Football practice has just conluded at Rainier Playfield. It's 5:30. The children fan out into the world, away from the field, their awkwardly oversized shoulder pads and serious expressions lending them an unintentionally funny air. A few of them remember to smile. Some have parents or siblings waiting for them, and some don't. Only one gets on my bus today, a stone-faced preteen clutching a helmet and grocery bag full of candy. He is alone. At first he says nothing, but after watching me greet passengers for a time, witnessing the warmth of interactions he's not part of, he comes forward to sit in the chat seat. I follow his silent lead and do not engage him in conversation, wondering what he might be thinking. Finally he pipes up:
"Hey. Do you want chocolate?"
He's holding up to options in front of a deadly serious face. I can choose between Almond Snickers or an oversized PayDay. I don't even eat chocolate, but the image of this boy with his candy bars, trying to talk, would be wrong to resist. Turning down the Almond Snickers out of health considerations would violate the more overriding principle of attempting to make people feel welcome and comfortable. Plus, it would be better for his health if I removed and destroyed as many of those candy bars as possible; I gladly accept. I ask him a few more questions ("How was practice?" "Do you have a long ways to get home?" "Are you enjoying summer break?") and receive stoic one-word answers ("Good." "No." "Yes."). But at least he made the effort. I see him on occasion waiting for the 48 at Walker, and always give him a big wave. He returns it. Step by step.
Another child, this time a young girl, gets on at Fisher Place outbound with her family. I ask, "Are you having a good day?"
"Guys get a chance to to enjoy the sunshine?"
"Yeah. We went to the acrobatics place."
"Oh wow. Did you have fun?"
"Had you been there before?"
"Oh, so you knew you were going to have fun!"
Clearly also a one-word responder, but in her you could sense excitement. The stoic face was absent. Maybe it works in phases. You graduate from serious face to normal face to talkative face, with optional deviations like rebellious face or quiet face. I certainly used to be a quiet face.
I see Jermain at Genessee. He knew me from the 4. It's Jermain time. "As-Salamu Alaykum," I say as he leaps onto the bus. "Wa' alaykum a-salam," he returns with a huge smile, offering a big regular handshake. He's in high school, always in a pleasant mood when on my bus, and asks lots of good bus questions. A curious mind. We talk about his strategy for fasting during Ramadan (sleep in till 2pm!), late night prayer at the local Mosque, and communal trips to the Family Fun Center. "I be on them go-karts, man," he enthuses, describing a recent event involving chaotic go-kart domination with his friends.
A friend is with him ("Hey, now,"), and I can't help but share with them my dismay at not being able to get this route for next shake-up. "Man, I miss this route already," I say as we cruise in the open stretches around I-90. He asks about my next route (the 358), and we watch a 358 on the other side of Third Avenue pull into a zone.
"That's gonna be you, man," he says.
"Dude, that doesn't even look like me," I say.
Mob mentality is interesting. When you get a group of thirty youngsters in the back making a ruckus and behaving like- well, youngsters- it can be unpleasant. The most bizarre aspect of a situation like that is, and this is a thought I try to keep in mind, the most curious thing is that any one of those kids, by themselves, would be fine. They would be perfectly civil. It's only when your friends are around that you, the angst-filled teen attending Franklin, take on this air of braggadocio, attempting to carve out respect in the eyes of your peers.
It's been said that the average of intelligence of a group is lower than the intelligence of any one of the individuals that make up that group, and I believe it. A thuggish gent steps out at Othello. I hear from him a whisper: "thank you, sir." It's almost as if he's afraid of owning that gentle side of himself, the side that acknowledges others as human beings and would likely allow him to get along with just about anyone. It might be suppressed when he's with his friends, but it is a part of him, and it's here, voiced to me by choice. I'm honored and excited.