Each Other’s Company

February 3, 2017

After 46 years in Nevada County, I finally decided to take a ride on the Gold Country Stage. That’s our local bus, and if you cherish values like inclusivity, diversity, community, and equality, I recommend it. It’s a righteous ride.

On my first trip, which started in Nevada City but took me mostly around Grass Valley, I wasn’t surprised to see that many of my fellow passengers were homeless folks. Homeless people ride the bus not only to get places, but also because it provides a safe haven that’s cool in the summer, warm in the winter, and dry when it rains. Many homeless people are ill, injured, or disabled—walking any distance doesn’t work for them. On the bus they can sit back in comfort and get some needed rest, with no one looking askance or telling them to move along. On the contrary, bus drivers are respectful, helpful, and welcoming. They take an active part in much of what happens on the bus, holding together an inclusive social structure that helps everyone feel safe.

What surprised me was how much friendly conversation there was, and how ready everyone was to offer helpful information about routes, transfers, convenient stops, and anything else a rookie rider like me might need to know. No one is expected to participate in this impromptu community unless they want to, but the opportunity for engagement and human connection is there. In spades. It made me wonder: What besides environmental sustainability are we who use personal transportation giving up?

That first ride was on a warm day last spring. I had no idea what the fare was. “1.50 a ride,” the driver told me, and of course I had no coins. “I’ll just give you two one-dollar bills,” I said, but he demurred. “No, just put in a dollar. Someone else this morning didn’t have change and put in two. You can ride on his fifty cents.” Nice. I didn’t know where the bus was going, either, but I didn’t care. I was out for adventure, and right there in the front seat was Lynn, one of my favorite Hospitality House guests and always an adventure in herself. She was reading, as usual, but put down her book and patted the empty seat beside her invitingly. Ever the master of the suggestive expression, she gave me a knowing look. “We don’t see you here very often.”

Lynn was short, slender, aging, and carefully made up. She was eccentric and smart. She’d been staying at the shelter for the past few weeks, though several months earlier our housing staff had found her a house-sharing situation with a woman her own age who, like Lynn, had a dog.

“Whatever happened to that place?” I asked.

“Oh God. She didn’t want a housemate, she wanted a friend, which is not what I had in mind.” Lynn’s deep, theatrical voice made me laugh despite a feeling of frustration—our goal at the shelter is to help people sustain their housing. “She said we could walk our dogs together and offered to give me a manicure.” She held out spectacularly sculpted, brilliantly colored nails for me to see. “Do I look like I need a manicure?”

“No! Your nails are beautiful!”

“I did them myself, and have done since I was a child, when my grandmother taught me how. She liked to say, ‘A lady should always work with her hands—but never look like she does.’” Lynn’s tone softened as she reminisced about her childhood in Berkeley. When she’d reached college age, her parents thought UC was too big, so she went to Mills College in Oakland—an excellent school, she said, but she’d wanted to major in anthropology, for which Berkeley was famous at that time. In fact, she said, as sales manager at the University of California Press, her father had had a hand in the publication of Theodora Kroeber’s renowned book Ishi in Two Worlds.

We spent several minutes talking about that book before we alighted at the Tinloy depot in Grass Valley, whence Lynn walked into town, while I sat on a bench to wait for another bus. Several Hospitality House guests were waiting there, too, and I struck up a conversation with one of them, a painfully thin woman in her 70s named Sara. She was sitting in the sun, which was quite hot by now, counting a handful of pennies over and over to see if she’d have enough money for a return ticket to the shelter. Her mouth was sunken because she’d lost most of her teeth, and she was disabled from a serious foot injury related to her diabetes. The 4-pronged cane standing next to her had probably come from the collection of walking aids kept at the shelter for the many people who need them.

In her working life, Sara was eager to explain, she’d clerked in the clothing departments of stores like Roos-Atkins, Gottschalk’s, and JC Penney’s. She described how she loved to display the new fashions that came in, and how she appreciated the discounts that enabled her to acquire a beautiful wardrobe. “Now I only have three t-shirts and two pairs of pants to my name. But why would I want more clothes?” Her voice fell. “I’d have no place to put them.”

When my next bus arrived, I sat down with yet another older woman. I didn’t know her, but she had a purposeful, determined look that attracted me. We headed up South Church Street and over to Brighton, where the vibrant spring sun shone down on the neighborhood’s pretty little houses and flowering trees.

