Sunday, May 29, 2016

BUS STORY # 499 (“You Can’t Make Stuff Like This Up”)

Downloaded from

Disclosure: This week’s Bus Story isn’t really a bus story. Over the years, friends have asked me about particular riders’ stories, and if I thought the rider was telling me the truth. Stories that come to mind are David’s Story and Sarah, parts one and two. The question got me to thinking about truth, but also about stories -- what they are, where they come from, what they do, and so forth. Here are my thoughts.

I have a good friend, a history buff, who sends me a lot of small, obscure, and immensely fascinating stories from the various biographies and histories he’s been reading. He’s fond of closing each story with the comment, “You can’t make stuff like this up.”

His comment is a commonplace used by a lot of folks to express the conventional wisdom that “truth is stranger than fiction.”

The assumption, of course, is that truth is different from fiction.

The problem, of course, is that “truth” is different from “fact,” and the two words are indiscriminately interchanged, one for the other.

Despite having numerous opportunities to learn this lesson (the best opportunity being my biblical studies), it wasn’t until I was in my 40s when this lesson became perfectly, permanently clear.

I’d grown up hearing my mother’s stories about her and my father’s families, and it never occurred to me that these were anything other than the way it was.

Then, a year before she died, my maternal grandmother came out to Albuquerque for a visit. She spent three days in my home, and during those three days, she told me her life story.

She’d rise early. I’d put on a pot of coffee and join her at the dining room table, and she’d begin remembering. We never went anywhere. In fact, she never changed out of her pajamas, slippers, and dressing gown. Or at least that’s how I remember it.

In retrospect, I’ve concluded she had some sense that her time was short, and that awareness triggered her need to tell her story -- the whole story.

I’d seen this phenomenon before, and I’ve seen it since. And I’ve come to think of it as, among other things, a dress rehearsal for the interview at the Pearly Gates. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to my grandmother’s visit.

I learned a few stories I’d never heard before, all of them interesting not just for their newness, but for the way they added to and made more complex -- you might say made more fully human -- the family members I knew from my mother’s stories.

But the real eye-opener was hearing my grandmother tell the same stories I already knew from my mother. In my grandmother’s telling, something had changed. It wasn’t the characters or the timelines. What changed was what each story was telling me about the family members in the stories, and about the tellers of the stories themselves.

What changed was the truth.

My first attempt at understanding what was happening here was to try to figure out which version of a given story -- my mother’s or my grandmother’s -- was the true one. I hadn’t quite gotten the lesson yet.

The lesson became clearer a few years later.

My maternal aunt was living in Los Angeles when I learned she had metastatic breast cancer. I’d always liked my aunt because, as I knew from my mother’s stories and from my growing-up memories of visits, she was both independent and tough-minded, and a loyal and generous friend.

I flew out to LA a few times to visit with her, and to satisfy an adult desire to get to know her better. During those visits, I heard yet again the same stories I’d heard from my mother and my grandmother -- and which in her telling became yet another set of unique versions of the same stories.

These stories had been two-dimensional before. And each version had lain one next to the other like two competing translations of a biblical text, only one of which could be the true. My aunt’s retelling made all of them three-dimensional, each with its own texture and depth and coloring and shading and nuance. And now, each version mediated the other two, so that, when all was said and done, I ended up synthesizing my own understanding of each set of their stories, and my own understanding of these more fully-realized women. I now had my own versions of these stories.

Imagine this: You’ve spent your life looking into a room through a window in the west wall. You know where the table is, what the upholstery of the couch looks like, the color and pattern of the wallpaper. You know exactly what this room looks like. Then one day, someone takes you to a window in the north wall of the very same room. Except now, it doesn’t look exactly like the same room. The west wall turns out to be plastered in pink, which changes the lighting. And the door to the hallway is slightly out of plumb. And you hadn’t seen that teddy bear siting askew on the throw. Teddy bear? And then you find a window in the east wall...

Or, if you will, consider the synoptic Gospels.

That is how I came to understand my mother and my grandmother and my aunt, each of them, was telling me the truth.

Years later, my daughter married a man who performed monologues in a series he called “All Stories Are Fiction.” The monologues were autobiographical, but what made them unique is that they weren’t memorized pieces. Rather, each performance was recreated extemporaneously. One of my sons described the process as telling stories every night that were “the same — but different.”

I came to understand that, on any given night, I was hearing the story that was true at the moment of its telling. The implications were that the stories I’d heard from my grandmother and aunt were also unique versions of their own stories told at a particular time to a particular audience: me, but also to themselves.

But what if the story being told is fabricated? What if the facts of the story turn out to be untrue?

We now know that, in fact, George Washington did not chop down the cherry tree, Davy Crockett did not kill him a b’ar when he was only three, and our own Billy the Kid did not kill 21 men before his 21st birthday.

