The week I borrowed the identity of a bus driver from Chicago
Like most embellishments and frauds, complex yet unsophisticated knits of fact and fiction, with interwoven storylines so intricate they create a new genre – bending the two into a neverland where nothing can be trusted, yet all is believable – it began on Facebook.
I was killing time on the train when I came across an amusing post by a hip-hop producer. He wrote a simple and amusing post about the club he was performing at that evening. The sole comment said something to the effect of “I wish I was going to be there tonight.” To maintain the anonymity this essay requires, nothing will be quoted verbatim. It wasn’t the wording of the post that was important, it was two other aspects. The first was the tone. Read the sentence “I wish I was going to be there” like you were quoting Eeyore. It sounded sad, pathetic even. I looked at the poster’s name and it was unisex. To decipher the ambiguity I looked at the profile picture – aspect number two. The screen on my phone made it hard to decipher the photo. It showed a head that was dark, its features indistinct. The bottom portion of the photo revealed orange clothing. This enticed me to creep the poster’s Facebook profile, a practice that I had previously reserved for enemies (to make sure they were worse off than I was) and ex-girlfriends (for the same reason as my enemies).
The photograph was a monkey in what appeared to be an orange spacesuit. My initial intention was to just see the profile picture and be done with the madness but the first post I saw on the person’s feed captivated me. The post went something like this: “There ain’t no love for the dirty girls in grandma’s basement. We live for the pussy, Chicago side street Romeos.” As per my previous comment I have changed the post to maintain anonymity but the idea, the theme, and the language are consistent. My interest was first piqued by the subject matter. More important though was the language he used. From the onset of my expedition I felt he was a poet. As I delved further, as you will read, I found that this was not his intent. He was not a poet. Let me rephrase that – he did not consider himself a poet. That is what made this whole thing so amazing. This person, this obvious non-poetic blue collar layperson, was one of the best poets I have read and became an incredible influence on a faction of my own poetry. I remember seeing an interview with Allan Ginsberg and he described his importance by saying that he was one of the only poets who truly wrote what he felt. With other writers there were barriers between their true self and their written word and he destroyed these boundaries and let the reader into his own mind, as sick and twisted as it was, and it portrayed the average citizen in a more accurate light than anything anyone else was writing.
This man embodied the intrinsic expression necessary for poetics and I found it necessary to investigate him further.
While the initial post intrigued me, it was through intense sessions of online stalking that I began to understand this man. He appeared to be in his mid-thirties to early forties and lived in his grandmother’s basement on the south side of Chicago. Casually obsessed with sex, he would post oft-crude comments about women he would like to entertain in his grandmother’s basement but could not, simply because it was his grandmother’s basement. I came to believe that this was not the sole reason.
He was actively employed as a city bus driver and many of his posts included references to this fact in the midst of his poetic ramblings. A typical post would look like this: “South side behind the wheel, city bus of black folks, through a broken down town, where is Obama now?”
He was often political and not just at the national level. There were mentions of city councilmen and aldermen in the same breath as his love for fast food and loose women. He enjoyed to use the word “pussy”. He mostly associated with black people and said many racist things but in the comedic, self-stereotyping way of Dave Chappelle. He was either very simple and basic or so thoughtful and philosophical that he knew the manner and context in which people needed to hear important ideas was more important than the message itself. He was an urban Marshall McLuhan. He knew how to convey a serious message hidden between the lines. A social commentary sewn delicately between the lines of crude, off-hand comments; social media’s Richard Pryor.
He had friends and it took me some time to decipher whether the people commenting on his posts where real life friends or those found through the fiber-optic maze of internet self-actualization. Most seemed to know him well and I got the sense that they generally liked him and accepted his bluntness as his identity. Some women, and from the language used it was clear to me they had never been intimate, would poke at him about his comments. Others would instigate him a little, seeing what else they could pull from his depths. He didn’t fall for traps though, and if he did he hid it well. He wrote on his own accord, for himself as much or more than his audience’s reaction, and didn’t take to requests. I never questioned his mental stability no matter how off-beat the posts were, although I sometimes wondered if he was mildly deficient in social interactions, suffering from a disorder of sorts.
