1. Maybe we should talk about it.
I’m aware that almost all operator assaults are fare-related, and that so many assaults can be causally traced back to an operator’s attitude, choice of words, or tone of voice. Nobody deserves to be assaulted, but you understand what I’m saying here. It generally takes two to tango.
We mirror each other, and disrespecting someone, even in a way you think is small, can beget further disrespect. People can smell when you’re condescending to them, and it stings. Doesn’t it sting? Don’t you resent squirming under the thumb of a belittling authority figure? That’s how they feel in that moment. It takes two. However.
Sometimes it only takes one to tango.
I've had moments in my past where I know my tone contributed to how things went down. Where I should’ve bit my tongue or been more patient. This wasn’t one of those times. This was absolutely and incontrovertibly not one of those times.
2. Here’s what happened.
I’m inbound at Broadway and Pine. The last passenger, a young white woman who smiles a thank you to me from the back door, deboards. As she is stepping out a young black man about her age– mid-twenties– of stocky build and, by the condition of his skin and attire, decidedly less comfortable in life– hops in. Blue hoodie sweatshirt, grey sweatpants, just barely unkempt. He waits briefly for her to step out. He enters the empty bus.
He stalks up to the front.
It’s Coronavirus season, and like all other buses in service, a velcro strap separates the front ADA seating area from the rest of the coach interior. He sits as near to the front as possible without crossing that barrier. In my head I think, interesting choice, coming all the way up here from the back door. Maybe he’s unsure of his destination and wants to sit close to the front. He hums quietly to himself.
Since there’s only one passenger, I don’t call out the stops, except to say at 7th, as we approach 5th and Pine, that the next stop is 5th and I can’t stop at 3rd and Pine because we’re turning into a 7.
He ducks under the strap and comes forward.
Again I think, interesting. I wonder what sort of headspace would think that’s the thing to do. But I don’t say anything about that. I say, gesturing to the bus stop at 5th, “D’you want this one right here?”
He says, “Yeah.”
I feel a need to break the ice. To make friends. Let him know I don’t look down on him. I say, “How’s it goin’?”
Do you know how many thousands of times doing that has worked wonders for me? Solved problems before they even began? Do you know how many thousands of times that will continue to work for me, in the future?
Innumerable thousands, that’s how many.
Except not this time.
We get to the zone. I open the doors. I say, “Thanks, man.”
Then he changes into another person and explodes. He is spitting on my face four or five times, cursing in furious anger, now quickly exiting, stalking toward Westlake Park, looking back to see if I am following.
For myself, I was so utterly shocked I didn’t respond at all. Events like this have a duration of seconds; the only way to get good at responding to them is to experience them regularly, which I don’t. I said, “Whoa, whoa,” trying to calm him, but I couldn’t form words to speak. Maybe that was for the best. What would I say now, if anything?
I might try out Did that help? Or Tell me where you’re comin’ from. Or just Talk to me. These lines would have the effect of humanizing him, forcing him to engage emotionally. Which pissed-off dudes don’t like, because they can no longer merely be angry anymore. Why are you angry? They have to go back to being human, which means no longer spitting in people’s faces.
3. I believe this was premeditated on his part.
Why else would he come sit at the front? Duck under the strap? He wanted to get back at an authority figure. He was coming from the direction of the occupied protest zone on Capitol Hill and was likely seething with anti-authoritarian anger. He wanted to fight the world. I had nothing to do with it.
Why does someone in pain want others to feel pain? Why does someone who feels hated want to hate others? These are questions that answer themselves. He was a young black man who probably felt scared, hated by the broad spectre of an uncaring society, and who was definitely very unstable. Not a great mix. Like me, he seeks balance, and felt this would right the wrongs of society. He assumed I was part of the problem, because many people are.
This has happened to me before. I remember an operator telling me afterwards, “I told the other guys in the bullpen, and we all just sat there dumbfounded, like: If this can happen to Nathan, we’re definitely screwed! You’re fuckin’ nice!”
Don’t think that, friends. I’m grateful for the implicit compliment, but I need to reinforce that it’s still worth it to go out of your way being kind. Respectful. Loving. Patient. Compassionate, without expecting thanks, without expecting good treatment. Remember, passion, for most of the existence of the word, meant suffering. Compassion means to suffer together. Life is supposed to be a struggle, and we’re supposed to love each other. In 1871 George Eliot wrote, “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?” Her words are still true today.
This would be easier if I had been a jerk. Because now I would know what to do next time: Don’t be a jerk. Easy. But I didn’t do a thing to invite this one. This was a solo tango par excellence, and he had no dance partner at all. What, then, do I do next time?
4. Should I let this alter my approach?
Don’t sit there devastated in the bullpen, thinking there’s no point to being nice. Your strategy doesn’t have to work all the time to be worthwhile. My strategy, conveyed in all the stories on this blog, works 999 times out of a thousand. It’s not the only way to do things, but it’s a heck of a batting average, if I may say so. I will not allow him to make me forget that.
5. I will instead allow him to be small.
A pebble in the roadway, not a roadblock. You can go through the worst hate, and survive– that means you’re More Than It. If you can thrive in spite of your traumas, you can do anything.
You’ve heard the idea in philosophy: we humans are relational beings. What does that mean? We define things by their relation to another thing. What is night? The absence of day. What is light? The opposite of darkness. Have you ever noticed how dictionary definitions only tell you what a thing is by describing another thing?
The implication is that there are opposites, contrasting degrees of existence, and that this is inextricably woven into the fabric of life. Because there is heat, there must be cold. What goes up must come down.
I exist, and therefore my opposite must also exist.
Who is my opposite? Or, more accurately and in accordance to how we think of things like day and night and hot and cold as balanced, as two sides of the same coin: Who is my equal?
I think I just met him.
6. I have met my equal.
I love people without reason. I don’t know why I’m nice. I just am. Am I crazy? Sure. So is he, who hates people with apparently the same level of fervor, and also without reason. I have met my equal, and I will force the tragedy of the encounter into a learning experience. I will gain something from this, some insight that brings me closer to peace. I will not let it dominate me with thoughts of spite and revenge.
You never need to worry about revenge.
The world does that for you. If he’s cruel to you, he’s also cruel to others and he’s going to meet someone who’s not as nice as you, who has nothing to lose by biting back. They'll do the hard work for you. Don’t worry about it. Worry instead about how to let this not take you over. How can you become stronger. Because:
7. Losing is when you learn.
You don’t learn much from winning. Suffering is when you have a chance to bind yourself to something higher. Mercy, forgiveness, empathy. How will you strengthen your worldview without resorting to bitterness? Bitterness is easy. How will you accept the existence of hate as you continue going about your life, stopping the spread of hate and giving love instead? Doing your small part, and never mind what you can't control?
You’ve been watching more news lately. We all have. Without telling you what to do, I’ll share a word from someone I trust:
Imagine a person who is totally unaware of today’s world strife. Who knows nothing of current events. This person is kind, and compassionate, in all the ways the Black Lives Matter movement highlights the lack of. This individual goes about their life quietly, humbly, lovingly, treating others with grace. Does not this invisible person represent the ultimate end goal of all our social movements, and is (s)he not better equipped to be the positive, life-affirming human (s)he is because she isn’t infected with newsmedia devastation dragging her spirits down?
Food for thought.
I went to a lot of protests in college. I have similar if more nuanced views now, but I feel my role is better cast as following the example of this hypothetical individual above. That is what I excel at. I admire those who represent similar hopes for progress in more confrontational ways, but I have drifted toward a quieter and more personal method of embodying kindness. I wonder if our friend on the bus will similarly soften with time.
We're all trying to figure it out.