I planned to ride the metro. But the bus came along first.
Settling into my seat, the quiet of the morning commute was interrupted when from the back a twenty-something-year-old man bellowed, “Your ass better be going to [expletive] school,” to a younger acquaintance.
As a veteran bus rider, I knew this could go a number of ways. This one ended up in a friendly embrace.
As fortune would have it, I yielded my usual seat near the driver to an elderly woman and relocated to the back of the bus. A couple of seats away, the two guys were huddled over the older youth’s cell phone.
Their attention, according to the loud and vulgar banter, focused on pictures of his alleged sexual conquests. Sadly, it too often seems the norm for many young people to display a lack of decorum on public transportation. Even sadder, I was not alone, judging by the number of people glancing in their direction with a mixture of disgust, annoyance and resignation—many quickly slipping on headphones.
This encounter brought to mind an earlier time when I was surrounded by high school kids at the back of a bus. But that time, the attitudes were different: Their display of mutual respect for themselves and of us around them was remarkable. As one boy stood to leave, his classmate bid him good-luck studying for an upcoming exam, closing with further encouragement: “You got this!”
I had to ask, “What school do you attend?”
“Duke Ellington School of the Arts,” they replied.
The following day, I called the school’s principal to share what I experienced, and that it was a delight to see students offering each other positive encouragement and re-enforcement.
But at the back of the bus with the two crude youth, this would not be one of those experiences.
Tempting as it was to make a digital escape from my fellow traveler’s ignorance, I couldn’t. It was astounding his raunchy and detailed storytelling. Unabated despite the presence of young and old, men and women. Perplexed, I wondered how he could weave a tale so callously mocking his sexual partners, their children, the fathers of those children, all while simultaneously gushing so proudly about loving his own daughter so much.
Unable to runway from his lunacy, I was drawn closer to this young man. How could he? Why would he? “Knock it off!” I wanted to scream it! “Have some self-respect, if you can’t have any for folks around you.” I wanted to know if how he’d feel if someone spoke about his daughter, his baby’s mother, or himself, that way? But I didn’t.
What good would it do? He obviously doesn’t care about himself, or else he wouldn’t behave this way. You can’t respect others if you don’t respect yourself. Love outward starts with loving inward. Self-hate and loathing eventually turns toward others. It was foolish to think he would consider us, perfect strangers, if he carried such animus for people he already knew, especially in the most intimate ways. Speaking up would be pointless.
But I said nothing, mostly because I was scared. From the moment I became aware of his being, he displayed nothing but anti-social behavior. Who knew how he would respond? I had a suit on, and wasn’t looking for a fistfight. I use my mind. Plus, I had to get to work. I had schoolwork to complete, kids to raise, a wife to love and a life worth living. Dealing with this man and his unpredictability was not what I needed.
So, I just sat there. Annoyed, offended, intrigued, all the while enduring the uncomfortable eye contact with my fellow commuters. Eventually his buddy exited the bus, but he continued oversharing with the rest of us by making a phone call.
I learned a couple factoids about this young man, which shaped the biographical sketch developing in my mind.
He didn’t finish high school. He was on his way to work. He’s spent time in jail. His daughter, whom he adored was 16-months-old and the darling of his Facebook feed. He split with her mother less than amicably not long after birth; she received public assistance and was in an abusive relationship that also threatened his daughter’s safety. I know people like him; I call some family; That life is foreign, yet sadly familiar.
On his last point regarding the safety of his daughter, the man described an incident the previous weekend with the “new boyfriend” that would have resulted in gunfire if his weapon was handy. A deadly confrontation, for which he was preparing, was inevitable. It would send him away “for the rest” of his life, but he wanted his daughter to know his side of the family before he acted.
Attempting to rationalize his decision, he argued there could be no choice, the other man had threatened his daughter and disrespected him. He had no option but to retaliate and would wait patiently for the opportunity to do so.
“Ain’t nothing you can tell me,” he said. “You’re a mom, I’m a dad. This is what we have to do, I got no choice.”
The damn of fear broke in me.
I couldn’t hold back.
“There’s something I can tell you,” I said.
“Oh yeah,” he responded. “Hold on I got someone here on the bus who thinks they can school me. What you go to say.” He said it to me with a look of distain.
I didn’t care. He had to know.
I spoke in a slow, respectful tone. “Right now you have the choice to positively contribute to your daughter’s life,” I told him. “You are in control of your actions, your future and the direction of your daughter’s future. What you do or do not do will affect the outcome of her life. You seem to love and care about her, you seem interested in her future well-being, regardless of your relationship with her mom. You are in control and if you do what you say you’re going to do your daughters future will diminish greatly.”
He started to interrupt me. I interrupted him, “I and everyone on this bus have been listening to you for the last 20 minutes. Give me a couple more.”
Continuing, I told him that if he pulled that trigger not only would he take another life, waste his in a jail cell, but he would also kill any hope his daughter has for brighter future.
He accepted my words and thanked me for offering them several times before exiting the bus. Before he left I gave him my number and asked him to call if he wanted to talk.
I don’t know his name or know if he will accept my offer. I hope he does.
In the end, I spoke because a life, literally, was at stake. I could not in good conscious let this pass without doing what I could to prevent a homicide. Whether he was blustering or lust for blood, I was obligated to at least say something.
However, his reckless behavior warranted a response long before the moment of opening my mouth. Disappointed with myself, the fellow riders, the bus driver, someone could and should have spoken up the first time he uttered a foul word. Yet, no one did.
I will continue to wrestle with this experience for a while, but one take-away is that we live in communities with norms that we collectively set, accept, tolerate or ignore.
There is too much to unpack in a single piece, but I trust that we are building a fellowship and ongoing conversation that will allow us to be better for ourselves and each other.
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