As I looked through the history more it appeared that he had two long time male friends. One of these friends was a postal worker and I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to The Outsider by Richard Wright. Black postal workers on the snowy streets of Chicago. There is also a stronger connection to this and the novel that I will discuss later.
In reading the posts and comments I found that he and one of the friends had a falling out. It is unclear who blocked who or if they mutually unfriended each other but one day he was there and the next he was not. What I found interesting was that the friend he kept would make reference to the missing friend in comments and tried to act as a buffer between them. There was no budging. I gathered that their beef was petty but the subject of my interest was unmoved. He was stubborn and did things for himself. He was an artist.
I also found, through my minor obsession, a particular and intriguing slang inherent to his posts. I am fluent in many aspects of human dialogue and Raekwonian slang and decided that these must have been cultural-geographical references that I was not privy to. One that came up most often was “currency exchange”. The first time it came up I thought he was referring to a street or neighbourhood. He made a reference to “rolling through” it during a poetic post about the state of single men in Chicago. I became an anthropological linguist. I did some research and found that he meant an actual brick and mortar currency exchange and, unlike where I live where it is simply a place you go to exchange currencies at a god-awful spread, in Chicago and the majority of the US this also doubles as a cheque cashing store with the majority in urban areas being open twenty-four hours. I am quite familiar with places like this, having been a regular at one on a crack-addled corner a five minute crime infested walk from where I lived in my early twenties. It raised a question though – was this man simply using his words to reflect the status of young men in Chicago, an urban poet truly painting a picture of his surroundings, or was it more simple? Was he just cashing his cheques there? I would assume being a bus driver in Chicago is a well-paying, stable job that would at least have direct deposit. When I contacted the Chicago Transit Authority they wouldn’t answer my requests for comment on how they pay employees. Considering that it was the only question I had, I understood their firm stance.
I had realized that this man was a true poet and it was likely that he and his friends had not realized this fact. To me this was one of the greatest wastes. So many great artists’ work never gets shared with the masses but they keep making their art. A private oasis of experience. His was in the form of Facebook posts, a fleeting electronic archive that could be taken away from me through one click on the privacy settings. Worse, the world would never have a chance to know this man’s work.
I devised a plan. It was non-negotiable.
I needed to borrow his identity. I needed to pretend to be him and create some sort of platform to share his ideas.
My first plan was to create a blog or Facebook page that would simply copy his work and re-post it. A living archive the author knew nothing about. The one qualm I had with this was, as a writer, I couldn’t bear to take his work verbatim and re-post it. It wasn’t plagiarism per se because I was never intending to pass it off as my own work, but to me it would have been even more sinful. I would be taking his words from him and sharing them without his knowledge or consent. It felt akin to cloning a person and then prostituting them.
Amidst the madness and to salvage his integrity as an artist I started up a blog. The plan was to write original material that I would base on his general themes, language, and ideas. I borrowed his identity as a whole to create not just a pseudonym for myself, but an entire alter-ego, a character that I would actively manage.
The first thing I needed was a name. I came up with Clyde Jefferson. I set up a Gmail address so it could not be easily traced back to me and went to work on the site.
Not having a site of my own at the time, my plan was to keep it as basic as possible. Using Wordpress, I set up www.chitownclyde.wordpress.com, with the byline ‘blue collar Chicago poet’. The ‘About’ page read “My name is Clyde Jefferson. I’m a regular guy from Chicago who happens to be a poet. I drive a bus through the slums for a living. I don’t know any poets around my way so I’m reaching a broader audience through this here site at the suggestion of a friend. Enjoy this here shit.” The repetitive ‘this here’ makes me shudder. It was the earliest incarnation of Clyde, before he found his true voice.
My initial plan was poetry only and I began to play with common themes to come up with a couple of ideas. Before I began to post I wrote five poems. I found that they were too focused on a single topic and while I felt I had the language right, I didn’t have the manic change of topics that I had grown to find as his attention deficit signature. I wrote another ten poems and began to feel that it was time to post something.
