I heard her before I saw her.
"Don't touch me," the voice said. This is on the 4, going slowly through the Central Area. Loud, belligerent voice, somewhere behind me, escalating, and then finally she stands up, introducing herself to one and all-
"I'M A LIGHT-SKINNED BLACK WOMAN! YOU'RE GON' GET YOUR MOTHERFUCKIN' CRANIUM CRACKED, NIGGER!"
Any driver who's logged enough time on downtown routes knows this lady well. She's one for the ages. The second line she's just blurted out above originates from Dr. Dre's landmark 1992 album The Chronic, and as such it's hard for me to take seriously. This gal doesn't look anything like RBX. She doesn't need to, though. With 225 formless pounds, round glasses covering pudgy narrowed eyes, and a stentorian roar of a voice, she leaves an impression.
Her strategy is to lash out at the other customers, in the hope of a response. "Don't touch me," she'll say as boarding passengers brush past her. When they don't sit next to her, she'll blurt out- "you didn't sit next to me because I'm black, huh?!" Woe betide anyone who says anything- anything- in return.
"That dress looks nice," she yelled at a (white) lady sitting across from her one afternoon on the 3.
"Thanks," the commuter said. "That's nice of you to say."
"The red is a nice color."
"I like it."
"It wouldn't work for me though. Wouldn't go well with my COMPLEXION."
Light-Skinned Black Woman- the name she loudly and frequently proclaims herself as for all to hear- was clearly hoping for some sort of response. White Commuter Lady admirably did not rise to the bait. A wise move, if I may say so.
The interesting thing about the Light-Skinned Black Woman is not that she hates white people. I'm not surprised by that. What surprises me is that she also hates all black people. And everyone else, too. She's very democratic in her hatred. She's awfully generous that way. Doesn't leave anyone out. "I didn't know there were any Jews left in America," she said once, to no one in particular. It's the sort of statement that begs for a contentious reply, and you struggle to refrain from going down that road. It would actually be fine if there was no one else on the bus but her and myself; I have the patience to find ways around her bluster.
Other passengers do not.
You can't blame them. The problems generally arise from her pointed comments at others, and the resulting back-and-forth escalation. A conversation on a 5 that began with the line "You're dog's cute" ended with her screaming "I hope your baby fucking dies inside your body, bitch!" at a pregnant woman.
Sometimes, if she gets off without things going too badly, I can't help but thank all the other passengers for actively working to make that happen. She's a known quantity in the trenches. We regular bus-riding folk attempt to get along with her, and sometimes it's not so terrible. The folks up front will attempt to keep her distracted long enough to keep from yelling racial slurs at the top of her lungs. "I couldn't have done that without you guys," I once announced after she'd left. I couldn't keep my tremendous relief to myself.
A story from long ago gets the idea of the LSBW across-
She's at the front of the bus. A tall, built man, in some sort of military uniform, steps on. She engages him immediately with the following: "Hey, Army Guy. I bet they give you a big gun so you can go kill a lotta black people, huh?"
"I said I bet they give you a bigass gun to go kill niggers with, huh? Government Man, killing black people for money. You probably like it. You like shooting niggers, don't you? Getting medals for it. I bet you kill a whole lotta bl-"
"Lady." The military man is speaking to her firmly and slowly. "Check this out. First of all, this is a Coast Guard uniform. And second of all. Maybe you didn't notice it- (big pause)- BUT I'M BLACK!"
The bus falls apart laughing. He continues, on a roll- "Girl, you need to start takin' TWO a those pills you take every mornin' instead a just the one, else you best be cuttin' that one pill in HALF, like this..."
After incidents like this and others, I would sometimes think to myself, "there's three million people out here. All of them are welcome on my bus, all of them- except this lady. Everyone else is my buddy. This girl can go jump in the lake."
This type of thought is a problem for me. I don't want to have to fear a certain passenger. I want to, within reason, be able to let anyone on the bus. Once she was on my bus and my happy 4 devolved into one very unhappy 4, and afterwards I felt relieved in the sense that, well, at least I won't see her for a while. Somehow you don't see her except occasiona-
No. I was wrong. She was there the very next day, big and bright as life, right there at Third and Union. Noises build to a crescendo in the Central District, as we approach 23rd Avenue-
LSBW: "Don't touch me," she says to the two (black American) teenage girls sitting right behind me. "You guys are probably lesbians."
Girl 1: "The fu- what this girl jus' say to me?"
Girl 2: "I think she done said-"
LSBW: "I said don't touch me, faggot!"
Girl 1: "Lady, what the hell you talkin 'bout?"
LSBW: "Keep your hands to yourself."
Girl 2: "This girl need to shut the fuck up-"
Girl 1: "Hold up. I didn't say nothin' to you. Ain't nobody bothering your big ass, why you tryna start some shit?"
LSBW: "Stop trying to touch me with your hands that you've been masturbating with!"
Girl 2: "Wha-"
Girl 1: "The fuck is this bullshit? I didn't say-"
LSBW: "You been touchin' yourself with those hands, I don't want germs comin' from your hands gettin' on me."
Girl 2: "Hold up. This bitch say we les?"
Girl 1: "The fuck is you talkin' 'bout? Tryna say some shit about me that isn't true, callin' me lesbian, the fuck is your problem...dirty hands? What the fuck? I don't wanna touch your ugly ass. Stay the hell away from me."