But how many of us would think of challenging the truth told by each story -- that George Washington was an honest man, that Davy Crockett was a formidable (if not precocious) hunter, that Billy the Kid was an adept shootist?

One conclusion seems pretty obvious: “truth” and “fact” are not just different from one another, but sometimes get in one another’s way.

Truth doesn’t need facts so much as it needs a story.

Over the span of Bus Stories, I’ve been privileged to hear several remarkable stories. It has always been in the back of my mind that any of these stories could have been fabricated -- whether on the spot, as some kind of wondrous improvisation, or as some pathological construct habitually told, or as simply an artful elaboration on bare bones -- the storyteller’s own, or someone else’s.

In which case, fiction could surely be construed as much, much stranger than fact.

Even if this were the case, I’d argue the fiction being told is a personal expression of the teller’s truth. All the story would need is decoding, much as I tried doing with my troubled co-rider's story in No Good Samaritan.

Why do we tell stories anyway?

Essentially, we tell stories to make sense of our experiences.

These experiences are a bewildering maelstrom of perceptions and thoughts and memories and emotions. They’re made all the more bewildering because they’re occurring simultaneously in two different worlds: the one we know and understand, and the other, bigger one.

We tell our stories to impose order on such chaos, to sort out what is happening to us, inside and out, and make it meaningful. And meaningful in a way we can live with.

We tell our stories to others primarily for validation. This is how it is. This is who we are. This is what we did and why. And this what they did and why. And that’s the truth. Believe me.

It takes an enormous amount of creativity to tell a story that accommodates all this!

And so we construct our personal histories, our family histories, our national histories. And we change them -- sometimes consciously, but mostly unconsciously, I think -- when they quit serving the need to provide meaning and comfort. When they quit working for us. When they quit being true.

As for the facts? They endure.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

BUS STORY # 498 (Jeffrey, Part Four)

Photo by Busboy

You can read Parts One, Two and Three here, here and here.

Friday morning, I sent Jeffrey* an email: “Testing...”

Sunday, having heard nothing back, I resent the email.

I saw him the following Wednesday. Our greeting was unusually subdued. I told him I had emailed. He said he had not gotten it. I verified the address. He said he would look again and send me an email if he found nothing.

And then he apologized and said he was distracted. His prostate cancer had taken a new direction: he was now being worked up for bladder cancer.

He was frustrated by his experience with the UNMH health care system. Whether it was an appointment or a referral or a diagnostic test, nothing could be scheduled for less than a month out.

He was seeing clinicians who were burnt out by an unending procession of patients who never seemed to understand their diseases and their processes, or who were non-compliant, or who simply failed to keep their appointments with any regularity, but did expect to be cured when they did show up, or who were drug-seekers.

Surely they recognized you are not in any of those discouraging categories, I replied.

Yes, he acknowledged, but whatever good intentions they may have had during his visit were quickly buried under the deadening routine of the futile practice of medicine.

He spoke of not being ready to give up this life, of not having a family of his own, just his mother and a few close friends. Very few. “I am a solitary.” I wondered if his “neglected girlfriend” was still in the picture. I remembered how, when we had briefly discussed getting together and had exchanged emails, he had said he preferred the “epistolary form” himself.

I told him I understood his distraction, and that I was sorry for all he was going through.

He rallied himself, grasped my hand with both of his, and said, “It’s a good life. It’s a beautiful life. Take care.” And so we went on our ways.

I missed my regular bus that evening.

Between that autumn afternoon and Christmas, we exchanged a few emails. His were somewhat cryptic, and I sensed his attention was elsewhere. I repeated my desire to meet for coffee whenever he wished, and left the invitation at that.

I did not hear from him again.

It is possible he’s died by now. I think about that, and I think about whether I should have been more persistent. I tell myself it was better not to intrude, that he had made it clear he was, in his words, “a solitary,” that this was serious business he was dealing with, that I was an email away. I tell myself I had no business putting my curiosity or a good story into this mix. And all of that is as true as how good it sounds.

But I also know the relief I felt... feel... at not having to be involved any deeper in the dying of this stranger.

Somehow, that relief is no relief at all.


*Real name changed.



All this happened over four years ago. Last summer, I was riding the Montgomery bus when I saw Jeffrey board. He looked just the way I remembered him, clothes and all. He sat down in a seat across the aisle and one row behind me. I turned and looked. He sensed someone staring, looked at me, broke into a big grin, then got up and sat down beside me.

I think he was genuinely happy to see me. I asked him how he was doing, and he said he was doing very well, “one day at a time.” He didn’t offer any particulars, and I didn’t ask. He was now involved in a men’s cancer support group, and happy to be so. I asked him how he came to be on the Montgomery bus (I didn’t know he was a rider until now), and he explained he was returning home from a dental appointment.

