Transported in Public.

I ride the bus. It allows me to feel smug in my lack of polluting the environment, while at the same time ensuring that it takes me at least twice the time to get anywhere that it would in a car. However, there are some bus rides that I would not trade for a chauffered ride in a Bentley. Today I had one of those rides.

I was on one of the new hybrid trolley buses that run along Broadway. The bus sighed with quiet efficiency. It did not yet smell like the public. Furthermore, the seats had been ergonomically constructed so that the (minimal) jolting was offset by the lumbar support for the passengers’ bus-riding backs.

I was disposed to be kindly. I met the eyes of embarking passengers. And then-as is often my luck- some random person struck up a conversation with me. I don’t know why this happens. I do my best, usually, so that it doesn’t. I have my nose in a book, a hat over my eyes. No eye contact here.

But then the guy stopped and looked at me. He obviously had some mental health issues. He looked about 45, overweight, plainly dressed. Poor dental hygeine, and a childlike avidity in his eyes.

He asked, “Have we met before?”

“No, we haven’t.” In my mind, I’m thinking, people are looking at me, what are they thinking? Oh, God, how embarassing.

“Oh,” says the guy. “Did you know lots of people don’t understand mental illness?”

“Really?” I said. Okay. Don’t panic. He’s not a threat, just simple.

“Lots of people are uncomfortable with mental illness. I have Adult Autism. Lots of people aren’t cofortable with that.” He curled his hand carefully around the metal pole.

“Really,” I said again. I couldn’t say nothing. It would have been rude.

“Yes. Sometimes even people with backgrounds in mental health are uncomfortable. But sometimes grandmas aren’t.”

“I see,” I said evenly. Was there an undercurrent, some subtext for him that I was missing?

“Yes. Nineteen times out of twenty, people are uncomfortable with it. That’s why it’s important to ask if you’re comfortable about it.”

I nodded. “I can see how courtesy is important.”
“Yes. Nine times out of ten, people are happy that I am courteous enough to ask.”

“I see,” I said. And I did see.

Then he thanked me, told me to have a nice day, and went to sit down further up the bus.

I got off the bus shortly thereafter, but I had just been handed a hat full of things to think about. This man was courteous. He was friendly. He was, well, a person. His brain is wired differently than mine. But ultimately, he and I had the same goal in mind: Ride the bus and not make others uncomfortable.

We human beings are nothing special, just bags of meat held up by bones and animated through what amounts to electrical impulse. Where we become special is in how we treat other people.

Courtesy elevates us. Charity elevates us. But empathy elevates us most of all.

3 Comments to “Transported in Public.”

  1. By Gecko Bloggle, November 13, 2006 @ 3:15 am

    See now, before reading the complete post, my first thought was “Ms. Pants there needs some of them grat-beeg-ole walkyman hayudfones, so she can pretend to have not heard the opening line of the conversation, and then decide whether or not she’d like to take part in it at all.”

    But that’s why I don’t have those sorts of conversations during my 1.75 hours a day on public transit (for better or for worse). I think Apple was brilliant for making the headphones and wires that are neon white (even if it does allegedly lead to higher rate of muggings for the iPod people now KNOW you have), as it’s right up there with mirrored sunglasses when it comes to giving people the “Go away, I’m not here, move along” message.

  2. By anoymouscoworker, November 13, 2006 @ 9:23 am

    Interesting turn of phrase in your post. He says “mental illness”, you say, “wired differently”.

    Sometimes I wonder if those with Autism aren’t just people who think in a completely different way.

  3. By MonkeyPants, November 13, 2006 @ 5:47 pm

    Mr. Bloggle, I may yet invest in earphones. Are those the ones they call ear buds? Because the phrase ‘ear bud’ makes me laugh. If I get them, am I going to grow ear flowers from my ear tree?

    ACW, I honestly believe that most of the labels we put on people (mentally challenged, mentally ill, what have you) are just ways of saying ‘wired differently’. Their brains just work in ways that are outside whatever the parameters of what society has collectively termed Normal.

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