If Money Wasn't a Thing

A man sitting alone under the bus shelter pulled out his smartphone from a coat pocket, and then compared it to the folded paper baring a freshly printed bus schedule in his other hand. He sighed; there just wasn't going to be a quick way home with his car in the shop. Regardless, taking public transit made his trip home at least two hours longer. The distinct sound of overused breaks whitewashed the common commotion as the waiting businessman spotted his towering transport approach. Collecting his water bottle and briefcase, he stood up as the bus came to a halt with a loud groan and steamy hiss.

The man saw his warping reflection in the windows of the door; his dark suit and sunglasses, his hair coal black, strong jaw and graying goatee, and well-toned physique for a middle aged man. The doors parted to reveal a tubby man wearing a tasteless uniform; one pudgy hand on the wheel, the other on the door's lever. Slowly, the businessman climbed aboard. The steps were covered in muck and wads of various wrappers, the hand rail greasy from all the hands that grab them day-to-day. He stopped at the top of the steps and scanned over the passengers from behind his metallic shades. The businessman guessed there were at least seventy or more people - some staring back at him without expression. The businessman's face fell when he realized there was not an empty seat for him. The driver coughed loudly and caught the businessman's attention, and then nodded to the fare box. The businessman juggled his suitcase and drink as he fished out his pay from a pant pocket. The bus doors shut as the driver forced his bulky machine forward into traffic. Fighting the shifting of the bus, the businessman made his way down the congested walkway. His steps were slow and deliberate, cautious not to touch anyone or anything. The businessman eyed the standing yellow poles with distaste; they were just as oily as the handrail. He was sure there was a blood smear on the first pole he passed and the sight made the man's stomach churn.

Luckily, he spotted half of a seat open for him far down the aisle. A younger man, probably in his late-twenties, sat alone. A black guitar case, riddled with colorful stickers and streaks of torn leather, rested with a tilt against the side of his stranger's blue bench. The man's woolen sweatshirt was particularly baggy; it hung off the man's thin frame. He had a large sack at his feet; its loose form jagged with the many items within it. A large beanie slanted to one side on top of his head. The stranger's blonde hair was well past shoulder length and was tucked behind his ears. His ripped corduroy pants were several inches too short, hovering high over dirty loafers. As the businessman approached the seat, the stranger looked up to him with bright eyes and a warm smile. To make room, the stranger slid the guitar out of the aisle and in-between his legs.

The businessman sat down. He placed the briefcase on his lap and sipped at his water while casually surveying the faces around him. There was a very large woman talking loudly on the phone in front of the businessman, and a teenage boy who slumped over his skateboard with large red disks in his ears who sat to the right of the large woman. Another teenager sat with the boy; a girl with a flat billed ball cap and very tight neon pink pants. Across the aisle from the businessman, an ugly old man with a kinked nose and rough knuckles sat with a large trash bag full of crushed cans. Behind the old man with the sack of cans sat an aged woman in business attire, talking happily with her granddaughter.

The stranger with the guitar took in the sight who sat beside him. It was very apparent that the businessman hadn't taken a city bus before. The air was stiff as the businessman played with his smart phone while trying to hide it. The stranger grinned slightly, suspecting that the upper-class businessman was concealing his valuables in fear of getting jumped. When he put his phone away, the man sat very still and looked irritated. The stranger looked at the businessman, but the businessman ignored the gesture to catch his attention. He stared straight ahead, his eyes partially veiled behind metallic shades.

The stranger with the guitar breathed out heavily. He then turned and asked the man beside him, "Rough day, man?"

Several seconds passed and the businessman didn't look at him. "It could have gone better."

The businessman stole a glance towards his seat partner as the stranger bend down and dug into his bag, retrieving a candy bar. Breaking off a piece of chocolate, he extended the chunk towards the businessman and gestured for him to take it. He looked down at the treat sitting in the palm of the stranger's hand. Both sat silently for a second and eyed each other. The stranger held up the rest of the candy bar to show the label.

"It's just a Hershey bar." The business held up a hand in refusal.

The stranger cupped the chocolate in his hand and threw it into his mouth. As he chewed, he folded the rest of the candy bar back in its wrapper and dropped it into his bag. The stranger looked out the window as the sound of his lip smacking began to irk the businessman beside him. When he finished, the stranger looked towards his seat partner again.

"So," the guy said, scratching his hair under his green beanie. "What do you do?"

