The Island

From 4:00 to 4:25 pm, Monday through Friday, I lived on an island. My island didn’t have sandy beaches or even water of any kind. It was an island of concrete, bordered by the rushing traffic of 16th and Illinois, just north of downtown Indianapolis. It had regions: the stop sign at the farthest point where the turn lane merged with the street, the benches with egg still crusted on them from the summer before, the two trees just barely taller than me, and the newspaper stand which divided them. The IndyGo bus sign stood in the middle of it all. My bus stop was unchanging; I saw the same people every day for years. 

The Amputee 

The first person I interacted with at my stop was the Amputee. I met him the summer before my freshman year. He rolled up to the bus stop, and I saw that his left leg was truncated at the knee. It was more of a scooch than a roll. His hands were planted on either arm of the wheelchair, and he dragged himself forward with his one good leg. When he got to the stop, he was winded.

“Do you got any water? I was just at the hospital, and they didn’t give me no food or no water for seven days.” He was missing several teeth, and his eyes seemed too large for his head. 

I shook my head. A meek, “No, sorry,” escaped my mouth. He turned and saw the Gatorade water bottle in my classmate’s backpack.

“Do you?” He asked pointedly. The boy nodded, and he reluctantly held out his drink. The man drank like he was on fire, so invested in the water that he didn’t notice the Methodist Hospital Police cruiser pull up to the curb. When the door opened, I saw that summer heat had gotten to the cop, the red in his cheeks washing out the blue of his eyes. 

“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to return the wheelchair,” The cop said with a Southern Indiana drawl. He had his hands rested on his polished, black belt, loosened to its last hole. He squinted against the sun despite the sunglasses perched on his bald head. The Amputee was surprised, shoving the water bottle in the space between his thigh and the armrest. 

“No, I won’t. My wheelchair was stolen, and I have a right to use this one.” He stared down the cop while leaning back, seemingly shoving himself into the back of the chair. 

The cop was hot and exasperated, “Sir, other people need to use that wheelchair, I don’t want to have to call my captain down here.” He seemed tired, but his hand was already on his radio as if anticipating the Amputee’s resistance. He anticipated correctly. Soon enough another squad car was pulled up to the island, and a cop in a white collared shirt with a wide gray mustache stepped out. 

“Well sir, I hear you’re givin’ us some trouble over this wheelchair. Surely you know we can’t just give it to you.” 

“I already told your officer that mine was stolen, can’t you just let me have this one?” The Amputee, though he looked confident, sounded less sure in front of the captain. 

The captain pursed his lips and tilted his head to the side, “No can do, I’m afraid. Is there someone you could call to bring you another one?” 

The Amputee gave him a sullen look and said, “I could probably call my cousin, but it’d take a while.”

 “I suggest you call him,” The captain said, “I can wait.” 

The Amputee reached into his pocket and pulled out one of those too-large phones. A few moments after hanging up, a tall, skinny man walked out of the White Castle across the street pushing a wheelchair. The captain looked unimpressed. The Amputee’s cousin got to the island, and the cops helped lift the Amputee into his wheelchair when something metallic fell to the ground. It almost looked like a pair of needle nose plyers. Behind the Amputee’s back was a curated selection of stolen hospital equipment: blankets, surgical utensils, a box of medium-sized gloves, and a thermometer. It was at that moment the bus pulled up behind the squad cars. My classmate grabbed the water bottle from the seat of the wheelchair, and we ran to the bus before it drove off. We boarded and watched the cops, the Amputee, and the island retreat into the background, hidden by the flow of traffic. The bus groaned and rattled, but we were silent. I glanced over at him, and we caught eye contact. The silence broke like a dam, and we began pouring over every detail we had noticed. The look on the captain’s face, the face of someone who had hours of paperwork ahead of them, the way the Amputee’s eyes bulged at the sound of the clang as the metal hit the ground, the absurdity of it all. When we leaned in, we whispered as though we had a secret no one else could know. 

