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On the Bus With Kathy Jo: When Fear Limits

I'm dissolving in a slow wait at the bus stop. The sun's hot -- the wind, constant. Everything's poised between heat and relief. I keep my headphones off for awhile. Something about an empty breeze in the brittle leaves of August dulls the sound of passing traffic.Holy shit! I haven't been on the bus in a week and look what's happened. I'm pensive, even paranoid. I used to look forward to my daily commute with an uneasy understanding that I'd be better for it. I feel closer to the world from spending time trapped with people I'd never see anywhere else. But after only a week's absence, I dread the wobbly approach of the bus.I have no job, only "prospects" -- no need for a monthly pass to flash at the driver like a badge of valor signifying prestige in the underground world of public transportation. Today I have to use money, hope the dollar bill slips smoothly into the machine so that I can pay before the driver peels away from the curb, making me stumble, almost fall as my sweaty palms would grope for a cold silver bar to absorb my weight.I swear other patrons have puckered with satisfaction at my fumbling. And yet others offered bits of their life's stories or unsolicited complements. Aw, now I miss them. When I've admitted loving my time on the bus, car people think I'm spent. But when I exchange stories with other riders, soft, crooked smiles curl on the corners of our lips and eyes.The bus appears over the hill right before, instead of after, I light a cigarette. I guess it's gonna be a good day. After all, the flowers around McDonald's are in bloom, and my lace skirt gently brushes against freshly-shaven legs. The wind's fragrant with happy endings and adjectives.So of course the light turns red as the bus approaches the curb. I'll be able to pay and find a seat without worry. La la la. 9:10 AM. The bus is full of white hair and hats, first trip when senior citizens' passes are accepted. I'm galloping along feeling lucky and lithe when I see some young chickie in my favorite seat. Son of a Jo, every window seat is gone. Today I'll have to face them, but not without my headphones.I press "play" and sink into The Counting Crows. I meld with the soothing ache of Adam Duritz singing "A Murder of One." I'm wondering what he and I will name our first child after he begs me to marry him when a meticulous elderly man hurries into a seat across the aisle. An innocent chaos flashes from his eyes. It's the same desperation I see in those who ramble at the kind of bus driver who takes your transfer and crumbles it in an ink-stained palm without looking at it or you.The man keeps looking back at the girl. She doesn't have headphones or a book. And they made eye contact. She's done for -- he's going to speak. When I see his eyes glisten with tears, I turn down my tunes. If she doesn't know how to respond, I'll have to.All anyone wants is a little recognition -- a smiling stranger full of sympathetic nods and polite "ah ha's". And we all deserve the dignity of a response. Yeah, maybe I'm an asshole determined to spread harmony on the busses of Pittsburgh, so above the average, minding-my-own-business type. But twenty years on busses will do that to you. I hope.Oh man. His wife of 32 years recently died from cancer. He thought he'd ride the bus into town. Get out of the house for awhile. The girl in the corner just lugged her purse on her lap and is going into the kind of safety drills that Self magazine runs. She juts her chin forward, tightens her posture, displaying that hyperbolic arrogance of fear. He picks up on it and turns away with a pained look, like already this wretched world has forgotten the delicate scent his wife's memory.I'm not ready for this. Well, he doesn't know that my headphones are off. I can pretend I didn't hear. No, I can't. Shit. How can she be afraid? Bored, I could understand. What would she know about how slim the chances are that she'll find someone that she could live with for 32 years and still love? But scared?Social illiteracy and the fears behind it engender a paranoia that chokes any sense of community that could exist between disparate groups of people. How can she not know the difference between a lonely old man and a potential threat? I know she's scared 'cause she doesn't know what to do. But she doesn't care enough to even try.Maybe I'm being too hard on her. Fear is the most powerful rhetorical device know to the media. Being a good American is synonymous with being afraid. In God we trust. For what? Protection from those who don't fear God.And it's the most destructive emotion we're capable of -- the source of hate. We think it sustains us but it's killing us. People want to be safe and buy guns that get stolen while they're at work so more people buy more guns to protect themselves from all the guns on the street. Governments do the same. Mutual deterrence. Scary.Being afraid is human. Being a coward is stupid. When fear limits who we'd know or what we'd do, it's stupid. Then again, my therapist said I had a terrifying lack of fear. I've been beaten stabbed burned raped and robbed and nothing scares me 'cause I know I can't control for the big nightmares.You never see disaster coming. I only quit giving into my fears when I realized how useless it was. If some bastard wants to kill me, he'll figure out a way. And the last man who tried to grab me backed down because I refused to let him see me afraid. I stared him down. Being afraid is like wearing a "kick-me" sign.Anyway, seems like the big fear the reality that no one knows what they're capable of. Haven't we all daydreamed about sucker-punching our beloved in the jaw? And yet an especially effective punch could make a murderer out of us. Circumstance can illicit beasts from us that we never knew existed. So we fear the beast in everyone as if we're more afraid of them.Jeffrey Dahmer was "quiet." Ted Bundy was "charming." A serial killer must be the definition of discrete. I figure you either gotta trust everyone or no one. And there aren't enough "bad people" in the world to justify fearing everyone. Besides, you're in more danger of a frat boy, who just spent $100 on dinner, raping you than a stranger in a dark alley. In more danger from your spouse than a stranger.But we don't lump our main source of sex. But we generally don't kill our main source of sex no matter how much we'd like to. We don't stab our neighbor who guns his Harley every weekday morning at 5 AM. We get up, shave our teeth and go out in the world with people basically like us. Now that's scary.The gentle man is now talking to a lady carrying a bag made of Iron City cans crocheted together. I would have talked to him. That's easy to say now that I don't have to. But I would have.The biggest danger you face on the bus is overhearing someone who looks like an asshole, pontificating your exact beliefs. We really only vary in packaging and in the bullshit we use to justify breaking all the rules that we hold everyone else accountable to.Get your ass on a bus. Please?

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