Go to Sleep

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 11, 2005

See that lady on the bus, back there. The lady with the long black-brown braids, with red wine lipstick and feet so swollen they seem to melt into puddles, spilling over her black shoes.

See her backpack, her home on her lap. She is wearing a jacket, despite a heat index of 106.

Don't stare. But notice that after the bus made its last stop, the lady is still riding, curled up in that blue plastic seat, her head tucked beneath her arms, like the folded wings of a sleeping bird.

And if you rode all night, you would notice that when the bus gets to the end of the line and turns around for its next run, she does not get off, but keeps riding.

On that bus going down Georgia Avenue, you notice another woman sitting with dignity, and then you look at her feet, and notice although they are covered by red fishnet stockings, they, too, are melting into puddles.

There is a man up front with a lump on his head. He is afraid to go back to the alley where teenagers kicked him and stole his last dollar. His feet have become puddles, too.

They are riding this bus, a nocturnal bed, a shelter of suspension, where they sit in different states of nyctitropism, in one position by day and in another by night. Traveling to whatever distant land sleep brings; but also going nowhere, as this bus rocks and swings, cutting the night as it cuts across the city.

And here is Mr. Wonderful, the bus driver. They call him that because he allows them the peace of this sleep, does not shout at them. He just lets them ride all night, undisturbed until he ends his shift at 3 a.m.

When Mr. Wonderful gets to his final stop, the final motion of the bus gently wakes the woman with her head folded beneath her broken wings, and she steps off on her swollen feet, sinking into the dark. She shuffles to the brightest-lighted bench at the Metro station, where she passes the woman with the gray wig who is sleeping standing up. On her regularbench, she will sit for an hour, wide awake for fear that if she closed her eyes, predators who lurk here would come out of the darkness and get her.

So she sits from 3 to 4, the frightening hour, when no city bus runs. And when 4:13 a.m. arrives, she climbs aboard another bus and it rocks her back to sleep.

In this city with little affordable housing and not enough space in shelters, advocates for the homeless say there are people out here waiting at dark corners and well-lighted places, waiting for the next bus. Waiting to climb aboard, pay the fare, curl up and go under in sleep.

But one wonders how they sleep such trusting sleeps, when strangers sit around them fighting their own sleepless demons.

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