"Swell," she says happily, sounding surprised to see me. I won't see her smile again.
She's telling me the details of her morning, which don't sound swell at all. Sitting at the front now, putting that chat seat to use, she might be in her late teens, African-American, with short hair and flair to spare in her denim outfit.
She carries the weight of someone who knew how to be happy in an earler time, but whose circumstances have pulled her in another direction. A sonorous melancholy pervades her monologue, in my mind entirely inappropriate for the young girl she is. She's experiencing dizziness, she tells me, perhaps from low blood circulation, headaches, and sciatica-
"A lot of bus drivers get that. My sciatic nerve hurts someimes."
"Yeah, I bet it's from all the sitting."
"I don't know if I have kids, man. I dont know if they're dead or not dead, sometimes I just feel them out there, and I don't know. And it's so hard to find out 'cause I don't know how old I am, or for sure who my parents are. See I used to think I was adopted, but...."
I forget the rest. It sprang unbidden from her, shaking in her voice. I remember only the glassy look in her eyes, a face I see in the mirror when I'm very ill, those hollow liquid irises yearning for respite. I remember the downbeat inflection, a timbre that wouldn't exist if loving friends and parents dwelled in the sidelines of her existence. Who on earth am I, to be complaining about my sciatic nerve?
"My mom lives in Federal Way," she's saying.
I wonder after her family situation, and consider the decorum in asking. After a pause I say, "can you go see her, or is that not an-"
"Well, she in Federal Way but I don't know where."
"Okay." I continue, hoping that she finds her kids, encouraging her toward the echoing suggestion telling her they're alive, the validity of that instinct, the fact that intuition springs from somewhere real. A mother knows. For myself, intuition, conscience, instinct- whatever name we give to that small voice inside us- knows more than our reasoning minds can ever comprehend in a given moment. At the very least it represents the sum total of knowledge gained in all our life experiences, and shouldn't be ignored. Your gut has a simple wisdom that would take years to parse out.
"I have faith in what I believe," she says, listening.
"It's hard not to."
"Are you goin' downtown right now?"
"Yeah, I'm goin' the Orion Center."
"Oh, that's a good spot."
"Yeah, they're great there."
"They almost had to shut down."
"Yeah, money problems, they almost had to go."
"Oh, that's fuckin' bullshit and terrible."
"But they ended up getting stuff, somehow they got money and they're still there."* Always something to be thankful for.
"I'm tryin' ta get some food. There's supposed to be a lunch there, free lunch starting at twelve."
"When does it go 'til?"
"I think one." It's 12:48. I'm at Fairview and Denny. "Okay, we might make the end of it."
"Wait no, I think it ends at 12:30, 12 to 12:30, yeah."
"Shoot, well it's 12:48 right now."
"Oh, that's shitty," she breathes. No lunch today. She sighs a sigh whose burden carries the heartache of the ages.
"Do you like peanut butter and jelly?" I ask.
"Yeah, thats what's up."
"I have two peaut butter and jelly sandwiches on me, thats all the food on me. You can have 'em if you like."
She thinks a brief moment and says, "I'll take a peanut butter and jelly!"
"Okay, lemme pull over at this stop, I'll grab 'em for ya."
At Boren I reach behind my seat and hand her both sandwiches.
"Oh, you should keep one," she says, concerned.
"What? No, it's okay. You should have both of 'em. I can always... I'll deal."
"No no, you should have one too." She hands it back.
I can see she isn't going to take both sandwiches, and reluctantly concede.
"Thanks!" she says. Her eyes have a spark in them now, embers coming back to life.
"Thank you! You be safe today!"
"You too, have a good day!"
I couldn't believe it. She still had room in her headspace to think not just about her own troubles, significant as they were, but also to consider my needs as well. A friend who canvassed door-to-door for parenthood resources once told me that the people who donated the most were poor and working class immigrant families- those least equipped to do so, in other words. I felt utterly ridiculous, taking back the second sandwich, knowing how much more she needed it than I; but I could see how much she cared, how deeply she knew of the value of food and kindness. She had to behave as she did. The things you learn at ground level.
*YouthCare's Orion Center was planning to close its doors last February due to expiring grants and federal funding, but continues to remain a valuable resource due to a pool of funds coming from a holiday concert charity challenge, pledges from local foundations, and a very successful luncheon. Read about the Center here. Read here for a success story on Calvin, who today seems "a typical, if overachieving, college-bound freshman;" 'twas not always so.