When I was young, Reader’s Digest, a subscription to which my 9 thGrade English teacher included in her yearly syllabus, ran a feature called “My Most Unforgettable Character.” It was the monthly’s most popular feature, and I wrote a few character sketches and thought one day I would submit one to the magazine. I never did. Truth be told, I don’t think I ever really met my MOST unforgettable character until 2005, when I took a job as a guide on a New York City tour bus.
In that job, every day was a new adventure. I was lucky. Everyone I met was reasonably personable. Well, almost everyone. One time a pair of gang kids tried to hijack the bus I was on, but finding a police person was easy back in the days when crime was still against the law. In a trice, the cops took the interlopers into custody, and our tour commenced without further incident. The event stands out in memory because it was unique. I came to hate the working conditions and the attitudes of the owners, my bosses, but the people I worked with, like the people I entertained, were, for the most part, people I enjoyed being around. Some were, of course, more colorful than others, and none was as remarkable as Sarabeth.
Sarahbeth was my favorite person in the bus world. She was saving up for gender reassignment — her birth name was Stanley — but divorce from a greedy wife, mental illness in a daughter whom neither Stanley nor Sarabeth would ever abandon, and frequent gender transgressions that led to Stanley’s being fired, which left Sarabeth with no money for the surgeries.
Instead, Sarahbeth made powerful self-assertions by wearing, in all weather, Bermuda shorts fashioned in bright orange sweatshirt fabric, frowzy blouses and tops that plunged below the prominent and rapidly graying chest hairline, and neon-colored sneakers. Her hair and mouth were a whirling forest of bright tangerine curls and a soft, pillowy hot pink triangle.
“I’m a lesbian,” Sarahbeth explained to me the first time she asked me out to dinner. I was flattered. No one I had ever met was smarter or funnier than this person, both qualities I have always found irresistible in a man. I had no interest in being romantically involved with a woman, even a woman who was, anatomically at least, still a man. I didn’t want to hurt Sarahbeth’s feelings, and though I turned down the invitations to dinner, to movies, to theater, we often sat together as we waited between buses, and I never tired of listening to the stories she told.
The personal stories were harrowing, beginning with a lower East Side childhood, and the professional stories were infuriating. This person had tolerated more than anyone’s fair share of abuse by the system over the years, and if I had had more imagination or a better apartment, I would have invited her over for sleepovers.
My touring repertoire grew astronomically, thanks to Sarabeth’s knowledge of the city. Having studied architecture, she was conversant with the nuances of styles of the eclectic buildings of the city. As an astute political observer, she understood underpinnings of Tammany, why Robert Moses was more tyrant than savior. She explained to me why the Breslin-Mailer campaign to create the great city-state, a movement I enthusiastically worked for, was basically moronic. Having studied labor law, leaned heavily on her when we had labor disputes. When the company abused us, it was Sarabeth who spoke most eloquently and with the most erudition. She knew the score. She understood what we were entitled to and what was being kept from us with malicious, greedy fury.
There was no bathroom for our relief. For a while we were allowed to use the rest rooms in the Hilton Garden Inn, which was less than a block from our post, and the management there even encouraged us to buy goods in their gift store and food mart by giving us a twenty percent discount.
One day Sarabeth farted and sighed loudly in a stall in the women’s room at the Hilton, and a tourist seated next to her, the woman in the next stall, securely separated by a metal wall and a locked door, freaked out at the sound of a male voice sighing on the tail of a roaring fart. She complained to the Hilton management. After that, all guides were banned from the place. No more comfy lounge seats, no more cheap candy bars, no more toilet.
I left the buses to edit a book for the friend of a friend. The book was set in our City, but the author knew little about NY and wrote locations that were amiss, and a protagonist, who was supposed to be from Iowa but was more accurately an Englishman in New York. To do the work, I went to London for a few months, and when I returned, Sarabeth was gone.
Consistently, Sarabeth had argued that the conditions atop the buses were unfit for guides. We had no place to sit. We were required at times to perform chores — like helping the elderly up the stairs or carrying baby paraphernalia or lugging luggage up the stairs — that put undue strain on all our muscle groups. We stood for long periods of time, jostled mercilessly about.
Sarabeth’s back and health could not take it. She suffered pneumonia and bronchitis and then was injured and re-injured until she finally had no choice but to undergo surgery. Like many back surgery patients, Sarabeth did not survive. The company, which never appreciated what an asset Sarabeth was, was relieved. Tethered by Sarabeth’s knowledge of the law, they had felt forced to retain her. Further, her illnesses and back troubles cost them money by way of pay they were impelled to dole out and by insurance rate hikes her claims inflicted. The blood suckers were free at last.
We tour guides, who loved Sarabeth, lost a precious friend. New York City lost a champion.