A couple of months ago, a man dressed as a woman entertained and serenaded the passengers on a #128 bus I was riding. She gave us a delightful show.

I saw her again about a week back, on a different but adjacent bus route, and she looked worse, but I knew it was her the moment I stepped onto the bus. You don't not remember a tall, muscular black man in a short skirt. Benjamin, was her name.

I sat in a sideways-seat within talking distance, partly because I was hoping for another show like last time, but mostly because it was the only empty seat where I wouldn't be sitting next to someone else.

"I like your rain bonnet," she said to me, but she said it without a smile. I smiled and said thanks. In Seattle, a waterproof hat is a necessary accessory.

"I like your eyes," she said to another man. He said thanks, more awkwardly than I had. Some men are uncomfortable taking a compliment, and perhaps doubly uncomfortable being complimented by a man in a skirt.

Benjamin had something kind to say to everyone who walked past her seat on the bus, probably hoping to hear something kind in return. It seemed to work, too.

"Oh, I love your ring," she said to a distinguished-looking black man who was getting off the bus, and he said, "Thank you, dahling," like Eva Gabor on Green Acres.

"Those are fabulous pants," she said to a young Asian man wearing, well, fabulous pants — purple plaid, like something a pro golfer might've worn in the 1970s. He smiled, and said, "I like your aura."

I'm not so sure about her aura, though. Not that afternoon. 

When I'd first seen her a month ago, she'd been well-dragged, and at first glance you might have taken her for a woman. On this second bus ride, her blouse was askew, her nylon had a big rip, her makeup was smudged, and even as she was saying all those nice things, she seemed sad. I wondered if she'd been hassled or accosted, or maybe she'd just had a rough night. One doesn't tell a lady that she looks disheveled, so I only said, "You doing OK today?"

"I've been better," she said, "and also, I've been worse."

She was wearing red but looked blue, and she needed to hear something nice, so I said, "Well, you have a lovely smile." And it was true. She's on good terms with a dentist. Very Ultra-Brite.

"Why, thank you," she said, and smiled. Having done my good deed for the month, I turned my attention out the window, where there was nothing in particular to see. After a moment's pause, Benjamin said much more softly, "I smile on the outside, but inside I'm a mess."

Too much information, really. I looked at her again, smiled again, but what the hell do you say in response to that? I rarely do 'conversations' but I'd made an exception, and what did it get me? 'Inside I'm a mess.'

Well, the next stop was my stop. The bus rumbled onward, and I rang the bell, gathered my stuff, and stood to get off. There are signs asking passengers to exit at the rear, but I'd thought of something else to say to her, and she was sitting up front, so I got off at the front door. As I passed her I said, "Hey, I hope your insides get better."

"That's up to my doctor, sweetheart, but thanks."

The bus rolled away, and I sat down in the bus shelter, and wrote myself a note about what had happened. I'm always writing notes to myself, about things I might write about it. On the first block of my too-long walk home, I stopped a second time to scribble a further note.

It's one thing to perform in drag, I wrote, but Benjamin apparently goes everywhere in drag, and that's something else again. Hassled or accosted, I'd wondered? If not that day, definitely some days she has to deal with assholes, is what I jotted down, but a week later I hadn't written about it yet.

♦ ♦ ♦

Yesterday, we had our third ride together, on a different bus in the same part of town. When I got on the bus, she smiled at me and said, "Hello, big guy." Guess she couldn't see anything to compliment me about.

"Hello yourself," I said, but I said it nicely. There were only six passengers on the bus, so I could've sat anywhere, but I took a seat close enough to hear her. She was in much better spirits than on our second ride. All smiles, and she was wearing a baby blue dress with matching shoes, an outfit I might have noticed even on a biological woman. "You look smashing," I said. 

"Why, this old thing? I only wear it when I don't care how I look."

I laughed and said, "It's a Wonderful Life."

She nodded and said, "Yes, it is," and then to someone else, "I love your purse," and to someone else, "Your beard looks so out of control," but the way she said it, you knew it was a compliment.

This was the bubbly, cheerful lady from our first bus ride, and I was glad to see her. She didn't sing, but she was the star of the show again.

A very pretty young woman got onto the bus, and to her she said, "I love your blouse."

The woman answered back, "I love your hair," but she sat way at the back of the bus, so Benjamin resumed talking to me.

We talked the whole way, which I survived because again it was a short ride for me, only six blocks, and maybe also because she's such a neon personality, it brightened my ordinary darkness. She did most of the talking, too — with everyone she talks to in the world, probably.

She told me she performs in drag shows, and I asked, professionally? She said no, she's only an amateur with dreams of going pro. Someone behind me said, "That makes you a drag princess, but you'll be a drag queen one day." There were laughs on the bus. Benjamin brings them.

Then I dinged the bell, and got off at the back door like you're supposed to. To my surprise, she got off at the front door. "Oh, are you coming with me?" I joked when I saw her on the sidewalk.

"Well, that depends on where we're going."

I should've been very uncomfortable, but she's like a black Carol Channing — way way out there and larger than life, and her lack of inhibition sorta melted mine, so I told the truth. "I'm going to breakfast, and then to the library for internet access."

"You can access my internet any time," she said, "but I have to pick up some drugs at Bartell and some better drugs from a friend of mine, so do me some other day, OK?"

I laughed. How could I not laugh?

"Have we met before?" she asked.

"Not really," I said, "but we've ridden the bus together. You sang a lovely song on the bus a while back."

"Oh, yes! I remember you! You clapped, and you were so nice — thank you for that!"

There was a moment of relative quiet on the crowded street, and she said, "I'm Bea," and held out her hand, dainty.

We shook but I frowned and said, "The day you sang on the bus, the driver called you Benjamin," which dammit, was a clumsy thing to say. If the lady says her name is Bea, her name is Bea. I regretted it while the words were coming out of my head.

She smiled Ultra-Brite again, and said, "I was Benjamin, in the before-times, and that driver's known me since I was a little boy. I'll always be Benjamin to him. To my friends, I'm Bea."

"Then you'll be Bea to me," I said.

"That makes you a friend," she said, "and you are…?"

This was almost exactly what I'd feared with that lady by the diner a few days ago, but there was no fear here. I'm still not sure why. I'm a complicated hermit — I want to be alone, always and forever, but maybe Bea was so exuberant and all-accepting, she temporarily nullified my ordinary hatred of humanity.

"I'm Doug," I said. The last time someone asked my name in a sidewalk conversation, I gave the name of a kid I knew in fourth grade, a kid with a very obviously Japanese name, and I am not Japanese.

But now Bea knows my name, my real name, and I know hers. And I hope she'll say "Hi Doug!" the next time she sees me.


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