"I don't." he said. He seemed freaked by her sudden movement in front of his face and his sandaled foot tapped rapidly on the dirty floor.

"Well, give me a prophecy then."

In an unemotional voice he said "Stop the bulimia. You're just going to hurt yourself. The man you're seeing is no good for you, and your iron levels are all fucked up."

"You asshole..." she wailed. "I hope you don't expect me to pay you for that." She spoke like a girl who was used to speaking to the manager and filling out comment cards. She was fuming and trying to hide the tears that stood in her eyes and if the whole student body read my piece, she'd be one of hundreds. If he had a talent, it'd be wasted. If he had delusions, the stress would be too much.

Sighing, my article sacrificed, I left a message for Justin that the Prophet had failed to appear. "You know what those people are like," I rationalized. "You can't count on them."