Back in 2006, a sharply-dressed, elderly black woman sat across from me on the number 6 DART bus. During the 40 minutes we shared on that long cross-county ride, I wondered who she was, where she was born, and what she had seen in her many years.
Maybe she was a Delaware native and witnessed the Wilmington Riots—they weren’t quite riots. Perhaps she grew up in Christiana, one of the only rural towns in New Castle County that had a thriving black community, dating back to the 1850s. Had she moved to Delaware from the South in hopes of a better life? I wondered all these things, but I never asked.
After that ride, I contemplated collecting stories from the people I encountered on the bus. But with classes, work, and life, the bus became too impractical, and I stopped riding a few weeks after seeing her.
Catching people in mobility just seems to poke at the essence of life.† You know they have a story—they are moving through the world between at least two experiences. It could be home and work, home and a doctor appointment, or home and a church meeting. They could be visiting friends, or family, or checking in with a parole officer. You are watching them live, which can only enhance any story they may tell.
On that bus I watched people’s lives, and I relished in it. I could never read for class unless the bus was empty (never), so I sat and watched people talk, read, or fidget. I watched people fall asleep after what was obviously a dirty, sweaty day at work. I saw plenty of drunk people get on the bus, with the pains and hardships that drove them to drinking still etched in their faces.
I once saw a migrant worker, drunk, dazed, and confused, get on the bus with torn clothes and spray-paint all over his back. He had been beaten up and had even defecated himself—but I’ll never know why. I could tell he was headed home, at least. Another man used his entire ride calling about rooms for rent. I got the feeling he had just gotten out of prison or rehab, but I’ll never be sure.
Sometimes when I caught the the early bus, I’d see a group of young city kids riding in the back as they made their way to their suburban high school 12 miles away—as required by desegregation legislation in the 1980s. They were bright and opinionated—once out-arguing an older black man who had begun ranting about them going to the “wrong school,” because it was a “white school.” They were proud to be part of Newark High, and called him a fool. Those same kids always addressed me as “sir,” which seemed quite rare at the time. I often wondered why they were so polite, but I never asked.
There was also the young family who sat their little boy in the seat next to me. He must have been about three and was fascinated by my beard, my backpack, and by his experience on the bus. It seemed like his first ride. I was just as fascinated with his curiosity as I was with his golden curls and big blue eyes. I wondered many things about that young family. They acted as if they were on some new adventure, perhaps looking at a new apartment closer to Newark or visiting a friend they hadn’t seen in a while. But I’ll never know.
The stories I encountered on the bus were my stories as much as the people who lived them. We all shared that time and space between our experiences, and our outside lives often trickled in, leaving impressions on each others’ minds. But with my own hectic and hurried life—full-time classes and full-time work—I simply had too little time and energy to do them justice.
That time on the bus did remind me that I am part of the human race—more than anything had for a long time. Journalist Jacqui Banaszynski once said, “stories make us human. Only by telling them do we remain so.”†† I wish I had collected more stories to tell.
† I feel the same is true in photography. See http://glennferrell.com/?page_id=972.
†† Jacqui Banaszynski,”Stories Matter,” in Telling True Stories, eds. Mark Kramer and Wendy Call (New York: Penguin, 2007), 5.