When you drive the same commute for more than five years, you get used to certain things. Speed traps on U.S. Highway 95 South. Traffic that jams at the fork only when your deadline looms.
And, of course, the homeless man who makes his way to his turf at the same time you exit the highway.
He usually holds a brown bag. His silver hair is combed back off his leathery, brick-red face. He stumbles like a toddler learning to walk and occasionally directs traffic. Yes, directs traffic. That’s how I first noticed him.
It was a few years ago, lunch hour. He wound up one arm and pointed with the other, ordering, in his intoxicated head, cars to accelerate. Nevermind that the green light served the same function just fine. Two palms faced traffic when the light turned red.
It was the kind of sight you don’t know what to do with. Part of me wanted to get the man a whistle, another part wanted to get him help.
He became a fixture over the years, something as expected and unexpected as those speed traps.
He’s not always there, yet, he’s always there. I don’t realize it’s been so long since I last saw him until I spot him on the sidewalk or under the bypass or crossing the street.
Like the time around last Christmas when the sight of him almost caused a case of accident-free whiplash in my car. He walked upright with balanced, spirited steps and appeared alert. From my car, I could see the difference in his face and its uninterrupted features. The man held a plastic bag, not a brown paper one.
A stampede of question marks charged through my head. Is this really sobriety before my eyes? Would it last? Did the holidays have anything to do with it? What was in the plastic bag?
The second question was the only one to get an answer: negatory.
He never panhandles, the man who sleeps under the bypass, so I figured we would never have contact. Then something happened a few weeks ago that changed that, and in a way I never saw coming.
Besides getting used to certain things on a commute, you get used to the drive itself. Sometimes you can get all the way to work and wonder how you arrived there. Maybe the driving daze caused my carelessness that morning. Maybe it was the stress of my upcoming move to the East Coast. Maybe it was momentary stupidity.
The man I’ve known and not known for a few years now would certainly pick the last one.
After making my exit, I proceeded toward my destination, two lights separating me from it. One of them was red, an insignificant detail yours truly didn’t notice.
When another car darts in front of your own as it speeds ahead to make a left turn, instincts set in. Brakes! Horn! Panic!
Thank God for the brakes. The realization that the near-wreck was my fault, not the other driver’s — who already made his or her way out of my rearview mirror’s sight — set in. It felt like a bowl of dumbass got dumped over my head. To make matters worse, I had to reverse my car behind the white line and marinate in my mistake.
That’s when it happened.
There he was at my passenger window, the one homeless dude in all of Southern Nevada who considers himself a traffic conductor. Of course he would witness my red-light regret. And of course he would make a production of it.
The man crouched down so I could look him in the bloodshot eye and started a very slow, very sarcastic clap. There was some head-shaking, some pointing to the scene of the almost-accident and some exaggerated laughing, too.
But the clapping, oh, the clapping. It was rude, it was hilarious, it was greatly contributing to my embarrassment.
Imagine doing something stupid and then having a man with a microphone next to you. That’s how it felt.
Still, I shook off the mortification and walked into work with my head held high again. Yes, it was embarrassing and bizarre, but it was over. Or so I thought.
While settling in the newsroom that morning, a colleague made his way into my department. As soon as he spotted me, I could see he found what he was looking for.
Still wearing his jacket and holding his car keys, he crouched down, looked me in the eye and started a very slow, very sarcastic clap.
Contact Xazmin Garza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0477. Follow her on Twitter @startswithanx.