Out There: Busing it

Character can be discovered – and built – while riding the buses in this country.

Cartoon Busride 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Cartoon Busride 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Wife worked some 10 minutes away from home for the past 20 years – something very convenient for both of us, and for the kids.
For her, it meant she spared herself the aggravation of a daily commute from our home in Ma’aleh Adumim to Jerusalem – a commute that when the traffic backs up, can leave one frazzled, aggravated and annoyed even before stepping through the office door.
For the kids, it meant she was always home when they returned from school. And for me, it meant pretty much free access to the family car whenever needed.
But The Wife recently changed jobs, necessitating more travel outside our 10- kilometer radius. She doesn’t mind, since she likes her new job. And the kids don’t seem to care whether either of us are ever at home, as long as the refrigerator is stocked. But for me, it means doing something I haven’t done for a long time: busing it.
And riding the bus in this country is both a rich experience and a challenging one.
It’s a rich – oftentimes uplifting – experience coming elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder, knee to knee with one’s people. Yom Ha’atzmaut is just around the corner, and with it all those essays about who we are, what we were, and what we have become.
Well, when I ride the buses I feel who we are, often quite literally: colorful, nosey, variegated, loud, abrasive, pushy, and full of vibrancy, vitality, little acts of kindness, and resiliency.
Especially the resiliency. It’s tough when riding the buses to push fully out of mind the memory of a few short years ago, when buses were exploding often on our leafy streets. But ride and roll our people must, and ride and roll our people did – an uplifting resiliency that demonstrated this people’s amazing staying power.
But still, when I ride the bus and some man with a burlap bag full of green onions from the shuk plops down next to me; or a woman eating a falafel with tehina dripping down her elbow stands over me; or I feel the guy behind me sneezing on the back of my neck, I’m not thinking about that resiliency, but rather reminded of what Dostoevsky wrote in the Brothers Karamazov (I paraphrase liberally): It’s easy to love humanity; what’s tough is to like the guy blowing his nose next to you.
Indeed it is, and that is part of the challenge of riding the buses here. Keeping your equilibrium and patience in the face of onion smells, dripping tehina and the sneezing masses, to say nothing of the screaming, crying kids, and the stifling summer heat.
BUT THAT’S not the only challenge. From a simple bus ride here on a hot summer day, one could prepare the curriculum for a class on everyday moral dilemmas.
A bus ride tests you, and not only in the sense that it challenges your patience. It also challenges your character.
For instance, what do you do when you get on the bus, all excited for some quiet reading time, and – at the next stop – a familiar face gets on. Do you stick your face into the pages of the paper and pretend not to see the person? Do you feign sleep and pray the person walks past? Or do you say hello and welcome that person to sit next to you, when that’s actually the last thing you want? Not because of any enmity for the familiar-faced fellow traveler, but simply because you only want to read.
Or what to do if you get on a bus that is certain to get crowded in another couple of stops. Do you sit in the middle, or go to the back – making a conscious decision that will keep you from having to surrender your seat for the elderly or pregnant, knowing others will inevitably rise before the elderly or pregnant reach your row.
And if you make that kind of decision, what does that say about your character? What kind of person makes those kinds of calculations? How do you react when the guy sitting next to you spills over into your seat, touching you and invading your space? Or what happens if his knee pushes beyond the half-way spot between your seats? What if he’s asleep? Do you stand on principle and fight for your turf? Do you wake him up to move his encroaching leg? Or do you give in? But if you do give in, what kind of wimp are you?
THIS PARTICULAR dilemma is even more acute on airplanes – buses in the sky – where each day dozens of unspoken battles are waged to and from Israel between strangers vying for armrests. I felt this acutely on a recent flight to the US, sitting next to a man who just after take-off made an unabashed grab for unilateral armrest control.
“Well, I never ...,” thought I, taking advantage of that moment when he went to scratch his nose to reassert an elbow-hold on the arm rest.
His elbow returned, and our arms pushed one against the other as if in some kind of adolescent strength contest, with neither person looking up, pretending that the taut tension in our forearms driving against each other was the body’s natural state of rest.
For hours I hated this person in my heart, and I resented myself for letting this disturb my equilibrium, for letting something so small bother me so much, especially at time when the Middle East was burning and there was so much pain in the world.
But you are who you are.
Nevertheless, one can change. Not only do my newfound bus rides get me in touch with my people, they also allow me to regularly try and rise above myself. The bus rides are a regular exercise in self-improvement and control.
Can I defeat my impulses and let things wash over me? And all this for less than NIS 10 a ride.
Recently, on a visit to Boston, I read the following inscription on a bathroom wall: “Thought becomes words; words become actions; actions become character; character is everything.”
Indeed. And character can be discovered – and built – while riding this country’s buses.