The gentle hand reached forward to tap the old man on the shoulder. No immediate response was forthcoming so there was another tap. The gentleman turned back, a look of confusion first, then surprise. Finally his expression changed to a large smile, probably the first he had given in awhile. A nod of the head to the teenage girl, then the driver, and he was on his way. I never saw him again but I think about him from time to time.
I felt a combination of embarrassment and shame that day. You see I ride the city bus home from work several times a week. I’ve done this for several years now, in part to avoid the hassle and cost of parking downtown, but partly to keep myself from being completely insulated from that “other” world. You know, the one that rides the bus because they have no other options. There is an incredible mix of people on city buses. Most would not be there if they could avoid it. Some are truly hard on their luck, most are not. They are there by their own bad choices or, yes, even laziness. And the rest of us, all too often, stay away when we can.
I’ve met and talked to lots of different bus riders over the years. Most often other workers who like to complain about their work, pay, boss, co-workers and on and on. Rarely have I heard any of them offer thanks for the job they do have. People segregate themselves quite naturally on the bus. The high school drop outs, or those on their way to being so, quickly move to the back. The poorest, overweight and loneliest will inevitably claim the front seats by the door, often joined by the poor single moms with multiple children and a stroller in tow. The passengers who don’t fit either mold tend to claim those seats in the middle. An odd mix of workers, national guardsmen, single moms returning to the workforce and those freshly arrived in town, in search of their next short term job.
I once had a teenage sister and brother sit a row behind me and across the aisle. Even though I was forward I could tell they were looking at me. I glanced back but didn’t want to stare. I thought it was unusual they were sitting in the middle section. They were clean cut and listening to them talk I perceived they got along like few teenage brothers and sisters do. Finally I turned slightly back to acknowledge them; I could tell they were still looking at me and curiosity got the best of me. When I made eye contact, the young man gave me an inquisitive look and asked, “Are you a pastor?” I smiled and said no; and at that instant the three of us recognized each other. I spent a week with them two years earlier at a camp my church sponsors for abused and neglected foster kids. The kind of kids that to often grow up to sit on the back of the bus. They looked good as we reminisced about camp. They told me about all the positive things that had happened to them since I had last seen them. They were able to return to live with their parents in what was now a good home. They looked good and it was a nice feeling to think that I had a very small part in their life that summer as Coach Ted.
But while that short visit with the foster kids gives me a good feeling, I still experience a certain disappointment when I think about the old man. I had watched him move up the aisle in worn out clothes and old shoes. He seemed clean but scruffy at the same time; it was as though he did what he could, with what he had. As he reached the front he reached in his pocket to retrieve the money for his fare. He paused then reached around some more, quickly checking his shirt pocket and then the other pants pocket. About that time I was thinking, another deadbeat. I’ve seen this play out over and over. The rider typically acts surprised until finally the bus driver shakes his head and then motions with impatience towards the door while the person expresses contrived gratitude. But this day was different, as the teenage girl handed him a dollar, his expression changed into an ear-to-ear grin I realized that he really had lost his fare. I don’t know for sure how I knew, but maybe if you ride the bus for enough years you instinctively know these things. On that day, on bus #18 I realized the young woman saw something that none of the rest of us had. Not a deadbeat looking for someone else to pay their way but someone who needed a genuine act of kindness.