The Can Man 

It was cold and wet when I met the Can Man. I had seen him for a few weeks walking around the McDonald’s by Meridian. The Can Man was never still, rolling through the world like the tide. He would pace around the buildings, reaching down to pick things off the ground and put them in the black, plastic bag he had slung over his shoulder. He wore a neon yellow hi-vis, cargo pants, and a worn-out t-shirt. One day he came to my bus stop. I heard him before I saw him, his chant echoed around the Chase Bank on the east side of the bus stop: 

“I am the Can Man; I am the best at what I do. It’s our responsibility to better the earth.” It came over and over, and when I rounded the corner, I saw him marching in a tight circle, feet stomping in time with his words. His arms pumped at his sides, and his bag was hung in one of the trees. I came to a stop at the newspaper stand, fists shoved into the pockets of my yellow raincoat. I tried my best to seem unapproachable, but something about a plaid, school uniform skirt always seemed to invite people in. 

“I used to live there you know,” he said pointing up at the tree where his bag was hanging. “We have to help our Earth.” His bag was heavy, pulling at the branch of the tree. “Do you have any cans? I’m collecting the tabs.”

 I shook my head but ended up quietly looking for stray pull tabs from under the benches and along the edges of the road. A few minutes later I went up to him saying, “Hey, sorry to bother you, but I found some if you still want them.” He opened the bag, looking pleased.

“It’s all for the kids you know, they’re the future.” He was still looking for cans when the bus came around the bend. When I got home, I decided to look him up, sure that someone else would have met and commented about the Can Man. I found an interview from 2016 talking about the eleven million pop tabs he had collected and donated over the years to raise money for the Ronald McDonald House of Indianapolis. 

The Firefighter and the Worried Woman

I met the Firefighter on the bus. He wasn’t a real firefighter, but he was obsessed with them. He knew everything about their procedures, the types of fires, and wore a metallic IFD sticker badge over his heart every day. He must have washed his clothes every day because his clothes would be clean, but he wore the same outfit every day: a black and red flannel buttoned up to his throat, dark wash jeans, and brown suede shoes. He spent his day sitting outside of Fire Department Station 7 questioning everyone who would stop and talk to him about what was going on in the city. On the ride back north, he would report all he had learned that day down to the smallest detail to whomever he was sitting next to. He once sat next to a man with earbuds blaring, head leaning against the window. The man was entirely uninterested, but the Firefighter didn’t notice. 

There was another person on the bus who I called the Worried Woman in my head. She lived in a constant state of panic, convinced that the world was out to get her. Her favorite points of conversation were the locks on her doors, her pilot nephew, and the mysterious way she had nearly died the day before. One day, she came on the bus with a story of how her neighbors tried to set her house on fire and the Firefighter overheard. His eyes lit up. He climbed the stairs to her seat and began to tell her how best to protect herself and her condo from fire risks. He talked about having multiple fire extinguishers, making a fire escape plan, and closing doors behind her. She listened, and the next day she told him about the fire extinguishers she had bought and where she stored them. After that day, they never sat alone. When the Fireman boarded the bus, she’d move her bag to the floor, and they’d keep each other’s company until she got off at 49th and Boulevard. 

Me

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I took the bus to Butler University for choir practice. I had neither the time nor the budget to buy my dinner every day, so I’d pack a Tupperware. It was always the same: a cheese stick, white cheddar popcorn, a bunch of red grapes, and a peanut butter, honey, and banana sandwich. The grapes would sweat, and the honey would seep through the seeded loaf my mom insisted was good for me, but it was a feast. Carefully, I would open my choir binder and balance my dinner on it. The front and back panels were surprisingly sharp, the black, corrugated plastic indented into the soft skin above my elbows. The challenge was to minimize the amount of honey my fingers would carry with them as I alternated sandwich and music. There I was, eating my dinner on my makeshift table, all of greater Indianapolis at my disposal. For a while that was enough. 

I spent so many afternoons on my island as a passive observer. I tried not to take up space. I wanted to be a fly on the newspaper stand, but I was drawn to so many people even if they didn’t notice. I got to know the Amputee in silence. In the times following our first interaction, he would sing 90s pop hits as loudly as he could, almost as if he was trying to outsing the cars of late afternoon traffic. I saw the Firefighter seek out the Worried Woman whenever he boarded the bus, and when the Can Man died shortly after my graduation, I mourned him. After my sophomore year, I got a car, and I traded one freedom for another. Suddenly I was only able to see them through my window. Even after hundreds of hours, I was transient. Of all of the people I met on 16th and Illinois, I only see the Amputee now, outside of the CVS down the block. And even when I drive by the bus stop, I can only watch.