There is something about bus stops that encourages people to tell their stories. You can see this phenomenon in movies–Forrest Gump, for example, begins as he retells his whole life’s story to different strangers who come and go at the stop’s bench. And you know, I think we all recognize it not only as a story-telling place where it’s acceptable to share your day with complete strangers, but also as a listening place, a place where it’s also okay to just sit and listen.
I experienced a bit of this story-telling magic on a late afternoon last week. Instead of taking my car to the train station that morning, I had jumped on the bus in efforts to avoid the soon-to-be-full parking lot. I had however, missed the last bus home that evening and was waiting for my mom to pick me up. Tired, I made my way to one of the benches and plopped down to wait.
A man was already sitting there, wearing the strangest of outfits (and that’s saying a lot when you see a good sampling of people riding the train every day). It reminded me of a baby suit–you know, a baby “one-sie”, where you have to put the feet in first and then pull it up, shove the arms in, and then zip up the front. His was all black, and made of the same kind of material of those paper blankets they give you when you’re getting that annual physical checkup at the Doc’s.
“Cold, huh?” He said to me after a few minutes of silence.
“Yeah,” I said, nodding. I was not in the mood for chatting.
“You just come from work?” He continued.
“Long Beach.” I hesitated. Did I really want to open up this potential can of worms? Something about him seemed…okay though. After a long pause, I asked, “What about you?”
“Me?” He laughed. “I just got out of jail, just like an hour ago.”
OH. Well that explains the outfit, I guess. Wow. Having grown up in your typical suburban pleasantville, this was my first ever encounter with any sort of “criminal.” I was surprised to find my feelings as normal as ever–not shocked, not suspicious, and most importantly, not scared.
“How does it feel?” I asked.
“Out here? Man, it feels good.”
“How long were you in there?”
“Two months. Some guys though, three years.”
“What did you miss most about being out here?” At this point, he had my full attention.
“The food. We had peanut butter and jelly, for every meal, every day. I won’t touch no peanut butter now, no way. And we had to sleep on wooden benches, hard like this bench. It’s going to be nice to be in a bed. And I’m tired of showering with other guys.”
I laughed. “What’s your first meal going to be?”
“Carne asada burrito!” He said immediately.
“Those are soo good!” Connection made. This young man, though scruffy and garbed in an accusing prison uniform, was a goddamn normal person. “So what are you going to do now?” I asked.
“Well I know how to drive a fork-lift. So I’m gonna get me a fork-lifting job tomorrow.”
“Oh, wow, okay. That’s good, right?”
“Yeah. Always work. Keep you from gettin’ mixed up with the wrong crowd. That’s what I’m gonna do, always work.”
“Do you have any family around here?”
“Yeah, a sister. Gonna go see her tomorrow.”
I nodded, and we paused and sat in silence. What an interesting conversation, I thought to myself. I marveled at how normal he was–just another human being who cares about family, good food, and getting by. I asked for his name before he got on his bus.
“Jerry, with a J”, he said. We shook hands, and he waved from the window–like a scene from a movie, I know.
“Good luck!” I yelled after him.
Oh, the magical bus stop. Where else can one learn to connect with those with lives so unfamiliar to us, but in a good ol’ public place? A place that truly belongs to all–from corporate business execs, to students, to parents and their fussy children, to homeless men and women. A place that bridges each other’s worlds and quiets racial stereotypes, simply by its very nature of inclusion. For what, you ask? To lessen that dark, four-letter F word that drives segregation and hate: