Sometimes, though, I'll be feeling especially generous, and I want to wait. I've certainly ran for my share of buses. Today it's at the first stop on the inbound 41, outside Fred Meyer at 130th. Often a waited-for runner will thank me for my patience, or smile in gratitude as they catch their breath; it's a nice exchange. Today, however, is different.
This woman, overweight and middle-aged with a mullet straight out of a time capsule, doesn't offer a word of acknowledgement- even as I say hello. The temptation to say something snarky is overwhelming, but there's no need. She's my fellow human, not my daughter. I focus on other people as the route goes along.
We'll return to her in a moment. Later that same day, a middle-aged man, perhaps 55, steps onboard my 358. I've seen him before, and he always enjoys riding my bus. As is the norm, he's dressed in unassuming homeless garb- oversized beige winter jacket with layers underneath, a knit cap of indeterminate dark color; faded trousers and an overall weathered appearance. When you spend enough of your life battered by the elements, your skin ages in a way that's unmistakable. Today he steps on and I'm mildly surprised- it's Valentine's Day, and he has a bouquet of tulips.
"Those are nice lookin' flowers," I say.
"Yeah, thought I'd get a couple for the wife," he replies as I notice a ring on the appropriate finger.
"That's 'cause you're a gentleman!"
He smiles. Beneath his layers I spy the collar of a dress shirt. This guy's not homeless at all. I always knew he was a gentleman, but had no idea he was a family man. You just really never know.
Toward the end of the same trip, a young African-American man in a hoodie and dark jeans comes up to the front and sits down next to me. At 46th I'd greeted him with a decidedly uncool "how are you?" and he had still responded in kind. Now we're at 198th, looking at a man in the roadway with a sign that reads, "FOOD MONEY."
"Does he want food or money," Hoodie says. We ponder for a moment and begin swapping stories.
He goes first: "Man, I was standing in line at McDonalds,"
"And this guy comes up to me askin' for three dollars. He be sayin' he don't got no money, he gotta get the bus back don't have no fare, so could he please have three dollars then he be on his way. I said no, but my girl next to me says 'hey babe, come on now, give the guy three dollars.' So I give him three dollars. And then, he go right to the next person in line behind me, asks him for three dollars! Says the same stuff about bus fare and everything!"
"That's ridiculous. 'Cause you worked for that money."
"Exactly. He din't need that money at all."
"Especially in broad daylight like that, him askin' the next person while you still standing there. Shameless."
"I know, right?" We're not complaining, just marveling. I'm reminded of an incident that happened when I was a child:
"Okay, this one time, somebody ask me for some change, and I'm givin' this lady this big handful of change, and check this out. She takes it and picks out all the pennies and throws 'em on the ground."
"For real? Man that shit's messed up. Pennies not good enough for the penniless..."
His tone is interesting. He sounds not as if he's criticizing the "other," but rather just that he's disappointed in his fellow people. I can identify with that.
"Exactly," I say. "It was unbelievable. Or this other time, guy comes up to me,"
"Tells me this big long story about he's stranded out here and he needs to get on a bus back to San Francisco. A greyhound bus back to Frisco."
"Explains to me this complex set a circumstances, he don't got no money, isn't anyone he can call,"
"He just really needs this ticket to go get on the greyhound bus. I said okay, and I gave him the money. Now. Six months later, the same dude comes up to me, and tells me the exact same story!"
"Word for word! I couldn't believe it."
"No way! What'd joo say?"
"I said no, man. No way."
"'I remember you.'"
"Exactly. He probably tells that story to so many people he just forgot."
He looks at me for a moment and then says, "Ey, you probably been asked this a lot today, but-"
"-How old am I?"
We laugh. Our conversation moves on to bus driving as a job. He's 20. The conversation swirled and eddied with its own specific hum, building into the space something that wasn't there before. You felt whole, comfortable with yourself, like you were part of something that used to be ineffable. As I mentioned in an earlier post, diversity brings out commonality.
"'Cause I heard they're hiring, or something."
"Yeah, maybe. As long as you love people," I say with emphatic hand gestures, "it's the best job ever."
He affirms, but I stress it again: "I mean, you got to LOVE the people."
Sometimes people just nod when I say that, but he gets the enormity of it, shifting in his seat as he mentally puts himself in the position.
"Everybody," he says. You can hear the gears turning as he ponders the discipline. He's into the idea.
"Yeah, man. If you can do that, it's just, it's the best thing ever. It makes it fun."
What made the interaction special was the relaxed sensation that neither of us felt like we had to be anything other than ourselves, despite the difference in culture, dress, or attitude. There I was, in my tucked-in button-up and bus slacks, and there he was, with his Quiksilver beanie and "so fresh" jeans, meeting at a mutual level we could both reach. The idiosyncrasies didn't matter. I don't know what compelled him to come up from the back to talk; but when young people reach out to strangers, or realize they don't have to conform to a type- particularly an attitudinal type- it gladdens my heart. We shake hands as he leaves. There are a lot of variants of clasps and grasps and pounds in the handshakes of various groups; this one's made up on the spot, a bizarre hybrid of loping gangsta and decisive real estate broker. It works.
To return to the 41, earlier the same day, with Silent Mullet Lady:
She rings the bell at 123rd, and as I pull into the zone, I briefly consider not saying a word to her. For me this is unthinkable. I always say something. However, she didn't say a word ot me, or thank me for waiting, after all; but that's just a fleeting thought. Of course I'm gonna say something kind. People need acknowledgement.
When I say "thank you" to exiting passengers, I'm thanking them for quite a number of things. For not urinating on the seats, for not beating up passengers, or assaulting me, for riding the bus in the first place and thereby keeping me employed, for paying the fare or part of the fare, for acknowledging me by asking for a free ride... the list goes on. There's a lot for me to be thankful for, and this can function as a useful reminder for myself.
So, by choice and by instinct: "Thank you."
"Thank you," she replies. "And thanks for waiting."
No Way! She didn't have to say that at all- but she did! How wonderful! I'm elated, more at having my preconception of an unthankful person being proved wrong than anything else. Sometimes it's the little things.
Two and a half hours later, as I do seemingly endless rounds on the 41, she gets on again. This time things are a bit different: she has about twenty small children in tow. It's a field trip! She's one of a few chaperones, and she's in her element, laughing and helping, knowing just how to speak to each of her overexcited young charges. Professional.
I think to myself, Here she is. What a far cry from my intital impression of her, which was based mostly on her silence and her Reagan-era mullet.
Appearances. Often they don't count for too much.