God at the bus stop

When my kids were small — preschool and toddlerish — a sixtysomething man introduced himself to the three of us at a bus stop. His name was Emmanuel, a name I knew I’d remember  because of its beautiful meaning: God with us.

Emmauel told me that he looked out for our family. A few months earlier, he had met Bus Nerd — or, as he called him, “Detroit” — at the park, through a mutual friend who is widely admired in the community. Any friends of such a stellar human were OK in Emmanuel’s book. So, when he saw us around the neighborhood, he kept his eye out. Made sure we were OK.

Emmanuel and I talked for several minutes (periodically interrupted by the tugging and whining of my bored children) while we waited —  about books, and city history, and parenthood. But when the 14 finally arrived, he didn’t board with us. Instead, he waved goodbye and headed the opposite way down the street.

After that day, as often happens after I make a bus friend, I started seeing Emmanuel everywhere: at the library, the pharmacy, the community center, the park. Every time, he was happy to see me, like we were old friends. Every time, he was full of questions and observations and ideas, ready to continue our conversation where we had left it.

A couple of years into our street friendship, Emmanuel’s appearance started to change. He grew thinner. He lost teeth. His skin started to sag. One day, on my walk home from work, I came across an apparently homeless man holding a sign at an intersection. It wasn’t until I approached him with a small offering that I realized it was Emmanuel, thinner and more ragged than ever. He tried to preempt any questions by saying he was having a tough month and waiting on a delayed check. I went along with the pretense of lending him a few bucks until his check came through.

After that day, I continued to see Emmanuel around the neighborhood, but instead of holding court in front of the library, I would find him holding a sign on the side of the road. After that first time, it got easier for both of us. We returned to our friendly conversations.

On one of my chance encounters with Emmanuel, I was with the mutual friend who had introduced him to Bus Nerd. That friend told me he had known Emmanuel for almost 50 years, since his days as a student at the University of Washington. They had been part of the small group of student activists that had founded the university’s Black Student Union. Emmanuel’s passion and intelligence had helped inspire our friend to devote his life to public service.

These insights into a man I knew only superficially reinforced so many truths. That our circumstances and choices and predispositions and the systems we are subjected to all work together to create our life path. That when we’re young and passionate and full of potential, we are not able to predict — or sometimes even imagine — the paths our lives ultimately end up taking. That our soulless, unforgiving, profit-driven culture routinely breaks people. And that, even now, in this future he did not imagine for himself, Emmanuel is still inspiring people.

Emmanuel. God with us.

Eastbound 14, 2:30 PM

A couple is having a — ahem! — personal argument in the back corner of the bus.

Woman: “It only lasted one minute. I’m going to start calling you Minute Man.” She scoots forward in her seat and begins to shout. “Minute Man! Minute Man!”

Man: “Come on! It was at least three.”

I spent three days on an island with no cars

In late June, after SPS finally released its hostages for the summer, our family made its annual pilgrimage to Bus Nerd’s hometown of Detroit. In the past, our visits have mostly been confined to Detroit proper and its nearby suburbs, but this year, at my insistence, we ventured out a bit.

I had been dying to visit Mackinac Island, a small island in Lake Huron between Michigan’s mainland and its Upper Peninsula, ever since I learned of its existence a few years ago. Because of its beautiful setting, old-fashioned vibe (think quaint Victorian village), and preponderance of fudge shops, Mackinac draws a lot of tourists — almost a million every year. Under ordinary circumstances, I would not be eager to visit a crowded island that bills itself as an homage to a “bygone era”* and boasts a giant military fort (complete with regularly firing cannons) as one of its main attractions. But in this case, the circumstances were not at all ordinary: Mackinac Island does not allow cars. (!!!)

When “horseless carriages” came on the scene in the late 19th century, Mackinac was already a popular tourist destination. Residents did not appreciate the presence of motorized vehicles on their lovely island; they were noisy and dangerous, scared the horses, and generally disturbed the peace. So, in 1898, the municipality formally banned automobiles. The ban remains in effect today.

