Midnight. Rain. Wind. Cold.
The scientist had planned his trip from the Emerald City to the desert and back so that, when the well-forecast weekend storms shut down all possibility of air travel from the Emerald City airport to the little strip that served his home island just this side of the Canadian border, he could sit quietly and wait out the weather. No one would be counting on him to be somewhere.
Then, they changed the schedule.
Now, they wanted him on the island at 8:30 AM for a function. “We really need you”, they said. “I’ll do what I can”, he replied.
What he could wasn’t a lot. He would be arriving too late in the evening to catch any flights to the island that day, even if any of the little planes that served the route had been allowed to fly, and the chance that the weather would relent enough to permit an early-morning flight was, basically, zero. The airfare to and from the desert was, of course, of the ‘non-refundable’ variety.
What was left over was the midnight bus. Two hours on that bus to the ferry terminal, and then another hour on the 4:30 ferry to the island. He was going to be getting to that function after having been up all night. He had sighed and clicked “Purchase” on the online reservation. It wasn’t the first time he’d done this, and it probably would not be the last …
While he’d been in the desert, he’d purchased extra suitcases because he knew he would be traveling a lot in the coming months and was going to need them. He trundled two of them, plus a backpack and a cornet case, onto the waiting bus, and quickly stepped inside. Quickly, because he was still wearing the shorts and polo shirt that were all that he had needed in the desert. The storm wind punched through the shirt, and the rain chilled his legs from his knees to the toes that peeked reluctantly from his sandals. No matter, he thought, the bus will be warm enough, and there will be time and space to change into more suitable clothes at the ferry terminal.
Though the driver had warned that he would probably be fighting the wind to keep the bus on the road, the scientist saw little evidence of it, possibly because he’d managed, despite the uncomfortable seats, to doze off. Mercifully, the baby in the row in front of his, which had fussed and then rather loudly demanded playtime from its harried mother, had fallen silent, the mother sprawled, ungainly asleep, in the gap between the seats.
The bus came to a stop, on time, at the transfer point, and the scientist boarded the smaller bus that would take him to the ferry. Only two others joined him, a young man buried, Sith-like, in a gray woolen hoodie that was stained and weatherbeaten, and a graying woman whose hair darted out in all directions from her too-alert face. In a few words, the driver learned that all three of his passengers were headed to the ferry terminal, and proceeded to get there, plowing the bus through the falling wet.
He dropped his fares off and returned to base, there being, not surprisingly, no one to pick up at 2 in the morning; the last ferry of the night had docked four hours before. The terminal’s doors were open, but the lights inside were dimmed, and there seemed to be nobody in the building but the scientist and his two fellow travelers. The young man found a bench and sprawled on it, falling asleep almost instantly. The woman found another, surrounded it with her old, rough boxes on a flimsy dolly and her tattered bags, and sat upon it, as if expecting someone or something. The scientist trundled off to the men’s room, where he at last exchanged his polo shirt and shorts for the flannel shirt and sweat pants that were more suited to the onset of winter weather in the American Pacific Northwest. On his return to the terminal, he stacked his cases and bags around yet another bench, and, having purchased his ferry fare from a machine, lay down.
He wanted to steal a nap, but the arrival of a fourth person into the room interrupted. This person, a middle-aged woman, was dressed head to toe in black raingear with lime-yellow reflectors, gear that lacked any identifying marks yet, nevertheless, announced that she was a ferry worker. She and the other woman greeted each other with hugs, like old friends; it was apparently she that the woman with the bags had been expecting. She inspected the fellow with the hoodie, found him asleep, and then walked up to the scientist.
“I haven’t seen you before. Have you got your ticket?”
“Yes, indeed I do.”
“Well, then. I guess I don’t have to worry about you! Are you going to try to get some sleep?”
“Would you like a pillow and blankets? I wash them every night, so they’re clean.”
“Thanks, appreciate the offer, but I’ll be fine.”
She went away, presumably back to her duties. The scientist fluffed up the end of his backpack and lay back down, wondering, thankful (he guessed) for the ferry woman’s concern, but why …
His piles of travel bags, not all of them exactly new.
His flannel shirt and sweat pants.
The … bag lady? who seemed to be a regular. The bone-weary young man in the hoodie.
People who live at the fringe of society. Perhaps not quite at the bottom, because they did have their fares for the boat, but near enough to see it.
And on this night, the scientist, who, nine hours before, had been sitting in the front-row seats of a 737, had been counted among them.
He arrived at his 8:30 function somewhat bleary-eyed but, curiously, refreshed. He didn’t tell his story; he didn’t think anyone would understand. He wasn’t yet quite sure that he understood it himself.
For some months now, a story has been circulating through the web of a Christian man of the cloth, one Jeremiah Steepak, who, upon being newly called by a well-to-do congregation, visited it incognito as a homeless person and received a less-than-perfect welcome, upon which he announced himself as the new pastor and, um, got that congregation’s attention. The story is deemed to be apocryphal. But, on this first day of a shutdown of the United States Government because of a wrangle over whether 50 million American citizens “deserve” health care, Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba considers its message powerful nonetheless. One never knows who that “freeloader” really is.