Girl 2: "Yeah, tha's right. You don't wanna touch me, don't fuckin' touch me, girl-"
LSBW: "Don't pretend you ain't no lesbian, bitch. YOU BEEN MASTURBATING WITH THOSE HANDS! Don't touch me!"
Girl 1: "Ah can't believe this girl. I didn't say a motherfuckin' thing to you, I's just mindin' my own business and now you be assaulting me, attackin' my character tha's what this is-"
Girl 2: "Man, your hands is probably dirtier than anybody's. Look at 'em-"
LSBW: "Stop bothering me!"
Girl 1: "Okay, now that shit is funny. It's you that gots to stop botherin' me."
Girl 2: "Go sit somewhere else you don't like us."
Girl 1: "Go sit in the back. Stop bothering me."
LSBW: "You guys need to go get abortions-"
Girl 1 is nonplussed. The situation is so absurd she's more surprised than angry. Foul-mouthed as she may appear, she has not called LSBW any derogatory name. You can tell her profane self comes from a good place, and that she just wishes to cap the situation. She's trying to apply reason to what's going on. It's not working. In her astonishment she attempts a quick recap of the proceedings before launching further-
Girl 1: "What. The. Fuck is you talkin' about, sister? Man, you is an embarrassment to the people, takin' a shit like that up in here. Firs,' you be sayin' to everybody on this bus that me an' my friend is lesbians. Then, you be stirrin' some ca-razy mothafuckin' bullshit about I don't even know what the fuck-"
Me, stopped and turning around: "Hey. Whoa. Hey, HEY. Hey! Both a you are WAY better than this. Why you bringin' this energy inside a my house? Ain't nobody need to be yellin' about lesbians and abortions. We can talk about that later. I need both a you to do me a special favor. Don't say nothin'. I know she's bothering you, I know both of you wanna say a lotta stuff, but please. I'm askin' you for ten minutes."
Girl 1: "I'm a get the fuck off this bus, is what I'm gon' do. Come on, Keesh, les' go. You have a good day, bus driver. Sorry we got into such a big argument."
Me: "Oh man, you know it ain't your fault. You guys have a good rest of the day. I'm sorry this happened!"
Girl 1: "Me too! You have a good night too!"
Afterwards, LSBW and I got into conversation. A friend of mine attends the same church she goes to, where she apparently behaves herself; she has to be civil sometime. She was on her way to her mother's house, and she told me about the fried chicken she was going to eat. It was a relief to get her to talk to me instead of bothering other people- let alone a non-racist conversation at that. Could I be so lucky. She loves talking about the (stunningly unhealthy) food she enjoys.
I was writing above about the worrying thought that I would have to refuse her service. I'm troubled by the idea of rejecting someone because of who they are, as opposed to their particular behavior on a specific day. The latter makes sense. the former rubs against my conception of how I would like to treat people. There was a time (after she told the pregnant lady to have a miscarriage) where I wasn't quite sure where I stood on that line with respect to her. I mused over the implications one day while driving the 5, back in the days when it turned into the 54/55 to West Seattle. You have a lot of time to think when driving. I pulled into the zone at Third and Pike, now an outbound 55. A lot of activity here, milling about, people getting on and off-
"EXCUSE ME DO YOU GO TO 35TH AND AVALON?"
There she is, big as life once again. You could've heard her yell the question from a block away. The awful truth is, I do go to 35th and Avalon. I hesitate for a split second before timidly saying, "yeah, I do." "Good," she yelled. "I need to go to 35th and Avalon. I need to get there before 6."
"Oh, we'll get there before 6. We'll probably get there at 5:30." She's got one thing over on a lot of other passengers- she knows how to plan things in advance!
Now, I'm petrified. The 55 is an entirely Caucasian crowd. It's the height of PM rush hour, and everyone on the bus is white, and every one of them is wearing a suit. We're about to get on the viaduct, where it would be very awkward to pull over if something happens. And something is simply going to happen with this volatile mixture- a standing load of 80 white commuters who've been working all day, and one very unhappy Light-Skinned Black Woman.
She goes and sits down somewhere right behind me, where I can't see her through my mirror. I expect the heavens to fall. I'm bracing myself...and then, it's the funniest thing.
Nothing happens. There is silence.
She doesn't say anything to anyone, and nobody says anything to her. At the end of the ride I took a big, huge leap of faith, going out on what felt like a very precarious limb- I almost squeaked out the words, pretty sure they were a big mistake-
"Have a good day..."
But no! She responded with the world's gruffest version of "Thank you! God bless you!"
Afterwards I thought, Wow. She took the right dosage of meds today, that's for sure. That was fantastic. After that day I always give her the benefit of the doubt, like I do with everyone else. Because sometimes she doesn't make anyone cry. Once, in a moment that should've caused an earthquake because of its shatteringly unexpectedness, she bumped into someone's dog- and apologized!
She's definitely still the Light-Skinned Black Woman, however. Make no mistake. As she got off at Virginia one afternoon, after I went out on a limb yet again and told her to "have a good one," she responded with something more along the lines of what I'd expected the first time-
"STOP FLIRTING WITH ME BECAUSE I'M BLACK!"
That's more like it. Everyone within earshot- the rich, the poor, the white, and the black- was totally nonplussed for a moment. As soon as she was gone we all started laughing.