Riding the bus with Gary Winslow: Communication

It was Monday, my long day at work, when I don’t get out till after 8. I was tired, it was cold and windy, and all I wanted to do was get my tail home, crack a brew, and watch Monday Night Football. I was standing there, hoping the three buses I would have to take would sync up this particular evening. For the sake of saving time and getting a little exercise, I’ll often take the first leg of the 12 Mile to the Royal Oak Transit Center, then pedal to the D from there … but this night? Hell naw! My hands were already freezing from the mere 200-yard ride from my job to the bus stop so, to reiterate, I was really hoping for these buses to sync up.

Well, lo and behold, my 8:32 12 Mile showed up on a dime, and since the bike rack was empty, the first part of the trifecta came to fruition. My man that drives that line is not only a cool cat, but consistently punctual, so, although I wasn’t too worried, I was glad that the evening got off to a good start. On the subject of this gentleman driver: One day he told us that the reason he is always on time is because, unlike most drivers, he doesn’t take breaks at the end of his runs. Now that’s what I call dedication. As a matter of fact, I gotta give him a shout for stopping the bus for me when I wasn’t quite to the bus stop just yesterday. Stellar brutha, as far as I’m concerned.

The ride went without a hitch and as we arrived at the transit center, the 450 Woodward was sitting there waiting! This was special because most of the time I just miss this mug due to the double-edged sword of my man’s strict punctuality; no sooner, no later. I thanked the cosmos for this good fortune as I snatched my bike off the first bike rack and re-racked it on the next one.

When I boarded, I dropped in my transfer and said, “Wooo, am I glad to see you,” thinking I’d be able to at least get a smile out of her, but I got no response whatsoever. I guess I wasn’t the only one who had a long, tiring day, so I chalked it up to that and went to find myself a seat on the rather crowded bus. Out of my periphery I noticed the impression of a man curled in the frontmost seat on the right side of the bus. At first I didn’t take much note of him, but I did see the empty two seats next to him. I thought it odd that there were these empty seats on such a crowded bus, particularly in the front, but as I made my way I began to take off my backpack, my nose told me why. Indeed I caught the terribly familiar odor of homelessness, and it came from the slumped-over gentleman that I previously took no note of. Upon further investigation, I could see that the gentleman had the weathered hands and the tattered clothes that sadly accompany the scent of a man that obviously was dealing with very difficult circumstances … ones that would make any complaint of mine pale in comparison.

I gave more thanks to the Almighty for my blessings, and, without any sort of way to help my man out, I disappointedly shuffled my way to the back, still hoping that my final bus would be at the ready. When we arrived at State Fair, my prayers were again answered. State Fair is the end of the line for the 450 Woodward, so everyone empties the bus and most of us take the 53 Woodward toward downtown, so I hustled up once more to make sure I got a space on the bike rack and some sort of seating for the final leg of this journey.

I got on, found a seat, started to survey the scene as I often do, and rejoiced that I was gonna get home before the second half of the game. The bus loaded up with my fellow passengers and things were pretty uneventful till, per chance, I looked down and saw something that surprised me a bit … the brutha had on some crispy-ass Etnies on. Now, for those of you who don’t know what Etnies are, they’re high-quality skateboarding and biking shoes that have been around since I can remember. Back in my skateboarding days, I couldn’t afford them, but quite often I wore some sort of skating shoe, off-brand or not. To this day you’ll see me sporting skate or bike shoes on the regular, ’cause … well, I’m still a BMX rider.

There was a time when it wasn’t too cool to roll in skate shoes, and I distinctly remember catchin’ shit from my fellow hood compadres for it. They’d be like, “What you wearin’ dem white boy shoes for?” and other assorted jibes. I had to defend myself, of course, and even though I ain’t never gave a rats ass what fools think, it’s kind of mind-boggling that I see hood cats sporting them much more often these days. Hell, I’ve even seen a sista wearing those “boots with the furs” that are pretty popular and they were Airwalks! (That’s an old-school skateboarding company as well, if you don’t know.)

Anyhow, I voiced my approval of those “crispy” red-on-red shoes he wore: “Nice Etnies, bruh.” Oddly, I got no response, so thinking he didn’t hear me, I tapped him on the shoulder and repeated my compliment, “Hey, nice Etnies, bruh.” He looked over at me and did something I damn sure didn’t see coming; he sort of shrugged, shook his head slightly from side to side, and pointed at his ears and went back to minding his business … homeboy couldn’t hear for real.

After initially being taken aback by this, I decided it should be no reason not to give the man his props on those fly Etnies, so I tried again. Hoping I wouldn’t annoy him, I took my chances and tapped him on the shoulder yet again. This time when he looked up I pointed down to his shoes and gave a thumbs up, alternating the two gestures to clarify why I was bugging him again. Communication is somethin’ else, ’cause that’s all I had to do to get a friendly response from this brutha. He smiled and gave a nod of gratitude, then continued our conversation on another note. He put his arms together in front of his torso and executed a shivering like motion and pointed outside. I concurred and said, “Hell, yeah, it’s brick out,” and we nodded in agreement as I gave the weather a Julius Caesar-style thumbs down. He laughed.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, he pulled out a pen and paper quicker than I ever could and began writing frantically as I sat there puzzled. What could be so urgent in the midst of this mild-mannered conversation? As it turns out it wasn’t about me at all …

My question was answered as we approached 6 Mile and I noticed a brutha getting out of his seat and making his way to the rear exit door. When he got there, my man reached over the divider and handed him the note he so hurriedly composed. The dude at the door took the note, read it, nodded his head and began communicating with his homeboy with a mixture of enunciated words and sign language. I sat there fascinated, watching them do their thing in a fashion that could only be understood between two people who knew each other very well. They continued going over their plans in intricate and lightning fashion, trying to nail everything down before homeboy had to get off. Finally the bus came to a complete stop and they made their final salutations as homeboy stepped off.

The bus continued down the line as we both went into our respective worlds until we got to his stop. When it was time for him to get off we looked in each other’s direction and gave each other an almost military-like salute, complete with a peace sign and off he went.

After he got off the bus I began to reflect. I wondered if he was born deaf or lost his hearing through life’s course. I contemplated what sort of struggles he’s dealt with and what adjustments he might have had to make. I concluded that he must’ve met these challenges well, as he seemed to be what a psychologist might call a “happy, well-adjusted person,” judging by our brief interaction. I could see that he communicated concisely and had a positive disposition, and, God help me, I was kinda surprised. I guess that fact exposes my preconceived notions of a deaf person that I wasn’t even aware of. I mean … how is a deaf person supposed to act? I guess that would vary as much as it would with people who can hear. Duh …

It’s funny but, as the bus traveled on, I began to notice something rather strange … the bus was eerily quiet. That’s right, a Detroit city bus moving along without so much as a peep. No rustling, shuffling, shouting, laughing, arguing, or even talking on the telephone did I hear. In fact, all I heard was the bus engine, which was, in fact, almost like background noise to this strange yet blissful silence.

The bus finally arrived at my destination and, when I got off, I continued to reflect on the lessons this particular ride taught me. There was an interesting duality of theme that I had not been able to articulate till now; silence can be sublime, but only if it’s an option. Even though our aurally challenged friend seemed well-adjusted, I wouldn’t want to trade places with him for anything. So for those of us who have all of our senses and faculties intact, rejoice … ’cause you never know.

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