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Mpls, MN, United States

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Incidents & Accidents

Monday, November 15, 2010

Microcosm

I boarded the 18 bus outside the public library. As usual that far up Nicollet, it was nearly empty, and I sat by the window in the first non-priority row of seats. Two African-American women sat in the bank of three seats in front of me, perpendicular to mine. The one nearest me carried an infant, whom she partially unswathed from a huge bundle of blankets, so that just her little fleece-hatted head was visible.

I watched bundled people shuffle along the sidewalks in rubber boots and sensible shoes.

At 9th, which is always a busy stop, the bus started to fill up. One man asked the bus driver how she was doing, and she replied that she was "blessed." He laughed loudly as he took his transfer and said that was a good answer. A statuesque young woman partially undraped herself from the priority seat on the other side of the bus from me so that an elderly woman carrying bags could sit there.

At the next stop, with the bus almost entirely full, the bus driver called out that she needed a seat up front, and a middle-aged woman vacated one of the priority seats. A man carrying a cane and squinting through thick round glasses shuffled to the seat and sat down.

At the stop after that, things got even more crowded. A large, shabby white man wearing a bright orange knit cap and laden with stuff got onto the bus. It was clear that he wanted a priority seat, and he did appear to meet the criteria, which he would later list aloud: he was a senior, with a disability. It was equally clear that the two women in front of me did not intend to relinquish any of the three they were occupying. He stood in front of them, holding the overhead rail, while they sniggered and made faces.

When possible, I avoid riding the bus at that time of the afternoon precisely to avoid this sort of uncomfortable crowding: no one relishes close contact with strangers, particularly not when they're wrapped in swinging bundles and a clear cloud of crazy. I usually sit with my backpack on my lap, shoulders squeezed up to make space, and try to distract myself with the view out the window. None of us likes it, but we all want to get where we're going as painlessly as possible, so we deal with it.

As the bus moved forward and it was clear the women in front of him were laughing at him more and more loudly and were displeased with his presence, the man began a litany of complaints: "I've had two heart attacks and a pulmonary embolism and now I have diabetes and have poor circulation in my leg!" They were unfazed. "I am on coumadin! If I fall down, I could die of internal bleeding!"

"You back the $*(% up or I'll give you internal bleeding right now! I will beat you!" the older of the two women said.

"I could kick you out of this seat, if I wanted to--"

"You just try and kick me out! I'd like to see you try!"

"I have a disability, and I could kick you out--"

As the bus moved forward, a water bottle strapped to the man swung forward, and the woman shoved it away.

"Don't you touch my stuff!" the man roared, raising his voice for the first time, and the woman rose from her seat to shout back, "Keep your stuff out of my face!"

She grabbed her bag and began to dig through it, saying, "Okay, I'm going to get my magic $#*^ out and make you back up..."

"What, do you have a gun in there?" he asked.

"No, I don't have a gun! But I have something else..."

"I'm going to call the police!" he said. "I'm going to call the police, don't you touch me..."

"I'll give you internal bleeding..."

Another woman standing at the front of the bus joined in. "This is because they're black, isn't it? You wouldn't be doing this is they were white!"

"This isn't racial!" he protested. "I'm not racist, I just want to sit down!"

The young mother, who had been talking into her cell phone, giving a running commentary on the "bum" in front of them, ripped into him. "You need to leave her alone and talk respectfully to this woman! She hasn't done anything to you, so you need to behave like a decent human being! Now you need to stop &#$%ing talking to her and leave her the &#(% alone!" She started quietly, but ended shouting in righteous indignation, clearly pleased with her performance, which drew appreciative chuckles.

We had stopped again, and the tall young man sitting beside me, who could barely fold his legs up in front of him to clear the aisle grabbed his girlfriend and said, "Come on, baby, we can walk--it's only a few blocks from here." They left, freeing two seats, and the people crowded near the front pointed out the open spaces. The man squeezed through and sank down beside me. I stared out the window.

A few blocks later, the two women rose to leave. So did the man beside me. "Oh, is this your stop? Guess who else is getting off here!" he said.

Despite her earlier threats to beat him, as they got off the bus, the older of the two women said dismissively, "We're not going to hurt him. We're just going to go our own way."

The man, however, did not appear comforted, and asked the driver to call the police. She said she was required to do so when asked by a passenger, and so we sat there, waiting. The bus cleared out as people got off. Another 18 stopped behind us, and passengers from our bus transferred. I stayed where I was, and as the other bus passed us, saw that it was, as expected, packed to the doors.

Eventually the driver told the man that the police would be there momentarily, and we pulled away again. At my stop eight blocks later, the driver was still so flustered that she didn't notice me at the back door and had to slam on the brakes, already partway into traffic, to let me out after several of us shouted "Back door!"

"Sorry," she said. "My bad."

This story doesn't have a point, exactly. The bus is frequently crowded, and is usually carrying a mix of crazies, the exhausted, and occasionally the loudly obnoxious. This isn't the first time I've seen the cops called; the last time I saw the officers pull a man off the bus who (loudly) couldn't understand why the business card he was holding wasn't a bus transfer. It's not always bad, and sometimes it's even fun: last week my jovial driver announced the stops in a sort of late-night DJ voice.

There's a fair amount of crazy in the world, and a fair amount of really unfair life circumstances, too. The city bus provides a more concentrated sample of each than one might ordinarily encounter, and in a necessarily intimate setting.

I found myself angry at the two apparently able-bodied women on the bus for not being grown-ups: for not sharing, for picking on someone who was clearly physically and mentally challenged, and for exposing that baby girl to all of it. I was angry about the playing of the race card, which seemed unfair and uncalled for, and angry that this is what the discussion of race looks like in America. But I didn't say anything.

4 comments:

Leah said...

Yep, that's the city bus for you. Packed to the rafters with crazies, meanies, and some average types.

I *almost* regret not riding the city buses anymore, what with our apartment being near the campus bus loop now.

But memories of people clearly stoned or drunk, being verbally abusive or abused, reminds me that I'm lucky in my bus.

mandy said...

i really enjoyed reading this... i mean, i'm sure the experience itself wasn't enjoyable, but the description was fascinating :)

thedumm

(appropriate?)

Adrianna said...

Fabulous story! "...Wrapped in a cloud of crazy..." was my favorite! I too, could feel the frustration at those two women. It didn't matter if he was crazy, he clearly had more right to the seat. The pendulum of political correctness has swung so far to one side that we live in fear of voicing our convictions lest we face ridicule, recrimination- or worse- violent retribution. My step-dad was discriminated against at a fast-food place last week that had all of one nationality working (and eating) there- but you're crazy if you say anything! When did we become a lower-class minority in our own country?

CëRïSë said...

Leah, "Packed to the rafters with crazies" made me laugh out loud. I know you can empathize!

Mandy, I'm glad you enjoyed it, as I'm afraid my stories are boring--and "thedumm" is amazingly appropriate.

And Adrianna, I don't even feel like it was an issue of political correctness, or really about race at all; if it's symptomatic of anything cultural, it seems like it's about all the yelling going on generally. I didn't want to contribute to the yelling... but I'm still not sure whether that was just an excuse to be a pansy! I frequently wish that people would just do the right thing without having to be told--but am less sure when it's my place to tell them what is right, and how to do it. This is something I think about not infrequently.