Monday, February 14, 2011

On acting strange

I had the afternoon off from work today, so I walked to the bus stop around mid-day, amidst melting snow which revealed the detritus of urban living--wrappers, banana peels, and unidentified objects which I chose not to look at too closely. Sometimes it's better not to know.

So, I get on the bus, which is starting to fill up. Now, I'm usually one of a very few people dressed in conformity with the norms of the "professional" workplace, and today was no exception. (Don't let that image above, from the website, fool you.) This fact seems to either encourage people to sit next to me, or repel them until there is no other choice. I never know which way it's going to go. I generally don't chat with other passengers, but if they start a conversation, I'll participate. One time I spent the whole 15 minutes talking to a passenger who recognized me from work and wanted to know why he couldn't get in to the college.

Another time I saw a former student who was amazed that I was riding the bus. Most people around here don't ride the bus unless they have no other choice of transportation. (Truth be told, I prefer my bike, but today was too windy and icy to deal with.) He said, with a smile, "You haven't forgotten where you came from." I smiled, even though the first 12 years of my life were spent on a small farm with one parent a factory worker and the other a lineman for the electric utility company. I didn't ride any form of public transportation until I visited Chicago as a first-year college student. And I'll admit that I was slightly terrified at the time.

Today, the seat next to me remained empty for a few stops. A young woman got on, and said loudly to a woman in front of me, "ExCUSE me." A minute later, I hear her say, "Well, I SAID excuse me." I don't hear the other passenger's response. The young woman says, "Oh, well, you got mental problems. God bless you." And she moves directly across the aisle.

Next stop, a few people get on, including a rather grizzled looking older man, holding a napkin up to his nostrils. As with the trash on the street, I prefer not to look too close as to why he's holding it there. He sits in the seat now vacated, next to the passenger alleged to have "mental problems." Meanwhile, the woman across the aisle is talking on the phone, saying, "This woman has mental problems. I don't know what's wrong with her...I'm sitting across the aisle from her now." (If I could hear her phone conversation, I imagine the passenger in question also could.)

Another minute later, and the grizzled man moves to sit next to me. He says, in a monotone voice, "That woman has some kind of mental problem." At this point I begin to think I'm on one of those candid camera-type shows. It's getting surreal. I still can't bring myself to look at the man, still holding the napkin up to his nostrils, and I just sort of grunt something in reply.

Apparently displeased with my lack of enthusiasm, he moves to another seat in the back. Another person gets in and sits next to me, and the rest of the short ride is uneventful.

I get off the bus and walk the short distance home, frankly anxious for the fresh air and lack of drama. Still, I am glad for that bus ride. I'm glad to be reminded of the full diversity of human experience.

I'm also reminded of a conversation on NPR about how colleges should respond to students who seem to be in distress. Several of them said that college administrators should take strong action whenever anyone "acts strange." That seems an inappropriate bar for action; when someone is threatening, or disruptive to learning, yes, but whenever anyone "acts strange"?

By whose norms and values? There were quite a few people "acting strange," at least by some people's judgment, today on the bus. But I didn't feel threatened by any of them. Only can someone who never encounters people of different social classes, abilities, challenges, and ways of living, make such a statement.

It's too easy for some of us to go directly from our house to our garage, get in our car, drive as close as possible to our place of work, work with people who are pretty much just like us, then turn around and reverse the whole trip. When you're so encapsulated like that in your own private property and homogeneous culture, with little contact with fresh air, you can forget that there's a whole big world out there.

Get yourself out there! As long as you're nice to me, I promise to smile when you act strange.

(Now, go read Jenny Joseph's warning just to get yourself in the right frame of mind.)


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