It seems that we can’t escape the general feeling of oppression, fear, worry and doubt gripping our nation these days. A couple of weeks ago I read a wonderfully written Associated Press editorial (which after an extensive search, I cannot locate now). It discussed the decline of our national psyche and morale over the past two years as we have undergone everything from serious natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina to economic and political turmoil. Not surprising, we are rating pretty low on the “contentment meter” in the U.S of A. In fact, morale is at a record low.
Health care worries have now been topped by the soaring gasoline prices. This has been reported to be the number one worry of Americans right now. The astronomical cost of gasoline is affecting all aspects of our lives. We now have to worry how to afford to get to our job in order to make enough money to pay to get back home again! Yep, that makes things a bit discouraging. Not to mention the things we have had to start giving up. First, it was the entertainment, and meals out. The Discretionary / Fun expenses put on hold. But, now it’s getting more serious. Vacations are being canceled. Grocery bills are getting too steep. Job loss is also becoming rampant. It’s come down to everyone needing to make some sacrifices and changes. About eight weeks ago, I officially became a “bus rider”. It was either drive to and from work every day, or buy food. Eating won hands down. I was pleasantly surprised to find out I enjoy the bus experience. A lot. For one thing, I can read. I can also nap (warning: I do not recommend sleeping on the bus. Speaking from experience , your desired destination is at great risk!) I can let someone else deal with the commuting traffic and the road rage. But best of all, on the bus I can have peace of mind. I don’t hear ghostly cash register chimes rattling my brain each time we accelerate! Any time I start thinking it is too inconvenient to be tied to a bus schedule each day, or grousing when I miss the one I wanted, and have to wait in the heat for the next one to come along, then I just drive my shiny SUV down to our local gas pump and fill up the tank.
Voila! An Instant cure! The bus is my new best friend!
In fact, there are a lot of cool things about the bus. Take people watching, for one. When you ride each day, you quickly begin to identify the regulars. Like “Bike Boy”, who, after carefully hanging his 10-speed on the front rack, sits down calmly in the front left seat. He uses rubber bands to hug his suit pants to his ankles – a safety precaution I assume. I always like to check out what color he chose that day (he apparently bought the “rainbow pack” at Office Max). He keeps his bike helmet safely clasped for the duration of the trip (in the event of a rollover, that man will be the only one saved from brain trauma). His helmet also has a little mirror implanted on the side – jutting out on a metal stick. Like the mirror my dentist uses before he announces I need another filling. “Bike Boy” is also a very polite person. His mother taught him well. He always ends up standing and giving his seat up. I have noticed that he automatically rises for women of all ages, and elderly gentlemen. However, on occasion he also offers his seat randomly to anyone who might be standing while he is enjoying a seat. “Bike Boy” is definitely a very cool guy.
We have “Mr. Suitcase”. He’s a 50-ish man who walks with a permanent slump, wears a dark suit in great need of a press, and carries, you guessed it, a suitcase. At one point in time, it may have been considered a briefcase, or could have doubled as a very large doctor’s kit, I don’t know, but the thing is bulky! On the busy morning commute he always manages to whack a few heads as he slides down the crowded aisle (each morning I confess to spying how many head-whacks he unwittingly manages. So far his daily record is 7 heads, 2 shoulders & 1 knee!). There’s also “Little Miss Librarian”. A petite woman of undistinguishable age – perhaps 50s or 60s. Unlike “Mr. Suitcase”, she is always impeccably pressed each day and dressed in a conservative dark skirt, a tasteful blouse and sensible shoes. She has an efficient short hairstyle and carries a small leather bag with a book tucked in the outside pocket. She exits the bus at the downtown library stop, and thanks the bus driver in a fine Southern accent. I wonder where she’s from? One of these days I’ll ask her.
There are many other characters that ride the bus with me. You can’t miss “Inspector Gadget”. He stands well over 6 feet tall, and yet it’s his unusual accoutrement’s that draw the most attention. He wears the same levis and two-pocket striped shirt every day. He rarely shaves, and wears a sun visor which conveniently covers his bald spot. Perhaps it’s part of his “science project” to see how long he can go without washing? There’s definitely an air of mystery about him, as I have never seen his eyes – which are ensconced in wrap-around reflective sunglasses everywhere he goes. Each breast pocket is filled to capacity with bus schedules, pens, pixie sticks, and even a used pair of chopsticks. From his left pocket protector hangs a round silver ball that I have determined is some sort of counting device. He holds onto it tightly and every so often presses a button which emits rapid clicks. Around his left hip is a two-bottle fanny pack of Gatorade. Hanging from his right hip is a metal stick with a wheel at the base. Whenever he exits the bus, he extends the pole and pushes the wheel in front of him (another measuring device, I am told by a fellow rider, which counts mileage). I have yet to determine if Gadget is a scientific genius or a crack-pot. I’m currently leaning towards the latter, but reserving my final judgement.
