I spent all of calendar year 2017 working as a student, an intern and as an actual, money-earning employee. It was pretty exhausting and I very much hope that 2018 is different in that regard. But now that the winter break is here, I am glad to be catching up on sleeping, reading and writing. So this is something that happened to me this summer that I've been meaning to write about for the past six months or so.
For those readers who do not know me personally, it is important to the story to point out that I am a large man. I am around 6'1" with a build more appropriate to a linebacker than to the small forward that I, as a boy, had hoped to become. But more important than that is the fact that I am pretty fat. It's not my favorite thing about myself, but it's relevant to my story. So there it is.
One day about six months ago I was riding the bus home from school. It was pretty crowded for Austin, which is to say that most of the seats were filled and several people, including me, were standing in the aisle. Eventually the bus stopped and someone got up to leave. She was sitting in those seats right up at the front, the ones that are parallel to the side of the bus and perpendicular to the other seats. I was in the front of several people who were standing in the aisle. So now there was one empty seat between three or four other people, and I was the most obvious person to take it.
I did not want that seat. To sit between two other people on a bus I have to squeeze between them and spend the whole time wondering whether they are feeling smushed and resenting me for being overweight. Plus I always feel smushed myself. Overall, sitting between other people is a far more unpleasant experience for me than is simply standing up for an extra mile or two.
So when this guy on the bus asked me "Do you want to sit there?" I politely declined. Nevertheless, he persisted. He kept telling me that it wouldn't be hard to get to the seat, that no one else was going to take it and that it would be a shame if if I had to stand. I continued to politely decline. But he would not let up about it.
There is a certain type of person in this world, a stranger who I am most likely to meet in public settings like buses, subways and parks. This is a person who is having his (these people are always men) own conversation but who may or may not be including me in it. The things that this person says are in the ballpark of appropriate responses to the things I say, but are not really 100% on the money. Such people leave me wondering if they actually know that I am there, or are just kind of having a conversation with themselves. This guy could very well have been one of those people. It's nice to offer a seat to a stranger, but for most people, one "no" reply was all you need before dropping the subject. Someone who is not seeing that fact might be having trouble with social cues or have some other kind of issue with which I probably do not want to get involved. In that case, my general policy is to leave them to themselves and try to interact as little as possible. So there was something to be said for trying very hard not to continue with this conversation.
On the other hand, though, this man could have just been a really kind, thoughtful, considerate—and insistent—fellow traveler in the sometimes impersonal world of public transportation. Were this to be the case, I certainly wouldn't want to be rude to him while he was serving as an oasis of kindness in the desert of people's general assholery. So I decided that of the two alternatives, getting sucked into a nonsensical conversation with a kook on the bus would be better than continually ignoring a truly kindhearted person. So the next time he asked, I replied by saying something along the lines of, "Listen, I'm a big guy. It would be a lot of work to squeeze in there and my stop really isn't that far away. It's very nice of you to be concerned, but I'm fine where I am."
To my great relief that seemed to satisfy him. We rode on for a while and then this person got to his stop. The bus was still crowded and he got off, if I recall, out of the back door. One way or another, what ensued was one of those weird situations in which I had to get off the bus in order to let him disembark before I could then get back on the bus myself.
So for a brief moment, this guy and I were standing outside the bus by ourselves. He extended his hand and I took it. As we shook hands, he said, "You're not too big to be my friend."
This parting statement completely threw me. There was no mistaking the kindness in what he had done and said. But a bit of kookiness might have been involved as well. Where was this guy coming from? Why did he want to shake my hand? Similarly, why does he think I need him as my friend? No one had said anything about us being friends. We had only exchanged a few words, none about anything more interesting than taking a seat on the bus. Was he coming from a place of poor social awareness or even mental illness?
That would have been a perfectly reasonable reaction, but it is not the one that I had. Because when this man said what he did, it felt like he had peered into my soul, confronted my deep-seated shame about my own body and reassured me that I am worthy of love. Thinking of it today, even for a moment, brings tears to my eyes. I got back on the bus and then he was gone. I haven't seen him since and honestly don't even remember what he looks like.
But something else puts this whole event in an even stranger light. I am white, and this stranger was black. Students of Hollywood film will therefore recognize what I went through was a textbook encounter with a "magical Negro." This term refers to a certain African-American supporting stock character common in mainstream American films. Spike Lee criticized this trope in 2001 and many writers have since echoed his concerns. Magical Negroes possess cryptic wisdom and (often) supernatural powers, which they put to use in the service of troubled white people. These characters are not superheroes, who are typically at the center of their own narratives. Instead, they play a background role in someone else's story. And while black people could no doubt use some supernatural intervention in their lives, the magical Negro uses his/her influence for the benefit of white folks. The recipient of the magical Negro's gift typically must grow in maturity and understanding in order to take full advantage of whatever help or insight is being offered. (On a side note, Key and Peele's sketch on the topic is pretty funny.) Among the dozens of films often cited for the use of the magical Negro trope are Driving Miss Daisy, The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption. As a Star Trek fan, I'd have to admit that Whoopi Goldberg's Guinan probably belongs on this list as well.
These days, the magical Negro device is considered hackneyed in execution and racist in content, even though it still appears. All of these criticisms are important and valid. But they do not change the fact that this thing on the bus really happened to me. So what do I make of this incident? Did this man come to our earthly realm just to help me feel better about my life? Was he preternaturally insightful and perceptive, or just kind of socially awkward? Am I making too much of a random comment that just happened to strike a chord?
All of these are possible. But after spending the last year-and-a-half charting a new direction for my own life by enrolling in policy school, I find myself reaching an altogether different conclusion. During that period I have been increasingly drawn to the significance of urban policy. And from that perspective I cannot get past the fact that the whole event would not have resonated with me as strongly as it did had this man not been a stranger. And I could not have been thrown into this random, yet powerful, encounter with that stranger had not a city and all its infrastructure (like the bus system) existed to facilitate that meeting. Jane Jacobs called the "first fundamental of successful city life," the expectation that "people must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to each other." For one small moment, for reasons I will likely never understand, that stranger took responsibility for me.