Bus Sketches

The aisle on an empty bus

The woman was filling the boxes of her crossword puzzle in the morning paper. In pen. She sat sideways as the bus pulled away from its bay. She turned to the woman next to her and offered her a sweet.

The woman shook her head, “no,” and politely smiled her “thank you.” She had a pleasant round face topped by a hat. The leopard trimmed brim was double accented by the fringes of her pageboy peaking out and framing her full cheeks. The weather flirted with cold and the forecast teased rain. The hat was both prophylactic and camouflage–protecting against a potential storm and masking her need to see her hairdresser. She pulled the cord, requesting the next stop.

The man facing front looked up as the woman with the hat pulled herself out of the seat. She led with her chest, almost like someone was pulling her up via a string attached to her breastbone. The man read the sign floating above the aisle. It said the name of the next stop. The woman with the puzzle asked him a question. It might have been about the news or about an event at her church. He responded in a way that was familiar, but when they got to the next stop, a silent woman who was seated next to him stood up, too. He gently guided her off of the bus that pulled away as they got on to their day.

Who Tells Your Story

Preface to the new edition of a history of the US written by former Princeton and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. He was a bigot, too.

I was driving back from the Italian specialty store. They have fabulous capicola and even more fabulosa salami. I bought a bottle of wine for dinner. Oddly I selected Spanish, not Italian.

I had one more stop to make before home. The “you’re almost out of gas you idiot” indicator appeared as I pulled into the parking spot at my earlier destination where I bought a bag of dog food. The Shell station was next.

As I was pulling out of the parking space, I flipped the radio station from the droning trance music. Who knew they played trance on commercial radio? I settled on the left side of the dial. I was sucked in by an intoxicating southern timbre.

A man was talking about historical preservation and public reckoning, but his story was about an old building that was being preserved. The preservation was wrong. You see, the preservationists had confused the front of the house with the back of the house. And, more importantly, they omitted any context for the structure. This was discovered and then reconciled by research that consisted of talking with the people who had actually lived there.

The historian learned that the story about the house that the museum was sharing–the history–was not just incomplete. It told a story different from the truth of the people who were there.

The history hewed to a narrative that supported the dominant culture. It supported the idea that the people who lived there were broken and weak. But the truth was that the people who lived there were strong, with tight families and decent means.

Dr. King said, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” So the history that we are told makes the people in our heads. It informs not only how we see the people in the past, but how we see their descendants.

It’s important (at least I think it is) to not only seek and share multiple perspectives, but also–and this is from the historian on the radio–to allow ourselves to be surprised. Surprised by what we find, what we learn and to let it challenge what we have believed and what we thought was truth.

Striving to understand people, to accept that their truths may be different, and even that their truth (or my truth, for that matter) might actually be the truth can help align what history makes us with who we actually are.

Wow. That’s a lot of thinking between the salami store and the gas station. If this symposium snippet on c-span was any indication, the new National Museum of African American History and Culture will be a place with a surfeit of surprise. I am open to it. You?

No Place

paper lanterns floating away.

We walked out to snow covered trees, grass, hedges, porches and cars. The sidewalks were snow-free and even dry. It wasn’t crisp, but not humid either. It was pretty in that snow-silence way and without real cold.

The snow was losing its grip on the branches and parachuted down to the ground in a zillion formations of white. It was the inverse of white paper lanterns that use candle power to float up into the air.

It was a business walk, but we weren’t in a hurry. There’s an apartment building at the end of the block. It’s only three stories. I’m not sure how long it’s been there. It’s not like one of the sexy new buildings with marble counters and artisan wood floors with a big common lobby with a fireplace for the hipsters to hang. It’s a simple rectangular building made of red brick, maybe from the sixties. It’s not ugly enough to be from the seventies.

The building is on the corner and as we squared it I saw an old mattress and boxspring on the curb. It looked like a sheet cake frosted with snow. There was a chair just beyond the matress, also next to the curb. It was one of those chairs made out of that heavy wood composite. A super cheap chair that is super sturdy, except it’s prone to splinter or rock. The seat had snow on it and some snow clung along the edge of the chairback. There was another one. My eyes followed the space between the sidewalk and the street. Next to the tree there was a pile which included a backpack, a smashed purse, some towels, a folder with papers, a cushion and a blender.

An eviction.

There was the grey box that was a 27″ tube TV. A broken three-shelf bookcase made out of the same composite wood stuff. The dog sniffed in another pile of homegoods and I pulled him. I didn’t like him sifting through somebody’s stuff.

An eviction always makes me sad. It’s someone’s worldly possessions tossed out on the street. Cruelly exposed. A person or a family’s dinner dishes, shower curtains, socks, CDs and books. Pieces of their lives broadcast next to the street.

I feel like a voyeur peeping in a stranger’s window. I turn my head out of respect for these people who I don’t know but who I now know about from their belongings.

It isn’t the worst eviction I’ve seen. I look at the piles again and don’t see anything that says “kids.” No colorful toys, little shoes, kids books or school supplies. I sigh in relief. And, actually, it looks like the remains represented an abandoned apartment, so nobody was put out. At least not in this transaction.

There was a cardboard box at the end of the eviction train. The dog poked his nose in the quarter-filled box. More papers, a small round vase with a fluted top, a coffee mug and, on the top of the pile a big black book. BIBLE.

I jangled the leash and told the dog let’s go and mumbled a nonspecific petition to the morning sky.