“How’s your day going?” I asked. Not a scintillating icebreaker, but she responded openly.

“Oh, I’m tired today,” she sighed. “I started hitchhiking out to 49 from my cabin on the Ridge at 6:00 this morning. I do it every Tuesday, so I can catch the bus to my weekly cleaning job down here in Grass Valley.” The cabin, it turned out, was quite remote, situated at the end of a long dirt road where early morning rides were hard to come by. That morning, though, she’d actually been picked up.

“Yeah, I got lucky. Can’t complain! And I got to take a shower today too. I have no running water, so I shower every week down here at my job. That’s a good thing in the winter, I can tell you, because the cabin doesn’t have any heat, either.”

Knowing that HUD’s definition of a dwelling meant for human habitation includes running water and a heat source, I realized that, at least technically, my companion was homeless.

Our conversation was interrupted by the whirlwind arrival of a wild-looking redhead—her hair flying, her clothes in complete disarray, and her face, which was strikingly beautiful, contorted in anguish. She threw herself onto the seat in front of us and, facing out into the aisle, started up a stream of heartbroken sighs and low moans. She had a black eye. As we approached the end of Brighton Street, she jumped up as suddenly as she’d sat down and ran to the front of the bus.

“Where are we?” she cried to the driver. “They told me to get off by the beautiful horse. I need to get off at the beautiful horse!”

A chorus of instructions rang through the bus, quelled by the authoritative voice of the driver, who pulled over next to the draft horse at the fairgrounds, near Brighton Greens, location of the offices of the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Coalition.

I decided to move up to the front seat, where I’d seen our guest Sharon sit down just behind the driver. Like Lynn—and so many others of our guests—she was bright and interesting, someone I enjoyed talking with. She’d been a legal assistant in the DA’s office before multiple sclerosis debilitated her to the point where she couldn’t work anymore. As a consequence of losing her job, she’d spent down her savings and eventually lost her home (job loss through illness is a common way to become homeless).

Walking was hard for Sharon, so she rode the bus every morning and returned to Hospitality House as soon as it reopened. On the bus she always sat in the same spot behind the driver, and at the shelter she always sat in the same seat at one of our long dining room tables with the same group of special friends. Wherever she was, inside or out, she always wore a striped khaki stocking cap pulled down around her ears, leaving shrewd brown eyes and a lively expression to clue us in—here was someone who knew the score, who never did and never would get lost in her own problems, harsh as they were, the way some people do. When she wasn’t chatting, she often spent her time working at one of the simple crossword puzzle books she was never without. One day she confided ruefully that, as happens often with MS patients, she was losing her cognitive skills.

“I used to do the Sunday Times puzzle—in ink,” she scowled. “Now I have trouble with these Level 1 puzzles. But I do them to keep what little brain I’ve got left.”

When the bus reached the stop in the Hospitality House parking lot, Sharon and several others got off, while I went on to the stop by the Banner Mountain overpass, there to wait for another bus that would take me back to town, where I’d left my car. It was hot, I needed a bathroom, I was worried about being late, and I couldn’t understand why so many people driving by were staring at me. Probably if I’d been more accustomed to taking the bus, I wouldn’t have felt quite so helpless, but as it was I had to pull myself together and remember that what I’d just experienced was more lastingly important than a few passing inconveniences. I recalled how deeply Utah Phillips regretted the decline of public transportation in the United States, often quoting Joseph Campbell’s remark that all we really want is to be completely human and in each other’s company. And it was true that when I opened the door of my car to get inside, I had a sudden unexpected sense of emptiness and isolation. It occurred to me that we who travel so conveniently and privately have normalized that feeling of isolation, and in that moment it seemed a high price to pay for the privilege of having whatever we think we want, whenever we think we want it.

A lovely sequel to all this is that one evening not long after, in the women’s dorm at the shelter, I noticed that Sharon was missing. The exotic stuffed animals that had animated her bed had also disappeared. When I asked a group of her friends where she was, they fell ominously silent. Finally one blurted, “That’s a secret.” “We’re not supposed to tell,” another frowned. I was about to let them off the hook with some polite phrase I didn’t mean when someone couldn’t help herself.

          “She has a boyfriend,” she whispered.

          “She’s living with him,” someone else said.

          “He took her home with him.”

          “He’s a bus driver.”

 

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