Again, the businessman ignored the stranger. The stranger didn't look away, testing the businessman's patience.

"Okay, look," said the businessman as he dug out his vibrating smart phone from his pocket. He spent a few seconds reading his message, scoffed, then replied to the younger man as he returned the device to its pocket. "You seem like a real friendly person, but I really would like to sit in silence."

"Why?" asked the stranger with the guitar, curiously. "Is something bothering you? A little small talk can go a long ways, man."

"I'm fine." The businessman replied quickly. "But seriously, I don't want to talk to you or anyone on this bus. If you're so interested in helping people you should have gone to school for it." The businessman's tone was smug.

The stranger was taken aback by the businessman's angry retort. He looked away from the businessman, wide eyed and trying to understand why the man beside him had snapped so easily.

"I went to school – got a degree in web design. Landed a decent job right out the gate, but hated it, man. I wasn't happy with my path, so I chose this." He tapped the guitar that rested between his knees and eyed it affectionately. "Been happy ever since."

"You quit for a guitar? How's that going for you? Why on earth would you do that?" The businessman shook his head. "You obviously don't look like your music is on the radio."

"Nope, I'm not." the stranger said. "Someday, maybe, but right now I'm a street performer."

The businessman avoided his seat partner, who was waiting for a reply. Again, the stranger with the guitar didn't look away as the bus wiggled its way through an intersection.

"Are you bumming your way through life, or are you working some dead end job at McDonalds?" said the businessman, unable to retain his opinion. "Either way, you made a terrible life choice; especially since you had a career to begin with."

The stranger laughed softly, unhurt by the words he's heard many times. "Not quite. I work at Gerald's Coffee on forty-fourth and twentieth... well, kind of. I play there most weekends. I make a fair amount usually – depends on the size of the crowd. I'm happy though, so I think I made the right choice."

A silence followed between the two. The stranger with the guitar watched as the businessman looked around and compared passing street signs with his print out. The businessman frowned as he typed into his smart phone and compared the screen with the printout. The stranger leaned towards the businessman next to him. "I get you're pissed off with something, probably the fact that you're on this bus I think. You don't seem the type to take a city bus, man. But, yeah, I noticed you're having a rough day and want to share some of my happiness with you – that is, if you want it." He leaned forward and reached into his bag again. 'You don't need to pay anything; just enjoy it."

"Share your happiness?" The businessman leaned away slightly, watching the stranger suspiciously.

The stranger pulled out a disk case with a simple album cover stuffed inside the clear top. "Here," he said and held disk out to the businessman.

"No, thanks, I'm not interested."

"Really?" the stranger asked, confused. "It's free, man. That's as good of a deal as you could ever get."

"Keep your song and dance to yourself. I don't want it." The businessman replied. Again, his phone vibrated. The businessman read another message, and then typed a message of his own.

"Oh sure you do, you could give it as a gift. You could give it to your kid, maybe?" The stranger suggested. "My lyrics aren't vulgar, man. They're full of wisdom.

The businessman laughed loudly. "Wisdom? What about, quitting a job? How to bum your way through life? You obviously don't know anything about the world; anyone can see that just by what you wear. What profound wisdom could you ever have to give me? No way in hell I'd ever give that to my girl."

The stranger with the guitar began to reply, but was cut short. "Wait! Don't answer that. Just stop talking, please." The stranger laughed softly, playing with the album in his hands.

A few moments passed before the stranger spoke again, "You seem to think I'm nothing; that you're better off than I am. Don't think that suit and tie makes you a better person."

The businessman's eyes widened, his hand on the water bottle tightened slightly. "What?"

The bus slowed to a stop as a few passengers stood up and gathered their things. The commotion was loud, the clamor strengthened by the sound of traffic flooding through the open doors. The stranger shrugged and replied when he found better words. "I'm just saying, you say things which suggest that you think I'm a penniless low life who's chasing a childish fantasy, man. I'm not." He dug into his pant pocket and revealed two copper coins in his palm. "In fact, I have two!"

The stranger laughed at his own joke, and the businessman only returned his gaze forward. The bus doors shut and it became much easier for them to hear each other.

"Oh come on," The businessman said, dumbfounded. He was getting frustrated and his cheeks began to take on a pink hue. "Your pants haven't fit you since you were fifteen, and you dress like the only thing you care about is getting high again. You dump all your confidence into that guitar and think it'll make you a living for the rest of your life. You probably live in some disgusting apartment, I'm guessing, if you're not homeless!" The man breathed out deeply before speaking again. "Now listen, I don't mean to call you out on how you live your life, but, dammit, I told you I didn't want to talk."

