Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Bus Karma in Black and White

It was a bright sunny day in San Diego, and I had graduated from my learner's permit to my own driver's license at last. From our picture window, I could see the corner of our block, and watched in surprise when a neatly dressed African American woman stepped down from a bus. After a moment of puzzlement, I concluded that someone in our white, privileged neighborhood had hired a cleaning lady. But she stood at the bus stop as if she were waiting for another bus. After twenty minutes, I walked across the street and introduced my self and asked her why she was waiting there. It was as I had feared - she thought there would be a another bus coming. She needed to get to a medical appointment a few miles away and the (white) bus driver had assured her there would be another bus. He could have known better, because his was the last bus of the day for our neighborhood.

I explained we had lived near that bus stop for five years, that I took the bus to school, and there was no bus from there that went to the medical clinic. I told her I would ask my mother if I could borrow the car to take her to the clinic, if she wanted to go with me. Putting herself in the hands of the Lord, (as I'm nearly certain now that she did), she thanked me with little hope but great dignity. She was surprised when I came right back in our black four-door Fiat. I peppered her with questions as we drove to her appointment. I probably said things in my ignorance that would make me cringe today. She responded at one point that I was "very young". Quite true - I was too young to "get it", which I proceeded to prove by replying that I was sixteen years old! When I offered to wait and drive her to a bus connection, she replied that her husband would come get her, no doubt thanking her guardian angel she made it to the clinic in one piece. (My driving was known to make brave men flinch, but I made up for my lack of skill with plenty of confidence.)

The reason she stands out in my mind after all these years is simple: it was the first time in my life I had a conversation with an African American. We didn't use the "n" word in our home, and my parents never told racial jokes, or spoke about race at all. I went to an "all white" high school, an "all white" church, and lived so deeply in the "white" suburbs that we never even drove past any African Americans that I can remember. I didn't realize at the time how strange and narrow my life was - to me it was just normal.

Three years later I was one of thousands office girls working in San Francisco. One evening I decided to visit my favorite art gallery in North Beach. None of my friends were interested, so I went by myself. At that time, San Francisco was still a friendly small town with a laid-back attitude, and I was still "very young" - too young to think anything bad could happen. Losing track of time as I lost myself in the evocative paintings of Margaret Keane, it was nearly turning midnight once I was on the bus back to the firehouse near Sacramento Street. When the (black) bus driver told me to get off at the next stop to transfer, I reminded him of my destination and asked him if he was sure. I seemed to remember a different route from earlier in the day. He said that bus didn't run this late and to get off if I wanted to transfer.

I stepped down into the balmy San Francisco summer night. There was little traffic, and behind me was a storefront with papered-over windows; even the glass inside the door frame was papered over with butcher paper. After waiting twenty minutes, I was getting worried there would be no bus. I was looking around for a public phone when the door behind me opened, and dozens of African American men, well-dressed for a meeting of some kind, poured out of the building. I tried to look invisible, but 120 pounds of 5 and a half foot girl can't hide behind a bus sign. Most of the men from the meeting left quickly, on their way back home. I was relived - until one man approached me, making sexual demands. I didn't realize it at the time, but looking back, it is clear he thought from the time and the neighborhood, that I was a hooker. Not this pandababy! I kept backing away in circles and protesting, hoping my bus would suddenly materialize. A few of the men who remained in front of the 'store' were telling him to leave me alone, but a few others were egging him on!

Suddenly, my persistent pursuer was dangling a foot off the ground, in the grip of a very large black man, who shook him a couple of times, and told him to 'take off'. I think his feet were running before they hit the pavement. I looked up, and up, and wondered if I had just gone from the proverbial frying pan into the fire. He looked down at me and said, "I'll just stand here with you until your bus comes, so you won't have any more trouble." He followed that sensible offer with more sensible advice, about young women not being out alone late at night, etc. When I protested that I lost track of time, he didn't look impressed. Then he asked me which bus I came on and which one I was waiting for. It turned out that my bus driver was a mischief maker like the one that dropped that lady off in our neighborhood a few years before. It turned out that the bus driver could have let me off in a different neighborhood for a different bus that was still running at that time of night, and that was a direct route to my destination.

I never connected the two incidents until today, when I heard Senator Obama's speech in Philadelphia on race in America. His message of unity and tolerance, of working together for a better America, prompted my memories of two unkind bus drivers, white and black, and two rescuers, white and black, and how individual acts of kindness can overcome the mischief makers.

I have watched some news people doing their jobs in a responsible manner, and also seen many who, like those bus drivers, can pretend they are "just doing their job" - but who are playing to racial tensions they know exist - and they're fanning the flames. As Senator Obama has said, "Nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change." Those bus drivers failed because individuals stood up for decency. Those who gleefully grab any pretext to stir up racial strife will fail too, because millions of people are standing up for decency.

It is time for us to work with honesty and with tolerance, to make individual choices to change America, to change our future into the fulfillment of the dream of those in the past who worked, and who sometimes died. We have inherited a better country because of their efforts, and it is our turn to make the sacrifices necessary to leave a better America for our descendants.


heather said...

great stories, especially with the context. thanks for sharing.

Pandababy said...

I appreciate your encouragement, Heather, and thank you for it!