Sunday, December 03, 2006

BUS STORY # 13 (Tough All Around)






Last week’s story was my first encounter with a driver and a would-be rider without the fare. I’ve seen plenty since. It’s hard to tell which riders are running a con game and which just happen to be down on their luck at this particular moment. One thing they all have in common: as of this writing, the driver always gives them the benefit of the doubt.

One undetermined exchange happened on the Rapid Ride on my way to work. A long line of commuters was boarding at the Louisiana station, including a girl in a black, hooded sweatshirt. She flashed an ID and kept walking. “Hey hey hey!” the driver called after her. “Come back here.” The line stopped and waited while the girl went back to the driver.

“You’re a student?”

“Uh-huh.”

“How old are you?”

“Eighteen.”

“If you’re eighteen, you’re an adult. You pay full fare, understand?”

She nodded. And stood there. The driver watched her stand there. The riders and lined-up commuters watched her stand there.

“Go on, now. You’re just lucky I’m not a hard-ass like the other drivers. You pay full fare from now on, got that?”

She nodded and walked back down the aisle. I watched her round, utterly impassive face (Navajo? I wondered) and thought how, even at my ripe old age, I would have felt embarrassed and humiliated, innocent or guilty, and my face would have been a billboard for my emotions. I had absolutely no clue what her real story was.

Another incident happened at the same station on the same inbound route. This time, a black man boarded the bus behind the others, stopped at the fare box, presented his handful of change saying it was all he had and, please, would the driver let him ride. He was tall, dark-skinned, fit, with strong arms and big, muscled hands and fingers. A real worker’s hands. He was carrying a square Tupperware-like container with food in it. No bag, no cooler like the one inside my carryon with my own lunch in it. His head was, well, “noble” was the word that came to mind at first. It unfolded as dignity driven to begging. He had a sonorous voice – no James Earl Jones, but in the minors. And it was agitated as well as pleading.

“I can’t do that,” the driver told him.

“Please, I’m already late for work. Can’t you give me a break?”

“I can’t do that. They’re watching us, bro, they’re watching us.”

“Bro” (from the Latino driver) is when I realized he was anything but. I would have guessed immigrant but his voice sounded American. Maybe from a small southern town? A fall from upper-class grace back east? How to explain a black man in his 40’s who was raised in America and whose posture, clothes, voice, words showed no evidence of having ever been exposed to the culture after 1959?

He stood his ground and pleaded his case again, the pleading a little edgier in his voice now with anger and desperation.

“OK, OK, just this once. But no more. They’re watching us.”

He sat in the row of seats behind the driver, facing the aisle, so I could see his full profile. His face twitched with the conflict of reestablishing composure. And then I watched him wipe both eyes, right there in front of a bus full of not-black people. I knew this was no con job. I knew that, whatever the story was, it was bad. And I knew I had no idea how to acknowledge that without making it worse.

2 Comments:

Blogger Geoffrey W. Dennis said...

Love this site! Delighted to have this bus level perspective on Albuquerque. Only suggestions - needs pictures. Get a digital camera, photograph some of the stops, sights, and points along the route you take.

12:31 PM  
Blogger Busboy said...

Hmmmm. Good idea. Thanks, Geoffrey.

6:42 AM  

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