When someone asks me what I do for a living, I like to tell him or her that I am a writer. But writing doesn’t always feel like work, and writing doesn’t exactly pay the bills. When I work as a writer, I end up secluded. I often forget that anyone else exists outside of myself. Outside of what I’m creating.
My most recent job, though, was in Culver City, California. Twenty minutes by car. (If you’re fortunate enough to have a car that’s not a broken-down, unregistered, uninsured piece of scrap metal.) In the gridlock-riddled city of Los Angeles, I spent ninety minutes both to and from work on the bus. It’s not riding the bus that makes you tired, it’s the people on the bus. Everyone on board always looks broken, burdened, and defeated. They’re visibly angry about it. No one ever seems content. They are walked over and ignored. And every bus driver in Los Angeles acts as though they hold the worst job on the planet, but they’ve clearly never worked in a meat-packing plant.
On one of these particular twelve-hour days, I met three very eccentric individuals eager to talk amongst the overcrowded LA Metro system. Why me out of the rest of the disgruntled passengers? Maybe I still had a friendly face because I’d only just started riding the bus. The experience had yet to work its way into my soul. (It eventually would.) Also, I still couldn’t grow facial hair.
This would explain why the ninety-year-old gentleman dressed in a suit so sharp I could have sworn he was headed to a GQ fashion shoot, or his own funeral, was so quick to make sure I knew he’d lived more life than me. He smelled like an old bookstore. I offered him my seat. He kindly declined, telling me he used to walk this route every day. It was uphill both ways. This was entirely probable because on the way back there would be an earthquake. Every time.
A Russian woman whose clothes probably came from a trunk in her grandmother’s attic asked why more men didn’t dress like me, claiming I looked delicious in my dark, skinny jeans and tie. And if she was twenty years younger, “…it might just be my lucky night.”
I also held an entire conversation about my boots with a young black woman twirling a Black-N-Mild between her fingers, a stack of schoolbooks on her lap.
With each conversation, my initial reaction was the same: I wanted to turn away, disengage and bury myself in my book. But I caught glimpses of all the faces looking down, the heads against graffiti-covered glass. All these individuals dying to make a connection.
“Hurry up and sit down!” the bus driver demanded, break-checking the vehicle behind his, causing us all to stumble forward.
“Just do you dumb-ass job!” the passengers groaned and shouted back, picking up the belongings that spilled from the backpacks and hands.
A frail woman near the front of the bus, pasta sauce or chili sauce or day-old ketchup down the front of her shirt, cried and begged into her cell phone. “Please. I just need one more day. Just a little more time.”
Two black teenagers harassed the Chinese woman next to them, asking if she spoke English. She buried her chin into her chest, and clutched the books in her lap, crossing her legs like she had to use the bathroom. When she quietly answered, “no,” they tormented her further. “How the hell did you just answer then if you don’t understand English? Huh? Explain that to us? I know you can here me. Chink.”
The back doors on the bus wouldn’t open. The man with the black, thick-rimmed glasses, hunched shoulders, and acne scars was too timid from what could only be years of bullying and harassment to call out for them to be opened. He was shoved out of the way by the sea of commuters just trying to get home, and he missed his stop.
The haggard, bearded man next to me mumbled, “Christ. Jesus Christ,” over and over again until I finally looked up and acknowledged his anger. Finally, someone to vent to. He complained to me about the Blue Line on the Metro Rail System breaking down. He’d spent, “…three Goddamn hours on these shitty, over-crowded buses. Jesus Christ.”
Jesus Christ, indeed. I wanted to ask if he knew anything about him. This savior people talk so much about. Whether you want to believe he walked on water, healed the sick, died for your sins, or if you deny his existence altogether, he still had all these radical ideas about love. Endless, unconditional love. Loving people just because they exist. Democrats, hippies, homeless, liberals, gays, pedestrians, frustrated Los Angeles commuters, and you.
For the first time in my life I felt what a God who created us must feel every day. His children – a creation I am sure he holds most dear – wandering around on a planet so meticulously designed for our pleasure and enjoyment, consumed with hate, disdain, and sadness.
So I listened to them. I talked to them. And I tried to love them until it took everything I had in me not to scoop up that old pistol in his Don Draper suit, hugging him until I dislocated a hip.
When I sit at my computer in these coffee shops or at my desk, burying my face into a book for weeks consumed with my own thoughts and personal agenda, I wake up every single day an unbeliever in a world that begins and ends with me. For I am the only one on the planet with problems, concerns, and doubts. Right?
I am self-addicted.
Today I’m thinking maybe, just maybe, it’s time to quit having our own agendas. As gentleman. As good men. It’s time to leave our comfort zones, and consider the stranger on the street corner. The homeless man who just needs a dollar or a good meal; who just needs to be acknowledged. The man in your office no one likes to talk to. It’s time to consider that it’s not about us—you or me. It never was.
It’s about everyone else.
Welcome to the human race. It’s very uncomfortable here.
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