The idea of experiencing life without cars, even in a somewhat contrived setting (and despite the irony that I had to ride in a car to get there), was too compelling to pass up. So I dragged my crew all the way up there for a three-day visit.

And, what a beautiful three days!

To my children’s delight, there are still plenty of horses on Mackinac. They pull the “cabs” and sightseeing carriages that ferry tourists and also do the bulk of the hauling and delivery. But bikes are the most common form of transportation on the island. Bikes are everywhere: available for rent by the thousands, parked in front of every business, covering porches, filling the streets. It is amazing.

One of the most striking things about Mackinac was the quiet. Without the constant roar of traffic, you could hear the sounds of people. There was a band playing at the public park near the ferry dock on the evening we arrived, and the sound carried all over town. The quiet also allowed us to enjoy the near-constant clip-clopping of horse hooves.

Our first morning on the island, we got up early and biked around its perimeter on M-185, the only US highway where motor vehicles are banned.

M-185 (aka best highway ever), very early in the morning

One of the recently installed markers on M-185 commemorating many thousands of years of Native history on Mackinac

I don’t have the right words to describe how it felt to just ride, without the fear, without the constant vigilance. I never had to worry about a car crossing the center line, or following too closely, or turning into us in an intersection. In other words, I never had to worry about dying (any more than I usually do, that is) in the course of my travels. Instead, I focused on the beauty of the island, the feel of the wind on my face, the pleasure of zooming along under my own power. The kids loved it, too. They never had to get off their bikes to cross a road or look and look and look and listen and then tiptoe past the parked cars and look again. All of us rode freely and with total joy.

After that first ride, I was desperate to get back on a bike ASAP. We spent more than we should have on bike rentals, because I could not get enough of that feeling of freedom and exhilaration. On our second rental, I even let Busling convince me to skip the helmets, since, as he pointed out, we were the only people on the entire island he’d seen wearing them.

Couldn’t stop grinning, even before I agreed to ditch the dorky, ill-fitting rental helmet

Those few joyous rides made me realize that I had never, not a single time in my 45 years on this planet, ridden a bike without worrying about encountering a car.** And they reinforced the fact that what stops me from riding more often when I’m at home is not helmets or rain or even hills; it is the absence of a safe place to do it.

Since we’ve been back in Seattle, I’ve done it anyway, finally fulfilling the promise I made to myself back in 2016. We replaced the kids’ old bikes with bigger ones (with gears and hand brakes!) and so far have ridden almost every day this month. Sometimes it’s just in circles at our local park, but sometimes, it’s to actual destinations. We’ve ridden to church on the Greenway two weeks in a row and have made several bike-based grocery runs.

I know I won’t be able to recapture that feeling I had on Mackinac. I also know that transportation infrastructure in cities that exist for reasons other than recreation will necessarily be very different from transportation infrastructure on a vacation island. Still, Mackinac Island has a lot to teach us about how to make our cities more livable for all. In addition to pretty postcards, I brought home with me a commitment to be part of a culture change that will lead to more safety and freedom in the “real” world.

See you in the streets! (Actually, probably on the sidewalk.)

***

* Those of us whose oppression is inextricably linked to those bygone days tend not to romanticize them. The current situation is bad enough.

** There were a few times when one of my parents put bikes on (or in) the car and transported them to a recreational path, but don’t count those.

This planet is their home

“We cannot separate our children from the ills that affect everyone, however hard we try.” – Erica Jong

People often ask me how my decision to live without a car affects my children. Usually, I respond with my standard spiel about how we’re able to do all the stuff other families do (blah, blah, blah), because for the most part, it’s true — and because what usually underlies these questions is an assumption that I am shortchanging my kids, that I have sacrificed their birthright of a middle-class lifestyle in service of some extreme and unrealistic ideology.

The thing is, in a way, I have.