He asked how I was doing, and I told him I was now retired and thoroughly enjoying myself. That pleased him.

My stop came before his. I wished him well, and asked if he still had my email address. He did, he did. I told him retirement made me much more available these days. I don’t remember exactly how he handled this, just that he was gracefully noncommittal. And that was that.

Whenever I think of him now, I think of him as alive. It feels much better.

This remarkable photo was taken by former ABQ RIDE driver Peter Reynolds. It is downloaded from the photos section of the Facebook page for ABQ RIDE.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

BUS STORY # 497 (Jeffrey, Part Three)

The UNM Duck Pond. Downloaded from The Pack.

You can read Parts One and Two here and here.

I trust you already understand from my telling this story that I had decided to look for some way to meet with Jeffrey* off-campus.

I imagined an exchange of email addresses at our next encounter, with a commitment to work out a meeting some weekend at a coffee shop convenient to both of us.

And you probably suspect what I already knew not all that deeply in my heart: it was curiosity as much as concern that drove my decision.

Who was this guy? Inquiring minds want to know...

It wasn’t until the end of October that I had another option to take the UNM campus route to Lomas.  I was feeling some urgency because I was being transferred to another office in another part of town in a couple of weeks.  My days of crossing the UNM campus to catch the 50 were numbered.

The 50 was late.  We had a new driver, and he was learning the route.  By the time we got to UNM, I was already close to 10 minutes later than normal.

 Sure enough, we did not cross paths that day.

Tuesday, the bus and I were back on schedule. But Jeffrey was not.

I began to wonder if there were only certain days he took this walk. Maybe it was only on Mondays and Wednesdays and Fridays, and that’s why I didn’t see him Tuesday.

Which made me realize how unobservant I’d been the last five months.

Now I began to think. I had been seeing him at the same time on a somewhat regular basis from roughly May through October. From a teacher’s or student’s perspective, that would cover the end of a spring semester, two summer semesters, and much of the fall semester. How likely was it either would have the same schedule all four semesters?

I thought about the time I’d seen him crossing Lomas, coming from -- I assumed -- the University Hospital. Maybe he was an outpatient coming from regularly scheduled treatments. Maybe he was a health care worker or some other type of hospital employee. Maybe he was both.

Wednesday I drove -- the demands of my work schedule for the day. That left me twice-disappointed. I have come to feel no joy whenever I have to use the car for work. And now, I was missing an opportunity to run into Jeffrey.

Thursday was looking like another strikeout until I was close to the Duck Pond. I caught site of him coming from the left -- a different direction -- and felt the combined emotions of elation and apprehension. I wanted to know more and I didn’t know what I might be getting myself into by finding out.

This time, he was wearing light khaki pants, a white collarless shirt buttoned to the neck, and a sports coat of some gray-blue weave. It made him look clerical. The courier pouch was gone. He was carrying instead a black, zippered planner.

“Jeffrey,” I called, and stopped.

He called out my name, and walked over to me. We shook hands.

I told him our last encounter had made me want to know more of his story, and that wasn’t going to happen on these chance encounters, especially since I was not going to be coming this way after next week.

He agreed the campus encounters were not the place to do this. He was on his way home himself and had a hungry cat and a neglected girlfriend to take care of.

I asked if we could exchange emails, and said I hoped we could get together for coffee sometime and exchange our stories. He seemed delighted, and gave me his email address along with this provocative comment: “I prefer the epistolary form myself. I’m rather old-fashioned in that way.” The exchange made, we shook hands again, and went our separate ways.


*Real name changed.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

BUS STORY # 496 (Jeffrey, Part Two)

Downloaded from Loner Wolf.

You can read Part One here.

I think it was in September, some three or four months after our first encounter on the campus, before we exchanged words again. He reached out as if to shake hands. I reciprocated. He took my hand in both of his and, looking me in the eyes, said, “Safe travel, my friend.” And released my hand.

I was taken by surprise, but managed something like “Thank you, same to you.”

And off we went on our separate ways.

He had always been pleasant on our encounters, but now I got to wondering if an outwardly-projected inner happiness was something more than conventional manners. I saw something in his eyes, but I also heard something -- a warmness, a gentleness -- in his voice.

I also heard in his voice a foreign accent. Despite the earlier “namaste” gesture, I had already ruled out India because his complexion did not match any of the skin tones I’d come to identify as “Indian.” Now, his accent did the same. Other than that he was not Indian, however, I was clueless. My best guess was “the movies.” All I needed was the title, actor, and role...

After this particular encounter, he would sometimes say something in passing -- “Safe travel” or “Take care” -- or we would simply smile at one another.

