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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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