I had to go out of town this past week for my uncle’s funeral. It’s two buses from here to South Beloit, Illinois, requiring a transfer in Madison. Add in a city bus ride to and from the downtown Milwaukee station and I rode six buses in two days.
I saw a lot of people on this trip, some much closer than I might generally like. Still, I’m pretty patient with the proximity, the unintended intimacies, of strangers traveling together, and as an introvert, I’m fascinated by their interactions.
On the bus from Madison to Milwaukee, there was an African American man speaking loudly on his cell phone. The man had the gravelly, smoker’s voice of Milwaukee’s streets and a Redd-Foxxy grizzled laugh, a series of falling notes, “Hih, hih, hih.” It was a voice that had been through some things, a well-earned laugh that remained full of joy. I instantly liked this man. He sounded like my dad.
He carried on his conversation from the moment he found a seat, from the UW student union all the way on down I-94 to Johnson Creek, a distance of 35 miles. Finally, a young woman with a German accent, perhaps a Madison graduate student, kneeled on her seat, leaned over the headrest, and shouted for him to be quiet.
“I am trying to do some work here,” she said. “You’ve been talking forever and you need to be quiet now.”
At this invitation to confrontation, two young men at different ends of the bus took the opportunity to mimic the man’s laugh, a spontaneous collective cruelty that I found baffling.
I looked at the woman who had called out. She had the pressed clothes, unblemished skin, and narrow nose of transplanted Aryan privilege. She was studying something technical (I later saw in her notebook as I passed), involving mathematical equations and diagrams. Somehow this course of study made me like her even less.
He said, “Alright, I’m going to do that.”
She thought he was challenging her and she restated her demands a couple of times. There was moment when I thought we might have a shouting match on our hands. She obviously didn’t understand what he was saying.
He gave up trying to clarify that he was acquiescing and turned back to his conversation on the phone, much quieter now. I heard him say, “Yeah, sorry. I was having an interaction with somebody. This person was asking me to tone it down a little bit.” He didn’t sound angry, just kind of disappointed.
I should tell you what his phone call was about. He had been talking to his young daughter and, I would guess, the daughter’s mother. He was on his way to Milwaukee, triumphant, bearing winter coats, jeans, and other clothes for his girl, his “apple baby.” He had bought two of everything so she could choose which one was best, the pink coat or the one just like it in green, the smaller size or the larger. He’d just take back whatever she couldn’t use. He had enough money to do that — it sounded like maybe for the first time in a long while. These are things you say in a loud voice, when you can afford to say them. These are things you say accompanied by a happy laugh, your own, true laugh.
The graduate student in her nice clothes and her huffy, public devotion to her studies was saying something along the same lines, much less joyfully but certainly loudly enough for us all to hear. I doubt she ever stops saying it.