I look around and see friends and acquaintances driving their kids to water parks and on camping adventures and to premiere athletic competitions and to schools that are perfectly suited to their needs and temperaments. I see them participating in kid-focused organizations we would likely join if we owned a car. And sometimes, it feels like I am shortchanging them. Certainly, our life choices limit their access to opportunities many of their peers enjoy.

And then I remember that my children are not deprived in any of the ways that matter. They are loved. They are housed. They have access to fresh food, clean water, health care, and unlimited books (thank you, Seattle Public Library). They participate in sports and study the arts and play outside safely in their own neighborhood. And they see their beloved extended family regularly, if not as often as they (or I) would like.

Yes, their lives are constrained in some ways, but all kids’ lives are constrained by their parents’ values and circumstances. (Just ask my dad, a talented athlete who was prohibited from participating in most school sports because the games conflicted with his family’s religious observances.) And far more important than the minor, parentally imposed constraints they currently deal with are the very real threats to their future — climate change, extreme inequality, political instability — which are primarily the result of the very lifestyle they have been deprived of.

At some point, we have to acknowledge that what our culture values and prioritizes isn’t actually good for our children — or, for that matter anyone else who’s trying to survive on this planet. We can continue to participate, or we can choose a different path, however impractical or unrealistic.

Several weeks ago, I came across this beautiful essay by Nicole Bradford, a mother of three whose husband is facing years in prison for participating in direct action efforts to stop fossil fuel extraction. Nicole’s insights are a gift, because they remind us of what we truly owe our — and everyone’s — children.

The accelerating instability of our earth is clarifying. And the act of rising to the enormity of what’s in front of us magnifies the commitment I made to them, when painfully, in love and toil, I brought them to this world.

I know that to use their youth as an excuse to not engage in this struggle would be to betray their existence. Together we are fighting for something all children on earth should be entitled to: a livable planet. And for Ben and me, the work of it becomes its own love story–to each other, and to our children.

Certainly, my family’s “sacrifice” (such as it is) cannot be compared to the Bradfords’ courageous stand. It’s difficult to even argue that our transportation choices are making any kind of difference — in the health of our planet or in our culture. But while the effectiveness of our resistance might be up for debate, the need for it is not.

Working for a healthy, peaceful, just planet does not conflict with our role as parents. On the contrary, it is the most important part of our job. We don’t owe our children fancy camps, or a perfectly curated school experience, or a spot on the best premiere soccer team. We owe them a future. We owe them a life.

 

Westbound 4, 10:20 AM

A thirtysomething man finds a seat near the door, directly in front of an elderly woman in a wheelchair.

Woman: “Good morning. How are you?”

Man: “Somebody took my wallet.”

Woman: “At least you had one for somebody to take.”

HBE, D, and me

Dear D,

I don’t know you, but we share a son. I realize it is presumptuous of me to say this, since you never willingly shared him, and since he was never really mine — or for that matter, anyone’s. He came into this world belonging to himself, a little light from God shining through so much darkness. I was his mama for such a short time. But then again, so were you. Except you will be his mama for eternity. He is from you. Of you. There is that.

I don’t know you, but I know what it’s like to grow a person in your body. I know the depth of that connection. I know the crushing weight of that love.

I know what it’s like to be desperate. To be so empty inside that you are simply unable to do what needs doing. To feel your own pain so deeply that you don’t have room for other people’s needs.

D, I don’t know you, but I know what it’s like to lose a child. Your child, as a matter of fact. I won’t claim my loss is the same as yours, because it is impossible to know what all of this feels like for you. But I can tell you what it feels like for me. There is an emptiness, a small space inside that can’t be filled. It aches and it tugs and it searches every moment of every day.

I know what it’s like to face down dread, to do more than you thought you were capable of  — for love. The day I met you, you had done just that: conquered fears and demons and risked your own freedom to show up for your — our — son.

That day, I noticed you are left-handed. Like me. Like him. It reminded me that all of his beautiful qualities — his dimples, his perfect skin, his gentleness — came from somewhere. Many of them came from you.

