Sunday, September 09, 2007

BUS STORY # 49 (It Takes A Village)

Two young junior high-sized kids board the bus. They’re on their way to school. They’ve affected the “gangbanger” style the way so many of us guys adopted whatever passed for street cool in our generation. I see the same swagger and bravado, the same need to let everybody know, that betrays just how insecure we really are in that phase of our lives.

On this particular morning, I’m calling on this particular exercise to help me see and accept my connectedness to these students – to “reframe” (as we are saying this season) my immediate registration of two hormonally compromised inepts who are commandeering the peace and quiet and civility of this morning’s ride. I’ve made considerable progress when the conversation starts to fly.

“I see white people,” a third student calls to them from the back of the bus. “I see a faggot,” retorts one of the boarders. I see the guy sitting across from me stiffen.

I’ve seen this guy both coming and going on this route. He’s quiet in the morning, but on the way home, he’s exuberant. He chats easily with several other riders, and it’s obvious he’s part of another little long-established community of commuters. I’d long ago surmised he is probably gay. When he stiffens at the student’s “faggot,” so do I.

The pair passes us on the way to the back of the bus, and I watch my neighbor track them. His face is rigid and his eyes are terrible with anger and fear and impotence. The palpability of these primary emotions unravels my tidy paradigm. I can no longer entertain the memory that the put-down greeting is what passes for affection at this age; I’m no longer checked by the memories of my own prolonged adolescence – “young, dumb, and full of” etc. I’ve taken on my neighbor’s anger and fear and – not yet noteworthy – impotence.

Up on the platform at the rear of the bus, another rider accosts them. He’s dressed in the street uniform of the Vietnam vet. “Hey,” he says to them, “it’s not cool to be bashing gays.” His voice manages to be firm without being angry or blaming. (Imagine that!) The kids mumble something and appear momentarily confused at the collision of feeling chastened and the sense they’re not supposed to be taking nothing off of nobody here. They eventually resume their role, but their voices are quieter now.

I’m still uncomfortable, but now it’s because of the way the vet’s intervention is reframing my “impotence.” Like my neighbor, I fear for my own comfort and safety. Maybe like my neighbor, and maybe not, I also fear my own anger and the judgmentalism from which it comes. I fear if I had tried intervening like the vet, I would have caused more anger, not less unkindness. And so I made a choice: sit still, keep my mouth shut, keep my neighbors out of the business I’m minding.

Here’s the story: regardless of what the vet may or may not have planted in the minds and hearts of these kids, he’s planted in me the discomforting thought that keeping quiet out of fear is cowardice, not impotence. He’s also got me thinking that, if I believe there are times one ought to speak out because something’s just not right, then there are going to be times I’m gonna have to talk the talk as well as walk the walk. More: I’m gonna have to learn how to talk the talk so I don’t make things worse. ¡Hijole! Driving would have been a whole lot easier than taking the bus this morning.


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