The first post was on October 31, 2012. In a poem titled “Sandy” I prefaced it with an explanation that said
I was driving my bus the other day and got crazy waves off the radio and people were all buzzing through their doodads on the bus about this Hurricane Sandy. I got home and read the paper and it was some serious shit. I then wrote the following on a Taco Bell napkin.
The poem read:
Hurricane Sandy battering/NYC but those bus/Drivers done got the day off/While I ride in the wind/Tunnel sublime avenues/Illinois’ ill noises/A man stumbles to me and/With a punch to/My nose from the wandering/Eye wino he says/“Motherfucker I’m Ron Artest!
He had written on the topic of the hurricane and I wanted to keep this one as minimalist and non-offensive as possible. The audience needed to be eased into this man. However, the last line was plagiarized. Some things cannot be re-worded or cut out.
Happy with my first post, I set out to continue. With the next poem “morning route” I went into his true writing form with:
Not even ten in the ghetto/Morning and people wilin’/Out already and pregnant/Girls giving me Mcgriddles/At McDonald’s King drive/Slum insanity samurai/Someday if Obama wins/With Cleveland uppercuts/We can all go buy dreams./Soul circus mornings I/Lament today is the last/Day of the beautiful smell/Of elephant’s shit in the/Sun splattered Chicago I/Know. No good family/Evenings in the jungle/With monkeys throwing/Their shit at you.
This post reflected the man in his essence as a poet. Even in re-reading it now it reminds me of him. The McDonald’s, Cleveland uppercuts, elephant shit, that’s all him. It’s just reorganized and re-worded slightly. But the language and ideas are there. He was a poetic genius and I take no credit in the originality of these works. He was the ultimate inspiration. I was the prophet, a vehicle for his stanzas.
In the world of likes and shares that we live in I found that the site was getting quite a few visitors by this second post, which was on November 2nd. On November 3rd his persona became me. I began to think like the character I had created. In this fog I decided to post Clyde’s first non-poem post. The post was called “Cracker on the Bus” and it was a short piece about a fictional interaction Clyde had while driving his bus. This is where things crossed the line. I had a small but growing archive of poems that were written in true form based on the man I had studied but this post wasn’t him at all. It wasn’t me either. It was Clyde. The lines became blurred. The post went as so:
So I was driving my bus down King today when a middle aged white guy got on in a suit. I said ‘smart of you to wear a suit in the slums. The kids probably thought you were a detective and that’s why you still have your watch.’ I say shit to people all day but they usually just ignore me. This motherfucker takes my comment as an invitation to a conversation and sits up at the front. I hate that shit. ‘Do you like basketball?’ he asks me. ‘Why would you assume that I like basketball? Because I’m black I gotta like basketball. You godamn cracker racist.’ Now for the record I love basketball and I don’t think he’s racist but the goddamn municipal government always has these mole people come on the bus and try and fuck with us and get us to do something dumb like not pay attention and go 1 mile over the speed limit or run over a kid and then they blame us when it’s their dumb fault. So the guy looks taken aback and ignores me. I smile, happy that I won. Then these two little fucking douchebag teenagers get on and he asks them ‘do you like basketball.’ The one kid says yes and I tell myself he’s a fucking idiot. The guy is either a molester or a narc but then he gives them his card and he’s some dick from the Bulls front office and gives them two tickets to the Bulls game against the Hornets on Saturday. So I pipe up like a retard and say ‘Hey, I actually love the Bulls. I have Bulls sheets on my bed (which I do) and Bulls underwear on right now! (which I didn’t but I knew he wouldn’t check) He says ‘You called me a cracker. I was just meeting with one of our prospects at his mom’s house and I leave all happy with my evening and the city bus driver calls me a cracker when I want to give him free tickets.’ So I say ‘I didn’t mean it. I just wanted you to shut the fuck up.’ Fucking prick. So I think about it and I say ‘Why are you taking the bus anyway? I know! You’re scared to bring your BMW to the slums. You are a cracker. You cracker ass cracker.’ He dinged the bell after that.
I had gone too far with this post but couldn’t turn back. Traffic on the site was growing by the minute. People were sharing it and those people would then share it. Six degrees of madness. I had planned to post one of the poems I had the next day but couldn’t. The poems didn’t fit the new persona and the masses liked the new persona. I had originally based them on the unnamed man from Facebook, but after creating Clyde and, later, becoming Clyde, the poems no longer fit.
