I was reading on the bus this morning, a Metro Transit bus. A big black woman, dressed all in black but rather nicely I thought, sat down next to me and I was unsure whether I heard her say to me “how you doin’?” I looked up, but her face was turned away from me as she tried to fit herself into the seat. Maybe she had addressed someone across the aisle or in the seat ahead or behind, but I said “good” in a very low voice that would be audible if she was listening for it but would only fade into the city traffic noise if indeed she had not been talking to me.
Then she began telling me how difficult it had been for her, gettin’ up and down those Greyhound bus steps.
I instantly brightened. I admit that I have stereotypes — prejudices if you will — about black people. (I don’t like the euphemism “African Americans” for blacks any more than I like Native Americans for Indians, because African Americans are not usually Africans and I myself am a native American.) Seattle is not a place where people say bigoted things. Rather the opposite. We say a lot of unbigoted things, but the truth is, neighborhoods of color are different, and in different parts of town, than neighborhoods of non-color (our North Seattle street has several black households, including our neighbor, but I think that’s remarkable). So I don’t currently know many black folks.
Anyway, my stereotype about large black southern women is that they are characters and that they say what’s on their minds. I folded my book and said, “You just got off a Greyhound? Where’d you come in from?”
“Georgia,” she said. Then she told me all about how she had to get up and down out of a Greyhound bus seven times during the three-day trip, to transfer from one bus to another. She was here to visit her children. She had been here before. I think she said she’d lived here for a spell, and she said Georgia was hot right now. Very hot.
“The woman next to me kept talking and talking,” she said. “She kept talking until I finally said ‘Will you please be quiet? I bought a ticket so I could sleep, not listen to someone talking!'”
I tried to picture her actually saying this to some poor lonely windbag, and wondered if she just remembered wishing she had said it. We only had two stops before I had to “alight” (I”m going to blog about that word sometime), so I didn’t get to hear any more of her story, but I wished her a pleasant stay.
Two things stand out that fortify stereotypes I already have, yes about black women but more about southerners, or rather people not from Seattle. This woman was dressed very nicely, and my impression is that east of the Mississippi, and especially in the South, you don’t go out in public wearing your gardening clothes. I often wear what I call man-pants and man-shoes to work, but happened today to be wearing jeans and sandals, and I was untucked to boot.
The other thing was that she did not hesitate to greet a stranger. A stranger engrossed in a book. That’s something I really admire. My wife is from St. Louis, and like many who have relocated to Seattle she has observed that natives of the Emerald City (I am one) are polite — pathologically so in freeway merge situations — but you can live here ten years and still not have any close friends. No one invites you to join their group. We’re friendly in a shallow way, and hard to get to know. Mainly we don’t want to be bothered. And no one talks to each other on the bus (unless it’s a Snow Day or the driver misses a turn). Initiating a conversation on the bus, any Seattle bus commuter knows, is a cultural misdemeanor.
The bus ridership can be divided into three groups — and let’s give them colorful labels: say, “books” for the readers (we’ll throw the laptop users in with them), “poddies” for those plugged into some audio device, and for those undiverted, what… “Slicks”? “Neats”? I’m a book, mostly, but only because there are so many poddies and so few neats. I have met a few people at my bus stop and one or two on the bus itself (met Tim C. on the bus [see Worm bin Jedi]), but it’s rare.
Sometimes I get the urge to just stand up in the aisle and yell, “who wants to play a word game?”, but the poddies wouldn’t hear, the books would be irritated, and the neats, sensing trouble, might look out the window and let me burn. I’d have to switch routes or take a later bus after such a pillorying.
If fifty people comment on this blog that I should do it, I’ll do it. But in the meantime I’m grateful for out-of-towners like that Georgia peach that sat down next to me today and interrupted my read. I guess it wouldn’t be outrageous for me to follow her lead, turn to a nearby neat and ask “how you doin’?”