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Meditations while riding San Diego Transit

Please, tell me why I’m on this bus tonight.

  • Image by Richard Smith
  • Bless our hearts
  • These people tonight;
  • Who ride on this bus
  • Alone through the night.
  • Who sit on these benches
  • As rested on shelves;
  • Alone on this bus
  • Alone to ourselves.

And I lie on my bed. It’s darker here in my room than it is outside. I no longer can walk along the streets, and I can no longer look a person in the eye. 1 don't belong out there. If our eyes met, others would know that I had no right to be outside with them; and their silent ridicule is much more painful than this solitude.

My room is very dark. Sometimes I leave the door open just a bit, and the daylight shines on the ceiling and down along one of the corners. And the cars go by outside. I can hear them. As they drive by, their silhouettes move across the band of light. People also. Sometimes I can see people passing in the light. It’s good that cars and people still go by as I lie in my room. I used to worry that they’d stop if I wasn’t out there with them. Not anymore. There is just no need for me to go outside.

The cars, the people, they still go by.

A couple is making love nearby. I can picture them. I see them clearly.

I know how their bodies move; the heat of their skin, and even their whispers. I know of them but they know nothing of me. Somewhere a child runs across a playground chasing after a rolling ball. The ball slows, and the child kneels and lifts the ball. For a moment the child stands alone holding the ball. And while the playground seems so large, it must be true that there is so much more to be seen beyond the high fences that surround it. Then, with a slight shrug, the thought passes; and as the child holds on to the ball and runs back across the field, the heart beats and the ears hear the sound of the wind that blows against them.

And I lie on my bed. It’s now dark outside and it’s raining. I think back to the house that I used to live in, where my family changed and I grew and I changed. I remember it in the rain. The large hedge and the trees would be soaked with rain, and I would go out in the yard and listen to the water drip from the leaves. One day when it rained, our family went away from the house, and my father died, and when the rest of us returned it was still raining. The house couldn’t re-create the smell of his suit or his place in bed next to my mother, but it was a comfort to be home and to be inside. Now I remember it in the rain. And it’s dark in this room. I lie with my ear hard against the mattress; the sound of the game machines is like a battle in the store below. And I think of the eight years that have passed so quickly, wondering if I am now to say certain words, or perform deeds, that will set my future and guarantee my years to come.

And I lie on my bed. And it’s raining outside. And I am alone.

I can hear the cars going by outside, revealed by their engines and the wet streets. There’s a bus coming. As the bus comes up the hill, its engine makes a high whining noise; but as it reaches the top, the engine changes pitch and it becomes a low insistent growl. At times the sound bums, as if to say, “You have no right to stay and hide in your room, to lie and wonder about your past, your future, or of yourself. For there are people on this bus tonight and they, too, have memories of their past and are burdened with their thoughts; they also have left homes along the way. But tonight, now, they are on this bus, to go places: to work, to see people, to be with loved ones, to go to their homes. And maybe then they will go and lie in a dark room just as you have. And they will remember their past and wonder of their future. They may even think of these things now; but if they do, they do so without the luxury of silence and darkness. At this moment they are out and moving, and seeing, and they have only the cold fluorescent light of this bus. And if they are to remember, or wonder, they must choose to ignore those people around them. And that is a difficult thing to do.”

Now the rain has stopped and I stand next to the bench at the side of the street. As the headlights shine on me, the bus slows and pulls to the curb; and as the doors open, I walk up the steps and I see the driver, sitting behind the wheel in a dark comer. I walk down the aisle, beneath the vein of fluorescent light, and make my way toward the back of the bus. The eyes I see don’t welcome me, nor do they question, but they look directly at me to see who it is has gotten on the bus. And I sit on a bench. Not next to anyone; that wouldn’t be right. There are plenty of empty seats. I came on this bus alone, so I sit alone.

