The Woman Who Laughs

Riding on the Number 5 bus, something caught my attention. Well, perhaps it’s more accurate to say something caught the attention of every single person on the bus. Even if you had headphones on, blasting your favorite music while singing along, this something was so piercing that nothing was impenetrable to its force. Nothing.

So what was it that made everyone turn their heads? It was a laugh– a deep, throaty heckle that came out of the blue, not just once, but again and again, interspersed between a conversation a woman was having with herself.

At first I didn’t really notice the woman or her conversation. Her chatter blended into the white noise of the bus– the lulling, the jerking, the hum of the electric-fueled engine. The melodies of muni were in synch and the volume of her conversation was only slightly louder than all the rest. But then came the heckle:

“AHHHH He HEGh HEGh hegggggggghhhhhhhhhh. [Gasp for air]. AHHHH He HEGh HEGh hegggggggghhhhhhhhhh.” Deep, raspy, like a wicked witch cackling as she plots her revenge. And loud. Decibels and decibels louder than every other thing on and off of the bus.

Startled, people turned their heads– ‘What the hell was that?’ was written all over everyone’s face.

Immediately after the extended, loud heckle subsided, the woman promptly returned to her conversation. At first glance you’d think she was talking on the phone– relaxed, casually looking ahead, she was displaying all the signs of a phone conversation, both in body language and conversation content.

“Oh, well why don’t you just run over to Walgreens. And remember to pick up a chicken from Safeway. [Pause, as though she was listening to what the other, invisible person had to say]. Oh yeah, I know. Well I just talked to her. [Long pause}. Uh huh. [Head nod]. Well I just ran down to the store.”

Common topics like these– running errands, picking up groceries, elements of gossip– dominated this woman’s conversation. And every 30 seconds or so–after several lively and relaxed exchanges with her invisible friend– laughter ensued. But not with an easing transition into this hilarity. Instead she would go from a calm exchange to an alarmingly instantaneous heckle, over and over and over again. I was on the Number 5 for 20 minutes and this went down the entire time.

This was bizarre, and each time she heckled it made me jump a bit. As people got on and off, I watched the newcomers react the same as I did– alarmed and curious at first, until they realized this woman was probably schizophrenic, and then they carried on with what they were doing, staring and jumping less with each jolt of laughter.

After 20 minutes I got off the bus and headed to work, and by this point the 5 was near the end of its line and close to empty. I wondered about the woman. Where was she going? Was she reliving a conversation leading up to a traumatic event? Or was she honestly just a bit imbalanced and having a blast?

I thought that this was just a one-off situation and doubted I would ever see her again. But I was wrong. About a month ago I got onto the 5 and within seconds was startled out of my seat as the first “AHHHH He HEGh HEGh hegggggggghhhhhhhhhh” went down. Turning my head out of reaction, I already knew what I would find: the laughing woman and her invisible friend.

I’ve seen many spectacles on Muni and you’d think I’d be numb to them by now, like I should know they’re coming. But instead I am surprised, tickled and enthralled, every single time.

This city makes me smile every single day.