In my senior year of college at Robert Morris University, I landed a dream job working for an ad agency in downtown Pittsburgh, PA. After graduation, my then-boyfriend, now-husband and I moved to Shadyside, a trendy and youthful yet historic neighborhood just outside of the city. It was too pricey to pay to park downtown, so I took the bus. But this was nothing new - I had taken the bus from Moon Township to Pittsburgh for my internship in the fall.
But it was new, because all of a sudden it wasn't just white, middle-aged, grumpy people on the bus with me (sorry not sorry, Moon). Instead it was standing room only during the morning rush, between people off to their jobs and students off to class at any one of the universities near downtown Pittsburgh. It was an entirely new sensory experience - from the sounds of kids crying to big kids crying (aka students/adults complaining), to the tactile roughness of worn-down seats, to the smell of that guy over there eating his dinner on the way home. And fun fact about me: I suffer from motion sickness in a BIG way. So you wouldn't catch me reading or writing or working on my commute. Instead, I used it as an opportunity to take it all in - those interesting sensory experiences and all. I spent my time thinking, reflecting, and meeting the people I'm telling you stories about today.
The Man with his Son
You know how sometimes you feel like you know someone from social media, without even having met them in real life? This story is kind of like that, but it is real life. What I mean is, I saw the same man with his son every week day for almost three years. But he doesn't know me. And I don't know him. And yet maybe I do.
At first I began to notice the man with his son on my commute home in the evenings. They got on the bus somewhere around my sister's university, Carlow, and his son was, well, so loud, and so curious. I usually sat in the first row of seats near the front of the bus, after the handicap accessible section, and they would sit in the accessible seats as long as no one needed that area - which meant that I always had the perfect profile view of them.
Typically they'd exchange words about what color the bus was, the numbers of the bus, and occasionally the son would even have an applesauce snack. They were sweet and the father was kind and patient and together they had this sort of innocent and adorable character to them. And even if I wasn't looking, I would know that they had boarded the bus when I heard the son's child voice asking questions about literally everything around him.
As I continued to ride the bus and get into more of a strict schedule (albeit I was still late for work almost every day), I realized that I was seeing the father in the morning too, getting on at the stop where he usually gets the bus in the evening. He was alone, hurried, sometimes a little sweaty, and many times even running to catch the bus. I'll never know for sure, but my assumption is that his son goes to school/daycare at Carlow, and the man drops his son off there in the morning, boards the bus to head downtown, and then comes back to pick his son up in the evening to head home to the "mommy" they talked about. And I kind of liked that. Sure, I felt bad for the father having to hustle each morning and I related deeply to the struggle of getting to work on time, but I thought it was so nice that this was his role, and that he spent that time with his son each day. In the evenings he was always pleasant, never angry or seemingly worn out after the day, never letting whatever happened at work interfere with the time spent with his wide-eyed mini. I think he must be a great father.
We never exchanged any words together, but over three years I almost felt like I watched his son grow. I hope he stays curious.
The Lotion Lady
While I never spoke a word to the man and his son, you wouldn't believe how many other people I talked to on the bus - not ever really solicited conversation, but even more refreshing. One winter evening on my commute home, I took off my gloves and took out a mini lotion to heal my very dry hands. It was my favorite smell - the True Blue Shea Cashmere & Silk hand cream from Bath & Body Works. The woman next to me, who up until that point hadn't made a sound, commented about how nice it smelled. I asked if she wanted to use it too, and she did. Looking back, maybe that was "weird," but the way she initiated conversation made me feel like maybe she just wanted to talk. Maybe she just needed to connect with someone. Hey, if my lotion was all it took, I didn't mind. We chatted for the rest of the ride until her stop. We discussed some deep issues too - all because of some lotion. It may seem silly to you, but it was such a random and meaningful human interaction for me and I'll never forget it.
