On the Bus With Kathy Jo: Racism on the Bus
I'm waiting for the bus, putting my headphones on. I love listening to music while I cruise -- it makes me feel like my life has a soundtrack. Everything rolls by like a movie. I'm the only audience but I'm still the star. Today Patti Smith is the director and I'm the take-no-prisoners Jo I've come to know and love. GI Joe -- no bus, no glory!I'm such an asshole. Truth is, I feel like a 14 year-old getting on her first bus to a new school -- full wigdom. I get paranoid when I need sleep and feel like everyone's staring at me like I'm a five-dollar whore. I tell myself "don't worry Jo, you're just so cool that no one can see it." Kinda the way I used to tell myself that a man didn't call back 'cause he liked me too much. Ouch. And just like in a movie, with that thought, the bus crests the hill.I flash my pass, aim my eyes straight back and walk to my seat without thinking. My favorite Smith song is starting, "Birdland." The piano at the beginning is so beautiful, it's eerie. Distorted but soothing. Patti sings "White lids, white opals seeing everything just a little bit too clearly and he looked around and there was no black ship in sight, No black funeral cars, nothing."A bunch of African American kids get on the bus, go to the back, saggin' and jaggin' each other, trying to wig everyone out. They make me nervous. I always think people can tell when I'm spent and start weird shit with me.I look back out the window and someone, who I think is a woman, sits next to me. She takes up as little room as possible. I huddle even closer to the window although she never touched me. Strange.The bus turns and passes in front of the county jail. Everyone on the bus gets quiet when we roll by it -- except the teen-agers who get twice as loud. Every day I watch people trying to avoid gawking and every day they succumb and stare, every eye ashamed. Everyone guilty of something. I look down.Someone named "Big Duke" wrote "Black Power" on the back of the seat in front of me. Big Duke? Black Power? On the back of the bus? How big does anyone feel staring through the greasy circle some one's head left on the window?Something's happening. The kids from the back are coming closer, getting louder, without seeing them I know they're moving. My body freezes. First stage wigdom alert. Maybe they think I'm some stupid white bitch.I am stupid. They only got up 'cause they're getting off the bus. I'm so spent I didn't notice we were downtown. But when they're right beside me, I hear a low, tight voice saying "shit, that nigger's nose is so big, she gotta blow it with a beach towel."What a relief. I mean I'm not black, they didn't start with me. And it seems funny, like me saying I'm so fat you could park a bus in my belly button. Amused, I turn to find the only black girl on the bus sitting right next to me.Her pink eyes have dark centers and pale pools trembling in their corners. Oh man. I jerk my head back too fast, stare out the window too hard. I was about to laugh until I saw her -- saw her as my big white teeth yellowed in a chlorine smile that I can't believe I was capable of.And she's sitting within inches of me. I wish I could talk to her, tell her they were a bunch of assholes. But it would humiliate her more knowing I heard.I wish she got respect like pretty white girls with their articulate blond braids, the kind of girls who have boys carry their books, who stay virgins 'till they're married. And she would live on a street where there are no buses, and she'd have a car, a dependable car. I just wish I could stop her crying is all.And right now, I feel like she wouldn't be crying if she wasn't black. Their comment was emblematic of a physical ideal that is still white. So I somehow feel responsible. Just thinking about race makes me feel racist.If I think her life might be easier if she was white, people assume I'm saying she can't be happy if she's black. But there are a million degrees of separation between the have and have nots. Young black men are taking it out on each other and any occurrence of this is unacceptable.And blacks are economically disadvantaged, even compared to Hispanics. But we can't begin to establish causality if we're not willing to work with generalities, with trends that may echo stereotypes. We must learn to separate causality and blame.I'd like to offer observations without fear of being accused of being racist when I swear to God, all I want to do is help. But I admit that being treated like an enemy because I'm white pisses me off, inspires a feeling like I'm entitled to return some prejudices. I just think stupid shit when I just don't know what to do.But I know how it feels to when bank tellers won't make eye contact with me when I cashed welfare checks. I know how it feels to be strip-searched and have to spend months on end in a jail cell. I know how exhausting it is to be treated like a loser -- how it feels to be beat, to have no hope, no future past the day's buzz. I know how I got away from all that. But I know I can't imagine how it feels to be black, to feel even more beat.We're waiting for a car to back up that didn't see the "stop here on red" sign. Staring through the window, looking on the ground, I see a piece of the sky trapped in a puddle: impossible blues and sorry whites dissected by power lines -- the dirtier the water, the clearer the reflection.