I was waiting in the shade of a mesquite tree, squinting past the short cars on the busy street in hopes of seeing the tall, flat face of the SunTran bus behind them. I turned to see who had spoken; a middle-aged Hispanic man was approaching me from the nearby bus stop.
“Do you speak English?” he asked. In perfect English.
“Yeah.” The word was a reflex, a habit perfected by my twenty-four years of life as a white American female.
“As in, if I say sentences in English, you’ll understand me?”
I’d just given him the ultimate proof of my American pedigree, and he needed confirmation? “Yeah,” I tried again. Maybe my accent was too west-Michigan.
“Are you a patriot?”
I blinked. “What do you mean?”
“Are you an American patriot?” he asked again. He was staring me down, waiting for an answer.
“I’m a citizen,” I tried lamely. “Is that what you mean?”
His face fell, and his hands gave a dismissive wave as he turned away. After a few steps, he turned with a warning: “You’re limited, to your English. You only know the basics.”
Then he was gone, ambling away down the sidewalk, taking my confused (and amused) stare along with him. I’m not used to being profiled by my inability to distinguish patriotism from citizenship.
I’m used to being profiled more literally these days. I’ve taken on a very distinctive shape over the past nine months, and all I have to do is turn sideways to elicit the sort of interaction that I’m used to.
It usually starts with the easiest question, the harmless one: “When are you due?” Most often the inquirer is female; men wait until a woman has asked, because they’ve learned the hard way that that question isn’t always harmless. I answer “July 26,” or “just two weeks,” and the conversation migrates to the weather (“How are you handling this heat?”) or other topics safely nestled in the suburbs of our lives.
But occasionally bus stop conversations venture out of the suburbs. One day, a man who had been listening in on my pregnancy chit-chat with another woman interrupted to flawlessly recite four verses of a poem he had written, entitled “Virgin Moments.” It was apparently inspired by the Virgin Mary, and quoted in order to inspire me not to abort my third trimester pregnancy. “Mary sure had a lot of social pressure on her,” was all I could manage.
Spiritual matters are certainly not taboo around the bus stops, the way that they seem to be in some of the more sophisticated circles of my life. One dear woman named Roxanne heard about my occupation (planetary science graduate student) and started a conversation with me about the wonder of God’s creation. She was amazed to hear that I believed in the same Creator, and asked me three times carefully to make sure. I traded a jotted scrap of paper with the title of the Origins book by Deb and Loren Haarsma for two typed pages of her notes on the Romans road, and we went on our separate ways. But Tucson’s bus stops are a small world, and I won’t be surprised if I see her again.
Bus stop spirituality comes in all sorts of flavors. One middle-aged man blurted out to me and another woman: “Do you know why David’s family loved him?”
Our blank stares elicited a clarification. “David,” he prompted, “as in the Bible.”
The other woman quickly shook her head. “I don’t do that organized religion stuff.”
“Me neither,” came his quick response. “But David’s family loved him because he knew his place in the Universe, y’know?”
Then the 4:47 number 4 pulled up, whisking me away from a conversation I never would have had in Sunday school. I can’t help but feel that David and the Universe must have taken a wrong turn somewhere around Absalom.
Most of my interactions at bus stops last about as long as a couple of red lights. But there are a few people that I see every day, frequently enough to learn their names and a little bit about them. Lois drives my morning bus west along Grant to 6th; Phil works at The Fountain and lived in Grand Rapids, MI; Sharon spent ten years working at a pediatrician’s office and is disappointed that her current job in medical billing is too automated to let her interact much with people. I actually look forward to my conversations with her each afternoon from 4:59 to 5:08, as we wait together for the bus that takes us home.
The bus stops can also be places of transience and detachment, making priests and Levites out of folks who would otherwise stop for Samaritans. On the hottest day of the summer, when temperatures were hovering around 115 degrees in the shade, an elderly gentleman collapsed face-first in the dirt after asking some waiting passengers for change. The passengers were gone when I arrived, and two teenage boys were on the phone with 9-1-1, calling an ambulance for someone who had no change and no one else. The boys’ buses came, and they had to make their connections, so they apologized and left. I stayed because I had lots of options (three buses come by that stop every 15 minutes), including a husband at home with a car in our garage less than a mile away. Then the EMTs arrived and told me they had things under control, and I left to catch my bus and ride off with my options.
I’ve waited at bus stops about 300 times in the past four months. Only once have I felt unsafe, due to an unsettling mix of American patriotism (at least, anti-terrorism) and too much alcohol. Most of the time I wait for the bus and climb on inside my own social bubble, leaving an extra seat between me and the next passenger so as to avoid crowding theirs. But every once in an entertaining while, the bus introduces me to characters who are all pins and no bubble, who keep me coming back for more.
Melissa (Haegert) Dykhuis (’10) lives in Lafayette, Colorado, with her husband Nathan, cat Sophie, and sons Matthew and Jonathan. She graduated from Calvin with a physics degree and then got a PhD in planetary science from the University of Arizona in 2015. After years of science, she’s ready for science fiction again and is currently writing and editing young adult sci-fi novels.