My wife, daughter and I were waiting at the 77 bus stop westbound, near the Trader Joe's by the Hollywood Transit Center. My daughter was wearing a sorceress costume and cape and reading “The Celery Stalks At Midnight.” My wife was cooling off in silence after a heated family discussion. If I smoked, I would have been doing so.
Waltzing along and talking cheerfully to himself came a grizzled old guy. His wild beard, and a backpack under his poncho that shaped him into a hunchback did not disguise a friendly, inquiring face. He stopped and greeted us. The cap on his head read “Couples Retreat.”
“What does your cap mean?” I asked.
“I have no idea.”
He took a long look at the sorceress and eventually asked “Where did she come from?” His tone suggested he thought she might have some powers. He added, “A small egg?”
“From thin air,” I said.
He asked and I told him my name, what I did, where I worked, where the business was located, where we were going. When I asked his name, he asked what my wife did.
I said, “Couples retreats.”
This is actually about 80 percent true because, though she's never actually held a couples retreat, she is a licensed therapist and her specialty is helping couples. She told him as much. He stepped back, in mock shock. They were amused with each other.
He asked if she were my sister.
“Your sister, too?”
“You big joker.”
“Maybe she's my sister.”
“Now you're getting personal.”
“Whoa,” he said, in a voice exactly like Popeye.
The cocktail banter continued in this familiar facetious fashion, except that our new acquaintance was free associating at a speed that left me trailing. His thoughts would veer off unpredictably, though he kept touch with us. His phrases were like confetti, magical while in the air and then gone.
For example, one chain of associations I was able to retain, because he said it more than once: “Information becomes truth becomes god. Christianity is insanity. God is dog backwards. A dog eats its own shit twice.”
The door, maybe, for that trip to the mental dump was that I had told him where we were going: “Church.”
“Catholic, Muslim, Jew?”
“Christianity is insanity.”
When he wasn't gathering information about us he was riddling, punning, improvising epigrams. A mention of the brain led to vagus nerve and then Las Vegas. He asked where I was from.
He held up his right palm, the instant map of Michigan, and I pointed. “Detroit?”
“Right. And also. . . ” I pointed again.
When I took note of his East Coast accent, he said “Where do you think I'm from?”
Before the last syllable was out of my mouth he was repeating the word in a good imitation of my voice, with its West Coast drawl, then again in what I took to be a true Massachusetts accent, followed by his own, harsher-sounding vernacular. Baddaboom.
“The Bronx,” he said, to sum up the lesson in dialects.
He got on the bus with us. My wife took on the conversation as we traveled, which improved her mood dramatically, thank dog. There was something else said about church, and he repeated the little “Information becomes truth” rant, ending again with “Christianity is insanity.”
I asked, “Why do you say that?”
“Because it's a poem.” He held up a credit-card size packet wrapped in a thick rubber band, on top of which showed an embroidered patch reading “AA.”
“How long have you been clean and sober?”
He moved the rubber band down on the patch so we could read at the top, “Army Airborne.”
Gotcha. “Since Vietnam."
He said he joined the Army in 1963 and asked us to guess his age. Suddenly he was speaking French. After some wrong guesses, he revealed: “Soixante-neuf.” Sixty-nine, older than I imagined.
He talked about “The Kingdom of Heaven,” a movie he'd seen the night before. “I bought the DVD for two dollars at Goodwill.” It was nice to know he's got a place to stay and is not flat broke.
“It's about Saladin, a great leader of Islam. And about Christianity, which is insanity.”
This is the bare bones of our twinkling talk, which lasted all of 20 minutes. Free fun with a complete stranger.
I and my family deboarded at 17th and Broadway, saying goodbye, but not before wangling our new friend's e-mail address. It will remain private here, but I can say that it would make an excellent title for a “Star Trek” episode.