Thoughts of Ourselves
"Anyone who fails to go along with life remains suspended, stiff, rigid in midair. That is why so many people get wooden in their old age."
"Accept what is in front of you without wanting the situation to be other than it is. Study the natural order of things and work with it rather than against it."
-Tao te Ching
"You got really excited when the construction guys started getting on," Paul Margolis once said to me while riding my 70.
"Really? You could tell? It was visible?"
"Yeah!" He laughed.
I've mentioned elsewhere that I feel an inordinate fondness for the working class and low-income. "It's my peeps," I'd think to myself as I pulled my 5 up to the stop just south of the zoo, by that place with the free dinners, where there would be a horde of fifteen scruffy men waiting for my bus. I tilted my head, smiling, ready for more life. On a late-afternoon 5 of largely silent "regular people" (what does that even mean anymore?), this genial horde was a welcome surprise. No ostentatious silence or mid-level management cold shoulders from these folks. If I said hello, they'd bowl me over with smiles.
I was recently asked to speak to an incoming class of new full-time bus drivers. An older gentleman was asking me about ways of getting along with all the different passengers. His part-time career had been spent entirely on driving peak-hour express routes on the Eastside, and was aware of the different world he was getting into with full time. He impressed me. Most people try to control the world around them and get frustrated when this isn't possible. He was genuinely interested in adapting the only thing we can control: our mindset toward the circumstances around us. He doesn't have anything to worry about, I remember thinking, old age stereotypes be damned.
I gave an answer having to do with empathy and choosing what frame of mind to be in, but I could've said more. I kicked myself afterwards for not mentioning that as compared with commuters, the "folks who come out of the woodwork" will sometimes be more (c)rude, but they will also be more polite. It's just more, on all fronts. They may be more drunk, more malodorous, more angry than commuters, or they may not be. But they will definitely be more present. Your kindness will mean something. You won't be looked down on as the help, or furniture. Your acknowledgment, respect, compassion– on the street these things register with significance. The indigents, mendicants and supplicants are a shinier mirror, reflecting your behavior toward them in a more potent fashion. They know how to interact with other humans as equals, whether positively or negatively.
We night drivers have conversations after our shifts sometimes, sticking around the base at 1AM a few extra minutes even though we're more than ready to go home. There's so much to talk about, and so many ways to think about it. It's a sensory and philosophical overload out there. During one of those midnight chats an operator told me, "when you see them smile, and say thank you in a present way, you're seeing yourself. In their expression, their voice, you're seeing a mirror of your own good intentions."
And that mirror is all the more clear with these guys. No doubt this, among other reasons, is why I choose routes populated solely by such groups.
The bus I ride to work these days is a different story, however. It's the 4AM run of an express route which, at that hour, is utilized exclusively by commuters. You see the same faces each day, bleary-eyed and well-dressed, still on their way to being human in the pre-coffee hour. Generally I get on and greet the driver, sometimes making some comment about our identical uniforms ("I like your outfit!"), and then I try to find the best available seat for napping in. Third row forward facing, door side, is available, the one with a headrest and smaller window. Perfect. I love naps.
But this morning was different. We held for a minute at the park-and-ride while the driver talked quietly with a woman. Never seen her before. Her stringy grey hair, unbrushed, her clothes wrinkled and stained; clinging to her were the backpacks and jackets and stuffed pockets that come about when you have to carry all your possessions on your person. I overheard her asking for directions and a free ride. On this bus she stuck out like an unwanted Christmas present, unloved and the worse for wear. One of my people, I thought to myself.
The genteel crowd surrounding her looked upon her with a haughty impatience, anxious to both despise and ignore her. A woman in business casual seated up front, throwing up her hands after the bus didn't move for twenty seconds. "Jesus Christ," she said.
Upon arriving at Westlake, our friend paused, then walked quickly to the front, asking the driver, "is this Pike Place Market? Is this by McDonalds?"
"Stupid bitch," a commuter said.
The driver answered her question with a nod. A gangly African-American man on the platform kindly assisted, referring her to the appropriate staircase for her destination.
"Thank you sir, very much," she said to both of them, and shook hands with the guy on platform. She was lost, and people had helped her.
"What a bitch," the working man said again.
"Unbelievable," a prim secretary seated beside him concurred.
Those two were seated in front of me. Behind me another contingent of office workers chatted about her after she'd left.
"What can you say."
"First she wanted the E Line. Now this."
"I think we should put her on the first bus to County!"
Please don't judge my friends, I thought.* Just don't. Please don't pretend to know something about other lives. Especially my less fortunate friends who are shamed into the awkward position of having to ask for help often.
Her handshake was the first act of thankfulness I saw this morning.
*Why didn't I say something along these lines? Trying to change other people stresses me out, mainly because it's impossible. They've had a lifetime of mentors, parents, teachers, friends, pastors... and if those folks in their efforts haven't impressed anything of the idea of kindness or manners or whatever the issue is, well, I'm certainly not going to accomplish anything besides in two minutes. This is why I don't honk at cars to try to "educate" them (an idea I find rather amusing!), or reprimand passengers who make terrible life decisions. It's a short life we're given. There are other things to do, like love each other. And work on ourselves.
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