Monday, April 29, 2013

Lessons from riding the bus

My travels on the bus are becoming more depressing with the passage of each day.  More and more, I’m discovering a vast gap between those who use public transportation and those with the power to rule public policy.

More and more, it’s becoming clear that the people making decisions have no clue.  They care.  They want to make a difference.  They simply lack insight regarding how their votes often make things worse.

Yes, I continue to ride the bus.  My journey to and from home leaves me aching at the increasing disconnect between those functioning with privilege and those who keep trying to find their way.
It’s depressing to listen to their struggles.

I’ve been careful to hide my own privilege.  My attire has been selected to conceal the distance between me and those who ride the bus.   I’ve done my best to spend more time in listening than speaking.  My hope has been to fit in, like an anthropologist hoping to uncover the culture of those on the bus. I’ve discovered that learning requires a willingness to forfeit the comforts that come with being set apart.
Those trips have changed me.

The troubling truth is I’m not so different than those living in poverty.  Each day, I’m becoming more like them, and less like those who make assumptions about those who ride the bus.  I’ve listened to their disappointments.  I’ve heard countless stories from black men who are looking for work.  Any work. 

“I can’t work at that restaurant because the last bus leaves at 10:00 pm and I can’t get home after they close,” I overheard a man share with a former co-worker.
“What you need to do is call all the churches and ask for money to pay your rent,” I listened as a woman shared with another as she cried because eviction was coming soon.

I’ve listened to men talk about paying child support.  One was struggling with making the $50 payment each month.  Another man talked about the pain related to paying child support only to discover the child was not his.

I’ve listened to men talk about getting out of prison and doing their best to change their lives.
“Man, I’m not hanging out over there anymore,” I heard a man say. “I’m trying to live God’s way now.”

The long ride from being picked up on the side of the street to the downtown terminal exposes a lot of pain.  It’s pain so deep that those living with it are unable to recognize the pain.  They’ve learned to live with the burden of surviving with never enough.

“Hey man, you want to buy some food stamps,” a man asked after explaining he needed the money to pay his utility bill.

Judgment made me wonder if the money would be used to buy a hit of crack cocaine.  The look on his face left me troubled that a decision was made between eating and paying a bill.  I wondered if those making decision even considered that possibility.

Do they understand?  I mean, is it possible to understand what you have never seen? 

Then I face the other side of that pain.  I listen. I watch.  I pray. I leave frustrated and confused because I know those in the room have no clue.  I don’t want to judge them, but I listen knowing they lack real insight into the lives of those they seek to help.

I listen to them talk about education.  I listen to them discuss poverty and incarceration.  They hurl statistics aimed at defining the problem, and they formulate strategies to alter what their evidence reveals.  Over the years I have listened.  I have functioned with a high level of respect for those willing to do their best to make a difference.

I’ve watched as they walk into schools to talk to administrators.  I’ve listened as those administrators put a positive spin on what is happening in the schools.  I’ve heard the reports from the Superintendent after conversations with parents and students.  I wonder about the distance between the reality presented by those parents and students and the rhetoric promoted by the big wigs.

I witness the pile of pain on the bus, and then I listen to more coming from those at the county jail.  I hear men talk about the battle to overcome their former ways.  I watch them wait for their day in court.  I’ve seen men walk out of jail with murder charges while others wait for months with far lesser crimes.

I listen as they talk about the injustice of the justice system.  I watch as they contend with racial profiling and unfair assumptions.  I’ve watched as I’ve been watched by those making assumptions about me.

Riding the bus has taught me important lessons.  I’ve discovered that being black and brown is harder than I knew.  Getting out from under the weight of stereotypes is heavy to bear.  I’ve discovered that the burden of race and poverty takes much more than those making decisions will ever understand.

They lack the understanding of their own assumptions.  They make decisions without knowing the rest of the truth.

In my opinion, no one should be allowed to lead until they spend some time on the bus. How can who take the test when they have failed to do the homework?


  1. Thanks for sharing the part of real Durham that most people choose not to see. Thanks for giving us a good lens to see it through. Great to see you last week!

  2. Ditto what Valerie said! Thank you, Carl.

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