On riding while white.

Wilkens Avenue BaltimoreWilkens Avenue: Longest Block in Baltimore. Photo by A. Aubrey Bodine, 1955.

Route 35. Destination: You Emm Bee See. Thank you for riding MTA.

I know, I lived with that stupid bitch! Oh, god. No. There better not be any children from that union. That kid would be a crack addict by the age of six.

I strained to listen, fascinated by the humanity surrounding me. It’s this way every time I ride the bus in Baltimore. In this case, the #35 down Wilkens Avenue to the UMBC campus. Was this way in Seattle, too, but different. In Seattle, the bus-riding demographic is more egalitarian. Poor people ride the bus, but so do wealthier ones. Definitely more white people do. Hell, there’s free wi-fi on the buses in Seattle; all those Microsofties have to get across Lake Washington. You can take your well-behaved dogs, too. As long as they pay full fare.

But when I ride the bus in Baltimore, I am, more often than not, the only white person among a sea of brown. And when there is another white person on the bus, I’m the only white person with all my teeth and no drug addiction (enough with the fucking War on Drugs already).

I love public transportation for this reason: It’s the great equalizer. It’s the one place – a sort of suspended time and animation – where you’re forced into close proximity with others very different from yourself. It’s a place where, if you listen and you’re open-minded enough, one can practice empathy. Riding the bus a mile in another’s shoes is almost the same as walking one.

It’s funny how riding a bus is really a lot like riding an airplane. Only on an airplane, you’re transported to a different place. You don’t experience it until you get there. But when you ride a city bus, the bus is the place. Depending on what city you’re in and which line you’re on, it could be a whole other world. An uncomfortable world. A world where ugly societal truths sit down right next to you. Get all up in your face, naked and bare, and start asking you cold, hard questions. It’s that other America. The one most of us go out of our privileged ways not to encounter.

You experience it the minute you walk on and pay your fare. The minute you sit down on the seats shared by a thousand other souls, touched by a thousand other buttocks, hips, and thighs. The minute you see innocent young girls with fresh-eyed babies getting off in neighborhoods that look like war zones. Neighborhoods that you or I wouldn’t dream of walking a white baby through, let alone living in.

You experience it the minute you overhear snippets of conversations. Conversations that make you realize that damn, you’re lucky to be white. Lucky to be educated. Lucky to be blue-eyed. Lucky not to be part of the underclass. Because mostly, it’s the marginalized who ride the bus in places like Baltimore. Black people don’t have to fight like Rosa Parks did for a seat in the front. Nope. In mostly black cities like Baltimore, white people are either too good or too scared to take the bus; so those poor colored folks can have any damn seat they want.

Her friend’s day was thrown off because he lost his disability card and had to come all the way down to the city, hon, and git a new one. So if Ah see ya taday a’ll see yah, if Ah don’t, Ah’ll be there tamorrah.

He was white, underclass, with a Baltimore accent so thick, I needed a translator. She was white, too, but must’ve been raised somewhere else. I could make out what she was saying.

Which do you think is harder, being addicted to crack or addicted to heroin?

Heroin.

Yeah, well, do you think your life is harder than mine? Do you? I was knocked down and held up by two bitches for $40 worth of stash. $40. Yeah, that stuff is some bad shit.

Yes, I wanted to turn around and say. Yes, your life is harder than mine. Yours and yours. Hands down. I won’t even argue with you on that one. You win. I lose. But in this case, the loser is the winner.

Cath-REEN Street. Gloria Avenue. Maidenform Lane.

Stop requested. Please, stop. Let me off. I want to go back to my comfortable white privilege now. That’s enough for one day.

Route 35. Destination: You Emm Bee See. Thank you for riding MTA.

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