The stranger with the guitar nodded, ignoring the businessman's plead as he put the coins back into his pocket. "I do live in an apartment. I do think my music will make me money; it already does. I've earned about sixty bucks today down by Red Lobster about an hour or so ago, man. I dress comfortable, which is more than can be said for you." He lifted a foot quick, then nodded towards the other man's dress shoes.

"You dress like a bum." The businessman replied quickly and looked away. His cheeks now flush.

The bus was much quieter than when the business man first stepped on. The woman who was on the phone now sat silently. The teenager with the skate board was now sitting upright; the girl next to him silent. The young girl and grandmother were much quieter with their games.

"Tell me then," The stranger asked with a slight incredulous grin. "What exactly should I wear? A suit, like yours? Would that make me a better person, man?"

Once again, the businessman ignored the person he sat next to.

"Well?" the stranger pushed with a calm tone.

The businessman rolled his eyes and took a sip from his water. He looked straight ahead when he replied. "You should dress like you actually contribute to society, man. And cut your disgusting hair, man."

The stranger chuckled. "I do contribute. I entertain people as they go about their ways, man. They feel lifted, some of them. Some even offer me a little change; others give me quite a bit of their wallets. If I've really done something for them, really showed them something, they'll pick up a CD and listen to what more I have to say."

"You bum off of others' earnings just to feed yourself. That's not doing anything for anyone – you just make people feel guilty for having more than you. You play on their sympathy for a living. They care, they feel bad. They try to help you get on your feet again." The businessman's foot was tapping the floor rapidly. "Any you think we're one and the same? Ha! Come off it."

"True," the stranger with the guitar agreed. "Some people do feel bad for me – people kind of like you. Then there are others who listen to what I offer, man. There are people who understand what I'm doing with my life and help me continue on with it. And really, why does anyone feel sorry? They can see the smile on my face, but still think I don't like where I am? Trust me, man; I love what I'm doing, which is more than what can be said for most who walk by. Besides, your paycheck comes from your company's earnings, which comes from sales, which, in turn, comes from others' incomes, man. I don't see your point when you say I bum to feed myself."

The business man, angry, shook his head with exasperation. Then, he noticed that most who sat near them were silent, their heads slightly turned to listen in on their conversation. He took a deep breath, drummed his fingers on the leather briefcase resting on his lap, and then straightened his tie. Those who met eyes with the businessman quickly adverted their gaze elsewhere. The bus made another stop during the silence. The skater boy and the girl with the pink pants stood up with her school bags and left the bus; an older woman with curly golden hair and a large denim bag filled her place. Several more seats were available, some of which were completely empty. The businessman closed his eyes and rubbed his face with a hand.

"What's your name?" he calmly asked the stranger next to him.

"Chris. What's yours?" he replied. He didn't look upset at all, which couldn't be said for the businessman. He set the CD between the steel wall and his leg.

The businessman's voice was rather low when he replied. "James."

"It's nice to meet you, James." Chris responded as he adjusted his beanie and tucked a few loose strands of hair behind his ears. James nodded towards Chris, and then the two sat in silence. The people around them began to liven up as the bus made a few more stops. The bus stopped again, and the old man with the bag of aluminum cans left. He was replaced by very large, mid-twenties man wearing a black hoodie. Even with his hood down, it was clear that the sweatshirt was supposed to make the guy look like a panda bear. Although no one on the bus made a comment, several didn't bother to conceal their grins.

"Chris, I should apologize," James said, turning towards the man in the knitted sweater. "I didn't mean to go off on you like that. You are one-hundred percent right; I don't normally take a bus home, and I really wasn't thrilled when I learned I had to after the mechanic called and said my car wouldn't be fixed until tomorrow."

Chris shrugged, "Hey, man, everyone has their moments. What happened to it?"

The businessman sighed and drummed his fingers on his briefcase again. "I got into a little fender bender; well, I guess it's not so little since my car won't be fixed until tomorrow. It'll cost me, too. Most parts needed to be ordered in, and since I can't wait a week, I asked for express shipping. Paying a little more to cut a few waiting days out isn't that big of a deal, just a small chunk of change after my insurance gets a hold of me." He played with his smart phone again.

"Your dinged up car has you this worked up?" Chris asked jokingly. "You must really be worried about being here, man. Are you that afraid you'll get jumped while taking the bus or something?"

