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A Simple Hello

The evening commute home was a scramble as people rushed and crushed onto the train fighting for a place to sit or stand.  A last-minute couple pushed through the door dropping tourist maps in their haste. Forced by the crowd to split up, the man went one way and the woman another.

The woman sat down in the last vacant seat next to where I stood and began to refold maps. Beside her sat a well-dressed business woman who appeared to read something work-related even after a day at the office. The two glanced briefly at each other, said nothing, and went back to their tasks of reading and map folding.

Things calmed as the train doors shut and people settled into seats or places to stand. As we waited for the train to depart, only the rustling of newspapers or the occasional ring of a cell phone could be heard. The two women beside me were silent.

Finished with her reading, the business woman put papers back into a briefcase. The tourist woman fumbled with one last map and slipped it into a tote bag. Each woman stared straight ahead.

The train slowly moved.

Ms. Tourist turned towards Ms. Business.

“Hello.” Ms. Tourist said. That simple sound caught me off guard.

For the most part people say little or nothing on these commutes. Less a function of being unfriendly and more a symptom of preoccupied minds, people say nothing. Me included, but I’ve often wondered how funny, smart, or maybe obnoxious the person next to me might be during any given commute if we only chatted. Still, silence is the norm.

Not even a simple hello.

That’s why Ms. Tourist’s simple “hello” caught Ms. Business off guard as well. She whirled to face Ms. Tourist, stared at her for a second, and gave a “hello” in return. Each smiled slightly then stared straight ahead once again.

Perhaps shocked by the simple approach, seconds later Ms. Business returned the favor. “I saw your maps. Are you here on vacation?” she asked.

Ms. Tourist shook her head yes.

The train sped up.

Where are you from? Ms. Tourist asked.

Philadelphia originally.

Oh really? My son lives there now!

And you? Where are you visiting from?

Atlanta.

How funny! My daughter lives there now!

The train reached full speed.

And so did conversation between Ms. Tourist and Ms. Business. Questions flew, answers flew, and in the process the women discovered they each had family living within miles of the other, had probably crossed paths at several restaurants, and both had grandfathers from North Carolina.

The train was still going full speed when their conversation became louder. The women agreed on movies they loved, books they hated, what humidity did to their hair, and how they wished their husbands didn’t snore so much. They covered politics, parenting, and pantyhose for the remainder of the trip.

As the train slowed to approach the station, Ms. Business plugged Ms. Tourist’s number into her iPhone. When the train came to a stop the women stood, actually hugged goodbye, and Ms. Business hurried through the door to catch her bus.

As the thick crowd exited the train Ms. Tourist rejoined her husband. I followed them onto the escalator and listened as Ms. Tourist excitedly recounted to her husband all she’d learned from the woman beside her, how nice she was, all they had in common, and how they’d probably meet up in Atlanta the next time the woman came to visit her daughter.

As we stepped from the escalator Mr. Tourist stopped and turned to his wife. He looked sincerely puzzled.

“How did you learn all of that? What’s your secret?” he asked laughing. As I walked past them towards my bus I saw Ms. Tourist shrug her shoulders as she explained her secret.

“I said hello.”

Stuart M. Perkins

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Bus Whisperer

Working in D.C. means that public transportation is a routine part of my day. When I moved here a few years ago I balked at the notion of waiting every morning for a bus to take me to work, and another to take me home. I wasn’t going to stand in rain or snow or heat and wait! I decided to drive myself to work for a week to see how it might be. Could the commute be that bad? I only live four miles away.

It was four miles of unholy misery.

Realizing I would rather take a bullet to the groin than drive into D.C. again, I waited for a bus the very next Monday. There would still be traffic, but I wouldn’t be driving in it. That first morning I felt a little foolish waiting at the bus stop. I felt out of place, silly, and conspicuous. All I lacked was a yellow rain slicker and a Sesame Street lunchbox with matching thermos.

Over time, however, my daily bus rides have become a great source of entertainment. At least weekly I see or hear something fascinating, interesting, or completely puzzling. I began to notice over time that while most people don’t speak to each other during the commute, I seemed to be the one person on the bus that others felt compelled to sit beside when they had the urge to talk.

Once, a woman once sat down, turned to me, and asked a question in what sounded like perfect Spanish. I replied, “Oh I’m sorry. I can’t speak Spanish.”

She then said, in perfect English, “Yeah, me either.” and turned away never saying another word.

The very next day a man wearing a kilt, a hunting vest, and a Hello Kitty wristwatch asked me how much it would cost him to fly to D.C.

I said, “Sir, you are in D.C.” He thanked me profusely for saving him the money.

Incidents like that occur so frequently that it was no surprise when an elderly woman sat beside me not long ago, looked at me and said, “You’re going to love this.”

That’s when it dawned on me. Did I have a special talent? Something bus riders saw in me that they didn’t see in other passengers? Was it a special gift I had that made people speak to me during the commute when they spoke to no one else?

Suddenly, I understood. I am the bus whisperer.

The elderly woman roused me from the daze of my realization by poking me in the arm with her bony finger. “Yes, you’re going to love this.” she repeated.

I wasn’t willing to bet as much, but it was Friday, so we’d see.

“Why is that?” I took the bait.

“Well, I had to have an operation. It took a while to recover so I stayed with my daughter. I love her but was happy to go home.” she said.

After she explained, at great length, every gory detail involved in giving a seventy year old woman a hysterectomy, she launched into even greater detail about her daughter’s increasingly unhappy marriage, her unruly grandchildren, and she reached back in time to tell me about the death of her husband.

I listened. She occasionally asked a question but before I could answer she started on the next sad extension of her conversation. I remembered what my grandmother, Nannie, used to say when we grandchildren wanted to help her with her chores. Not wanting to discourage us from being helpful, but also knowing that our attempts would likely slow her down, she would tell us “Watching is helping.” We then sat back at a distance feeling good about how much we were helping by watching, and Nannie was able to get on with her chores.

So maybe “Listening is helping”, I thought. I continued to listen as the elderly woman finished the part about her husband dying, which morphed into a story about his sister who died of the same thing. Each time she stopped to catch her breath before expounding on the next gloomy topic she would again say, “You’re going to love this.” By the time we reached the end of our commute I began to think, I do love this. I was simply listening, but this woman seemed as happy as if she’d been given a wonderful gift. But, I am the bus whisperer, after all.

The bus stopped. As we all moved slowly to the door to step out onto the street, the elderly woman poked me again with that bony finger. “You’re going to love this.” she said once more, “I’m having dental work done next week on top of it all!”

I smiled, nodded, and waved as she walked off down the block. I felt good about my newfound superpowers and wondered who I would help the next day.

It was endearing the way she had insisted “You’re going to love this.” before nearly every sentence. I had a few minutes before the shuttle came to take me the final mile to work so I walked over to a bench to wait and sat down beside another elderly woman. I thought this complete stranger might enjoy hearing what had just transpired so I decided I would tell her. I leaned over grinning and said, “You’re going to love this.”

“Creep!” she said with disgust, and moved to the next bench.

I guess she hadn’t yet heard. I am the bus whisperer.

Stuart M. Perkins

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