*During my ten years as a feature columnist, there have those experiences which have been the subject of my prose that stand out as unforgettable. This piece was recently mentioned to me by someone who sent me an email about the stories I’ve written which have resonated with her in an indelible way. It’s a story she said bares an encore. I agree.
I sometimes take the Metro Rapid bus to work. It’s my contribution toward reducing my carbon imprint on the planet. It remains a waffling choice because I have a foreign luxury car that I love to drive and look good driving.
At a stop along the route, three young African-American men got on the bus. Or rather they swaggered onto the bus.
The third of the trio was a particularly tall and lankly young man whose intense gaze prompted you to look the other way to avoid any possibility of engagement. He had a bold stance and inflated shoulders. His hair was tall and a bit disheveled. His white T-shirt was the shade of ecru. His sagging jeans were clearly missing a belt and exposing his Polo undershorts.
He dropped his money into the fare box with an animated gesture and quickly navigated his way past a man in a wheelchair to get to an empty seat next to his friends.
The bus driver motioned and said, “Excuse me young man. I need you to come back. Your fare is short by a quarter.”
The young man froze in his steps, pivoted and headed back to the front of bus with measured and precise steps. He stood face to face with the bus driver, motionless, speechless with his eyes as wide as a deer in headlights.
“Go ahead,” urged the bus driver in coaxing tone. “Ask someone to help you out by giving you a quarter.”
The young man slowly turned his head toward the passengers on the bus, his eyes searching to-and-fro defiantly, yet helplessly. His silent petition for a lifeline was deafening. Was anyone listening?
A middle age gentleman buried his face further into the newspaper he was reading. A young mother began an impromptu game of patty-cake with her toddlers. The old man in the wheel chair abruptly looked away. His friends began to laugh and clown with a sense of revelry at their comrade’s plight.
The young man was visibly suspended, unable to move, gripped by uncertainty. What was he going to do? Would anybody come to his rescue? He was at the mercy of complete strangers.
“I have quarter,” I said raising my hand for him to see.
His eyes jetted left as he strained to focus on who had spoken. He stared into my eyes with a wrinkled, questioning brow.
“No worries, come and get it,” I said reassuringly.
With his hands in his pockets, the young man sauntered deliberately toward me. He turned his head from side to side, peering into the faces of each rider has he passed by them. But no one looked up.
He stopped nervously in front of me and stretched out his hand.
I paused, waiting for him to say something – maybe thank you ma’am. Others on the bus waited for him to say something too. But he didn’t say a single word.
I placed the shiny quarter in his spindly hand. His wrinkled brow softened. His eyes glistened. He turned around and feverishly headed back to fare box and dropped in the quarter. His shoulders relaxed as the quarter clanked inside the chamber. The bus driver said, “Thank you,” and the young man took a seat and sat quietly next to his friends.
“What an ungrateful little bas***d,” I could sense was the sentiment among many on the bus. For a spit second, that was mine sentiment too. But I remembered what my 8th grade teacher said to me during a moment in which I was particularly critical of a student for not showing any gratitude to me for helping them with a project they were having difficulty with. She said, “When we help others it is always a teachable moment. And whether we are the student or the instructor we have an opportunity to learn something about ourselves and learn something about the condition of others.” This was one of those moments.
As the young man and his friends got of the bus at their stop, he paused, turned and looked at me with what now seemed like the eyes of a child instead of hardened young man. I smiled at him. He didn’t return the smile. But he didn’t have to. His final gaze said it all.
(Veronica Hendrix is a syndicated columnist and feature writer whose work has covered the span of the human continuum – from clinical trials of male contraceptives, to the gang violence. For comments, interviews, speaking engagements or moderator requests please send an email to [email protected].)