Sunday, March 25, 2007

BUS STORY # 26 (You Look Like A Tourist)


I’d worked late one evening and caught the Yale bus home at 6 p.m. A few stops later, two fellows boarded and sat in the back of the bus across from me. I might not have remembered them except for two things: 1) one had a striking face. He was wearing a faded green kerchief pulled tightly over his head and knotted at the back that served to magnify an uncommonly long goatee. Between the kerchief and the goatee were two large, intelligent eyes and strong cheekbones. 2) The other guy, the talker of the two, asked me if I’d just gotten into town. “No, I’m just going home from work,” I replied. “I thought you were coming from the airport,” he said. “You look like a tourist.”

I pegged these guys as day laborers. Late 30s, tall, lean, dusty beat-up jeans and boots. I surveyed the other riders. Nobody else looked like they’d just spent the day in an air-conditioned office, either. I was wearing slacks and a polo shirt, but I figured it was the hat (a Tilley hat, a fine, broad-brimmed sun-deflecting gift from my wife), my sunglasses and my duffel-like carryon stowed under my seat that made me look like a tourist. I couldn’t help thinking I’d just been profiled. And then I couldn’t help thinking that’s what I do everyday I ride the bus and survey my fellow bus riders.

“Profiling” is a pejorative term, of course. It denotes socio-politically incorrect behavior. Another word is “stereotyping” – not much of a connotative improvement. Still, we all know it’s a big-brained adaptation of a survival skill older than our kind. It’s what the robin does when it elects to leave the birdbath where it was happily splashing away when I walk out on my back porch. It doesn’t know me at all. What it knows is how best to keep out of trouble. “Gut instinct” comes off better than “profiling.” We all know the 15 rounder going on between “instinct” and reason. And we all have stories about what happened to us when we decided to trust our rationalizations instead of our gut. Right or wrong, regardless of the trouble it sometimes causes, we – that’s all of us – profile our way through every day. Because, bottom line, it works so well we’re rarely even aware we’re doing it.

Which is why I wondered what it was that made me look like a tourist. I had the physical evidence explained, but I think there was more to it than that. Maybe I looked like a tourist to this guy because I am a tourist.

The World Tourism Organization defines a tourist as a person who is traveling to and staying in places outside his usual environment “for not more than one consecutive year for leisure, business and other purposes not related to the exercise of an activity remunerated from within the place visited.” Well, yes. It all fits.

No question the bus culture – the bus stops and the buses themselves – are well outside my usual environment. At the time of this writing, I have been in this culture for four months now – considerably less than a year – and I offer my previous bus stories as evidence that I am still a wide-eyed, open-mouthed observer of the still-exotic behaviors of a diverse and mysterious native population. Like every tourist before me, I chose to travel here. I could have stayed home in my car – unlike most of my fellow riders who would gladly drive if they could afford a car. My ecological and economic motives are not business-related. My unexpected discovery and recording of bus stories is certainly “leisure.” You might argue that my free bus pass is a form of remuneration – but it is not from “within the place visited.”

Here’s the story: I look like a tourist because, yes, I am a tourist. And the natives can tell just by looking. But I plan on still being here after a year, and I suspect the rising demographic of my kind, driven by economics, environmental concerns, and relief from the ever crazier traffic, are turning a lot of us dressed-for-the-office tourists into the new immigrants. One mid-morning well outside the commuting time border lines, after boarding the regular Central bus, I look over a tumult of sideways baseball caps and tank tops, technicolor spandex pants and tube tops, tattoos and piercings, and I can’t help but wonder if these long time residents are looking at me and thinking “There goes the neighborhood.”

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