You can take the pulse of a place by its bus station. I’d discovered this early in life, when I’d get loaded – on my own – onto a bus from one city to another, sent to stay with my father for a few days, or maybe my grandparents.
A bus station won’t lie to you like the rest of the city. No pretending to be something it’s not. Just an ugly facility where people sit or stand, waiting to get out of there and go somewhere else. Or waiting for someone they care about to turn up and make life worth living in this place.
That was the thought that occupied my mind while I stood there waiting for Sara, while the sun gave up on this city and moved on to announce a new day in some bright new place.
I’d met Sara through a friend. We were introduced at a party, and we bonded straight away. We spent the rest of the night standing in a corner of the living room, talking about Scorcese films and hardcore punk bands.
I remember the moment I really started to feel something for Sara. She was beautiful, but I don’t just mean that. She asked me if I wanted to be De Niro when I watched Taxi Driver or Raging Bull or Goodfellas. I told her I never wanted to be anyone else – I was always happy being who I was.
That evening, with the summer city growing cool, the grey concrete darkening, I waited for Sara and thought about what she’d said.
“Travis Bickle is somebody. Jake LaMotta is somebody. Jimmy is somebody. He exists, because DeNiro and Scorcese put him up there,” she’d said.
“So are you. So am I. I’m somebody, and you’re somebody.”
“How do you know?”
She had me there. At first I thought she was saying that Scorcese’s violent, macho characters were how men should be, but Sara wasn’t so simple.
“Travis Bickle’s an inarticulate nobody who, in the name of his own moral code, reinvents himself through violence,” I said.
“Which is why a lot of men can identify with him,” she said, and we laughed about it.
We started talking about writers. Bukowski’s ugly honesty, Hunter S. Thompson’s wild-but-incisive visionary rambling. And the simple beauty that Faulkner captured.
I was at the station early. I was listening to Dylan’s Pat Garret and Billy the Kid soundtrack.
Watching the desperate, broken people transition through the cold, lifeless place, Dylan’s romantic poem of camping out under the stars and running from bounty hunters caught the moment perfectly.
There’s mirrors inside the minds of crazy faces.
I was chewing this line over when Sara’s bus pulled in. I thought Dylan was singing about modern cities and the people in them, not a mythical folk hero from the Old West.
There’s always another stranger sneaking glances.
We held each other for a moment that should have been forever and I took one of her bags. Other passengers pushed past us and we wandered away together with nothing to worry about except each other.
We went through the concrete underpass on the south side of the city centre and it leads straight through to my place.
That’s when we saw them. Three young men with something to prove. One of them – shaved head, tattoo of a horse on his neck – had a girl up against the wall.
It didn’t look right. He stepped back from her when they saw us.
The girl was 13 or maybe less. She looked scared.
Sara grabbed my arm pretty tight when we came round the corner. I pushed her back with my hand, lightly, and called out.
They moved towards me – just a step, maybe two. I could see from their faces – they weren’t asking her for directions or talking about the weather. They were doing something to that girl.
I panicked. I thought I was doing the right thing – what people did when other people were in trouble. I told Sara to call the police and I started shouting. When they saw Sara take her phone out they started walking towards us, talking to each other.
The other two had dogs. What is it with those dogs and these guys?
It had started to rain. The city was slick with it, and the shadows were thick.
I managed to get a few good shots on the two smaller ones, and I even kicked one of the dogs. I still feel bad about that.
But the one with the tattoo came in strong. I didn’t see the knife and he cut me straight away. It was deep and it went into my gut, just missing a kidney.
I went down, holding the cut, and they ran off.
All I could think was that I didn’t think I’d earned a stabbing.
I thought about that, and about Dylan’s fleeting, beautiful ode to death, Knocking on Heaven’s Door, which is as short as life can be. And I passed out.
We were lucky because two guys came running round the corner when they heard me shouting. The others had run off, and the girl was still standing by the wall.
I came to when the paramedics turned up. They cleaned me up, put a bandage on me and took me to hospital. Sara stayed with me the whole time.
Holding my hand in the waiting room, she was staring into my eyes. I asked her what was up.
“You’re no Travis Bickle,” she said, smiling. “But you’re somebody.”
Words: Joseph McArthur Field.