Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Hope and Resilience on the Whiffy Express

He got on at the Walmart stop and came to the back of the bus where I sat. He was young, mocha colored skin with one arm nearly completely covered in tattoos. His eyes were that brilliant shade of gold that I have known and loved in a number of black friends and students. His hair stood straight up in twisted spikes. And when he smiled his beautiful teeth lit up his handsome young face. 

After briefly acknowledging him I went back to grading my papers, my pastime on the bus ride home from the college in the afternoons. Rush hour traffic makes the usual hour and five minute trip up to an hour and a half before arriving backing in downtown Orlando. By the time I reach my stop, I have all of my papers graded.

Today’s traffic was fairly typical. I was in no rush.

Dear Lord, What’s That Smell?

At the next stop an elderly black man who was clearly intoxicated stumbled up the aisle to the back of the bus coming to rest in the seat immediately in front of the seat where I sat. I always choose the row of seats which face into the aisle with backs to the windows near the very back of the bus. There is plenty of room there to spread out my papers there when there isn’t much ridership and I can stretch out my aching arthritic knees into the aisle.

Within minutes I began to realize my initially chosen seat was not going to work that day. The elderly man, now snoring, had clearly not had a bath in several days. Worse yet, somewhere along the line he had urinated on himself. 

I am accustomed to workers getting on the bus at the end of the day in need of showers after a long day of manual labor.  I sometimes call that rush hour run The Whiffy Express.

But this was more than the usual worker odor. I leaned into the aisle to see if the air was any more breathable there but I knew quickly that I’d need to move.

I often tell my students that if they have an emergency, don’t ask me, just go on to the bathroom. I’m a sympathetic vomiter on a good day and I fear I’d just add to the pile if someone managed to spew in front of me, fears that go back to my days as a middle school teacher. And I knew the aroma rising from this pathetic, debilitated man was enough to set that response into motion.

I quickly crossed the aisle to the seats now directly in front of the young man. He laughed, his beautiful teeth lighting up his handsome young face.

“I don’t blame you,” he chuckled. “I’d have moved. too.”

I said I felt sorry for the fellow. He was clearly out of it. The young man’s face became very serious. He said that he had known a lot of folks like this guy. “You try to help them, to get them to straighten up and get out of this mess they’re in. But some of them just don’t want to. And they go back to the drinking and drugs. And they end up like this.”

They Came for a New Life

Thereupon began a long conversation that would flow until we reached my stop at the SODO development where I park my car and catch the city bus two days a week.

He told me that his family had moved him out of the Bronx when he was five. They’d moved to nearby Poinciana with little to start a new life. But that new life had to be better than a life fending off or joining the gangs that dominated the streets of their old neighborhood. His Mother now worked at a bank. His father worked as an electrician.

When he asked me what I did (i.e., What’s a professional middle class white man doing riding the city bus with us working class schmoes?) I said I was retired from the university but taught part-time now as an adjunct at Valencia.

His face lit up.

The young man said he was working about 60 hours a week at two different jobs, one a fast food joint, the other a big box store. But he was also taking two classes from Valencia online. “It’s the only way I can do this,” he said. “I’d like to take the classes on campus with everyone else but I have to work.”

I hear this story regularly. Students take classes online for a number of reasons. Some engage in the misguided bottom line philosophy that presumes that since online classes don’t require you to actually come to class, they probably won’t require much else of you. Easy A and three hour credit. 

These are students who often end up feeling betrayed when the class requires more than they’re willing or able to contribute given their time constraints. These are also the folks that most predictably register their discontent on end of term consumer surveys. “Worst class ever.” "Unreasonable demands." “Avoid this teacher at all costs.”

Others take online courses because it relieves them of any obligations to actually deal with other human beings in person. We have raised an entire generation of children whom we allowed technology to babysit with varying degrees of deficiencies in interpersonal skills to show for it. Online classes allow them to escape yet again the difficult but essential task of developing the same.

Then there are those like my conversational companion on the bus. Online classes are less costly in terms of time, obligations to be present and the costs of transportation to and presence at the college. They are often the only avenues to college education available to the working poor. And while they offer at best a truncated educational experience, the credit hours they earn count the same as those in actual live classes.

