To which I immediately replied, into the microphone and at the young twentysomething man furtively kneeling over in the back bench, "okay my buddy in the back, we can't be doin' that in here. Gotta take it outside. I know it's hard, but outta respect for everyone else in here, there's no smokin' crack on the bus. Yup, that's one of the rules..."
And so on. The woman left us; it was her stop. After she had, the man stood up and earnestly said, entirely convincingly, that "I was just picking up some trash, that's all! God. I don't know why she was picking on me like that. Probably just 'cause I look like a bum or something."
I stared at him. Whom do you believe, in a moment like that? I had nothing to go off of. I had to admit I hadn't seen him smoking anything. Between the two, his words seemed more plausible to me, uttered with the heartfelt indignation of being falsely accused. Also, the woman was gone, and I needed to get along with who's still on the bus. Which meant this guy.
After an awkward pause I said, not through the mic anymore but just with a friendly raised voice, the better to be more personable, "I'm sorry, dude. I misunderstood the situation. I apologize."
"Naw bro, you're cool. You're always good to me."
"Thanks man. I didn't mean to embarrass you, I's just trying to figure out..."
"Oh it's totally cool. People're always pickin' on me. You're one of the good ones, man, seriously. You're always respectful to everyone. We appreciate it."
He got off at the next stop, by the now-defunct encampment in Lake City. Immediately after he did, another person who'd been sitting in the back now piped up. This young man, a hospital employee and regular rider on his way home, said, "he was smoking crack. I saw him loading his pipe and everything."
"Shoot. Thanks for letting me know. Well. Now I feel like an idiot! I have no idea what's going on from way up here!"
"Oh no, it's whatever!"
What compels people to distort the truth in their favor? Everyone does it a little, but there are a special insecure few who prey on the gullible beliefs of others. We might label this as cruel; I'd prefer to call it lonely. Imagine the pressure of trying to get by in a world of peers who seem to have it together, who don't give you their attention. I know I'm flawed, you may think in that situation, but how can I hide that from the world?
Youngsters make mistakes like the rest of us, only they don't know it's okay to admit it. They don't know everyone else is imperfect too, and there's no need to try so hard. Thank goodness our brains dwell on the positives of childhood... because we forget how hard it is. Do you remember the stress, the anxiety of pretending you've got it together when you don't, searching for ways to conceal your embarrassment or shame?
When do we discover we don't need to do that?
I believe the young man was so convincing in defending himself because a part of him really wanted it to be true. We build up lies to cover up our embarrassments, and his lies had more adamant conviction than the two other people's truths. Why? Perhaps because he had a bigger stake. He needed those listening to believe him, because if we believed him we would be unable to perceive his guilt and shame. And I'm as gullible a person as you'll find; since I'm always trying for kindness, I assume others are too. I trust in the goodness of people, and though I've suffered greatly on a few occasions as a result, I'd still conclude it's brought me more good than harm. My book and blog wouldn't even exist if I was darkly suspicious, assuming the worst in everyone.
How would I have reacted if he'd told the truth? I'd have felt gladdened by the courage of his vulnerability, closer rather than further from him. But how would he have felt, I wonder? It makes sense to hide his illegal behavior, but I like to imagine him trusting I'd still treat him as human; discovering with relief that he didn't have to pretend in order for me to respect him. Is there a greater anxiety than projecting a false version of yourself to others as a way of hiding from your real problems?
I think he felt more accosted by the fact of someone designating him as inhuman, as a failure. When he told me he was innocent, he wasn't trying to convince me he was drug-free so much as human, real, unique, more than a statistic. And he knew from previous rides with me that I understood that about him, no matter his current circumstances. Our subsequent exchange of respect was as truthful as anything else spoken in those five minutes, and perhaps more resonant. I hope he felt appreciated by me.
We make the best decisions we can with the information we have. Which of today's addicted souls will live long enough to transition to a different modus of problem-solving? Who will render today's misdeeds a distant regret, paved over by insight and better experience? I'm hopeful he'll be among that lot. As I parked my bus and headed home, the moment from the day I carried most gladly in my pocket wasn't the reporting woman or clarifying hospital worker but the young man's smile, the smile of someone appreciating kindness and doing their best in the situation they've been handed, trying, however imperfectly, to get through the day.
You'll make it, friend. You still had your spark in the lowest moments. I saw it.
I'll see you down the road.