Something happens to you on a long bus ride, reading a mind-blowing book.Part of the transport—literally—is that you’re captive for an hour or two and your book is your boon companion among snoring strangers.Another aspect is the earliness of the hour.Days like yesterday, when I have to commute to New York, involve awaking at 2:30 a.m.The day is cast very differently when your timing shifts back by a few hours.It’s almost mystical.The largest portion of the transformative experience, however, is the book itself.I’ve begun commutes with a book that I quickly realize is a mistake, but since I’m not a quitter, I soldier through it to the end anyway.On yesterday’s commute the book was one of those that caught my imagination and flew it like a kite from the rear of the bus.Arriving in Manhattan before six a.m. added to the feeling.The city’s a very different place that time of day.
Not everyone enjoys reading, I realize.My late stepfather once had a job as an elevator man.Not the kind dressed in livery at a big-city hotel, but as an operator in an antiquated building in Oil City, Pennsylvania, where you had to pull the metal gateway physically across the door and wait until the floor leveled before opening it again.I didn’t get along with my stepfather, but one day I went to visit him in the elevator.It wasn’t a busy building.He sat on a stool, staring straight ahead.For hours at a time.Not a man prone to meditation, I knew he had to be bored.I asked if I could bring him something to read, at least.He declined for fear of missing someone’s call signal.It was one of the most frightening scenarios I could imagine.
The clock in the Port Authority read 5:49 when we pulled in.The day seemed full of possibilities.I caught the 4:30 home, but the magic was gone.The book had moved on to more technical things.Traffic was bad, and there’s a world of difference between reading while the bus moves and trying to do so when it’s caught in traffic.The commute out of New York City is normally a nightmare, and yesterday traffic didn’t flow freely until we were nearly through New Jersey.My book was still my companion, but rather more like when a conversation ebbs after an intense discussion.There was the worry of getting home, taking out the garbage, and trying to stay awake until a reasonable hour.The book would still be there tomorrow, but I wouldn’t be the same.
“Silent night,” the old hymn goes. “Holy night.” In a gray dawn after a weary, early-morning New Jersey Transit ride to Midtown, I climb off the bus to find the Port Authority Bus Terminal decorated for Christmas. I could say the holidays, since the dangling LED lights are white and non-suggestive of anything too Christian. There are, however, wreaths with red bows adorning the pillars. Beneath them walk men in fatigues with machine guns. I think I’m getting mixed messages here. Later today they’ll announce that there will be no indictment in the homicide of Eric Garner, just a few days after a similar decision concerning Michael Brown’s shooting. There will be protests here in New York, and there will be armed militia when I rush by this evening for an even longer ride home. It’s Christmas time in the City.
Staten Island may be a long way from Ferguson, Missouri, but both are far, too far from liberty and justice for all. Fear of the other is deep in the human psyche, but for generations we’ve been trying to educate our young that prejudging a person by their race is wrong. We don’t live what we say. Although my hometown was largely white, I had African-American friends growing up. Nothing suggested to me that they were more likely to break the law than any of the other kids I knew. In fact, the bullies I encountered were all white. To our small town, in my young eyes, race didn’t seem to mean too much. We were generally working-class people trying to get by. Prejudice was a word I never heard. Of course, I don’t know the full life of my African-American friends. Perhaps they too received threats and taunts. I hope not, but it seems there’s been more rain than snow this Christmas season.
We live in a constant state of threat. If it’s not racial unrest at home, it’s distrust of the Arab abroad. Always our response is the same—attack and subdue. Show superior force. Some of my fellow commuters look pretty frazzled to me. That night a fight nearly broke out on the bus with a couple of passengers arguing about the territoriality of the narrow seats. I’m looking at the nice Christmas lights brightening the prematurely dark sky as we trundle through the various neighborhoods where the bus makes its stops. This is a racially mixed neighborhood if the people regularly getting off here are any indication of the demographics. It seems so peaceful. The machine guns enforcing civility are far behind. Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace.
“Last stop: New York Port Authority. Have a blessed day.” This secular blessing is sometimes appreciated after the harrowing commute to Manhattan, but I often wonder about its origins. Bus drivers are among the most under-appreciated of employees, I reflected on Labor Day. They are routinely blamed for matters beyond their control: accidents that snarl traffic for hours, mechanical problems, highway construction. Often I only reach the Port Authority Bus Terminal on time two days a week. I always say “thank you” to the driver while exiting, however. I’m very glad it’s not me behind the wheel.
Photo credit: Hudconja
A few months back, however, I noticed that a few of the drivers, while announcing the terminal stop, will add “Have a blessed day.” Last week I sat back further than usual, and heard an interesting exchange as I awaited my turn to exit. The driver had wished us a blessed day (whether we wanted one or not), and several of the passengers, upon disembarking, said back, “Have a blessed day.” I’m sure the driver appreciates it. As a lifelong student of religion, however, I found it fascinating. New York City is a great place to observe religious developments. “Have a blessed day” is innocuous in its lack of specificity. Who is doing the blessing here? At the behest of what intermediary? The driver has literal street cred by making it to the Port Authority unscathed. S/he has the power to bless and to curse. Those of us helpless as passengers are at their mercy. If the driver doesn’t drive, we can’t serve the god Mammon.