He spoke of saving enough money to be able to take classes on campus in the future. His wife, who also works at a bank, already is doing so.

On Living While Black

The young man eventually asked me if he could borrow a dollar for bus fare. He said he was headed up to visit his aunt in one of the more dangerous sections of Orlando. I pulled out my wallet and gave him the dollar. Later he’d confess that he actually needed two dollars and only wanted to ask for one. I know the bus fare is $2. So I pulled out my wallet and gave him the other dollar.

My Franciscan sensibility about these encounters is simple: If I have the money and don’t absolutely need it (i.e., for my own bus fare home) and the person I’m encountering seems to need it, I simply give it to them. No questions asked, no conditions. Once the money leaves my hands it’s no longer mine and I have no rights to dictate how it’s used. Conditional gifts are little more than contracts for performance at best, thinly disguised behavioral manipulation at worst.

He asked me what I thought about Donald Trump. I said, “Not much.” I could see the look of relief on his face as he launched into a long diatribe about how Trump was a clown and was endangering the whole world. Apparently the young man has time to catch the news periodically.

The worst part, he said, was that Trump was dividing the country, turning people against one another. I agreed. And I asked if that had impacted him personally.

His face darkened as he responded. “I think every black man in America feels the impact of this,” he said. He told of how he’d been accused of a robbery at a Walmart when he was a juvenile. “I spent 21 days in juvenile before they decided they couldn’t prove the charges,” he said.

Seems the manager of the Walmart offered testimony and the surveillance camera footage from the day of the robbery that clearly showed this young man was not the robber. That didn’t stop the local prosecutor from holding him another week until trial before entering a nolle prosequi notice voluntarily dismissing the case.  

I shook my head. I remembered far too many cases like that from my days as a public defender. It was an abuse of the law and smacked of racism. But it was common. And, ultimately, it would be one of many reasons I’d leave the practice of law. I simply didn’t want to help enable that system to continue anymore. And said as much.

All the Time in the World, All the Patience of Job

It’s a little over an hour ride from the college to my destination at the SODO development where I park my car. I park there because there is a shelter to sit under while waiting for the morning bus and the afternoon bus stops within 100 feet of a traffic light that allows me to cross busy Orange Avenue. The parking garage is designed for patrons of the SODO development and between its restaurants and the Target store there, I have been a regular patron there. I feel no hesitation about parking in the covered garage to catch the bus.

But this day, the hour had flown by. This was an amazing young man, a study in determination in the face of forces beyond his control which would have readily derailed most lives that encountered them. He spoke of his dreams of finishing his degree, of working at a job that would pay him a decent wage and allow him a modicum of self-respect. Most of all, he spoke of his desires to provide a good life for the children he desired to bring into the world, “once I’ve got the job and house down,” he said.

In my life as a teacher, this is the kind of kid I have always taught for. I have all the patience of Job and all the time in the world for people who want to work hard to make it in life and just need someone to help them along the way.

A mere two stops from my destination, he asked if he could use my cell phone. He probably misread my hesitation at that point. I was happy to let him use the phone and when he handed it back to me for the password, gladly provided it. The problem was I was getting off two stops later.

“Make it quick,” I said.

He did. And then moved to another seat. He turned and waved as I bounded off the bus at the Grant Street stop.

I pray that this man will be able to make a good life for himself and his family. I believe that he will, given the determination, resourcefulness and will power I saw on the bus that afternoon.

There are a lot of young people like this man in our society. His entire generation is struggling to make lives that we in previous generations took for granted. We have not made it easy for them at all. We would do well to encourage them, to do what we can to help them along their way and then to demand of them that they perform at the level of the ability at which they have evidenced capacity to perform.

Truth be told, we need this young man. We have no lives to spare. We need him to be healthy, educated and productive. We need him to offer the gifts that only he can.

Hillary Clinton got this one right. We are ALL better together. We need everyone.

Every. Single. One.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

 © Harry Coverston 2017


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