Out of work, I boarded the 66 bus early one morning to ride to the state labor office in Riverhead. Near the county courts I was distracted from reading Steinbeck by a harsh voice coming from behind me.
A woman was talking and laughing too loud for the inside of a bus. She was proudly reporting that her husband had been facing 25 years to life, then got the sentence reduced to 16 years to life. His crime was robbing a Boston Market -- three times. She said the judge on this day finally sentenced her man to seven years in prison.
"He'll be all right once he gets upstate," she said. She laughed into a Nextel walkie-talkie phone, her harsh voice alternating with the phone's annoying chirp. She couldn't possibly have known how raspy her voice sounded. Her laugh seemed to have been a forced response for meeting the world, practiced so long it was effortless but still did not sound brave or dignified.
But the state labor office on the other side of the street was vacant. There were paper signs taped to its windows: "Closed! Go To Patchogue!"
The dude was still leaning against the pole when I recrossed the street about 10 minutes later, walking like a lost soul on the wide sidewalk. I heard him "God bless" another passer-by. He stared at me and "God blessed" me again. I looked him in the eyes and smiled. Something passed between us.
At the time I thought it meant I was at peace, maybe even enlightened. It was only much later that I came to realize it was nothing like that at all. What I saw flash in the dude's eyes was his keen awareness that I was a man drowning in the blue air. He believed his blessings might stick, might even save me. He knew it was a long shot but it was all he could do, and he did it. "God bless you." He would have said it 50 times if I had kept recrossing that street.