A Bus Ride

A little old man falls while running to get on the bus.  He falls face first into the doorway steps.  There is a tense, uncomfortable moment while I wait to see if someone is going to rush to his aid, but no one does.  My instinct is to do so.  But we are sitting further back, and I keep expecting the bus driver to get up and help the man stand.  Or one of the women sitting up front, at least.   But no one does anything.

The little old man gets up on his own and steps onto the bus with one hand covering his mouth.  His mouth is red, and blood is gushing between his fingers, dripping down his arm.  The bus driver hands him some paper towels.  He sits up front, visibly shaken, embarrassed, and in pain.  A woman up front asks if he needs to go to the doctor because it looks like he could use some stitches.  But he shakes his head, “No.”

When the bus starts up again the man realizes he lost his wallet when he fell, so the driver stops again, and the woman up front and the old man go back to look for it.  The driver asks if anyone is in a hurry and if we mind waiting while they look, but no one minds.  A few minutes later, the wallet found, the old man and younger woman board the bus again, and the bus takes off.  Everyone is relieved.

“This is why I never want you to run to catch the bus.”  Carlos says.  He has this idea that I’m clumsy and accident prone.  Mostly because I’m constantly dropping, losing,  or running into things.  The week before I’d run into a wooden bench as we exited a cafe that left a huge, purple bruise on my shin.  I tell him not to worry, I’d never run to catch a bus.  Ice cream truck, maybe.  Bus, never.

We were coming back from the co-op with a canvas bag full of fresh produce and raw goat milk.  Carlos is a closet hippie.  He made me hide my water bottle in his messenger bag before we went inside.  I accused him of being ashamed of me.  He said he was afraid that the Birkenstock clad, patchouli reeking patrons would lynch me if I came in with a plastic bottle.   So while he rooted through the locally grown, organic produce, and the fairly traded, vegan, hemp toothbrushes hand crafted by Inuit women, I stood in a corner and updated my Facebook page on my iPhone.

On buses in Portland people all smell like cheese.  “We’ve traded the mole people for the cheese people,” Carlos observes, referring to the people of Seattle and Portland respectively.   I point out that either is a step up from the busses in Vancouver where everyone is talking to their parole officer on the way to the methadone clinic.  Prior to moving here, I’d have guessed that P.O. stood for post office.

On the bus today, the little old man is coagulating.  He presses a paper towel to his split lip with one hand while the other hand grips the yellow hand rail.  I watch in fascinated horror as his hand slides down the yellow rail, leaving a red trail  of blood and saliva from his wound.  He touches inside his mouth feeling out the damage, the skin of his lip split like a squashed plum.

“This is why you should always wash your hands after leaving the bus.”  Carlos says.  “Hepatitis can live on a surface for days.”  Sometimes Carlos’s knowledge of health and nutrition disturb me.  I realize that I’m never touching anything in public again.

Meanwhile, I’m worried about the little, old man.  Partly from genuine concern for a fellow human being, but mostly in an abstract way for what he represents.   An old man, alone (and bleeding) on a bus.  The future.  Specifically my future.  It’s impossible not to imagine myself as a still spry octogenarian, running for the hover-bus in some futuristic, northern town and planting my face into the dirty steps.

Will I have anyone to look after me?  A spouse or children to drive me to the ER to get some stitches.  Someone to make a fuss and buy me ice cream?  Or will a bus driver hand me some paper towels, and that will be that?

Carlos looks at me and asks, “Baby, are you thirsty?  Do you want your water back?”  I smile and say, “Yes please.”

As the old man leaves the bus, an older woman gets on.  They exchange a few words, and when the bus starts up again, she’s on her cell phone.  Hear her say to someone on the other end, “Can you look in on Frank?  He had a fall today getting on the bus, and cut his lip.”  I’m relieved that Frank has someone who cares enough to look in and see that he’s okay.  That hopefully he’ll get the stitches and the attention that he needs.

Today, Carlos puts his hand on my knee and says, “This is our stop.”

Today, today is all that matters.

September 12th

On September 12th, 2001 I was supposed to go to a wedding in San Francisco.  It was a big deal.  Cable cars were rented to take us on a tour of the city.  The bride’s mother rented an entire island for the reception.

But the flight didn’t happen.  No flights happened.  The wedding was canceled.  (The couple eventually split up and now the groom is married happily to someone else with at least one kid that I know of).

I lived in Austin then.  I was 25 and working for a non profit that helped people with cancer.  The day before I drove to work like always.  Just before I got there, the NPR program I was listening to was disrupted for a news story, but rather than listen to it, I put in a CD.