Your sister is our son’s mother now. She is the mama who planned the celebration of his fourth birthday, which, as you well know, was last Thursday. (Maybe you were there?) She is the mama who fixes breakfasts and bandages booboos and schedules appointments and snuggles in for stories. Unlike me, she is a blood relative. Unlike you, she is available.

Your sister doesn’t keep in touch (and maybe that’s for the best), so I don’t know how he’s doing. I also don’t know how you’re doing. Like I said, D, I don’t know you.

But we share a son.

What will happen if I don’t?

Last Friday, on a Portland light rail train, a white supremacist verbally abused and threatened two nonwhite teenage girls (one of whom was wearing a hijab) and then stabbed three men who tried to intervene, killing two of them.

Since I first learned about this horrific incident, I haven’t been able to think of much else.

For me, public transportation is a space to feel and be a part of my community. And a crowded train in broad daylight is one of the safest places I can imagine. I am not naïve. I know that sharing space with others isn’t always easy or pleasant and that transit reflects all of who we are, including our ugliness. What happened in Portland last week was a reminder that the ugliness can surface at any time, even in broad daylight on a crowded train.

When I was in my teens and early twenties, I endured near constant harassment by grown men — on transit trips and otherwise. And, like every person of color in this country, I have experienced my share of name-calling and other forms of direct, in-your-face racism. I know that feeling of vulnerability, the stress of staying vigilant and alert for the entirety of every outing, so I can easily imagine the fear, rage, and humiliation those young women felt when an unhinged stranger loomed over them spewing hate.

I can also imagine what it felt like to be on the train when the incident happened. I understand the desire to turn away from conflict or confrontation, especially if you are personally vulnerable. Rachel Macy, a passenger on that devastating ride, described her initial fear in an interview with The Oregonian.

“I didn’t want to look. I was too afraid. It felt really tense,” said the 45-year-old Southeast Portland resident of Native American descent. “I’m a woman of color. I didn’t want him to notice me.”

She found her courage a short time later, when she rushed to the aid of one of the victims and comforted him in his last moments of life.

Of course, the perceived threat was not the same for the men who did step in. Most likely, they did not imagine that the encounter would end their lives. But certainly, it would have been easier to look away, to turn up their headphones, to wait for someone else to help.

Those men did not turn away. And their decision to act with compassion and decency did end their lives.

What happened to these brave people should not be a cautionary tale; it should be a call to action. We cannot turn away from the evil that is happening around us — in our schools or workplaces or in the adjacent aisle on the train. We must stand and face it. We must defend the dignity of our fellow humans. Standing up might risk our lives, but it will save our souls.

Thank you, Ricky John Best, Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, and Micah David-Cole Fletcher.

“The question is not, ‘if stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ The question is, ‘if I do not stop to help [the man] what will happen to him?’” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Parable of the Good Samaritan

On poems and pipelines (or, We are water, part II)

You might already know that I am a fan of Poetry on Buses. I’ve loved the program in all of its incarnations, but the post-2014 version is the best yet. The 2016/17 theme, “Your Body of Water,” was so timely and compelling, it motivated me to sit my non-poetic self down, write an actual poem, and submit it. I am so glad I did.

Last month, I had the privilege of reading that poem at the Poetry on Buses launch party at the Moore Theater. WOW. What a powerful celebration of art, community, and LIFE!

There were “poetry buses” parked outside the theater, where attendees could read and listen to recordings of some of the selected poems. In the lobby, there were more poems, as well as an interactive display where people could pledge to protect water. (I didn’t actually visit that display; I was too focused on being nervous about my reading.)

The poems read onstage were presented in four phases to evoke the water cycle, with the Native Jazz Quartet improvising beautiful water sounds between readings. Several local artists also performed, including the incomparable writer/rider/rapper, Gabriel Teodros, who just so happens to be my bus friend from the 48.

A poetry bus! (photo credit: 4Culture)

Poets (including me) onstage during the “evaporation” phase (photo credit: King County Metro)

The entire evening was masterminded by poet planner Jourdan Keith, whose mission in life is to remind us that “we are all bodies of water, connected to other bodies of water.” If there were ever a time when it was critical for us to understand this, it is now.

