I didn’t learn to drive until I was thirty. Buses, my feet, and the kindness of friends and family were my modes of transportation. Everyone asked me, “How can you stand it not being able to drive?” I would calmly reply, “How can I miss something I’ve never had?”
One sunny fall day I finally decided to earn my own personal piece of state plastic. Owning that plastic card did not change my perspective on buses; it was possessing that set of keys dropped into my hand by a paunchy, slick-haired salesman with a practiced smile. “It’s just an aquarium on wheels” my father would snort, but I learned confidence, independence, and freedom behind the wheel of my burgundy Pacer. I could go where I wanted to go, when I wanted to go, and I could get more than one bag of groceries at a time. I finally knew what everyone had been talking about all those years. Walking and buses became a memory that compared poorly to four wheels.
A year ago I was hearing those lamentations once again. “How will you survive without a car? I would go crazy! I could never do what you’re doing. No way!” All this deja vu conversation was eerily foreboding. I had no reply this time. I truly knew what I would be missing. I was forty-eight, packing up and moving from the Twin Cities to go to Concordia College in Moorhead. “This is my chance for a new start,” I told my friends and family as I waved good-bye.
My new start returned me to extreme poverty, no car, an apartment with uneven floors, startlingly noisy pipes, parties vibrating the walls, broken blinds, and a dirty laundry room. The Coppertone stove and harvest gold refrigerator seemed to complete the time warp back to the late sixties. I scrubbed, arranged, pounded, organized, displayed, and made it home. I started classes but managed to avoid the bus my first year.
The bus. It represented the final loss of independence and freedom. As I trudged the nine or ten blocks to school, I realized how much I missed squirrels. What I did not miss was being beaten in the face by leaves, lashed by sleet, whipped by wind, coated by snow, and worrying that I had frostbitten some exposed portion of my anatomy on my pilgrimage to knowledge. I survived the mild Minnesota winter. Over the summer, the bus was starting to look good to me, in a lesser-of-two-evils sort of way. Another school year was approaching rapidly. Another winter.
I purchased a semester bus pass. It was the full and final admission of my carlessness.
My first morning at the bus stop behind the public library I arrived early. I am always early. As I came around the corner, I was reminded that the bus stop was across the street from the homeless shelter. Three rumpled gentlemen were settled in on the low brick wall that surrounds the library. They were each sitting or leaning on their duffel bags. None of them gave me eye contact. I didn’t want them to feel uncomfortable, so I asked if the bus had come by yet. The man in the greasy ponytail glanced at my smile from under his cap and said no. His shoulders relaxed as I sat down on the bricks a few feet away from him. Mine slowly relaxed, too. The trees along the boulevard made it a wondrous place to sit on a sunny morning. The grass was lush and damp. The leaves shimmered and whispered. The squirrel entertainment committee performing “Autumn Acorn Madness” took small notice of sedentary humans. Settling into bus-stop-patience came back to me slowly.
I felt guilty for deliberately avoiding the homeless shelter in my walks since I had moved to town. I felt guilty for feeling that prickle of fear when I rounded the corner. How hypocritical. I had been a vagrant and lived on the streets of Anoka the entire summer of 1970. Then I had been afraid of no one. I slept in the park and occasionally on a gracious host’s floor. Hollow hunger. The decadent luxury of sleeping indoors and hot sudsy, showers. I had allowed myself to forget.
I had allowed myself to forget how kind the assorted young rednecks and dopers had been to me. I had been afraid to sleep in the dark. It was safer to sleep in the park by the river during the day and the cops left me alone on bright afternoons. The nights were long. The people of the night were usually high in some form or another, but they watched over me ‘till dawn. Sometimes they even fed me or bought me my own pack of cigarettes. They protected me.All my worldly possessions I carried in my black and white crocheted shoulder bag. I didn’t have a razor, but I had a toothbrush, bar of soap, underpants, an extra T-shirt, pens, and notebooks. Priorities. If I was starting to feel sad, I used to talk to God on paper until I felt like myself again. Then I would tear up our conversation into little pieces and throw it in the trash. No attachments. I had the soul of a flower-child, despite being a Midwestern Swede from the suburbs. The street people called me “the mad-hugger” or “sunshine”. I took care of people on bummers. I cheered sad drunks. I honestly thought I could see that place that shines inside of everyone. Love breathed through my pores. I was fearless.
The straining roar of a bus drew me back from my reverie and to the corner. The small bus squealed to a stop, the door slid open to the left, I flashed my bus card, and I was in. I sat behind a small hunching man with hair slicked straight back and graying at the temples. Just like my dad’s. As the bus bounced and screeched on its way, I noticed that the tag on his shirt was sticking up on the back of his neck. In black magic marker it spelled “Elvin”. Naked evidence of living in a home. Overwhelmed with a tenderness for him, I wanted to tuck in the tag. The flower-child reached over the bus seat bar and tucked in the tag. Elvin turned around and stated defiantly, “I’m God.”
I didn’t quite believe my ears. “Pardon?” I asked as I leaned forward to catch his words over the bus whine.
“I’m God,” Elvin dared. The gnarled face held flashing eyes and his lips were crushed into a thin line of defiance.
A warmth spread over me. A warmth that lifts your soul like greeting a long-lost friend...where joy stings your eyes and love chokes your throat. And my heart’s eye opened wide and beheld that place that shines.
“I am honored to meet you,” I told him...softly...from the bottom of my flower-child soul.