“Jerry” is a down-syndrome young man who enters at 7th East sporting headphones and a big grin. I don’t know yet what music that boy is listening to, but whatever it is he absolutely LOVES it. He plays a mean air guitar all 10 blocks of his ride. I still can’t help myself from chuckling at his unabashed performance. I’m not laughing AT him, mind you. It’s just impossible to keep a straight face in the midst of so much enthusiasm. I honestly don’t know how the other passengers manage such solemn countenances. “Jerry’s” joy is contagious!
By 11th East “Mickey” joins “Jerry”. Mickey is another man with downs syndrome who proudly sports a different Disney T-shirt each morning. He has a particular seat (3rd on the right – window) that he always sits in. Everyone just seems to know that seat is Mickeys seat, and no one disturbs it. However, this morning a young woman (a non-regular rider) got on at 9th East and sure enough, she sat right down in Mickey’s seat without a second thought. I sensed trouble on the horizon. I wondered if I should tell her she was ‘trespassing’. But, she was quite a way down the bus aisle from me. I didn’t want to shout at her, and I didn’t particularly want to stand up and walk all the way down there to tell her to move. How weird would that come across? Besides, what if she didn’t want to move? So I decided to just stay put and watch it play out. At 11th East, Mickey got on as usual and headed straight to his seat. It is such a habitual movement, that he doesn’t even have to look where he’s going. But just before he swung in, he stopped short and realized someone was actually sitting there! After my several weeks of riding, this was the first time I observed Mickey deal with this dilemma. First, he looked dazed and confused. He did a quick confirmation check that this was indeed the right seat. Then, as the bus lurched back out into traffic and standing became difficult, Mickey eased himself into the seat directly across the aisle. He sat down very slowly, as if he was unsure the foreign seat could actually support him the same as “his” seat did. Once safely seated, he turned and stared fixedly at the woman occupying his seat. He made no sound. No menace. No growl. Just a plain stare. He didn’t blink. For a couple blocks the woman did a good job of pretending she didn’t notice a young man gazing directly at her from three feet away – but sure enough, the stare started working its particular magic. First, she squirmed. Then she shifted her purse to her outside shoulder as if to ward off the stare somehow with her leather-encased belongings. The woman tried crossing and uncrossing her legs. She also made a valiant attempt for half a block to stare equally as earnestly out of the window. Meanwhile, Mickey never flinched or tired, and he never stopped looking directly towards the young woman who occupied his seat. At the same time the woman threw a quick glance over her shoulder to check if he was still there, Mickey seized the day and smiled. Personally, I thought it was one of Mickey’s more brilliant moments. It was a genuine full-bodied smile, the kind where eyes disappear right into their smile lines. The same smile a toddler gives to the person standing nearest the cookie jar. Totally irresistible. But sadly, it was completely lost on the poor woman, who by now was flustered and found this latest friendly tactic confusing. The bus reached a busy stop right about then. The woman quickly stood and retreated towards the back door as if to exit, then suddenly darted at the last minute into an available seat in the back. Mickey didn’t even notice. His eyes never left the vacated bench. Joyfully, he slid over into “his” seat with a contented sigh. All was right with the world now. It’s the simple things that count for Mickey. You’ve got to hand it to him. He may not be able to talk, but he sure knows how to communicate resourcefully!
On my return trip each day, my bus fills rapidly with the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, aka the nine to five office slaves. However, I look forward to seeing Steve. That’s his real name. I heard the bus driver greet him cheerfully one day. Steve’s a long-time regular. He has some type of muscle disorder. His head is turned permanently to the left, his arms are bent, hands are balled up, and he shuffles when he walks. He also has a hard time closing his mouth completely, so he drools a bit. Not his fault, of course. However, some of my fellow bus riders seem squeemish when Steve enters. They lean away from him when he comes down the aisle, or set their bags suddenly down on an empty seat beside them. Do they think Steve can’t read their intolerance? I noticed this happening for a few days in a row, and it made me incredibly sad. So, one day I beckoned to the poor man that there was an empty seat right beside me in the back. Something unexpected happened. He lurched back eagerly, sat down, and then rewarded me with a huge grin accompanied by a guttural “Thanks!” One of Steve’s great gifts is his dazzling grin. It isn’t to be missed. After that, I made a habit of “saving” the seat next to me for him. We look forward to seeing each other and saying “hi” each afternoon. Sometimes another commuter claims the seat beside me before Steve boards. Then Steve usually looks back with a shrug and a wave. Although talking is difficult, he’s always got that grin when words fail him. For the past three weeks, he has brought a different action figure to show off to me. We have worked our way through all his Star Wars collection, and I have seen quite a few army commandos. He surprised me yesterday with his latest find – a “Captain Moroni” action figure, still in its packaging. Steve was particularly proud to show that one to me. On the back of the box was a photo of the entire “Golden Plates” collection. He proudly pointed out each figure he already owns. Apparently the “bad guys” such as “King Noah” and “Laban” are hard to find (when it comes to action figure collections, villains are important). You learn something new on the bus every day. I didn’t even know there were Book of Mormon action figures! (rhetorical question: Should this new marketing bonanza disturb me?)