One afternoon in late October, when neither of us was wearing our hats, he pulled up in front of me, wished me good health, and hoped I was “taking good care of [my] prostate.”

What does one say to a greeting like this?

After recovering my senses, I said I was doing my best, then added it sounded like he was having trouble with his.

He was. Cancer. He’d gone through treatments, but had been told there was probably metastasis. He was going through periodic tests to see if it had migrated, and to where.

This last explanation is my summary of what he said.

In fact, his description was a masterpiece of elocution that managed to convey the facts without saying “cancer” or “metastasis” or even “tests.” Even the way he described metastasis conjured up the image of a malignant entity boarding a bus and riding around the city until it found a stop to its liking.

I asked him how he was dealing with the uncertainty. I remember he prefaced his answer with “Given my Church of England upbringing and my Augustinian framework...”

He explained he had moved beyond those moral and philosophical underpinnings without abandoning them. And now, listening again to his declamation, I was thinking “British education... The King James and Book of Common Prayer... Shakespeare... Dickens... All those Victorian essayists...” All this was in his vocabulary and his cadence, intermingled with what I was now guessing might be a black South African accent.

When he was finished, he had basically come to where most of us do in circumstances like his: he was taking it one day at a time. More, he was optimistic, whatever the outcome.

I confess I was also thinking I would probably miss my bus because of this conversation.

It turned out that I did not -- by about two minutes is all. But I found myself wondering why in the world would I worry about this when I was in the middle of an interesting story -- two interesting stories, his and him -- and when I knew perfectly well the next bus would be there in 20 minutes.

And I think the answer is: fear of getting involved.

In the maybe five minutes this discussion took place, I had already begun working out how we might get together for coffee, and when, and not just to hear all his story, but to find out what kind of support system he had here, which included the possibility that he had no family here, and who knew about friends... Which left me thinking about the way my own Roman Catholic upbringing and Thomistic framework would be driving me far beyond telling the story.

Before we went our separate ways, when we were shaking hands goodbye, he told me his name: Jeffrey.* And I told him mine.

It would be a few days before I would be taking the bus home from work again, and it gave me time to think about the next step.


*Real name changed.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

BUS STORY # 495 (Jeffrey, Part One)

Downloaded from Dick's Sporting Goods.

It was early on, when all we were doing was acknowledging one another with a grin when we passed each other crossing the UNM campus, that I got the sense there would be a story here.

I wasn’t sure it could be called a bus story. For one thing, he is not (to the best of my knowledge) a rider. For another, the encounters were not on the bus or at a bus stop. Whenever I opted to catch the 11 by walking across campus to Lomas (as opposed to walking over to The Frontier to catch the Rapid), we would, more often than not, it seems, cross paths.

I decided it is a bus story. For one thing, I was still between buses and on my way home. For another, there would have been no encounters if I hadn’t been taking the bus. But mostly, it’s a story I’d like to tell.

The first time we crossed paths was probably in late spring or early summer. I remember he was wearing white pants and a white shirt – or rather, off-white, and in a style that registered as “equatorial colonial.” I’d like to tell you he was wearing sandals or some kind of woven shoe, and he may well have been, but I don’t recall.

Brown-skinned, with a close-cropped, curly, black and gray beard. Rimless eyeglasses. Later, I would note the brown leather courier bag which made me think he might be a graduate student or a professor, and the silver cuff bracelet he wore on his right wrist.

But what made the first encounter memorable was this: We were both wearing the same make and style and color hat, and we both recognized our hat on the head of the other.

We grinned at each other as we passed by.

I remember this happening somewhere between the fountain and the Duck Pond. In any case, I took it for one of those random, one-time, what-are-the-odds encounters in which we momentarily shared in the fellowship of the hat.

When I saw him a few days later, in almost the same place, we were already grinning at each other from afar. I began to look for him from that point on whenever I walked across the campus.

Over time, our encounters ranged across the campus so that it was obvious we were walking the same exact path through the campus, in opposite directions. This route is neither a straight line nor a line without a number of options that would still get each of us to where we were going. Like the hat, it was yet another what-are-the-odds coincidence. Then one afternoon, I was early enough to catch him crossing Lomas from University Hospital. Possibilities other than UNM professor or graduate student now loomed.

I was the first to speak.

It was during monsoon season. The sky had darkened, the wind was up, and rain had begun to spatter the walkway. The hat, meant to protect me from the sun, now kept the rain off my glasses.

When I saw him coming my way, I saw he was bare-headed.

“Where’s your hat?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s right here,” he said, smiling and patting his bag.

Sometime after that, as we were approaching and had already started smiling, he brought his hands up to his chest, placed the palms together with the fingers straight up, and gave me a little bow.

That was when I knew it was just a matter of waiting for the story to unfold.