Conversations Overheard on the Bus
This Sunday a simple errand took all afternoon because I had to bike six miles (each way) through the wilderness to accomplish it. I enjoyed the leafy autumn part of the wilderness, with little squirrels and bunnies frolicking on either side. It was the man-made wilderness that got to me— an endless, concrete, suburban desolation, billboards promising crass pleasures and the sky overcast like a scene from some post-apocalyptic movie. Fearsome iron monsters roamed without restraint, their headlights glowing like terrible eyes and their bumpers like steel jaws waiting to gobble me up. Sidewalks? You’re dreaming. Crosswalks? Forget it. I pedaled away on the shoulder of the road, expecting any moment to die. A single careless moment could reduce all my hopes and dreams to a bloody splotch on the highway.
There are so many science fiction movies about machines taking over. In my opinion, they already have. Just look at the way we’re building our world! Nothing is on the human scale anymore. Our cities are designed for the sole purpose of feeding, exercising, and resting the automobile. Even those fast food restaurants with their tempting billboards represent industrial efficiency rather than culinary delight. We join the rat race so we can afford the upkeep of our technological harem; sleek laptops, seductive iphones, sexy, gleaming, long-bodied cars.
Those who don’t have cars are doomed to suffer. At least I do it by choice. When I started working down on Joseph Avenue, they warned me, “Charlotte, this is a neighborhood where a grown man will steal a little girl’s bike, just to have some means of transportation, some way of getting around.” I laughed, thinking they were joking— until just the other day I saw an enormous black man riding around on a tiny pink bicycle.
I hate chasing after buses. But you know, I’ve learned more about Rochester on the bus than I’ve learned anywhere else. Once I listened to the man behind me talking to his friend. He said, “You know, the problem with this country is they send kids to these shit schools which don’t teach them SHIT, and then they get outta school and can’t get a job. What you gonna do with no job? You’re gonna make trouble and end up in jail, that’s what.”
“Yeah!” his friend cried, with all the energy of someone shouting, “Hallelujah!” in church. An extended discussion of urban blight and the declining public school system followed. “Respectable citizens” condemn hooligans for hanging out on street corners. But all too often, it’s the lack of opportunities which sets them hanging there. The men reminisced about the lives they had so fortunately escaped. “I remember I got my first pistol at thirteen,” one man said. “That was the way things were, you know?”
Dear Politicians: if you want to get tough on crime, don’t spend the money on bigger better jails or more patrol cars. Spend the money on education. All this talk about protecting the public from criminals! The real issue is to protect the public from becoming criminals.
If you want to help someone, don’t give them something— give them the opportunity to become something. I realized this from another conversation I overheard on the bus. I heard a man say, “I was homeless for six years. People would invite me in to sleep in their houses on some of the coldest nights, and you know what I would do? I would go to the dollar store and shoplift myself a couple of rolls of tape. Then I would go to McDonalds and make myself a condominium! I would make myself a condominium, because you know it’s better than sleeping on someone’s couch or someone’s floor and hear them whispering, “When is he going to leave?” Because people, they treat you like two cents waiting for change. They really do.”
Even when your only resources are a couple of shoplifted rolls of duct tape, you can still afford pride. For the human spirit, pride is more important than warmth and food, clothing and shelter. And for surviving in a rough neighborhood, your most important resource is confidence. They begin teaching it so young.
On my bus home, I saw a mother with her toddler boy. I was astonished when she began shouting harshly at him, “Don’t slouch in your seat like that! What are you thinking boy? You sit up straight! Sit up straight like me!”
The little boy looked bewildered. I wanted to ask her, “Why are you speaking to him like that, woman? Can’t you see he’s barely knee-high?”
She continued to instruct him. “You got to sit like you got CON-fid-ence. Say it with me. Say, ‘I got CON-fid-ence.”
The tiny kid looked bewildered and hid his face behind his little mittens. Her tone grew marginally gentler as she coaxed, “Say it with me. Say, ‘I got CON-fid-ence.”
He hid his face. She began chanting, as if it was some kind of song. “I got CON-fid-ence. I got CON-fid-ence!!! I got CON-fid-ence!!!!!!” He whispered, “I got con-fid-ence.” She screeched and applauded him, and he repeated. Slowly he grew in volume and in courage, until both of them were shouting joyously together, “I got CONFIDENCE!!!”
Then I watched the little boy walk off the bus with a new swagger to his toddle. Confidence is essential in the inner city environment. If you don’t have it, people run over you. You can’t just walk around here. You have to strut. And always keep your head up.