Next Stop: Paranoia of the Other

This is a tale of two unexpected interactions, both involving school buses. One I jogged beside, the other I rode. The first was a Montgomery County yellow school bus filled with middle school children on their way home; the other was a red and white University of Maryland shuttle. I had no plans involving either of them. My route, though, would intersect with both.

On the Monday before Thanksgiving break, I was jogging down a street near my home, the school buses from the International Middle School from across the road already lined up at the light. Suddenly, a crushed plastic water bottle flew near me, crashing on the sidewalk with such a loud pop that I thought it was filled with something— Pebbles? Candy? I never considered the missile was aimed at me, nor would I have entertained the thought until a window in the school bus opened, and a girl with a chubby angry face declared, “Next time I’ll get ya.”

I was stunned, and for the first time in my running life stopped dead. Then I looked up and said, “What?” To which she answered, “Next time, bitch, I’ll get you.” I didn’t do what would be recommended by child psychologists or school counselors or Facebook posters: I didn’t let it go; I didn’t talk calmly; I didn’t cut her any slack for age or race. I reacted spontaneously and shot back, “It’s pretty obvious who the bitch is.”

And then, the school bus still idling in traffic, I knocked on the bus door. I heard the window shut where the tween was sitting. When the door opened, I noticed that all the passengers were children of color and the bus driver was a blond, maybe in her forties. I said to the driver, “someone in your bus just threw a water bottle at me, and it was filled with something.” She asked who, and I walked the length of the bus from the outside, found the window, or thought I did, and said, fourth window from the back.  

§

I shoulda told the bitch to kiss my black ass.

And no, I’m not “othering” myself by pointing out the color of, the existence of my caramel chocolate tan blue-black skin like she’d just suggested when she, my writing workshop classmate, took issue with my dad’s “skinny black finger” on my page.

“I mean, why do you have to say black?” she says. “If it was my dad, I wouldn’t say his white finger.”

I guess you wouldn’t. Maybe that’s the privilege of being fucking white? Comfortably colorless. Without historical reference for your inalienable rights. You can’t tell someone - for years and years and years - that they can’t ___insert civil liberty here ____ because they’re black, brown, blue-black, caramel, and cream, but then get bent the fuck out of shape when they reference the fucked-up identity you imposed in the first place.

And by you, I guess I mean the collective white motherfucker that goes all the way back to the first bastard that decided Negroid was a real thing. So when I say, is it because I’m black? It’s not paranoia. It’s experience.

Now, when I see and say black, you tell me I have a problem, but what else do you expect?

Here’s a secret: You started the problem.

§

Once I stop running, I’m done. Not this time though. I restarted from where I’d left off, propelled by anger, frustration, and second guessing.

The day before I had watched the film Inside Out, which primarily represents the thoughts passing through a young girl’s mind: her loss of Joy and Sadness, leaving her only Disgust, Fear, and Anger. As the film resolves with her recovery of Joy, we see the inner thoughts of not just her parents, but her new teacher and a bus driver. The images flickered through me as I puffed the cold air.

On the way home I looked for the water bottle. It wasn’t on the sidewalk. I sifted memory and thought about my timing, how if I’d stretched, as I should have, I would have missed the bus. I wondered if the bottle would have been thrown anyway, at some other passerby.

I tried to see what that child saw. But, of course, I couldn’t. A thin woman over sixty wearing clothes that would have embarrassed me as a teen had my mother exited the house in such a getup: baggy old sweat pants faded to pink-tangerine; a sweat shirt on backwards, the tag at my chin and East Stroudsburg University emblazoned on the wrong side; a ragged-ridged blue scarf; and black gloves— quite the mish-mash. Certainly nothing enviable.

I couldn’t help thinking of myself at 12. I was chubby, as she was, and equal parts sad and angry. When I got angry, I would say anything that came into my head— to teachers, parents, peers. If the right button is hit, clearly, I’m much the same, despite being older and thinner.

