[In a Transnational class one day we discussed the variety of spatial confines we find ourselves in when travelling or in transit. Being well over six feet tall, just under 2 meters, I have often experienced the confines of various travelling spaces (especially on domestic American airlines), but a Serbian train to Macedonia was painfully cramped and terribly overcrowded for some distance. After class, I took the public city bus home and had the following experience. These are the sort of assigned responses from me that drove some professors batty because I wasn’t “on topic,” while it pleased others to witness the integration of topical discussion into “real world” experiences. I, for my part, abhor learning theory and not practicing it; knowledge without action.]
I wasn’t thinking at all about Clifford’s chapter or the Ibis of Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies when I boarded the 61A yesterday. It was quite crowded; I stood in the connector section of the bus-and-a-half and had the not-enough-room exchanges as people with large backpacks and such pushed pass at some stops—ranging in courtesy from pleasant to rude.
Two of the side-facing seats was taken by a sleeping homeless man whose presence and space drew a number of dissatisfied looks from other riders. Except the lady sitting next to him. I think she was a nurse from her white pants and non-slip soled white shoes. The UPMC shoulder bag was another clue. Going up the hill on Forbes, she woke up the homeless man and told him Murray was a few stops away. I guess they’d spoken to each other previous to my standing next to them. The homeless man thank her with a toothless grin and told her how pretty she was. She smiled kindly and the man continued in a non-threatening dialogue. Mooky, he said his name was, then asked her to marry him. She—Stephanie—smiled and told him that wasn’t going to happen. Then he asked her if she’d be his girlfriend because she was so nice and pretty. The woman, looked around, for the first time she seemed slightly uncomfortable. We made eye contact. She turned back and told him, yes, for the next five minutes, she’d be his girlfriend. He leaned in for a hug—much to the dismay and disgust of several riders. The spatial proximity of a toothless, bald homeless (dark black) man to a clean, commonly-dressed (light brown) woman made many severely uncomfortable. Some were likely identifying with her, and felt, although not voiced in such a manner, that he was transgressing far too many borders and the women shouldn’t be hugging him. What if the homeless bugs got on her!? The man looked up at me and asked if I thought he was lucky to have such a bee-you-tea-full girlfriend. I nodded and told him, yes, he was lucky… He gave me a high five, thanked her again and filed off the buss at Murray, with other people giving him a consciously wide-berth as they disembarked.
Continuing on past Murray, the bus was suddenly larger. Fewer people and most of those in the immediate area spread their space a bit. One woman across the aisle smiled and nodded when she made eye contact with Stephanie. Eye contact being an almost global indication that words may now be exchanged without presumption. I told Stephanie that what she did—from waking the man up in time for his stop to playing along with his gentle and spontaneous marriage proposal—was genuinely kind and compassionate.
“Everyone needs kindness,” she replied, “We’d all be better off, anyway.”
I told her, “Nobody’s the Other when measured by compassion.”
“That’s true. If we were him…” she began, but never continued that thought. The rest of it leads to a mental space that is uncomfortable at best. I’ve often wondered what the first night sleeping on the street is like for someone who has reached the point that there is no where else for them. It’s easy for another to say there are shelters and places “they” could go, but sometimes, evidence details, that that is not always the case.
I (almost fully) quoted the English Reformer, John Bradford (left out the patronymic deity reference because a lot of people hear “God” and politicize the rhetoric): “There but for grace, go I.”
Her eyes lit up a bit, and we began talking more directly to each other. The space between us shrank as i sat down next to her. We closed off the conversation as my stop approached—which was her stop as well—but leaving the travelling space of the bus, we suddenly had other concerns; the world was in full motion and we were standing still.
A smile, a hug, a wave goodbye. She went her way and I went mine.
But, like the electron building blocks of the universe, once in contact, two particles continue to have influence on each other. The events on the bus remain in my thoughts, and I would venture to guess, in hers as well. I would like to think that Mooky’s life is a few lux brighter than it would have been without his exchange with Stephanie. Without darkness, light may never be experienced. But grace—that is, luminous emotion—is needed to guard the boundaries against darkness that can grow cold in any human heart.
One tiny light struggling against encroaching darkness forever. Amen. ‡
‡ what a travelling companion quoted to me upon an almost wordless visit to Srebrenica.