Published on Wednesday, August 28, 2002 in the San Francisco Chronicle
The Long and Winding Road
by Stephanie Salter
I think we're all bozos on this bus.
THE WOMAN with the black canvas tote bag would have preferred to see a 27- Bryant bus coming down Fifth Street, but a brightly-lit 26-Valencia showed up first and hissed to a stop. The woman got on.
So, it would be an eight-block trek home instead of three. People who use public transit learn not to be choosy. Besides, it was 9:30 p.m., and the woman with the black canvas tote bag did not need to be hanging around downtown San Francisco any longer. She had allowed herself to be what diplomatic bartenders once called "over-served" and needed to get home.
Lately, it seemed that everyone the woman knew wanted to buy her a drink. Like many folks in the popped-bubble economy, her job status was changing (not for the better). People were sorry for her. Like former President Elvis, they felt her pain.
Carefully, the woman tucked herself into a shiny plastic seat near no one. (Over-served or not, she knew it's poor form to breathe vodka gimlets onto strangers.) As the bus picked its way along Mission Street, she looked around at her fellow passengers, her diminutive but presumably capable driver, and realized she felt, not pain, but peace.
This often happened when the woman rode any form of mass transit. She suspected it had to do with surrender. On a public bus or train there is nothing to fight: not traffic, road rage, an empty gas gauge, the clock. For the time it takes to get from Point A to Point B, it's all someone else's responsibility.
There was also the perspective thing.
When she drove her car, the woman with the black canvas tote bag was an island, encased in steel (and plastic) and cut off from humanity. In a car, it is easy to take things personally. It is easy to delude yourself into thinking that you are the only person who ever got a divorce or cancer or suffered a job setback, a rebellious kid, a precipitous drop in the Dow or a prolonged existential malaise.
On public transit, it is so obviously the opposite. We are all in "It" together, literally and metaphorically. For the ride home, for the great, winding journey of life.
Were she able to poll the dozen people riding with her, the woman knew she would hear all sorts of stories of injustice, heartbreak, despair, betrayal and fear. (And stories of triumph, large and small, over the wounds.)
How about the young mother with two small daughters and heavy grocery bags in tow? Or the sad-eyed old man, sitting bent and fragile just behind the driver? What about the three teenagers, making up in noisy bravado what they lack in prospects for the future?
Who among us has cornered the market on pain? Who has the exclusive rights to anger, grief or tears? Who hasn't awakened at least one morning and doubted the wisdom of rising for another day? Who never needs a consoling arm around his shoulders, a compassionate hand cradling her face?
In the midst of what had become a bit of a meditation, the woman with the black canvas tote bag noticed that the bus featured an automated voice message she had not heard before. Activated when the driver pulls away from a stop, it is a female voice, no-nonsense but protective, which implores:
"Please. Hold on."
The woman thought it was the best advice she had heard in a long time, the best she could offer any passenger on a bus or on the rocky, uncertain path of life. Yes, let's. To our values, our hopes, our courage -- to each other -- please, hold on.
This is my last column for The Chronicle opinion page. My new home will be the Sunday Insight section where I'll dust off my reporter's hat and try to present some people, ideas and events that are worthy of your attention.
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle