Is This Normal?

I saw the woman scanning the seats on the #75 as she boarded. It was 6:35pm on a weekday, the bus crowded with commuters and high schoolers, so if she was seeking an empty row, all she found was disappointment. As she settled into the seat next to mine, I said, “Good afternoon.”

This seemed to amuse her. She looked around at the darkness surrounding the bus and said, “I think it might be evening.”

It seemed an unnecessary clarification among strangers on the bus, so I shrugged. “I guess I’m trying to draw out the day.”

As she sorted through a few items in her purse, she said, “I’m glad to be sitting next to someone normal.” She paused, then added, “at least you look normal.”

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The 5% Nation of Bus Talkers

When someone sits next to me on TriMet, I prefer to greet them. It seems like a reasonable overture considering we’re about to spend 20 to 30 minutes with our shoulders or thighs in continual contact. 95% of the time, the interaction stops at hello, but the other 5% have led to many enjoyable and unexpected conversations. Only a handful of times in 20 years of riding have I regretted my greeting.

Of course, my motives for saying hello are the very same reason some people don’t: bus-seat proximity imposes an intimacy that they don’t want to deepen with words. They look at that 5% chance of an interesting conversation and refuse to gamble on the odds. I understand that attitude, but it’s just not how I ride.

Last night on the #4, when the burly, slightly scraggly man carrying a half-pint of liquor in a paper bag settled into the seat beside me, I had the distinct impression that the no-hello crowd was about to have an “I told you so” moment. Half-pints seem like a subsistence-level alcohol purchase, and I braced for an inquiry into my spare-change status. None the less, I said, “Good day.”

“What did you say? Good day?” His tone indicated surprise, not confrontation. “Where you from?”

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Happy Birthday MAX – 30 Years Young!

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“Your Bus is Late” an original song and video by Stephen Cohen

I think we can all relate to this!

Video and song by Stephen Cohen
@3handstephen on Twitter

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Preaching to the Wrong Choir

Because a lot of people who are homeless, mentally ill, in the throes of addiction or otherwise marginalized don’t drive, they ride the bus. In the impersonal and crammed aisles and one-size-fits-all seats, they’re commonplace. And though climate change is killing us, very few average middle-class people have abandoned their cars for the wiser alternative.

The underclass, I’m saying, is well represented on public transportation. They’re not the condiment, they’re the main course. And because a bus ride is often the only shelter available, there’s always a good chance some visibly unfortunate rider is dealing openly with the pain, sickness, demons or grief a middle-class person would handle at home.

Today, James Junior (not his real name), riding my 75 bus, was dealing.

As I boarded, James was sitting on the right front bench, preaching his personal gospel to a teen sitting on the left front bench straight across the aisle from him. The topic was “Respect.” James was on fire about respect.

He was declaiming, “You don’t let nobody disrespect a woman. Ever. EVER!” He repeated this assertion more than once, and glanced around the bus to show that, though he was talking to one person, we were all included in the situation.

James’ emotional state contained notes of anger, grandiosity, vulnerability, and a hint of possession. He leaned forward in his seat and spoke to the kid in the tone of an overbearing, disappointed father.

“They are queens. Every woman is a queen.”

He said this again, and then again. And then, to stress the point, James Junior greeted women around him.

“Hello, Queen! You are a beautiful creature and I love you!”

He seemed sincere and passionate. One woman smiled. Another one tried to ignore him.

James declared, “I can have any woman I want.” He meant it, and repeated the statement, but I doubted him. No woman there stepped up to get a piece of James.

James’ fiery speech was meant, as I say, for all of us. And though he filled the bus with self-esteem, he got nothing back from us. No surprise. From what I’ve seen, a fiery speech given on public transportation does not fall on deaf ears. Instead, it falls like a small bomb into the midst of captive strangers who are trying to block out their ride. Half of bus riders wear earbuds. Most riders are going to take even divine inspiration, if it interrupts a podcast, as a really annoying distraction, if not a sign of mental illness or even a threat.

James carried on.

“I’m James Junior and THERE IS NO HELL. NO ONE goes to HELL. I’ve died and come back and I guarantee there’s no Hell to be afraid of. And anyway, you can’t be afraid to die. If you’re afraid to die, you can’t live.”

He was seized with feeling – tears, broken voice – he was fighting against an invisible enemy for something he believed in.

He repeated and repeated and repeated that no one goes to Hell. I had to get off the bus before he was done, but I think I got the gist.

I take James’ point. I’m a little afraid to die, not because of Hell, which I don’t believe in, either. What I fear is reincarnating into a life worse than the one I know and suffering in ways I can’t even imagine.

Now, that might be Hell.

© Nick O’Connor: If you had been commuting an hour each way every weekday between Northeast Portland and the Sunset Transit Center at the border of Portland and Beaverton for two years and occasionally woke up, dislodged an earbud, or spoke to a fellow rider, you would have a few stories to tell, too. Nick blogs at Sardines Are Only Packed Once (where this story originally appeared).

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