The bus stops at Elston. A man in a filthy white tshirt, chugging an Icehouse tallboy, with a freshly stitched scrape over his left eye, stands at the door. There’s no way the bus driver is letting him board, but there’s also no way he’s going to walk away. He stands and stares through the window, taking angry gulps of his malt beverage, and as the light turns green and we drive away, he flips us off.
About a block later, an eight-year-old boy at the front of the bus starts to puke. His mother grabs an empty grocery bag just in time. He doesn’t stop until we reach Jefferson Park.
Despite being totally nonreligious, I often approach life like a Calvinist: looking for signs of grace or damnation, not in some distant afterlife, but in the day ahead. Everything might be an omen of what’s to come. So when my morning started as described above, I could only assume that it was going to be a terrible day.
But then I arrived at my office and there were free bagels and coffee for some kind of corporate charity kickoff thing, and that’s surely a sign it’s going to be a good day, right? How can I make sense of this?
The same thing happens while traveling. You board the plane and discover that your iPod is completely out of juice, or you stop at the cute little diner on the way to the campground and see a squashed raccoon in the parking lot, and that means that the rest of the trip is doomed. Or you find a penny in the aisle of the train or spot a really cool-looking cloud at the start of your bike ride and think, yeah, this is going to be perfect.
There’s no reason to think this way, obviously. It goes against all of the Science that drives my day-to-day life. But especially when I’m away from home, when things are more uncertain and unfamiliar and I’m looking for something to hold on to and guide me, I think even more about signs. The sweet old lady in Budapest who wrote the price of a paper cone of roasted pumpkin seeds into my hand with her finger was a sign that my trip was going to take an upward swing from the disaster of the previous week. The mistranslation of an entree in La Fortuna meant that the rest of our stay there would be disappointing and miserable. When you’re in a place where you don’t know the language or the lay of the land, you have to rely on your best interpretation of whatever pops up in front of your face. Whether it’s a lucky penny or a dead raccoon, sometimes it’s all you’ve got to go on.