The Homeless Germophobe
Often while on the bus, I had to stand for part or most of the ride. I took a busy route at busy times. One afternoon ride home I had the chance to get a seat, and noticed a man in the front of the bus wearing stained, worn clothes and carrying lots of things. He was standing and had some of this things in that flat part at the front of the bus where you're not technically supposed to put things but everyone always does. His hair was varying shades of grey and kind of all over the place. But he didn't seem elderly - I'd guess he was maybe 55 tops. Judging by the way he looked - emphasis on judging - I gathered that he may be homeless or without a permanent home.
I glanced up at the man again during the ride and noticed something that I found curious - he was holding on to the silver bar above him for stability, but not with his bare hand. He was holding a page of a newspaper in between his hand and the bar. And it wasn't like he was reading the paper. I thought perhaps he was concerned about the germs on the bar, which I personally tried to avoid thinking about as much as possible. I found this entire situation to be so interesting - a man that may very well be living in unsanitary conditions, dressing in unsanitary clothing, is seemingly concerned about the germs on the bus. It's an oxymoron of sorts but what I loved about this experience was that it taught me to refrain from being judgmental about the people I shared transportation with. Why did I assume that he was homeless? What does it mean to "look homeless?" I reflected on what society has taught me and checked myself. He may or may not have been homeless, but it didn't matter. We shared the same concern and I was reminded of universal human behavior. About germs nonetheless, but seeing his unwavering grasp on the paper barrier has always stuck with me. I wish I would have had the chance to meet him and to be able to know his story, and maybe laugh together about our shared perspective about the germs on the bus.
The Brazilian Businessman
My last story is actually about my first memorable bus experience from my time living in Pittsburgh. At the time, I was no longer new to my job, but gaining increased responsibility as supervisor after supervisor left the organization (was it something I said?). Just like any other day, I boarded the bus to return back home and I sat next to a tall man in a suit. Somehow, in some way that I don't even remember, we began to chat. I learned that he was fairly new to Pittsburgh, having recently become the leader of a team at a large local corporation in the city. He and his girlfriend had an apartment in my neighborhood AND also in the Sewickley neighborhood on the opposite side of the city, but farther away and not as conveniently accessible by public transportation. Safe to say I could tell that he was important.
And I couldn't help but notice his accent. He was Brazilian, and so was his girlfriend. He showed me a photo of her and talked of her so fondly, it made me smile to speak to a man with such respect and love for his partner. I shared about Brandon as well and that was about all we got to that day before we both departed at the very same stop, crossed the street together, and he entered the apartment building on the corner while I walked down the street.
Every few days we would see each other again and sit together to catch up on how things were going, share travel stories and life goals, and also share in mutual woes of our working worlds. Meanwhile, he got downtown hours before I did and probably had a corner office too. Our lives couldn't even compare, but he was so humble. Over the course of a few months we became sort of strange friends, from totally different worlds but sharing about 40 minutes together each day. He gave me advice and encouragement and reminded me to act like the powerful young woman I was. The bus rides home weren't so bad having a kind and wise human to talk to.
Then one day I realized I hadn't seen him in a week or two. And that week or two became a month or two and then a year or two. I never knew his last name and we never exchanged information, so we'll probably never meet again. But when I meet or encounter someone who is in a higher up position in their company or who makes a lot of money, I hope that they'll be like him. Genuine, kind, encouraging. I hope that he and his girlfriend got married and settled into the house they always wanted. And I hope he feels fulfilled in his career and in life. I have the same hope for you, too.
If you made it this far, thank you for sticking around to read all of my stories. Taking public transportation in Pittsburgh, while annoying and uncomfortable at times, was one of the best things I ever did. Through my experiences like these and others, I had the opportunity to witness human behaviors, feel shared experiences, and make connections with total strangers. I was reminded that people are people, and we're all sort of all over the place. The bus was where we prepared ourselves for the day ahead, or decompressed from the day that was. I saw moments of weakness and moments of strength. My perceptions were challenged and I had new opportunities for clarity every day. And most of all, I learned that truth and hope can be found in the most unexpected situations.
When was the last time you took the bus?