If You See Something, Say Something

Nina Cherian works with me at New Community, and one of the many things she’s known for is bicycling.  But she trades her bike for the bus when the whether doesn’t cooperate.  That means from time to time she enters my green room with stories about tragedy and fun and maybe even a little horror, also knowns as details about her commute.  She originally was going to post something about an experience on the el, after I posted my own vivid experience as an EMT for a night.  But she did one better.  Here is Nina’s post.

If You See Something, Say Something. Or The Universal Arena for Witnessing Cruel, Heartless Human Behavior (at least in Chicago)

One of my greatest joys during warm months in Chicagois relying on my bicycle to get everywhere. Experiencing the city in this unique way is truly powerful.

During these months of mild, good-mood weather, I ride all over town, every day, rain or shine. One thing I do not do is ride when it is so cold and windy that the only thoughts filling my mind are curses against the weather gods. You can imagine, then, the lack of mobility I feel when my choices for getting around are limited to: walking, hitch-hiking, teleportation, and public transportation. (I generally opt for the latter). Let me also clarify that relying on public transportation is different from taking public transportation every once in a while.

I won’t reach too far into the archives, though I could go back as far as 10 years to my very first bitter taste for the CTA. While commuting more recently I have witnessed several expressions of unsolicited contempt and hate. These outbursts subsequently functioned to provide me prisms for deep questions about the mystery of abrasive human nature, and the frightening power we have to shatter human dignity. I’ll illuminate just one memory.

I waited for the southbound Damen bus on a bright, brisk morning in December. When I boarded I noticed two middle-aged, Hispanic nannies at the front of the bus with their “children” in tow. They and their strollers occupied almost the entire designated seating area for handicapped passengers.

Minutes later the bus pulled to a stop where a wheelchair-bound war veteran waited to board. He rolled up the ramp and, visibly disgusted, waited for a place to secure his chair. The nannies scrambled to fold up their belongings, working to relocate. The bus driver chastised one nanny in particular for being inconsiderate. “You shouldn’t be sitting in the handicapped section. You need to move back,” he scolded her over and over. The baby started to scream and cry. She fumbled with the stroller frantically, unable to locate the mechanism that allows it to collapse. The other nanny watched while giving moral support in Spanish. “It’s not your bus!! It’s not your bus!!” yelled the veteran at the nanny.

Five minutes lapsed and she still hadn’t gathered herself enough to accommodate the veteran. The baby continued to scream. The veteran continued to yell at her, “It’s not your bus!” Apparently impatient, he requested to disembark. He stayed at the bus stop once he got off of the bus. The driver continued to scold the nanny, “You should have moved back.” The bus didn’t move.

Flustered and humiliated, the nanny eventually relocated to the row of seats directly in front of my seat. By that point approximately two or three cycles of lights had changed. We waited for things to settle, and we were still waiting for the bus to go forward.

The light was red for us and again, we waited. From outside the veteran motioned to the driver. He requested to re-board and the driver obliged him. A passenger at the back of the bus asked to exit through the rear doors. She announced that she was late due to the commotion and needed to catch a cab to reach her destination.

The veteran re-boarded and continued to yell at the nanny, “It’s not your bus!! It’s not your bus!!” “Ok, ok!!” she resigned from her new seat.

A male passenger, probably in his 30s, who had watched the episode unfold, reproached the nanny who had taken the brunt of the verbal attack. “You were really in the wrong and you should have just moved instead of waiting for the gentleman to get on the bus. If you had just admitted you were wrong everything would have been fine but you didn’t.”

She pleaded in an accented voice, “Ay yay yay! Come on! Give me a break!”

Her defiance had pushed him to his limits. Standing just behind her seat, he put his mouth next to her ear. Drawing out the ‘ f ‘, he flatly spoke with more hatred in his tone than I have ever heard in my life, “Fuck you.”

Then he sat back down. And the bus drove on.

An uncomfortable tension set in. It didn’t seem like anything had actually been resolved from anyone’s perspective.

I noticed that I had been holding my breath for much of that scene. We moved down the street, and I exhaled what I had been holding, doubting what I saw and wondering whether I should have said anything. Then disbelief yielded to bewilderment. I also wondered about hope in that moment and afterward – about its inexplicable character that compels us to critically evaluate aspects of life that are unquantifiable and imperfect. If I hadn’t been doing so already, what I witnessed had certainly required me to begin paying attention to something powerful during my everyday commute: the unpredictable scale of human nature, the real longing, and the line we trace between human experience and the anthropology of hope.

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