by Ellen Courtney
One way to see how the other half lives is to ride the bus. A few years back, I was a regular commuter on Sun Tran, and I’ve traveled back and forth to El Paso on the “dog” (the Greyhound) a number of times in the past couple of years. I confess that my earliest experiences as a bus rider were sometimes uncomfortable, not because of the seats, but because my fellow passengers seemed strange to me. They looked and acted and talked differently, and sometimes their behavior seemed odd and disrespectful of boundaries. For instance, it’s disconcerting to hear someone talking in a very loud voice—to no one in particular and to everyone—about his opinions or life experiences. In the El Paso bus terminal a young passenger in a wheelchair once came up to tell me that he had PTSD. “I wasn’t in the military,” he added. “I was raped as a child.” I should add that the bus driver had trouble lifting him in his wheelchair onto the bus, so the young man just stood up, folded up the wheel chair, and walked onto the bus. So, for someone like me—and probably you—riding the bus has its bizarre moments, and we tend to harden the boundaries in response to the “weirdness.”
It was on those long bus rides to and from El Paso that I finally allowed people to penetrate the boundaries. Once I had started engaging in conversation with whoever was sitting next to me, I realized that most of my fellow passengers were weary folks traveling long distances (Houston to L.A.?) to visit family they hadn’t seen in years, to check out job prospects in a big city, to return home from employment elsewhere, to start life afresh in new places. They talked openly about their families, their crises, their predicaments. It became clear that many spent life on the edge, making do with very limited resources, and yet they were perfectly willing to chatter with a stranger about their circumstances and fears and hopes. These conversations reminded me that we’re not so different after all except that I, unlike them, have a stable family situation, a good income, and the benefit of an excellent education. How not to admire people who smile and strive and hope in the face of adversities I’ve never had to experience? That was Lesson Number One.
The bus from El Paso to Tucson always stops briefly at the MacDonald’s in Lordsburg, New Mexico, so passengers can buy something to eat. Trouble is, not everyone has the means to purchase food. Countless times, as people are filing back on the bus, I’ve heard a passenger loudly inquire, “I bought three hamburgers, but I could only eat one. Anybody wanna help me eat the other two?” or “Who’s still hungry? I have some extra burgers.” This is how Greyhound bus riders help each other out during long journeys, and it is a beautiful act of kindness. It is a remarkable display of empathy, for it shows that passengers know that others need their help, and they cheerfully offer their help. It manifests a we’re-all-in-this-together approach that we can all learn from. That was Lesson Number Two.
Unfortunately, I’ve also seen that bus riders are not outspoken when it comes to defending their rights. I’ve observed that bus riders get pushed around a lot, and their response is silence and submission. On one of my trips from El Paso to Tucson, the scheduled bus arrived three hours late. Some of the passengers had already been waiting several hours to make their connection, but no employee made use of the PA system or came out to the waiting room to explain what was going on. When I approached the counter to ask where our bus was, the employee explained that it would be three hours late because of mechanical difficulties. I replied, “Don’t just tell me about the problem. Go and tell them!” The employee reluctantly walked to the waiting room to announce the delay. Now, most bus drivers are kind and courteous to passengers, but a few are outright bullies. They order passengers around, lacing their directives with sarcastic attempts at humor. They warn mothers with crying infants that they’d better silence their children. One bus driver even addressed some passengers with nicknames he’d invented. I myself was addressed as “Smiley” several times during the trip. The point here is that these bus riders have been conditioned to accept whatever treatment they get, perhaps because their protests have always been ignored by the powers that be, authorities whose message appears to be, “This is what we’ve decided. This is the way it is. Take it or leave it.” That was Lesson Number Three.
This mistreatment is why the Tucson Bus Riders’ Union is so very important. Through participation in the union, riders will learn about speaking up to defend their rights and protect their interests. For example, here in Tucson, local authorities threaten to raise bus fares and close convenient bus terminals, perhaps counting on the expectation that bus riders won’t protest these actions. We should join the union of bus riders to strengthen their voice through example and to show our solidarity. Of course, the first step is riding the bus, engaging with fellow passengers and learning lessons about people and life, grounded in common experience.