I was on the bus tonight, going home from the city. I was sitting in the fold down seats at the front, that face each other. You know, the ones you shouldn’t sit in, in case a disabled person or mother with a pram gets on and needs you to fold them up so that can park their wheeled device. Next to me was this old guy. Opposite him, a black man.
About a minute in, the old man speaks to the black man: “You’re from Africa, eh?”
The man nods and smiles that embarrassed smile you do when you don’t understand something, or would like to not understand something.
The old man goes again ‘What state are you from?” He’s speaking in a loud, interrogative voice. Something about it makes me think that maybe he is drunk, or perhaps… otherwise cognitively impaired. He delivers all his lines in the way drunk people do – agree with me or else!
I hate this kind of thing. I don’t want to be talked to by random people, and clearly neither does this man. I start remembering all the times I have listened to people get earbashed. I still carry the guilt of the time on the bus to uni a girl about my age then (very early twenties) was accosted by a very drunk Aboriginal man who was perfectly polite, but didn’t shut up for the whole half hour journey. I sat there and read my book while she looked desperately around for a saviour.
His victim cannot understand him. “State?” He asks.
“State!! What STATE!!”
An embarrassed nod and smile.
I am tense. I go hot. Then cold. My hands clench. Why should this man have to put up with this? Because he is different? Is it OK because he doesn’t belong? Or would the old man do this to anyone? Probably. I turn my ipod up.
The old man grins. “You’re a real Nigger, aren’t you?”
HOT! COLD! CLENCH!!
I can’t say anything – my polite upbringing and general chickenheartedness are screaming at me to shut up. I am tense. The whole bus is tense. He said the ‘N’ word! I can’t say anything – my tongue feels heavy in my mouth. I can’t not say anything! I turn my ipod off, take my headphones out and glare at the man. How dare he make me uncomfrotable… uh… wait…
“You’re a real Nigger, aren’t you!” says the old man. “Why’re you here? Why’re you in Australia?”
“You make money here? Ha! A real Nigger!”
“excuse me” I say, in the smallest voice possible. I didn’t realise I was going to say it until I did. “Excuse me” I say louder. He hasn’t heard me, he’s still grinning at the uncomfortable man opposite him. I tap him on the shoulder and he turns around, startled. “Um. I don’t really think that’s appropriate” I hear myself quaver.
Ugh. Can you say pathetic? I feel stupid. The man glares at me. “What?!” he says. What now, smartarse? I think to myself.
“Why don’t you leave him alone?” It’s a middle aged women, in the forward-facing seat opposite me.
“What?” he repeats “What have you got to do with it?”
“Yes, leave him alone.” The chubby emo sitting to my left. The old man starts to swear
“You’re being a prick, mate.” Says the emo. “Just leave him alone.”
“I’m just talking to him”
“Well, he doesn’t want to listen to you.” A middle eastern looking man in the front-most seat turns around and glares down at him.
“And neither do we” I chip in. Yeah, you tell him, Kate. Real civil-rights activist you are, telling some possibly disabled guy to shut it.
“How many of you are there against me?!”
“Just keep it to yourself” says the polished looking young woman opposite me. He splutters.
After a short silence, the black man picks up his bag and moves further down the bus. “Good idea” says the middle aged women to him, smiling, as he passes. We all glare at the old man, and sink into silence.
I put my ipod back in my ears, but I don’t turn it on. The woman opposite goes back to writing her message. The middle aged woman stares straight ahead, the middle eastern guy turns back to the front, the emo slumps.
I feel still feel hot, no wait, I’m cold. I’m tense. I feel righteous. And mean. I feel part of a greater whole, and I feel isolated. Was that a positive interaction, or a negative one? Should I feel proud of us (mostly white people) for defending someone, or ashamed for being patriarchal? Or for bullying some guy who was just trying to have a conversation?
Geez. This self-awareness, cultural sensitivity thing is hard. All I know is that I am glad I tapped him on the shoulder. I can still feel the echo of the flannelette of his shirt against my finger. It was only thirty seconds or so ago.
Two bus stops later, a student gets on the bus. He’s wearing a school uniform – Mercedes, a good private school. He has a full backpack and he’s got earphones in. He sits opposite the old man.
I put my head in my hands. The emo sits up straight. The woman opposite stops typing on her phone, although she’s still looking down at it.
The student is clearly enjoying his music, making little drumming actions and bobbing his head. The old man leans forward. We all tense.
“How was school?”
The student takes out his earphones and they proceed to have a long conversation, the kind you would have if you were any student with a broad Australian accent, randomly accosted on the bus by a man who seems to only have three lines of conversation. They talk about how young the student is, and how old the man is. About the student’s parents, and how he should lsiten to his mother. About how old the man is (70!! He’s looking for a bucket to kick. He mimes). Does he like school? He’s young, he should listen to his mother. He is friendly and articulate and personable throughout – engaged and responsive, what every old person wishes that young people were, these days.
The middle aged woman and the black man get off at the same stop. They smile at each other, and say something. They look towards the front of the bus at the old man and the young one, smile and shake their heads.
I am reminded that life is not a story. Or, maybe more accurately, it is many stories. Today, I choose to believe that we did a good thing. That we helped one man escape an uncomfortable situation. We showed another man that his behaviour was not appropriate, and he modified it. For a while we were united – but not in a scary, mob-like way. A connection was made between ages.
You can pick your own story. That’s mine, and I’m sticking to it.