In her sobering 2010 Ted talk, Jourdan asks, “If you know you are a water body: capillaries, creeks, streams and rivers, containing runoff from farms, rooftops, airports, and driveways — your bladder, an estuary. If you knew you were as contaminated as Puget Sound, or the Orcas that swim in our waters, what would you do?”

This is the question we must urgently ask ourselves, as greed and disregard for life threaten the water all of us depend on – in Flint and Evart, Michigan; in Louisiana, New York, and North Dakota; and right here in Puget Sound.

Right now, Kinder Morgan is preparing to build a pipeline from the Alberta Tar Sands to the Pacific Coast in British Columbia. Known as the Transmountain Expansion, it will be the second pipeline to travel this route, with more capacity than the original. The project was approved by Prime Minister Trudeau late last year, and if built, will increase tanker traffic in the Salish Sea sevenfold, further stressing our endangered Orca population and dramatically increasing the chances of a major oil spill.

And so much is at risk if the pipeline itself leaks, which they all eventually do. Thank God there are people with the courage to resist.

Would we allow rapacious, profit-driven corporations to threaten our water if we understood that they are also threatening our lives? If we understood that the damage we inflict upon the planet shows up in our bodies? I am not confident of the answer, but I am grateful to Jourdan Keith and Poetry on Buses for reminding us of what is at stake.

Over 300 poems about our connectedness — to water and to each other — will be displayed on buses and trains throughout King County until this time next year. I hope they will inspire you to keep riding.

Guerrilla driver appreciation

Yesterday, a local public radio station aired a story about the Seattle roots of Bus Driver Appreciation Day (now known to everyone except me as Transit Driver Appreciation Day). Eight years after Hans Gerwitz first proposed the idea, the day is celebrated across the US and even in a few other countries. Honoring the work of bus drivers is not a tough sell.

But the thing is, pronouncing one’s appreciation for bus drivers is not the same as showing appreciation. And it’s actually pretty hard to figure out how to do something nice for a bus driver. Every March, there’s a flurry of social media action and lots of official acknowledgement; a number of municipalities have even issued proclamations. But very little of that professed appreciation actually trickles down to drivers. Most of the time, we riders come in contact with them while they’re doing they’re difficult, demanding jobs, so there isn’t time for much more than an enthusiastic, “Thanks for the ride!”

This year, I was determined to do something a bit more meaningful. So, I found an energetic and enthusiastic partner — my friend Myesha, who also happens to be a licensed massage therapist — and the two of us spent a decent chunk of this rainy holiday parked (under a borrowed pop-up tent) at Mount Baker Transit Center, offering drivers on layover free chair massages.* We figured, given the nature of their work, they probably have their share of aches and pains.

I’m not sure how many massages Myesha did today, but I’m guessing it was fewer than a dozen. Most of the massages were shorter than we would have liked, because the drivers had only a few minutes of free time. Still, I hope we brought some joy (and relief) to the drivers who took us up on our offer. We certainly enjoyed the time we spent with them.

Now that I’ve gotten my feet wet, I’m ready to build on the momentum. Fellow bus chicks, let’s make BDAD/TDAD 2018 the best, most creative, most love-filled, most driver-pleasing holiday ever. Let’s work with agencies and with other riders to come up with delightful surprises that do more than pay lip service to our appreciation. Next year, let’s really do this.

Who’s with me?

***

* Since I wasn’t giving the massages, I was the official Bus Driver Thanker. I also kept track of the time, so that everyone made it back to their vehicle on schedule.

A February adventure, Bus Fam style

On Saturday, my crew took a transit trip to the Tacoma Musical Playhouse. We rode three routes on three different systems: the 14 (King County Metro) from our neighborhood to downtown Seattle, the 594 (Sound Transit) from downtown Seattle to downtown Tacoma, and the 1 (Pierce Transit) from downtown Tacoma to the theater. It was a two-hour trip, including walks and waits. Good thing we had our books, cubes, and snacks packed and our adventure hats on.

