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?”

I told him New England, and when he said he thought I might be Aussie, I told him the story about my first month in Portland when a neighbor claimed to be a dialect coach and that she loved my Australian accent. When I told her it was actually a Maine accent, she refused to believe, acting like I was trying to hide my membership in the witness protection community. I’m confident no one in Australia would make the same mistake.

“I love it!” he said with a laugh. “Man, thanks. People don’t want to have conversations anymore. I mean, it’s a conversation. What’s the harm in that?” He had definitely chosen the right seat.

Over the next few miles, our exchange fell squarely into the aforementioned 5%. He was from Palestine, Texas, so we started talking about accents and how neither of us had lost ours despite being in Portland for 20+ years each. I asked him about Palestine, and soon he was describing how the kids in the neighborhood played outside all day but when the streetlights came on, every kid bolted for home. “There could be a fly ball in the air, but if those lights flickered on, that ball was gonna hit the ground.” He told me how a mom could call out the front door without saying a name because every kid knew every mother’s voice, and if you heard a particular voice and the kid wasn’t there, it would be a kindness to go find them and let them know their mom was inquiring. He was talking about a place in Texas, but it was a completely accurate description of the New England neighborhood I grew up in.

He was really good at conversation – told good stories, left space at the end for me to reply, asked questions in a way that pushed the exchange further. So much so that I was disappointed when the bus approached my stop. When he saw me reach for the cord, he gracefully tied a bow around the whole discussion and stood up to let me out. I introduced myself, and as we shook hands, he smiled and said, “Good day.”

I love being reminded that more often than not, our expectations don’t match our outcomes. I stepped off the bus happier than when I got on, hopeful that I would see him again and I could greet him by name. More so, grateful for the reminder that we all have immeasurably more in common than do differences. 5% might be bad odds, but what a delight when it pays off.

About Bill Reagan

Bill Reagan enjoys how public transit juxtaposes neighbors and strangers in a way no other microcosm of our community can. He likes eavesdropping, striking up random conversations, and watching how people act when they think no one is looking. He can be found online at and @WilliamReagan on Twitter.
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