From late 2009:
I met a man named Ernie today on the 33 Fremont bus. I was heading home from dropping off a rental truck with a friend, and I was still tired and headachy from my cold. The bus was almost empty, other than two woman up front and one man in the very back. I sat in the back, close to the door, far enough away that I thought conversation with the man in the back would be impossible, as I’d seen him looking at me as I got on the bus.
Well, far away conversation is not in fact impossible for those willing to yell. He loudly told me I work at Safeway. I looked back and shook my head. He then loudly told me I work at another grocery store. I looked back again and said no. He caught my eye, stared at me for a couple seconds, and when I turned away again, he loudly asked me if I had a good heart. He had a strong Jamaican accent, and was yelling, so I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right. So I asked him to repeat himself. He asked again if I had a good heart. I just looked at him for bit, and said “I’m not sure. I think so.”
“AHHH!!! You’re not sure!” he yelled “But you THINK you have a good heart!”.
“Well,” I said “I don’t really think you can be sure. I mean, if I was sure I had a good heart, do you really think I’d have a good heart?”
This caused a giant laugh to swell from his chest, and I mean giant. The man sucked all the air on the bus into his prodigious lungs and expelled it in the loudest laugh I’ve ever heard. He then got up and came closer, sitting down right behind me. This prompted a muttered “Shit” from me and a frantic searching for my headphones and MP3 player. Before I could get them safely in place, though, he started a conversation.
“So”, he says, “You’re pretty, but if you don’t have a good heart I’m not really interested in you”
“Oh yeah? Well, I might not have a good heart. I mean, I’m not sure, and while I think I do I could just be delusional.”
“No. You’re cheerful. I can tell. You smile alot. And you’re laughing at me instead of running screaming into the safety of your headphones.”
With a guilty start I look down at the headphones clutched in my hand. “Yes, well… what’s your name?”
“Hi Ernie, I’m Sarah.”
We talked for a bit, then. It turns out he’s the owner of a shop I pass all the time, called New Born Tribe. It’s a very Rasta shop, and I’ve never been in. When I confessed this, he proceeded to make fun of me. “Oh, yes. It’s all the black men in dreadlocks. I can see why a little girl like you wouldn’t want to go in. It’s a pretty scary place. You don’t know what we do in there.”
Instead of the giant FUCK YOU this deserves, I say “Well, from the look and smell of it, I’d say you sell music, clothes, African flags, and lots and lots of incense. And probably a pipe or two.” (I refrain from saying “And a misplaced sense of pride in an identity that most of you will never understand.” I don’t like Rasta very much.)
This prompts another GIANT laugh, and he tells me I have to come by and see what it’s like. I say I will. He then invites me to a reggae show he’s putting on at a club down the street from my house.
Now, this club is probably the last bastion of blackness in my neighborhood. It is the only place in this area that I still see a consistent sea of young black men out in front of. It’s also rowdy, loud, and has a reputation for getting violent on the weekends. But, the show he’s inviting me to is on a Tuesday, and I’m about to say I’ll go when he starts teasing me for my hesitation. He starts carrying on a conversation with himself, pretending to be me in my own head.
“Hmm…” he says, “This old black dude is inviting me out. He’s pretty sexy, maybe I’ll have a hot date. But I don’t know… this could be scary. Maybe I’ll bring my friends. Yes. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll bring some friends and it’ll be nice and safe. I’ll go hang out with the black people, and listen to this sexy dude singin’ some good reggae, and it’ll be scary but I’ll have fun.”
I’m laughing hysterically at this point, because you can tell this guy is making fun of every little white girl in his head, but he’s trying to make it sound like a good idea to me at the same time. It’s barbed humor, because he’s making fun of me, but it’s actually pretty close to what I was thinking, minus the racial stereotyping. I’m charmed in spite of myself. I tell him I will be there, and that yes, I will be bringing friends. We shake hands and he gets off the bus.
So, I head up to the front of the bus to ask the bus driver about my stop, and stay up there to chat for a bit. The bus driver is an older black man, tubby and tired looking, but with a very sweet face.
He looks at me in the mirror and says “So. Were you just being nice?”
“You really going to hang out with that dude? Or were you just being nice?”
“Uhh… I said I was going to, and I most likely will. Why?”
“No reason. Just wonderin’ what a girl like you is doin’ talking to a man like that. How do you know if he’s nice or not?”
“I don’t. Why? Do you know something I don’t?”
“I’m just sayin’. He might not be nice. How do you know?”
“All I know is what people tell me. He seems nice, and that’s all I’ve got to go on. He’s charming.”
“Oh, well, charming. You be careful, young lady.”
Now, I don’t know this dude from adam. I’ve never been on his bus before. And now he’s lecturing me. This leads me to think he knows something about this Ernie character, so I try to pump him for some more info. Nothing. Eventually it comes out that “girl like you” = white, and “guy like him” = black. Which makes me sad. It’s not that this guy is prejudiced. He just honestly doesn’t think I could possibly be interested in getting to know this person. We chatted for a bit longer, and I got off the bus feeling invigorated by the conversation. It’s so rare that people come right out and challenge both their own preconceived ideas and yours. It was interesting.
Thank you so much Sarah, I really enjoyed reading this! If you liked this post, let Sarah know in the comments, I’m sure she’d appreciate it. Also, don’t forget to check out her Portland bus blog here.
If you want to share any bus or public transit stories here, whether they’re good or bad, please email me at novaisawesome at gmail dot com.