brouwer-brown 550I barely remember leaving work, or the transfer to the bus that takes me near enough my home to walk. I barely remember leaving the house this morning, or what’s happened during the day. It’s December. The days are short. I come and go in the darkness.

It’s getting dark.

A man materializes at the freeway bus shelter off of 35 South and 82nd Street as I get off the bus and the Number 4 pulls away.

Just the two of us and the rush hour traffic.

Across the street is a car dealership, used cars for sale, rows of American flags flying high above, but otherwise, no one else but us and the freeway, buzzing in the background.

He approaches.

“Excuse me miss, I can see you’re busy, and I hate to take up your time, but could I bother you with just one question, just one second here?”

The guy’s carrying a huge garbage bag, wearing army fatigues, cuffs fraying at the bottom, cap pulled tight over his forehead, a stained red vest over a dingy long-sleeved shirt.

“You’re not bothering,” I tell him, but I can smell him from where I’m standing, a combination of onion, a musty clothes hamper.

It’s getting dark.

“Well I hate to ask it, but I’m in kind of a bind. Do you have a piece of twine or something that resembles twine?”

And while some people could say, right off the bat, Nope—no twine, in all good faith I cannot, because there is a chance I could have a piece of ribbon, a hair tie, something twine-like in my bag.

I stop. I look. I don’t.

“No twine,” I tell him. “But I have an orange. You could have that.”

And as soon as I’ve said it, I feel a little stupid. A little small.

The man asks for string, and I offer him fruit?

There is a pause.

Nothing between us but the sound of the rush-hour traffic.

“Do I,” he asks, pausing, “look like some kind of bum, do you think? Do I look like some kind of riffraff troublemaker that needs an orange from you?”

When he says the word “riffraff” he moves his hands wildly around his face, shakes his head like an imitation of someone’s worst nightmare street-version of the boogeyman.

“No,” I tell him. “You don’t. You just look like you had a tough day.”

It’s growing darker, just the two of us standing there against the traffic noise.

The freeway hums, and the outside lights start to flicker on.

Am I crazy to have stopped, crazy to be having this conversation?

“Miss,” he says suddenly, moving closer, “I know you’re busy, but could I ask you just one more thing?”

He is staring me straight in the eyes, and I notice that his eyes are a very pale blue.

“If I could get outside myself—if I could stand outside myself and look in for just a little bit—what would I see?”

“Would I see a crazy riffraff guy, a bum? Would I see something terrible?”

I stop, for the first time all day. I stop and really look.

“No,” I tell him simply. “You’ve got great eyes—clear eyes—anyone could tell there’s nothing terrible there.”

“Really?” he asks, moving closer.


Am I crazy to have stopped, crazy to be having this conversation?

And then he smiles, turns, begins to cross the street, over towards the used car lot, to the rows of American flags flying high above the rush-hour traffic.

I begin my walk home on the side of the road, orange in hand.

“Hey—!  HEY!” he shouts from across the street, and holds up his hands, for me to toss the orange.

I throw it, and he catches it without effort.

“If you gave me three oranges, I’d juggle them for you right now!” he yells to me.

“I’d love to see that!” I shout back to him.

He tosses the orange back and forth, from one hand to the other, as if he were juggling more, under the streetlight.

I applaud.

He stops and bows, hands together in a Namaste, bending deeply from the waist.

He straightens.

“We’re all a step away from this,” he says, gesturing to himself, and walks into the dark parking lot, as if he had never been there at all, leaving me alone with the rush-hour traffic.

A step away from what, seems to be the question.

Tami Mohamed Brown holds an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University.  She is the recipient of a 2013-14 Minnesota Emerging Writers’ Grant and a 2011-12 Loft Mentor Series Award. Her writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Mizna, Sweet, Literary Mama, and in the anthologies, Open to Interpretation:  Intimate Landscape and The Heart of All That Is: Reflections on Home. She lives with her Egyptian husband and teenage daughter, and finds inspiration on her daily bus commute to her 9-5 office job in downtown Minneapolis.  She writes about all of these things.

 Photography by Joel Brouwer