Living in LA, I’m not on busses very much (although we have them, and some rather nice ones at that), but MLK Day always gets me thinking about Rosa Parks, and thus busses, at some point. I think of an awkward moment at the market when my preschooler pointed to the African American woman choosing fruit next to us and asked if she had to ride on the back of the bus (this in the context of having play-dates with Don Cheadle’s daughter, who was his pre-school pal); his take-away at the moment was not really politicized, it was just a way of trying to organize his world and care about fairness, despite the impossibility of contextualizing and differentiating events from half a century before his birth. All I could do was smile and hope the woman, who most certainly got to sit in the front of her car, didn’t think I was some sort of racist.
I grew up in Chicago, in a north suburb, where any given dusk would find African American women waiting at the corners along the busy street for the bus heading to the south side. I was born just a few years after Rosa paved the way for people of all colors to sit where they wanted—it was harder for me, as a child, to understand why dark-skinned people worked for light-skinned people and rode busses instead of cars (at least in my neighborhood, which is the whole wide world when you’re a kid). Young kids are very good at recognizing unfairness; it’s the adults that too often talk them out of it and “teach” them to be biased.
Many things about my life have been upside-down and backward. I walked a mile, literally through the snow in winter, to school beginning when I was five, but when I was three and four I took a bus to preschool. In the winter, all bundled up, I would sit at the back of the bus and drowse a bit, wishing I could have just stayed home.
One bleak cold day I awoke, alone, at the back of the bus, which was parked in the bus-yard surrounded by a vast herd of still busses. I panicked and began to scream my preschool head off. The bus-driver emerged from the bus-guy’s shack, lumbering toward me like a cartoon character. Abashed, he drove me straight home and so terror was followed by a wish come true, cozy at home and excused from preschool (a place where I was prone to literally placing myself inside my cubby, and where I once pushed a girl named Margo down some stairs in a wagon and got in “big trouble,” whatever that it).
After that I tended to sit closer to the front of busses, only now realizing that my mom had taught me that the driver wouldn’t miss you if you were up near him or her. Funny how somewhere in your head can linger the dangers of life at three or four, as if I’d fall asleep and end up in the bus-yard in my twenties in Manhattan. Maybe it explains the odd fascination I felt at the all-night subway riders in New York, sleeping amidst thinning and swelling crowds.
Summer camp was a long bus-ride away, a bus that felt to me more like a cattle car to Auschwitz, a place where “three-fingered Louie” gave you a haircut in a shed in the woods as all the campers stood in line, waiting their turn to be shorn. I tried to escape on foot into the north woods of Wisconsin, but was picked up the director and punished by being denied the privilege of watching Exodus on movie night in the mess hall.
When high school began, there were “bad kids” on the bus, and they always sat at the back. I kept my qiana shirted self up near the driver so I could delay opportunity for violence until I at least arrived at school (although I imagine the driver would have been about as responsive to my potential harm as Kitty Genovese’s neighbors).
My favorite place to ride the bus has to be London, especially sitting with my wife and kids, four across, in the front row of the upper deck of a double-decker as the city unfolds before you in cinemascope.
Riding back to our rented flat one summer afternoon rush hour on a regular (single decker) London bus jammed with people, I ended up sitting next to a woman from Ghana who told me all about traveling home with her kids who were, at first, scared of the little town with no electric lights after the cosmopolitan luminescence of London; yet a few days later they were reluctant to leave Africa, easing into a slower pace and the love of extended family and a deep sense of home.
Rosa Parks on that bus seventy years ago is a trenchant image, both because the bus is an apt metaphor for the group—a collective vehicle that takes all its passengers ultimately to the same place; and Rosa’s stand on the bus is also an enduring image because preschoolers and kindergarteners can understand it so well—because it’s purely about fairness, and preschoolers understand unfairness better than just about anyone (at least when it happens to them).
So, let’s dedicate today to fairness, in our personal, political, economic and also intra-psychic (i.e. the way we treat ourselves, in our heads) realms; let’s trust that, metaphorically, the “bus” is becoming a circle, more like a merry-go-round, and that the big questions are not about where we each get to sit, but about where we’re all going, hopefully taking all our collective children into a fairer, freer and more enlightened way of being.