So, what is my point in writing about all this? Where is all this going? I don’t know. We will have to ride to the end of the line and find out . However, these particular people and stories have been on my mind lately. They’ve become a part of my life. I am wondering if there might be some deeper meaning in my “public transportation journey”. One thing I know for sure is that things change for all of us. Just when we get comfy, that’s when the Lord allows us to grow from a new experience. It can be uncomfortable. Take Mickey for example. Thanks to an unsuspecting woman, his staring talent has certainly been perfected to the next level. And he knows a thing or two about the power of a smile!
Take my husband, for another example. Just last month he was commenting on how blessed he was to have such an awesome job with a great company and fun coworkers, in a position that fit his skill set so completely. Well, sure enough, things had gotten a little too comfy I suppose, because two weeks later, he got called into the board room and received the dreaded announcement his job was being eliminated. It came as a complete shock. The Board of Directors of the Company decided there had to be a 20% “reduction in force”, so there are several people currently sharing our shock. “It’s not personal, it’s business”. DH is one of the newer guys there, so his job was quickly “consolidated”. In his official goodbye letter it uses those infamous catch phrases such as “economic downturn”, “rise in operations costs”, and “drop in sales” as the justifications to terminate a career. I know we are not the only ones dealing with this situation right now. DH and I are certainly not choosing to be depressed over this new turn of events. The humor and irony is not lost on us. We have also gone down this “unemployment” road in the past. We aren’t blazing a new trail. As such, we have learned that there is always a job waiting at the end of the road. Sometimes you just have to walk a little farther or a little longer than you would prefer to get to it. In fact, our history has proven that DH has always ended up with a better job the next time around. So, with that in mind, we could view all this as a “blessing in disguise”. It’s easy to smile when the bills haven’t come due yet. However, the Lord has blessings in mind for each of us. We know He does not abandon His children. Usually, he blesses us even more when the hard times hit. He sends tender mercies. Take for example that the bosses were really sad they had to let DH go, and they gave him a fantastic reference letter. They also gave him a full month’s severance pay.
And take the blessing of my daily bus ride. I can catch a bus just a little over a mile from my house that delivers me to the front door of my office. My car (and my pocket book) is getting a tremendous rest, and I am getting some much needed exercise walking to and from the bus stop. As a bonus, I have free daily entertainment while I get to know my fellow travelers. The bottom line is that things might be tough right now for any number of us, for all number of reasons. But things will get better. They always do. I truly believe it. I have personally witnessed it. We need to remember that the doom and gloom coming at us from all sides of the media machine is only one slanted point of view. As much as I like to read and be “in the know”, sometimes it’s best to just turn the TV off, set the paper aside, or walk away from the computer screen for awhile.
There is so much beauty in the world. Pure happiness exists (just come watch “Jerry” play his air guitar) and genuine kindness (“Bike Boy” tenderly guiding a passenger into his seat). Very easily we get caught in the dark worries that surround us and forget that if we look up, just like Mickey’s smile, we can see the sunshine. My dear friend Mary Hamilton has a joyful chant that always brings peace to my heart:
“We’re too blessed to be stressed!”
Psalms 5: 11 – But let all those that put their trust in thee rejoice: let them ever shout for joy, because thou defendest them: let them also that love thy name be joyful in thee.
I started riding the bus about the same time. I realized I was paying $100 a month to park plus $150 to $200 a month in gas. A bus pass is $25. There’s a Park&Ride about two miles from my house, and the express I catch goes straight downtown and stops about half a mile from my office. I get a little exercise and a nice stroll along the river. And like you said, I can read on the bus, or even do billable work sometimes. I seriously wonder why I ever thought I needed to drive myself.
Unfortunately, I don’t have such a fun variety of characters on the bus. Most of the people riding the express are professionals who live in the ‘burbs and work downtown. So we largely look like each other, at least externally. But I have started making some friends, and that is nothing to complain about. And there are usually some interesting folks at the stop downtown, since that serves a lot of different routes. I don’t know if there is some deep philosophical meaning to this, but there are definitely de facto castes at the downtown stop. Even with people you don’t know, you can usually tell the Express Riders from the Grocery Store Riders. Maybe somebody working on a sociology thesis ought to look at this and what it means.
Sorry to hear about your husband’s job. I’ve been through a layoff before, and I can’t say I enjoyed it. But the Lord has always taken care of us. My prayers are with your family.