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After 9/11, my emotional capacity to tolerate airports diminished. The searching, the sense of exposure, and the subtle discrimination couched as added protection frayed my nerves and filled me with fear.
One day in May I decided to take the Greyhound bus back to Berkeley rather than fly. I had done it once before on the day LAX was scheduled to re-open after being closed due to the September 11 attacks. That was an easy call. This one was fraught with indecision and anxiety. It meant leaving earlier from visiting my depressed mother who was still grieving my father and slipping slowly into dementia. It meant not going to a day spa with my sister or shopping at a clothing store we both adored. Activities to let us escape the sadness that permeated our family.
It meant being with people who cannot afford a plane ticket. People who have no time but even less money. People who don’t own cars or own cars that aren’t up to the trip. People with completely different reasons than I for traveling to the Greyhound station in downtown LA. When asked as they vaguely searched my carry-ons if I had a pocketknife, I lied and said “No”, knowing no machine would turn me in. In this crowd I carried some of the privilege granted to the white businessman at the airport.
I boarded the bus, picked my seat, and spread my belongings out to discourage any company. The buses are generally not as crowded as the plane. I ride them infrequently, but have never had to share my row.
However, they were encouraging the 3 PM passengers to take this bus so it began to fill up. One Latino asked in Spanish if he could sit down when there was still plenty of seats in the back. By the time I looked up to decide my response, he was gone. Then another man, a black man, asked. I looked around to see what his options were. There were other empty seats, but they were next to men. I asked him: “Aren’t there other seats?”
He did not like my question, said something angrily under his breath and moved to the row ahead of me, asking the man there about the seat next to him. He also was less than inviting. He muttered more angry words and sat down.
More people came on board. I noticed a woman holding a young boy’s hand. She looked bewildered, scanning the bus for two seats together.
I knew this look. I had had it many times on airplanes when there were no seats for a mother and her children. Once I boarded a plane with my one year old twins and their other parent. Because getting to the airport had been delayed due to so many little steps in getting the twins ready, only middle seats on opposite aisles were available. Laden down with overstuffed backpacks, we asked the four people in both rows if one would change with us. No. No. No. No. We sat with a twin each on our laps, passing snacks, drinks, diapers, and toys back and forth. The passengers were more willing to have us talk over them and to hand things to each of us than to milk a little human kindness for parents and children on a six hour flight.
A few years later, I traveled alone with both children on a plane trip where we had a center seat and two aisle seats. Again, neither window person would give up their seat so I could be with my two children. When the flight attendant came by after reviewing the safety instructions, she spoke to the man sitting next to one of my children as if he were the father, telling him to put his own oxygen mask on first before putting one on the child she presumed was his. MY child, not his.
I got up from my bus seat and motioned to the woman to take it so she could be with her child. I wandered to the back of the bus, now in the position of the man to whom I had been unwelcoming, looking for the most palatable seating companion. Knowing they were all holding their breath, hoping I would pick someone else.
It was a no-brainer. Like the man before me, I looked for a woman and that gave me one choice. A viejita. I apologetically sat down and tried to be as unimposing as possible, keeping my arms and legs tucked in. A few minutes later the bus driver came back and told me there was an empty row up front. I rose and saw the black man who had asked to sit next to me moving to the empty row. Applauding poetic justice, I sat down again. I do not like telling men of color no, especially when they are doing something completely legitimate.
I considered going up and apologizing, telling him he had every right to ask for the seat and to get angry when I wasn’t gracious. I wanted to tell him my side. Tell him how I never got a seat by myself in semi-crowded places because people will always choose to sit next to a woman rather than next to a man. They will even choose to sit next to me when there are empty seats all over the place. The same way they choose us when they need to cut through a crowd or a line.
I remember being on a plane, a crowded plane, one of the last to board. Knowing a middle seat was likely my fate, I was stunned to see an empty aisle seat. As I approached, I saw that the woman in the window seat was large, very large. I sat down in the aisle seat, knowing that no one would choose the middle seat. They hadn’t even chosen the aisle seat. I won’t even get into the ridiculous size of the seats in general that adds insult to injury.
The bus rumbled out of the station and onto the I-5 freeway. The driver recited the rules over the intercom in English only, despite the fact that 80% of the passengers spoke and understood only Spanish. I contemplated going up and offering to translate. I contemplated writing a letter to Greyhound. In the end, I translated a few things to the woman next to me.
As we rode along she began to chat in Spanish.
“I was born in Mexico City and began coming to the US in 1967 and buying women’s clothing to re-sell in México. I flew in este mañana to shop in downtown LA. All my boxes of ropa are in the luggage. I was so lucky to find three jovenes to help me load them.” They had just crossed the border and had only enough money to by their bus tickets. Her grey hair was pulled back into a neat bun and her hands grasped a black leather handbag in her lap. One hand would rise and fall each time she made a point.
“Can you believe I am now in my seventies?” she beamed, “and married for over fifty years! My three children moved to the San Jose area. I will spend the next five days visiting mi familia, including going out on paseos with my grandchildren and 6 great-grandchildren. I also have to organize my purchases into smaller boxes.” One of her daughters would go to México with her to take the merchandise. Her husband had not worked for many years. He had become accustomed to tending to their home and helping with her thriving business.
I asked her if she planned to keep working and she beamed at me. “Ay, si, I love going to the stores and seeing what to buy. I love the travel, especially the plane rides to and from LA and México City. I have so many frequent flyer miles that I always fly first class.” She relished the moment when she boarded the plane, sank into the large, comfortable seat, and decided what to eat.
She was a little worried because she had not confirmed her arrival with her family. Her usual pattern was to have a faithful seller call her daughter, but she was on vacation and her assistants didn’t know where she kept her numbers. I offered to call directory assistance when we stopped at Coalinga for our dinner break. Yes, this was before cells phones. While I called on the pay phones, she waited in the long line at McDonald’s and bought the three jovenes dinner.
After re-boarding the bus, she nodded off and I reflected on her journey. It was not an easy life or one that would appeal to many people, but she loved it and when she said “Dios nos ha dado mucho”, she was not repeating a platitude. She really believed that we had been given much.
When we said adios, I felt blessed by the ways we crossed multiple borders of difference, most unrecognized by anyone other than me. I also felt sad that I held back from connecting with the black man and from offering to translate to the whole bus. I did not doubt more opportunities to intervene would come up again and that I had a choice each time. Sad that often when I do choose to act in self protection it inadvertently reinforces the sense of scarcity among people of color, among genders, among immigrants and US born people. Sad that a sense of full satisfaction is a privilege I don’t often get, but I wouldn’t trade what I get instead. My heart bruises with pain, and also swells with a love that heals the cracks separating us from ourselves and from the amazing, resilient beings who ride buses and march for justice and write no matter what. #52essays2107