§

I thought about what you said though. Maybe you wouldn’t mention your dad’s white finger. After all, that’s not what you see. Your dad is not your white dad, he’s just your dad. A good ole American man. But my dad isn’t American to you first. He’s a Black American. Not cuz he wanted to be. Not cuz that’s what I want to see him as, but that’s just what I learned that he is. Negro. Colored. Black. African-American.

Now you want me to edit out my color. Whitewash and water down the truth so you love and adore me like Beyonce, pre-Formation.

We were never considered “American.” You imposed the hyphen, now you ridicule us for trying to figure out how to live within this ass-backwards constructed identity. I know my paranoia is more than justified but you say I’m playing the race card. Well who’s the one whose been shuffling and cutting the deck, dealing the badass hand?

Everything isn’t about race, you remind me. But I couldn’t drink from this water fountain because I was black, and now you expect me to believe that nothing at all happens because I’m brown? You created a reality and now you’re trying to tell me that shit was a fantasy. But we’ve both been here before.

§

Two days later I walked up the same road to go to the metro for a long and circuitous journey to a university library. I was parallel with the university’s bus stop, which requires an I.D. I didn’t have. As I fantasized about being saved the two plus hour trek to the library, the bus appeared. The door opened, perhaps because I was so close to the stop. Before I finished babbling an explanation, the driver waved me in on the claim of my library card. I promptly sat in the first seat nearest to him, no doubt the one reserved for the handicapped. I thanked him profusely while saying I could show him my university library card, copy card, and the faculty I.D. from my own university. He said, “I believe you.” Then he asked if I was a teacher.

That’s how we got started talking about where I teach, what I teach, then what I was writing— an article with my former students about whether literature should still be offered in the university curriculum. He went on so eloquently on the need for literature, I had to explain that while my position was similar, it would be self-serving for me to make the argument— and then thought he would have made a terrific co-author, too. His reasoning involved what we can’t know.

He said, “I never expected to be a bus driver. But I didn’t know until I was 40 that driving a bus for the university would make it possible to get a degree for free.” I asked him his major, and he said information sciences, but that he would get a masters in teaching. He’d learned from his job driving a bus how much he liked interacting with people. And he wanted to teach elementary school age students because he remembered being turned off of school when faced with fractions. I began to say, “if…” and he said, it’s only “when” now for him.

He also told me he’d been to India and the Emirates; so I told him I was leaving for Iran in two days, which was true. He asked if I was going for work. I wasn’t. He had gone for pleasure, too: he had friends there, and he thought he should take advantage of the opportunity. He was training for a triathlon, which gave us more in common: though I don’t compete, I rotate running, swimming, and bicycling.

As we chatted, I kept wondering why this middle-aged Black man was so nice to me. Why did he stop the bus for an old white lady? Or, did I just answer my own question?

§

I shouldn’t be suspicious of your good intentions. In fact, I might be coming down too hard on you. After all, you did live in Harlem, you brave and open soul. I didn’t know it until you brought that piece to workshop a few weeks later.

The one where you wrote about seeing little black children eating watermelon in the streets.

Having lived and traipsed in Harlem through the years - long before you set your white foot there - have never seen someone eating watermelon in the street.

But I didn’t say anything. Well, you know. I didn’t want to be that chick.

The angry black woman. (You surely would not have reduced me to such a characterization so it’s probably just my paranoia.)

§

We exchanged names. He told me the time of the next bus, and I rushed to the library to return my book, so I could catch what I thought would be his bus. I was disappointed to find a different driver. Though where he and I could have gone from there, I don’t know.

§

The next class, I vowed to finish what you started, not just rant to my friends on the corner of Sixth and 14th in front of Good Stuff Diner. But, I said nothing to you. Though I know I shoulda tapped my skinny black finger on your white page and said:

It feels like you’re othering them.

Sandy Feinstein and Keysha Whitaker have published together in Really System, Lehigh Valley Vanguard, and in Precipice. They have also published essays and creative non-fiction separately in a range of places. Whitaker's work has appeared in The Writer, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, The New York Times, and New Yorker.com. She has an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the New School. Feinstein's work has appeared in Punctuate, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Reader's Digest, among others.

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