He looks up at me with haunted eyes as I pull up and open the doors. "Hi," I say, getting ready to deploy the lift.
"Hey," he replies in a hoarse voice, immediately continuing: "I have a transfer, but before I even get on I wanna tell you somebody threw a bag a crap at me and so I smell really bad. Can I still ride your bus to Urban Rest Stop and take a shower?"
There are some moments you don't forget. One of them, for me, is the look on this man's face while he waited for me to respond. I didn't know in that moment that he'd asked the same thing of four other drivers, and been passed up by all of them, meaning he'd been sitting at this stop in his condition for over an hour; I saw only the tired agony of his expression, a face struggling to stay above the surface.
I stepped down towards him. Yes, his clothing and skin were splattered everywhere with fecal matter. Yes, it didn't smell particularly fantastic. But I've encountered other passengers who smelled much worse; nobody loves the smell of dog feces, but they sure do beat human feces in my book. This was more on the dog side of things.
"That's all right with with me," I said.
After we loaded him up on the lift, I wheeled him back to the wheelchair spot myself, to expedite things and help maneuver with his awkward leg cast, but also to let him know he wasn't going to be ostracized or hated on during this ride. Sometimes when you do someone a difficult favor, it's tempting to take the opportunity to rub in just how arduous the favor really is; but we're not going to do that today. I'm not expecting anyone else on this bus to be nice to the guy, but I don't much care what the job-possessing, home-owning commuters think of his being on the bus; this is a public service vehicle. I do my best to make him feel included.
"So tell me again, what happened?"
"Well, I'm out there panhandling, on the side of the street there, when all of a sudden this brand-new beamer comes driving by and the guy throws a bag of crap at me. And the bag splatters everywhere, and he just drives off."
"How could someone do that?"
I look back at him. The feces fester in his uncombed hair, his tattered t-shirt and the wheelchair apparatuses. The lion's share of it is spewed across his wool blanket, which covers his midsection and leg. I can see now that he's crying.
"I'm already humiliating myself by panhandling, and then he does that on top of that? How could do someone do that," he keeps asking in a sobbing voice. There is no affectation here. "How could there be people that could think like that? It's already hard to lower myself to the level of begging on the street..."
"I can't believe it. I mean, I do believe it, but I just can't believe it. And it wasn't just some old car,"
"No, it was a nice BMW,"
"Wow. Of course it was. What I'm wondering is, why the heck would anyone be driving around with a bag of crap that big in the first place?"
"No decency. How could he do...and now I smell like this. I'm so sorry, you guys," he says to the people around him. "I'm sorry, miss..."
"Hey, it's not as bad as my dog's farts," says Awesome Tim, from the chat seat. Awesome Tim is indeed wonderful. He's over 50, still does heavy outdoor construction work, sunburned down to the last corner of skin, with a tough, Hell's Angels-esque appearance- but a generous heart. He and I would talk a fair amount. Today, on an unspoken level, he grasps the need to be a sympathetic presence during this man's hard time.
"These women are gonna hate me," the fellow says, as we pull up to Fairview and Yale, where a number of pretty, affluent, well-dressed commuters await.
"Dude," I say, "if one of these people even says a word, I'll back you up a hundred percent. Believe me, man. You got nothin' to worry about." I don't care if they're all knockouts. Perhaps because of my background and earlier life, there is a nerve in me whose sympathies for the poor and the marginalized run impossibly deep. Sometimes it's almost unreasonable. He has no idea how strongly my perspective lies on his side. The ladies get on without incident.
As we approached Urban Rest Stop, the great facility on 9th between Stewart and Virginia, where one can take showers and do laundry for free (and one better- they'll even do your laundry for you), we began discussing whether we'll get there in time. You can shower until 6pm- no rush there, as it was only 4:50- but we weren't sure if laundry stops at 5pm. Would he be able to wash his clothes? Maybe he could plead his case. In any event, we got him down there. He thanked me profusely and headed down the block toward what was probably the best shower of his life.
As I drove away, I couldn't stop thinking about the actions of the BMW driver. Wow, I thought. Just Wow. What stunning, embarrassing, appalling apathy. If being human essentially means being empathetic, this sort of sadism exists at the bottom of the spectrum, and makes one ashamed to be part of the species. One wishes for sweeping political reform, of the kind that would prevent events like this from ever happening again- more accountability for such actions, more resources and upward mobility for the disadvantaged...
However. No amount of politicking or enforcement could ever completely eliminate this type of behavior. There will always be a small percentage of people who enjoy visiting savage, diabolical cruelty on others. And in like fashion, there will always be a percentage which believes in kindness- and that percentage will always be larger.
What bears this out? Look around us. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. In the course of human history, sadism has never been the organizing principle behind human interaction. That wouldn't make sense. In fact, over the centuries, it's been whittled down to almost nothing, to the point that now most of its arbiters now are generally mere individuals, rather than governments, countries, or cultural practices.* It is simply in the nature of people to be either kind or neutral, rather than expend energy damaging others. In short, there will always be kind people, and there will always be more kind people than bestial ones.
Additionally, there will always be those of us who are disadvantaged. No amount of government programs (Seattle, with it's veritable deluge of such, is an example) can eliminate the margins. Laws may eliminate some of the beamers that drive around with bags of feces, but not all of them (let's hope there was just that one!); only our kindness can counter such events when they do take place. The generosity we offer can rejuvenate one's belief in the human condition. I speak not of handouts or money, but of something simpler; smiles, eye contact. Acknowledgment. With a gesture, one achieves a purity of immediacy no amount of politicking can duplicate.
And this is good.
*For more on how and why human violence has declined and continues to do so, refer to cognitive scientist Steven Pinker's dense, incredibly well-researched, but readable 2011 text, "The Better Angels Of Our Nature."