When I got to work, there was a group of my co-workers huddled around the TV in the breakroom.  I stood with my backpack staring at the screen with them.  As I stood watching, the second plane crashed into the other tower.  Everyone gasped, horrified, as it played out on the screen in front of us.  Live, close up, and in color.   I kept standing, watching the screen until the towers fell.  One after the other.  Tears streaming down my face.

The cameras zoom in on people jumping out of the smoldering building.

One of my co-workers touched my shoulder and asked, “Did you know somebody over there?”

I said, “No.”  Even though I was thousands of miles away, I think that this single, horrible act was something that all Americans took personally.  For the first time the most powerful country in the world was vulnerable, and the vulnerability was crippling.

My friend Courtney, who hadn’t been watching TV, e-mailed me about something trivial, and I responded by telling her, “Turn on your TV.  It’s World War III.”  An overreaction maybe, but at the time it seemed like the whole country was under attack.  Reports came in of other planes.  Someone said there was one circling Dallas, and we were all shell shocked and afraid, looking at the sky.  No one knew, at first, what was really going on.

In the months that followed, I started having nightmares.  Images of planes flying into the statue of liberty.  Of buildings toppling.  I became cynical.  I lost my job helping people with cancer.  The economy was suffering, and for the next couple of years I’d find a job, only to be downsized, or I’d get by doing temp work.  I feel like I spent the next few years completely lost.  The world seemed devoid of meaning.

George W. Bush was talking about war with Afghanistan.  Even one of my most liberal friends said to me at the time, “I’m glad the Supreme Court appointed him instead of Gore.  Because he’ll make them pay.”  It seemed like everybody wanted vengeance.  Blood for blood.

I went to a rally at the state capital to protest the war.  It didn’t make sense to me to attack a poor, developing country nowehere near us over something a group of fanatics did.  I have this crazy notion that killing people is never right or justified.  I didn’t understand the point of fighting the “War on Terror” by terrorizing someone else.

I’d like to say my intentions were completely nobel, but what was driving me more than righteous indignation over an unjust war was the prospect that there might be some cute guys there.  I was newly single, and longing for some type of connection.

I stood with my friend James alongside people brandishing signs that said, “No blood for oil.”  and “Bush is a Nazi.”  I listened to the speakers in front of the Capital speaking passionately.  The intense, determined faces of the crowd.  The old hippies with tie dyed peace signs, and the college students with hemp bracelets.   But I didn’t feel connected.  There were cute guys there, but none of them paid attention to me, and when the protest was over, we all went home, and the war happened anyway.

10 years later the war is still happening.  On September 11th, 2001, 2,977 innocent civilians were killed by 19 terrorists.  Many times that number of innocent Afghanistan civilians have been killed since then both directly by US forces, or indirectly because of the war.  Countless others have been disfigured or or have been left devastated by crippling injuries.   Thousands of young men and women, both ours and theirs have died as soldiers.  Trillions of dollars have been spent.  And the war is still happening.  And because one war wasn’t enough, we went to war again.

10 years later I’m living on the west coast.  I’m 35 and I work for a non profit that helps people quit smoking.  I’m connected, and life has personal meaning again.  I have a boyfriend, and we’re making plans to move to NYC.  He recently visited Ground Zero which is now a tourist destination.  He got me a t-shirt.

The fire fighters and first responders are dying of cancer. We have trillions of dollars to wage war, but no money, it seems, to help the people who risked their lives helping others.

10 years on and those horrible images have become dulled by repetition.

In many ways it feels like the terrorists have won.  The economy seems to have never fully recovered.  The cycle of violence seems neverending.  In an effort to protect ourselves we’ve given up many of our rights and freedoms.  (Freedom is worth less than a false sense of security, it seems.)  Going through the airport now is a tedious hassle.   The wars we’ve waged have only increased the ill will of other nations, and fosters more anti-American sentiment.

Maybe it’s just my naive hippie world view, but it seems like if we ended the wars, and redirected the spending to things that will improve our infrastructure like creating jobs, providing healthcare, and improving education, then our nation could regain it’s standing as a world leader rather than a war monger.

I know that the wealthy people who weild all the power and make all the decisions are, like the rest of us, driven primarily by self interest.  But maybe if they understood that it would be in their best interest to provide for the people of this country, then real change could actually happen.  I’m sure that a lot of money can be made from defense contracts and controlling oil reserves, but more could be made by educating the people.  Innovation is what will drive the market and open up new jobs.  Happy secure people are also good consumers, so it’s a win win situation.

Maybe we should start with helping out those first responders and the civilians everywhere who’ve been affected by the tragedy.  Maybe we could restore that faith we lost if we tempered the blood shed with  healing.  Maybe this “us against them” mentality is just devisive retoric used to control us all.   Maybe the people who hate the U.S. would cease to do so if we acted with understanding and compassion instead of with bombs.