"Hey, listen, man. I can't find my pass."
He looks ready for rejection. We're at Aurora and 115th northbound. It's afternoon, but the day laborers are still there, milling about in the background, giving life to the Home Depot parking lot. I've always wished I could buy them all breakfast. One day I'll to show up with a bucket of hash browns.
Those passing thoughts flash by in an instant; to the man in front of me I say, "that's fine. Thanks for sayin' somethin.'" After a moment I add, "I appreciate that." He's white, forties or fifties, hair growing out, likely younger than he looks, aged by the vagaries of life, in a dirty pullover and faded sweatpants.
Now, "I can't find my pass" is a code phrase. It means, "I don't have any money, but I want to ride." Sometimes there are variations in its code meaning. When someone says, "I lost my transfer," it sounds almost like they're telling you they lost their transfer. That is incorrect. They are appealing to the better angels they hope you have. They are speaking to you in the language of the street.
In contemporary American English, what they're really saying is, "I've experienced some inconveniences today. It might be possible for me to pay the fare at this time, but it would be a hardship that might exacerbate said inconveniences or introduce new ones. This inconvenience could be quite mild- my transfer got water on it, or I left it at the bottom of my girlfriend's backpack- or it could be severe. I might have $3 to my name for today that I could very well use on fare, but would really prefer to use to buy coffee because I'm about to work a 12-hour grave shift as a parking lot attendant, and I don't want to get fired for falling asleep. Perhaps I have a bank card and would like to make change, but that would require me to miss this bus, and thus miss my connecting bus, and by extension be late to pick up my kids from day care, which will result in them calling CPS and interfering with my custody privileges, reducing the amount of time I get to spend with my children for the rest of their childhood. Perhaps I am angry because I was humiliated by my case manager and want to prove to myself that I can still get a break in life. It is also possible that I actually do not have money to pay the fare, but I'm embarrassed about it, and am attempting to preserve what small shred of dignity I can still muster."
In short, they're asking to be acknowledged as a fellow human being, and afforded the respect of being given the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes I tell drivers, "I might have ten people ask me for free rides today. Maybe nine of them are scamming the system out of laziness or mild necessity, and only one of them actually, truly needs that break today. But I'll never know which one of those ten that person is. All of them are benefiting, which is ultimately good, but I want to make sure I reach out to that tenth person and give them the help they sorely need. And the only way to successfully do that is to accept all ten people (and of course follow the policy of avoiding fare disputes)."
So I offer those who ask me the code the code response, which for me always includes something like, "thanks for asking!" And what I'm really saying, of course, is that yes, I recognize that you have a situation, and I'm happy to assist on whatever it is, and I particularly appreciate that you acknowledged me. I'm happy to do the same in return. It's a compliment, really; they're making an assumption that you might be nice. Being nice is a good thing.
The man at 115th sits down toward the front. I concentrate on driving. In my periphery I can see him rummaging about, searching his belongings. After a while I hear him say, "Hey, I found it."
I almost yell it out: "S-WEET!"
You see, it's rare that the above code phrase is not used as code but for its literal meaning. Actually, it happens slightly more than I realize, but it's unusual. Sometimes people really have misplaced their wallet or transfer, and come up much later on to show me.
When this happens I become very excited.
In an instant I reframe the scenario in my head, understanding two things simultaneously: losing a wallet or pass (especially a reduced fare permit or an annual pass) is a massive, devastating event that is very cumbersome to rectify. I realize that this has actually happened to them, just now, and they've been in a very real state of worry, thinking about how they'll go about the laborious process of fixing everything, and that- while in that depressed frame of mind- they found their bloody pass!
Imagine the headrush of endorphins! The crashing wave of relief! They were mentally planning out when they would have time to go Customer Service, or call to cancel their bank cards, this, that and...no! No, not at all, here it is, my pass, big as life, right here in my inside jacket pocket! Where it was the whole time! It's Christmas in October. Get the decorations out.
I process the fact that they were quite depressed, and are now quite happy, in a split second, and I become exhilarated. When he eventually gets off, I say to the man, "I'm so glad you found your pass!"
In a tone of mild surprise he adds, "thanks for being glad!"