This is where the main comparison to Richard Wright’s The Outsider comes in. The main character, facing legal troubles, gets into a train accident and fakes his death, stealing another man’s identity. He even kills afterwards to keep his true identity a secret. I stole this man’s identity and killed myself in the process.
I couldn’t go back to the original plan. After a couple of days of pondering I posted again, writing it in secret, huddled in my coat on the train afraid other passengers knew what I was up to. The post was called “election day” and was posted November 6th. This is what it said:
I got to the bus depot to pick up my shit can this afternoon and everyone was asking me ‘did you vote?’ Of course I voted you prick. Then they all say some shit. ‘You know how important your vote is’ is what the white bus drivers say while the other ones say shit like ‘Hey Clyde, are you going to riot if Romney wins?’ How come these bastards think I’ll riot if the white guy wins. They don’t think all black people will riot. They are all black and they certainly won’t riot. But they think I will. So I asked them – and understand I’ve known a lot of these cats since long time – and when that whole Rodney King shit went down I tried to steal a fur coat from Sears and got arrested and now they all try to throw it in my face. ‘I got caught up in the mob mentality.’ I say and they look at me and say ‘But Clyde, you was the only one trying to riot. You were the mob’ Fucking jerks. So then I go to put my food in the fridge and there’s a list on it that they all put together. It’s a goddamn Christmas wish list of all the things they want me to try and steal for them if I go rioting by my lonesome tonight. So I freaked out and my boss Jenkins comes in the break room to see what all the fuss is about and everyone tells him and they all have a good laugh. So I say ‘to hell with all y’all. I’m voting for Romney anyway’. The whole room fell silent like I just bitch-slapped their moms and even the white folks were looking at me in disgust. Was it because I was black or because I’m from Chicago or what? I asked and they all just filed out of the room silently shaking their heads at me. So now I’m parked outside Dunkin’ donuts tryin’ to get a coffee and shit and the girl Tisha that works there refused to serve me saying this other bus driver Moose came in and told her I hated Obama and I hated black people. Aint this some shit! Now I’ll have Kanye West talking shit about me all week.
This post was Clyde’s climax. It was all too much. With my head swimming I posted a poem to try and right the tides, was too late, and got swept out to sea.
I had dreamed grand dreams. I thought the website would take off and Clyde would become a Salingeresque recluse. It was a grand dream that I snuffed out by posting that poem on November 7th. The poem itself even bid farewell. I may have subconsciously picked it for that reason. It was called “79 to Lakefront” and read:
79 to Lakefront/My route merry/Go round chi-/Town in dark/Spare change/Brilliance and/Mayoral ads/On the side/Of my bus/November’s/Cold stares/Tourist got lost got/On my bus asking/For a way out can I get out of Chicago/On your bus I said/I drive in a loop/Around the slums/Weaving amongst/The people you/May want to call/A cab.
I stopped after that. I was scared of where it may have lead. I was becoming Clyde.
I spent a year Facebook stalking him after this. I wanted to leave him to live his life free from the unknown menace that I was becoming, our brief affair something he will never know about. In the end I tried to friend him with a dummy profile I use to stalk ex-girlfriends. He didn’t bite. So I sent him a cryptic message, alluding to the fact I knew enough about him so he wouldn’t think it was spam but also mentioning that I had very important information for him, for the truth of his identity. He didn’t bite. Maybe he is just that simple. Maybe a fanciful farce into the unknown doesn’t suit him. Maybe he already knew and was content of our unlikely affair. I will never know.
The author pretended to be a bus driver from Chicago, a real individual that exists. He took the persona on and decided to write poetry as him, made a website, and everything. This is an essay about what happened.
Matthew’s work has been seen in various publications including Hitherto, The Coe Review, Joypuke, Sassafras Literary Journal, Verse Wisconsin, and Wilderness House Literary Review. Matthew is the recipient of the University of Toronto’s Harold Sonny Ladoo Book Prize. His previously published work is archived at matthewlaffrade.wordpress.com. He resides in a small Ontario town.