Chris DeLine

Cedar Rapids, IA

Strangers on a Bus

Published in Blog.

Last week a friend and I boarded a bus together. I swiped my pass while she followed, riding out to the next stop as she worked her way through the tedious process of depositing a handful of change to pay the fare. When she sat down next to me another passenger called from a few seats over, expressing something to the effect that “money’s money.” From there conversation began. We learned that not only does the transit system accept pennies, but that he once stood at the mechanism at the front of the bus, painstakingly unloading a few hundred of them at once to pay for a day-pass. Money is money.

As the bus continued we rode by a car dealership (two, actually) which provoked discussion of how The System has been put in place to encourage car lots without ensuring that there’s anyone left able to afford the cars; a rather obvious metaphor for the country’s current financial woes, we concluded. He then told us about how he’d lost somewhere between enough-to-pay-for-his-daughter’s-college-tuition and a half million dollars (the exact amount changed over the course of a few sentences) because of the economic collapse. This led to an aside about regrets, how living in the moment is all we really have, and the utterly fascinating actualization that comes with really understanding that the moment IS all we have.

Then he asked me if I had a Facebook page.

Riding public transit nearly every day I’m used to talking to strangers. In the South, actually, I’ve become comfortable with an openness about creating dialog as a sort of necessity to pass time. Elsewhere it’s an intrusion of privacy, but here it’s generally accepted. Sometimes people are just building momentum to ask you for a spare dollar, sometimes they’re just waiting for their destination to arrive. Either way, most people are fairly innocent in this regard.

When Thomas (I can’t quite remember if that was his name, but for the sake of discussion “Thomas” will work) asked me if I had a Facebook page, though, that triggered a defensive reaction within me. I told him no. He said a few more words, then repeated it as though I’d misheard him. I again shot back, assuring him that I did not have a Facebook page. The walls were erected and on my side, at least, and while communication continued, the conversation was over.

He knew my name, and at the time I knew his. I’d learned of his financial situation, that he was actively working through some sort of therapy, that he had at least one child of age to go to college, and that he probably wasn’t as crazy as his glazed-over eyes and speech impediment immediately made him out to appear. But I refused to cross some imaginary line of intimacy in my mind. As we were exiting the bus I shook hands with Thomas and wished him well — joking again that if I found “The Answer” to it all, I’d be sure to pass it on his way — and he replied with equal passing kindness. My friend then asked me why I told him that I didn’t have a Facebook page, since we’d just met, and we’d just connected on the social platform only a few days earlier. It took me a moment to conjure an answer, but all I could muster was that I actually intended on being friends with her. The same can’t be said for many connections on Facebook though; the excuse remains bullshit.

When I was walking home from the bus station the thought continued to plague me, if only because I’d been called out on my nonsense. I texted my friend a follow-up, about how maybe I’m just used to keeping my guard up. At least that’s closer to the truth. But the reality is that I don’t know exactly why I balked at a stranger on the bus like I did. Had he asked me for a dollar at the end of our interaction, I’d have given it to him — he earned it. But he didn’t. All he did was imply that he’d like to talk further. And I lied. Twice. What’s the worst that could happen? I don’t like him and cut him off? I don’t know, maybe he really is crazy and somehow tracks me down in person and finally asks me for that dollar? There really isn’t much “bad” that could have immediately come from it, but I was quick in putting up that wall. Had he been a gorgeous 25 year old with blonde hair and skin to die for, maybe (and by maybe I mean absolutely) I’d have reacted differently. But he wasn’t and I didn’t.

The point is that I felt bad. Not for Thomas — something tells me Thomas will be fine without me — but for myself, and my own stupid barriers that continue to prevent me from simply being as honest as I claim to be. If he was crazy, so what… he’s no crazier than the people I interact with on a daily basis, it’s just that he’d be a card carrying member of the lunatic society rather than an onlooker who denies their insanity’s existence while continuing to act on it in their own life. The good that could have come from Facebook-ing with Thomas easily outweighs the negative what-ifs, because maybe, even if only for a moment, it was clear that we weren’t all that unalike, Thomas and I. And despite the interconnectedness of us all it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find people who you can say that about.