Even though we ride the 14 regularly, there is something about traveling during “off” hours that makes it more fun. When buses are less crowded, drivers are more relaxed, and there is a solidarity and camaraderie among passengers that leads to conversations — and frequent bus-wide discussions. Our early Saturday morning 14 was one of those special rides, and it put us in just the right frame of mind to enjoy the rest of the day.

The 594 was exciting for Chicklet and Busling, who are used to city buses and did not know what to make of a Sound Transit commuter vehicle. When I showed them that their seats could recline, they just about fell out.

The 1 ride to the theater was a 30-minute trip down Tacoma’s busy 6th Avenue. Who needs expensive vacations when you can take the bus through a neighboring city? It was fun to notice the differences : the velvety bus seats (which are easier to ride on because they are not slippery but which kind of freak me out because I once read that they’re teeming with scary bacteria), the location-specific bus ads, and the shops and other sights.

It was also pretty amusing to experience all the things that were the same. There was the bus breakdown. Two stops into our first 1 ride, our driver had to “switch coaches” because of an unexplained mechanical problem. There was the Inappropriate Questioner — this time, a middle-aged white woman who yelled across the aisle to a young, light-skinned black man that he looked just like Gregory Hines (he didn’t) and then proceeded to interrogate him about his knowledge of the famous dancer. There was the Manspreader (in his defense, the bus was half empty, so he wasn’t actually encroaching on anyone), who spent the better part of the ride scratching his back with a butter knife. And, at the stop where we got off, which is a half block off of one of Tacoma’s busiest streets, there was this.

Different city, same bus problems. Exhibit D: junk blocking the sidewalk.

Despite the minor setbacks, we arrived at the theater with plenty of time for a stop at the restroom (which had a chaise!) and a little exploring before the show started.

And about that show…

And now, perhaps, you understand my motivation to travel all the way to Tacoma to watch a “family musical.” The show was absolutely wonderful and somehow managed to please all four of us. Not only was it historically accurate — it even included the story of Claudette Colvin and dispelled many myths about Parks’ life — but it was also entertaining and incredibly inspiring.

We tend to see history’s heroes (and sheroes) as Chosen Ones, special people who embrace their destiny as our saviors. The truth is, heroes are almost always regular folks with families and fears and bills to pay. This was certainly true of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, E.D. Nixon, Joanne Robinson, Virginia Durr, and the countless unrecognized people who risked and sacrificed for 381 days.

Their resistance was radical and dangerous. They faced violence from terrorists and from those who were sworn to protect them from terrorists. They had no reason to believe that their boycott would be successful, and they had every reason to believe that tremendous harm would come to their families if they continued. Yet day after day, setback after setback, they faced down their fear and doubt and chose to act with hope and courage. Their example is an enduring reminder that justice is not inevitable. It requires struggle. It requires us to persist in moments when it would be far easier not to.

I am grateful to Sue Greenberg and the Tacoma Musical Playhouse for bringing this beautiful struggle to life for my family.

And speaking of family…

My other motivation for a bus adventure to Tacoma was (and will remain) my hilarious, adorable three-year old niece, HD. After the show, HD and her mama met us for lunch at a fun burger joint near Wright Park — another 1 ride in the opposite direction. They also took us on a tour of Stadium High School (which is a short walk from the restaurant), so my Harry Potter-obsessed children could pretend they were visiting Hogwarts.

Coolest high school ever

Stadium’s stadium

After our rainy tour, we decided to continue our sightseeing on foot. We said goodbye to our guides and walked the mile to the nearest 594 stop. Then we headed back north, spending most of the ride napping contentedly in our reclining seats.

Sure, our excursion had its share of wet socks, waiting, and whining (mostly, in the form of begging for treats at the theater), but those irritations will be quickly forgotten. What we will remember about our February Tacoma adventure is that it stimulated our curiosity and imagination, fortified our courage, and connected us with our family and community. In my book, that’s as close to perfect as an adventure can get.