The Lessons of Mass Transit

My bus was late today. No big deal, right? Buses are late all the time. This morning was different though. I walked up to the bus stop, and there was a man waiting for the bus. He was Hispanic, and had a number of prominent tattoos. He was also not wearing nearly enough against the cold Minnesota air. Conclusion: homeless or can’t afford jacket.

I’m generally a fairly anti-social person, and so I sidled up to the bus stop quietly, pulling out my bus card and looking at the ground. As I did so, he asked me the time. I checked and answered, thinking he would stop talking. Instead, he struck up a conversation: when does the bus come? Where are you going? Do you speak Spanish? Eventually he ended up telling me about his failed marriage and his time in prison. Part of me was desperate for the bus to show up already because I am not a happy person before my morning coffee, but the longer we talked, the more I realized that I was grateful for the chance to simply be with someone I wouldn’t normally be with.

To be perfectly honest with myself, I judged this man unsafe when I first saw him. I judged him as someone I did not want to converse with. Because of mass transit, I was forced to rethink that judgment. I was forced to be kind to someone, to listen to someone, to share myself with someone. It wasn’t a big interaction, 15 minutes at most. But I’m grateful for it. I heard an experience that I would never have heard otherwise. I gained a perspective that otherwise would have been lost to me. And these things are not small. I exist in a world of great privilege, with other individuals who are well-educated and well-off. I want to have the best understanding possible of those who don’t live in that world, and this moment was illuminating for me.

This person was real. He had stories. He was vulnerable. He just wanted someone to listen, and that was all I could offer him at that moment. I hope that it was enough.

This to me is the most important benefit of mass transit. It removes you from your insulated world and requires you to exist in the world with all the other individuals that exist around you. We live segregated lives. Oftentimes they are self-segregated, but we spend our lives around people who are like us. Particularly for those who are wealthy enough to buy cars, we rarely venture into places that are full of people of color or people in poverty. When we walk past them on the street, our eyes slide by them. We avoid.

When you are travelling with someone, you cannot avoid them. Oh sure, you can put in headphones or read a book, but you cannot stop seeing them. You can’t stop seeing the person who is talking to themself, or the mother who is hitting her child, or the people yelling at each other. You can’t stop seeing the gentle father, or the man who just wants to talk, or the kind person who gives up their seat for the elderly. These things happen and you experience them. You have conversations with these people and you begin to feel the shape of their lives barely forming beyond your ability to understand it. You are challenged by the actual existence, the actual humanity in front of you, of those people who are different from you.

You might be afraid. You might be disgusted. Or you might allow yourself to be challenged to imagine the rich complexity of how they live entirely apart from you. You cannot hide from the nasty things in life when they are invading all your senses: the poverty, the homelessness, the desperation in people’s eyes.

This, I think, is why so many people are opposed to using public transit. Yes, it can be a hassle, and yes, it can be slow, but in reality, many of us don’t want to mingle. We don’t want to get “dirty”. We are afraid of the lives we don’t want to see.

So as Thanksgiving looms, I am thankful that I am forced to see things. I am thankful that each day as I bus to work, in a job whose explicit purpose is to fight poverty, I see what I am fighting. I see the people behind that title. I am forced to accept those people in my space. I am thankful that they are there, that I can hear them and that in some places, they will not be ignored.

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