Why I’m a better writer when I ride the bus regularly

I watched a man almost get kicked off the bus today.

Having had a busy weekend and a lot of work, I went to campus this afternoon very tired and rather headachy. I sat through a three-hour seminar without saying a word, my head propped up on my hands, dizzy. When class was finished I walked to the bus stop and was relieved to see a bus arrive almost immediately. I got on, and the bus driver smiled a pleasant hello. I settled into a seat and began reading for tomorrow’s seminar.

Not long after, a man got on the bus. He was laden with a heavy backpack, hands full with brimming plastic shopping bags. He wore a wrinkled black t-shirt and faded grey pants, and his shoulder-length hair appeared greasy and unwashed. He took a seat near the front of the bus and carefully unloaded all his shopping bags, catching one twice as it attempted to tip over. The other people who had gotten on with him passed him by, moving to the back of the bus. The bus continued on its way.

“Excuse me,” the driver called out to the man. “You got a pass?”

“Yeah, yeah,” the man replied, not paying much attention. He appeared preoccupied with his plastic bags.

“Excuse me,” the driver called out more loudly. “You got a bus pass?”

The man mumbled indistinctly, making a show of rummaging in his pockets and bags, but made no move to show the driver his pass.

The driver spoke more roughly: “Come on. Get up here and show me your pass.”

The man moved toward the driver, clutching a piece of paper, but it turned out not to be a bus pass. The driver spoke to him, and he replied, both indistinguishable in the noise of traffic. The man pulled out numerous crumpled papers from his belongings, but no pass. There were more words, again none I could hear. Presently the driver pulled over and stopped the bus altogether.

“You can’t ride without a pass,” he declared shortly. He pointed to the door. “Pick up your things and leave the bus.”

The man dawdled and muttered, but stayed where he was.

The driver, too, remained unmoving, and grew more so by the minute. “Come on, guy!” he barked. “I don’t have all day, I gotta go. Pick up your things and get off the bus.”

The man mumbled again and fumbled with his crumpled papers.

The driver said impatiently, “A dollar twenty-five, it’s a dollar twenty-five. You have to pay or else leave.”

The bus was still stopped. The man in the black t-shirt rearranged his papers some more, but produced no money. Minutes passed.

A man in a grey sweatshirt and a knit cap marched up from the back of the bus. He pushed roughly past the man in the black t-shirt, who was now blocking the entranceway. The man in the black t-shirt moved aside, revealing the other man to the rest of the passengers. This man flung a series of coins into the pay slot, turned forcefully on his heel, and shoved past the first man again back to his seat.

The bus rumbled into movement again, and the man in the black t-shirt resumed his seat and his watch on the assortment of plastic bags.

Some miles later, the bus pulled to a stop and I got off.

“Bye, now,” the driver said, smiling pleasantly at me. “You take care and have a good evening.”

That is segregation in action, sure as cabbages.* It’s not racism, but it is classism. That driver would absolutely not have behaved the way he did if it had been I, polite and neatly groomed, who had been unable to produce a bus pass. It’s not that he was ready to kick the man off for not paying; he was perfectly within his rights to do so, and riding without paying should certainly not be encouraged. It is the way the driver spoke to the man that made me so uncomfortable. He barked at him, he called him “guy,” he treated him generally with no respect. Yes, the man was recalcitrant, but the driver of a bus has his authority. He doesn’t need to be rude to show people he’s in charge. Some drivers are just plain rude to everyone, but I know this one wasn’t, because he spoke to me with such courtesy and friendliness. It unnerved me so much I could hardly thank him for the ride, to hear him address me so kindly after treating the other man the way he did. I’m certain he was only rude to the other man because he looked and acted homeless. I’m certain that if I had searched my purse and discovered I was cashless and had forgotten my bus pass, he wouldn’t have barked at me, “Come on, girl, pay up or get off.” And the man in the sweatshirt would have strolled up at a normal pace, looked me in the eye, and kindly offered to pay, instead of shoving me aside and thrusting the money roughly into the slot.

The book I was reading on the bus was about racial segregation, so this incident got me thinking about how we examine people’s behavior historically. I remember, strangely clearly, being in seventh grade and watching The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in social studies class. I remember talking solemnly with Lisa Morrison on our way to Mrs Oliver’s science class, pondering how people could ever have been so cruel to one another. “I’d like to think,” I said, “that if I had lived back then I would never have owned slaves or been so brutal to them.” Lisa agreed.

I’ve returned to this moment in my memory again and again since that time, with each new book I’ve read about slavery and each new horror I’ve learned. I know the reason it has remained in my mind to trouble me is that I never could be sure that I would have been an abolitionist if I’d lived in slave times. By and large, people behave within the context of their time period, with the rare exceptions of those courageous activists who are able to pierce through the conventions of their times to act for a better world. I’m a kind person now, but there’s no guarantee I would have been one back when it was readily accepted that beating slaves was okay. It’s a troubling notion.

Or at least I thought so, until this afternoon. Watching the bus driver’s polar shift in behavior as he spoke first pleasantly to me, then harshly to the nonpaying passenger, then again so kindly to me, I realized that if it’s in someone to act this way — if in his mind there is such a total distinction between one arbitrary category of person deserving of courtesy and another arbitrary category deserving not a shred of respect – then that’s just the way he will act, no matter what era he lives in. In slave times he would have been one of those plantation owners who brutally whipped his slaves, yet was a genuinely loving husband and father. Likewise, if I had been white and lived back then, I would never have been one of those violent slaveholders. I might have owned slaves because that’s what my era expected of me, but I would not have beaten them, and maybe I would not even have broken up their families. The values of the time would have been different, but within the context of that time I would be the same as I am now: neither among the cruelest in society nor among the most honorably courageous, just a kind person trying to do my small part to keep the world sane (if ever it was).

*To quote the fairy godmother Mandy in Ella Enchanted.

Okay, now that I’ve written this and reread it a few times, I’m wondering whether it wasn’t the man’s appearance that made the bus driver bark at him so rudely, but the way he acted. I would still bet good money that the driver would not have treated me the same way, but maybe, after all, that is because I would have had a different reaction to not being able to pay. Instead of hanging around and mumbling incoherently, I would have been able to say articulately, “I’m so sorry, I forgot my pass and I don’t have any cash on me.” In this case, it wouldn’t be merely my appearance that would be my defense, but my apparent status as an intelligent, generally conscientious, mentally stable individual. If that’s so, the driver’s behavior this afternoon wasn’t so much classism as it was defensive rudeness, which I don’t like either but am more willing to condone.

But I’m pretty sure the historical-psychological realization still holds true.

[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at satsumabug.livejournal.com.]