I always thought “Have a blessed day” was like an after-sneeze blessing. It is unusual for the sneezer to panegyrize their blesser by wishing good fortune back. Most often they are too busy blowing their noses. Here on the bus the driver might be Muslim (it is clear that some are), Christian, or Hindu. Some are likely among the most deserving of atheists. A blessing laid is a blessing played, however, and many are the passengers who are now returning the favor. We don’t know which deity is being invoked; it may be that it is simply the force that is with us. As we climb off that bus into a city that crushes a human soul as easily as a cockroach, we all could benefit from a blessed day. And I wonder on my way to work whether I’ve just witnessed a new religion being conceived.
When I find myself a considerable distance from my point of egress sometimes I have to take the subway to escape New York. Don’t get me wrong—I love New York, but Monday through Friday it is a place to work, not to play. Getting home is serious business. To get to the Port Authority Bus Terminal from the subway, one venue is a long underground passage. When I take this corridor, I find that it is often a favorite place for street evangelists during inclement weather; apparently the gospel goes underground when the weather turns nasty. So as I recently padded along that tunnel, I noticed an interesting conflict in worldviews. There were a series of street preachers, the central one with Bible in hand, and several others handing out tracts. If I’d had time I’d have listened to the preachers a bit; one was riffing with street language and intonation, and another was fluently flashing between English and Spanish. I took one of his tracts.
The contrasting worldview was the posters repeatedly displayed in a long line along the wall—Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. The movie is due for release next week. One of the modern remakes of fairy tales in the horror/action genre, this might be a fun ride, but the idea of secular forces taking on monsters clashed with the old fashioned gospel I was hearing with my ears. Or did it? Witch-hunting is not exactly PC in the days of religious pluralism when Wicca is becoming as normal a religion as the Anabaptists. Anyone who listens to most modern day witches knows that they are not evil, so I wonder how the movie plans on setting up the “evil” that our eponymous brother and sister have to conquer. I might just have to go to the theater alone to find out.
But is this really so different from our earnest street preachers below the ground? They are railing against the evil in the world, and if you follow their tracts, there is clearly no shyness about blood and torture here. The movie is rated PG-13, but what about the slip of paper I hold in my hand that shows a much bloodied Jesus hanging on a cross? Whether it’s with fancy crossbows or just plain crosses, the goal is to overcome evil. The real question is how to define it. Some, I suppose, would consider this movie a kind of evil; Gretel’s tight-fitting uniform is a little low-cut for taking on the forces of darkness, I should think. But the real evil is treating other people as enemies. And that even goes for street evangelists. If only they would admit the same for the wider world, maybe all this blood wouldn’t be necessary.
Few experiences encapsulate one’s lack of control like commuting by bus. As my first year of a daily commute to Manhattan draws to a close, I have experienced many mornings of standing in cold or hot air while a bus leisurely makes its way toward my appointed stop twenty, thirty minutes late. The commuter can’t head back home for a moment’s warmth/coolness, because the bus could come at any time. The sense of utter helplessness as you know that you’ll be late for work, and that you got up at 3:30 a.m. for this, settles like an iron blanket over what might have begun as an optimistic day. Then there are those who sit beside you, totally beyond your control. I’m a small guy and I sit scrunched next to the window to get as much light for my reading as I can. Very large people find the extra space next to me attractive, although sometimes they insist I squish even more against the window so they might fit. Overall, however, the exchange of comfort for reading time makes the arrangement palatable. It’s the loss of time that bothers me.
Without traffic, my bus can be at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in an hour. To manage this feat, it has to reach my stop before 6 a.m. On rare occasions it comes perhaps five minutes early. When you take a bus, subject to the vagaries of traffic, the only wise course of action is plan on being a few minutes early. Drivers who watch the clock are dangerous. So it always annoys me when passengers down the line complain if a bus is one minute early. On those exceptional mornings I hear strident voices raised, “you’re two minutes early—I had to run!” or “I was sitting in my car; you came too early!” The driver is scolded and the next day we’re all half an hour late for work. It is the problem of premature transportation. Time, to the best of our knowledge, is something you never get back. I would rather be early rather than late.
I first conceived of wasted time as a religious problem when I was in seminary. There was always so much to do, and relinquishing time to pointless activities such as standing in line, or waiting for the subway, grew acute. Now that I’m an adult anxious about holding down a job that requires a lengthy commute, the issue has arisen again. Clearly part of the difficulty lies in that time is frequently taken from us. The nine-to-five feels like shackles to a former academic. I had classes anywhere from 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. without considering the drain on my time. It was largely, I believe, because pointless waiting was not very often involved. Time, like any limited resource, must be parceled out wisely. Time to bring my morning meditation to an end and get ready for the bus. And if it’s early I will consider it as a divine gift.