James looked a little crossed. "That car is not my only problem I've got to deal with lately. And it's not like my phone or computer is dirt cheap, so yeah, I'm a little nervous."

"And your sunglasses, I'd worry for those too." Chris said, grinning.

"Huh," James puffed, agreeing as he adjusted his briefcase and tapped his foot on the floor. "Those too, I guess."

James looked down at his phone again, and then compared it with the printout and the passing street signs. He didn't look pleased with his progress home. "Just lovely," he said under his breath.

Chris asked the businessman, "Why are you in such a rush, man? This thing don't speed up or slow down for no one. Enjoy the trip."

James sighed. "It's been a really, really long day and I just want to get home."

Chris nodded, resting a hand on the top of his guitar case. "Well, whatever it is that's grinding your gears, it won't follow you for too long. Troubles always pass, no matter the scale of things."

"Not really, Chris," the businessman replied. "Times are rough for me. The exec. board is chopping whole limbs of our branch and every day I wonder if I'm next to be headless."

"What do you do?" Chris asked, curious.

"I'm part financial administration for Comtec, to put it simply." James replied, unenthused. "You know that big building on thirtieth and nine? That one with the weird curve on the top of one side?"

Chris nodded. "Yeah, man; played near there a few weeks ago. Tough crowd, that block."

"Yeah, well, that's the place," James responded. His foot no longer tapped the floor. The bus pulled to the side of the street again, and most open seats filled up. The air felt much cooler when the doors opened now.

"Like your job?" Chris asked James.

"Sometimes," the business man said honestly. "Definitely not at the moment, but a job is a job. I mean career, I should say – I worked long and hard to get where I am. But, I have days where I really don't to want to get up and go. Today was definitely one of them, for me."

"Make a lot?" asked Chris, who then apologized when James frowned at the question.

The bus visited a few more locations while the two men sat quietly minding their own. As they went, sunlight, which had snuck a way through the tall grey buildings, warmed their faces for a brief moment. The bearded man with long hair smiled and enjoyed the quick introduction of the sun's warmth. The businessman tilted his head to avoid the rays from meeting his eyes.

"What would you do if money wasn't a thing, man?" Chris asked the businessman beside him. James looked at the long haired man, confused.

"I mean, what would you do with your life if you never had a need for money? Like, the world fed us and clothed us and sheltered us and made things all autonomously? Think about that; everything we could ever want, we could ask for and get for free. There would be no need to work, man; we'd all be free to do whatever."

The businessman looked at Chris comically. "No need to wonder about that. The world was built around money, around trade. It won't just change its ways just like that." Chris, who seemed to have ignored him, stared at his guitar while the businessman spoke.

"Honestly," Chris said, continuing on with his thought. "I don't think I'd be doing anything different. Well, I'd be a little fatter, but I'd still be playing my songs where all the people go."

He turned to James. "Humor me, what would you do if somehow the world was like that, man?"

The businessman's skeptical face softened as he thought about it for a moment. He shrugged. "I have no idea, kid. I'd get myself a free mansion on some big estate and crash all the luxury cars I could without a care… and not have to pay for new parts."

The man with the guitar laughed at the joke, and the businessman smiled.

"Not exactly what I meant, man, but I'll take it." Chris said. He picked his bag off the floor and placed the single strap over his shoulder. The bus made its way to the curb again and came to another squeaking halt. The businessman turned his legs into the aisle for Chris to leave. He grabbed the guitar by the handle and squeezed past James. They said their goodbyes and the long haired man made his way towards the door, tugging his pants downwards and then adjusting his sweatshirt with a free hand. Several others also departed. As people began to fill the open seats, several heads turned towards the stores outside the bus. Through the open door, the sound of a strumming acoustic and a warm singing voice could be heard from outside. As the door shut, the music was cut off. James looked back through the rear windows as the bus began to pull away from the curb. As James assumed, Chris was sitting in the bus shelter, playing his music and singing his songs with the guitar case left open on the ground. The businessman smiled and then faced forward. Sitting alone now, he picked his briefcase off his lap and moved to place it where Chris had been sitting. Before he set it down, James spotted the disk that Chris had offered him. He shook his head and grinned, grabbing the CD and putting it into his briefcase. "Stubborn kid," he said quietly to himself. Tapping his foot once more, the man began to check his map with his phone, looking through the tinted windows in search of street signs.