I always think about Rosa Parks when I ride the bus, which is not very often. Her refusal to give up her seat on that Montgomery city bus has ensured open seating for all forever after and served as a touchstone for a new more civil and equal society.
Yesterday. as I stepped out of my neighborhood Starbucks, I was assaulted by the heat. My short-sleave shirt clung. The back of my neck grew wet. It was hard to breathe. My plans to walk twenty or so miles would have to change. Good thing I didn’t have any important appointments to keep.
I gazed across the steaming asphalt parking lot, and spied what must have been a mirage. Are those people standing at the side of the road? Is that a bus stop? I never knew!
As I approached, I surmised my English skills were not going to be so useful in navigating this experience. I drew on some pidgin Spanish to learn the bus was expected in 5 minutes. I didn’t know where the bus went or how much it cost, but pourquois pas? The timetable had graciously, but uselessly been posted in both Spanish and English (e.g. Route 2A/Ruta 2A), but there wasn’t a map, or a web address, or QR code, or brochure to be found.
In faith, I climbed aboard and started inserting dollar bills into the till until it wouldn’t take any more. I didn’t get change. Maybe there’s a card I can buy to store money on?
I took a seat in the middle of the bus. All the seats in the front were full, and I’m not sure I could pull the Spanish words together to tell the uniformed busboys and gardeners to move for me, anyway. (Would the bus schedule schedule make them hours early or minutes late to their jobs?)
The bus made quick work of the long connecting artery that would have killed me to walk, but then it didn’t turn where I would to go downtown. Instead, it continued on ahead where I eventually got off in front of the homeless shelter — geographically closer to 5th Ave S, but much further in many ways from where I started.
Walking down old US 41 towards downtown and the beach and vegetation and happy hour, I spotted a charming shaded patio. Pourquois pas?
No one was outside, so I crossed the threshold into the darkened room in search of refreshment. At first I thought the restaurant was empty, but then along the perimeter and in the shady corners clusters of middle-aged latin men started to emerge. Their conversations had halted when I entered; their smoking ceased. In the back of the room, a clown in full makeup waved me in enthusiastically. When the fourteen-year-old girl came out from the behind the bar to see what I was up to, I spewed in my plainest and least nuanced midwestern English, “I’d like a Corona on the patio.” I figure they’d prefer me to sit out front anyway.
On the patio at the El Ricon I was surprised to read on the front page of the Naples News about the new Jump on Express (JOE) connecting the Third Street, Fifth Ave, and Mercato shopping districts. There’s a website and Facebook page for the “high end, semi-public transportation” service. Its leather seats are free, subsidized by local merchants whose ads run on screens onboard (I wonder if any of the ads will be in Spanish?).
I eventually made my way downtown by foot and to my favorite little family-owned French bistro. I spoke pidgin French with the Algerian sitting at the bar who used to live on Essex Street in Salem as I waited for my parents to arrive for dinner and to drive me home.
None of us would take the bus home that night, and I’m not sure I would know how to if I had to. Perhaps I could ask the dishwasher? After all, why would someone of my social status ever need to ride the bus?
I’m afraid that as much as we’d like to pat ourselves on the back and claim bus segregation ancient history — we’ve learned that lesson — I fear we’re as segregated as ever.
Rosa, you can sit wherever you want. I don’t need your dirty old seat, anyway. Aren’t you thankful?