The summer I turned twenty-five, I thought I’d be killed at the Main and Kingsway bus stop in Vancouver, B.C.
I had been waiting for my connection to New Westminster when a man approached. I checked my watch. The bus wouldn’t arrive for ten minutes. Clutching my purse, I avoided eye contact with the guy. It was dark and the only other person at the stop kept her distance from us. If this man had a weapon, I could be dead in seconds.
“Nice night,” the man said.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“It’s good to be out.”
He told me he’d spent the day at the beach and was amazed by all the beautiful women he’d seen. His words knotted my stomach.
“Been years since I spent a whole day sitting in the sun,” he added.
Cautiously, I looked at the clean-shaven face of a guy who looked about thirty years old. His blond hair nearly reached his shoulders.
“I just got out of prison,” he explained.
Unable to come up with a suitable response, I kept my mouth shut.
Judging from the way this man surveyed the area, he expected the authorities to change their minds any minute. Ironically, I’d also spent a little time behind prison walls. Three years earlier, I and three other female criminology students, had regularly visited inmates at an institution called Oakalla (since torn down) for an evening of conversation. The purpose of these excursions was to reward model inmates with a diversion from their usual routines. For us students, the visits were to have provided insights to prison life for analysis in essays. I didn’t learn much from these meetings. The problem, or perhaps blessing, was the presence of a guard, which made controversial topics taboo. Inmates weren’t allowed to ask us personal questions and we weren’t supposed to ask inmates about their crimes. We certainly weren’t encouraged to discuss what really went on in prison, so we usually wound up talking about movies. Inmates watched a lot of movies.
Standing next to an ex-con at the bus stop, I found myself using familiar strategies: attentive listening and an impassive expression. I heard the guy say how much he enjoyed the sunlight and warmth, and walking along the beach. He vowed that this was a new start for him, that he’d never go back inside. Anyone even remotely connected with corrections work knew that nearly every inmate said this, and that a significant percentage of them wound back up inside sooner or later.
Although I hadn’t pursued a career in criminology, I worried about the man’s reaction to my background. He might have been amused, or he might have been contemptuous, even angry. What I fear most, though, were personal questions. I didn’t want a brand new ex-con with no girlfriend to know anything about me. Some people might call this cowardice. Others might view my stance as necessary self-preservation in an unpredictable world. After all, weren’t most ex-cons trouble?
When the bus arrived, my companion stepped on board after me, which wasn’t surprising. Not many buses headed for the suburbs after ten p.m. Since few people were on the bus that night, there were plenty of window seats available. When my companion sat beside me, my anxiety rose. What would I talk about during the forty minute ride? What would he ask me?
An older man wearing a light gray T-shirt, climbed on board. On his shirt, the word “Alcatraz” was stamped in bold, black letters. My companion and I looked at each other. With a resigned smile, he said, “You can’t get away from it.”
Anyone who could survive prison without losing his sense of humor couldn’t be all bad. Throwing all caution to the wind, I asked him which prison he’d been inside. His reply was “the Pen”. My stomach knotted up again. He was talking about the now demolished British Columbia Penitentiary: a maximum security institution for serious offenders. From there, my traveling companion said he went to an institution in the Fraser Valley, then to a minimum security camp. I asked him how long he’d been inside.
I was sorry I’d asked. If a young guy had been locked up that long he must have done something horrific. I thought about the type of offenses that would qualify someone for residency in one of Canada’s most notorious prisons. None were pleasant, and pretty well all involved weapons and violence. Still, while we rode the bus on that warm July night, this guy didn’t seem dangerous. He didn’t look at me with a lewd expression, nor was there bitterness in his voice. He didn’t claim to have been victimized by the justice system. It was almost as if this man had accepted his fate.
Studying him more closely, I noticed his new jeans and clean white shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He had the bluest eyes I’d ever seen. With the window down and a breeze cooling the humid air, I began to enjoy the ride down the busy, congested route down Kingsway that night. I’d been riding buses for so long that diesel fumes and loud engine noise were a familiar part of my world, and in a strange way provided comfort in this awkward situation.
As it turned out, maintaining a conversation with this ex-con wasn’t a problem. He liked to talk. He said he was a fourth year psychology student who was eighteen credits short of completing his degree when he was released. I believed him. A number of inmates took courses either to avoid mind-numbing boredom, or to learn how to work the legal system more successfully than their lawyers had.
“Doubt I’ll be able to use it,” he remarked.
The more we talked, the more curious I was about this guy, yet I asked few questions. Even outside prison, the rules still applied. Maybe my companion understood this because he never asked me my name, let alone more personal questions. It also explained why our conversation turned to movies.
By the time our bus reached Sixth Street in New Westminster, nearly all of the passengers had left. My stop was only five minutes away. Anxiety overtook me again. My apartment was two blocks from the stop, on a quiet street. What if he followed me? I didn’t think I could outrun the guy, but I could scream if I had to.
I raised my hand and pulled the cord above the window.
My companion stood up to let me out. “Nice talking to ya’,” he said.
“Yeah, same here.”
“Maybe I’ll see you around.”
As I approached the back exit, I listened for his footsteps. The door opened. I stepped down the three metal steps. The doors closed. I turned around and discovered that I was alone.
Walking home that night, I remembered that there was a halfway house for men on Sixth Street, three blocks from my bus stop. He was probably living there. Since I took the bus to work each morning, it was possible we would see each other again.
By the time I entered my apartment, I felt foolish for assuming the worst about this man. He’d been polite, funny, and respectful; better company than some of the men at my workplace. But then, I always had been extremely cautious socially and emotionally. I’ve since learned that prisons come in all shapes and forms.
Several days after my encounter with the man, news headlines reported a double murder and suicide at the halfway house on Sixth Street. Shortly afterward, a radio newscast announced that an ex-con’s application for a cabby’s license had been turned down in court. Apparently, the man had apologized to the judge for his appearance, stating that he’d been living at the house when the murder occurred and was still trying to cope with the situation. The reporter added that the ex-con had served twelve years for bank robbery.
I don’t recall if the man’s name was mentioned, not that it would have mattered. I’d never asked him his name either. Intuition told me he was the one, though. I felt bad for the guy and again wished I’d been kinder. He probably could have used a friend.
We never did meet again, and I hope the man stayed out of jail, but who knows?
I rarely ride buses anymore. Marriage and child-rearing in the suburbs have created an unhealthy dependence on my car. Once in a while, though, I’ll take a bus to Vancouver. It’s an interesting way to see and hear what the rest of the word is up to.
Age and experience have helped me handle chance encounters and the strangeness of life with more confidence and compassion than I had back then. Should a stranger approach me at a bus stop one day and want to share his story, at the very least, I’ll ask him his name.