I don’t drive.
I went blind in my left eye back in 2005. It took some getting used to. I still run into things. I don’t lash out as much anymore when someone touches me unexpectedly. I can’t pitch worth shit, but then I never could, so no big loss.
I don’t ride a bike, and I know very little about bike culture, save for the fact that being passionate about riding a bike frequently involves small hats and universal hatred for motorists and pedestrians.
The bus was different in Boston. I used to take the #9 every morning – Southie to Copley. It was all business people at 7:20. Suits, dresses, kindles. And me, smelling of whatever got spilled on me at last night’s comedy open mic or rock show. The bodies inside the suits were black. And white. And Asian. And queer. And straight. And young. Sometimes old. Sometimes homeless, but mostly corporate. Boston is a city full of commuters, regardless of ethnicity or financial standing.
Portland is weird. The simple fact is that Mainers drive. Maine is sprawling and vast and there is no subway to speak of. Portland has the Metro, but few young people take it, choosing to bike or walk instead. I am notoriously bad at getting anywhere on time if I am required to walk. I get lost in my tiny hometown . Beyond that, not having a license is kind of like having a blazing red “A” scrawled across the chest when it comes to finding a job. “Oh, you don’t drive? What’s wrong with you? What did you do?”
I have a disability. I don’t drive. I ride the bus.
There’s bike culture, and there is bus culture. So, like I said, in Boston EVERYONE takes public transport. Same with New York and Chicago – so why is it such an issue in Maine, especially Portland?
Because here, poor people take the bus. And immigrants. And mentally ill folks. And me, because I’m disabled. We are the unclean, the people who are not “good enough” for cars. I’m learning a lot about the state (and city) I love most from the bus.
It’s 88 degrees in Portland right now. There’s a smog warning – which, when you consider the fact that pine trees outnumber humans by quite a large number up here, is kind of absurd – and the folks on MPBN are encouraging residents to take public transport. I had an appointment out on Brighton Ave this afternoon, and I caught the #4 home. It was packed to capacity. An elderly woman offered the seat next to her, and I took it, gratefully. She asked me where I got my necklace, and I told her that it had once belonged to my Grandmother.
“Did you hear about the shooting?” she asked
“Yeah, it was in my boyfriend’s neighborhood. But, he’s OK.”
“Well, that’s good. I bet he was sleeping. He wouldn’t have been OK if he’d been outside.”
“HA. No, he’s fine…”
“Things are different now. They used to be OK. They used to be SAFE. Before. They’re never going to catch who did it – they all look the same… can’t tell if they’re black or asian. It doesn’t matter. Things used to be different. You know how it is?”
“No… I DON’T know how it is.” And this is where I stopped responding. This is a fairly common exchange on the bus… usually had within ten feet of a person of color. The tension is Jell-o thick up here.
Maine is supposed to be this place where folks leave you alone so long as you earn your keep. No one cares if you’re famous, or rich, or gorgeous, or… you know, whatever… just so long as you shut up and tend to your own crops and don’t speak ill of the neighbors. That’s how it’s always been – except now folks are stuck in little tin boxes with folks who don’t look the same. Or believe in the same god. Or come from the same country. Or state.
So I’ve been wondering what people are afraid of. Change? Immigration is normal. Every time some person, like the lady I sat next to on the bus, makes some comment about people from away, I want to scream “WHERE ARE YOUR PEOPLE FROM?” because sweetheart, I don’t want to make assumptions, but I’m thinking you ain’t Passamaquoddy. My family came over on a boat. Many boats, actually. And there was a time, a very, very long time when folks weren’t too kind to us. But we’re white, so no one cares anymore that we were immigrants with strange customs and foods and beliefs and music and clothing. No one cares that my grandmothers wore babushkas. Ate chicken livers. Were Catholic. Were fleeing an oppressive government and seeking shelter in a place that seemed safe and welcoming. Were hoping to find a place where they could start a new life. Isn’t that pretty much every American’s story? So, why can’t folks cut new immigrants some slack here? Is it skin? is it god?
That woman on the bus could have been my grandmother. Her racism wasn’t surprising so much as it was deeply hypocritical. I guess I allowed myself to forget casual racism while living in a city where consumption of public transport is NORMAL.
But Portland is strange. And wonderful because of it. I see nothing but good coming of the presence of folks from away. It is good, and natural, and part of what makes us human – the drive to discover, and learn, and see. Why can’t we just direct that at our new neighbors? A positive curiosity, not fear of differences. I believe it starts with a simple shared experience – the morning commute on public transportation. We’re all headed somewhere, may as well do it together.