And the bus moves on down the street and it’s dark outside. I turn and look out the window but all I see is my own reflection. I see through myself and into the darkness that seems so heavy, a darkness that the lights outside must cut as they move through it. It is easier to turn my head forward so that my reflection is out of view. Now all I see are the lights of the street and the reflection of the bus.

And the bus moves and moves. The lights streak by; the engine whines and it bums in my ear. I wish it would slow down. I wish everything would just slow down. And why am I on this bus tonight? Tell me. I know how to dress and what to wear. I know how to think and how to talk, and how to eat and how to cry and how to love. And not to sit next to anyone, and where my stop is. But please, tell me why I’m on this bus tonight. We’re all so alone. We're alone when we get on this bus and we’re alone when we leave. This bus is nothing more than a waiting room, a lighted room that moves through the night.

And the bus is moving. The scream of the engine sounds in my ear: “Yes, these people on this bus are alone. Alone as you. Each person is alone, always, no matter how many people they arc with or whom they may love. Each couple is two separate people. Together they may form a third entity, but its existence and character is constantly dependent upon each of the individuals. That each one of these people is alone to himself is what makes them all so exactly alike. The warmth on this bus is the kind that only another human being can give, to be near a body that is living and knows what it is to be human. The warmth comes from each person, from their eyes that say. This is me.

I am on this bus tonight.

“But you’ve ignored that, haven’t you? You’ve had your room to yourself and all the warmth that you should need. You have clothes, blankets, a heater, and alcohol. But you’re still cold. You’re cold because you have mistaken being alone for solitude. You have chosen solitude. Fine. It’s yours; but know this: each person is always alone to himself. To separate yourself from others, from their nearness and their warmth — that is to be cold and alone in the worst way. The warmth you need is that of other people, and only other people; the warmth that this bus can give. Without that warmth you must rationalize your own. You must tell yourself that you are as warm as you need to be, that there is warmth in your solitude, that there is a cause and a reason for it, that there is no need for others to be near.

“And at times this is true. Time spent away from others, with oneself, is precious and is necessary. But do not think that this rationalized warmth is easy to stoke and maintain. It is difficult, and the fuel that it burns must be taken from that which is used to warm the deepest parts of your soul. When you can no longer afford to deplete that source, you have only your self-pity to draw from; and that fuel burns so quickly and gives as little warmth as small dry kindling. And when the last of that fuel is finally gone and the fire dies out, the warmth that you have ravaged yourself for will disappear, and you will find yourself colder than if you had never been warm before. You’ll be as cold as if you had never been alive. As if you were dead. And you might as well be.’’

There are only a few of us left on the bus. The rest are gone, and with them, some of the warmth that was here. I watched each of them leave, and I silently wished that each would stay. Some of them looked as though they didn’t want to go. It’s cold outside, and once they leave the bus they are on their own again.

It has taken me twenty-three years to get on this bus tonight. The man toward the front: maybe twice that long. The girl in back: I think not as long as myself. “Listen, girl. It’s not that the man and myself have been wasting our time getting here tonight. It’s just taken us longer. The man has been growing old, and from his expression, he has fought age every year. Myself, it has taken all that I have had to get this far, and at times I have wanted to go no further. But I have made it to tonight and to this bus. I don’t mean to slight you, girl. I honestly don’t know how old you are. I only hope that you are younger than I am, for you can’t be as old as you look. Your body is young but your face seems older. It is beauty. A beauty that is etched on by each day and hardship. It tells in your eyes. I pray it lasts with you, because you have a long way to go yet; we all do. It is good to have you on this bus tonight.”

And the driver leads the bus along the street and through the night.

Only the softest of screams are heard. A young man reaches up and pulls the cord, the bell sounds, and in time the bus comes to a stop. The young man leaves through the side of the bus, and as his hand releases the handle, the door closes behind him. He turns and watches the bus as it passes in front of him. It is empty except for one person, and then another. And as the bus is gone, he shivers because he is cold, and he looks up to the stars, smiles, and starts for home.

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