They woke up early in the morning. They put on hotel maid uniforms, the blue and white checkered pants of a short order cook, the laundry worker's smock, the easily recognizable fast food restaurant get-ups. They stand in the early light of day, waiting for the city bus to take them to their jobs. The salt of the earth. The lost and the fallen amongst a society that places too much value on the wealth and privilege of carefully defined success.
The bus people are like a secret society standing outside the umbrella of fancy cars, new houses, romantic lobster dinners and vacations abroad. They live from one day to the next, measuring their success and happiness in small things that people higher on the food chain easily lose sight of. The regular travelers know each other and they talk easily amongst themselves. Some are very tired, filled with anger, rage and resentment, but they are not the majority.
When I worked and lived amongst the bus people, I found them to be a mostly congenial group. They were, at first, overly friendly and too eager to enter into conversation with newcomers. It is their way. They extend a hand and ask questions of each other, something we have learned not to do while commuting alone in our cars and working alone in our little offices and cubicles. They are constantly surrounded by people, sitting on plastic benches and waiting for their destination to come into view. They wait and pull the signal wire, telling the bus driver "let me off here."
They are often looked down upon by the businessman and the scholar. They are seen by many as lazy and stupid. When I rode with them for several months, I saw something else in their eyes. They were often tired and beaten, but they would not break. There was something that kept them going and I labored to understand what that something was. They were protective, but they were very giving.
When a woman with many bags came onto the bus and found herself fifteen cents short of the fare, she panicked and began fervently rummaging through her purse for the extra fifteen cents. Three youths at the back of the bus began yelling at her. They called her names and told her to "stop holding everyone up." They were interlopers. They were not the bus people, for the bus people rose from their seats and gave the extra money she needed to pay the fare. A tired old man who cooked at a downtown hotel helped her with the bags and offered her his seat. He told her not to pay attention to the youths. They were young and foolish and did not understand. She thanked him. He said that was unnecessary. When her stop came, another man helped her carry her bags off the bus.
At first, I sat quietly on the bus, wrapped in my own thoughts and wondering how I would work myself back to living the lifestyle I had grown accustomed to. That day, the man who helped the woman with her bags sat next to me after giving his seat to her. He began to tell me his story. At first I shut him out. Slowly, I began to listen. He was not that different from me. No one amongst the bus people was much different from those outside the bus windows who drove new cars and wore neatly pressed clothing. The road the bus people traveled was a harder one, but only in the sense of time and the nature of their labor. In always being one step away from having nothing, they learned to care about and look after each other. They understood the nature of things in a way those with plush cushions and wide safety nets could not.
I was rescued from their fate by the arrival of a check for a large sum of money. As the months passed I was able to buy a car, find a decent job, pay my bills and enjoy the types of frills my life had afforded me previously. I was not by any means wealthy, but compared to the bus people I had a great deal of privilege. As I drove past the bus stops, I looked at them and I smiled. I had been one of them for a time and I now respected them instead of looking down on them.
Several days ago I was awoken from a deep sleep by a golden light that pierced through my window shades. It came across my bed, my body and my face. I awoke, far earlier than I ever normally would, and did not feel tired. In my head the words "there is plenty" repeated as if to make certain I remembered.
The poor man gives more freely than the rich man, for he understands the plight of his brother. The rich man gives to charities, but often makes certain his donations are tax deductable. He gives nothing because he gets something in return. The act is not selfless. To give is to give of yourself without anticipating or expecting anything in return. The man who has all he needs and then some attends church services, for he feels they absolve him, and that they make him a better man than his brother who does not. The man who has much wealth and material things seeks to increase his holdings, for he feels this is the way of things. The man who has little fights his way through every day and learns more. He is more prepared to teach than the opulent man, for no one that goes without need learns what it is to need. He only learns what it is to want.
In a dream they told me to become a messenger. They showed me a house. It was the house in which I grew up. Men had come and extracted the structural supports of the house. It was fragile and weak and showed signs of beginning to collapse. I went into the house and began to gather things. These things were memories and reminders. The house continued to stand, but its days were numbered.
We place a great value on the virtues of hard work and in building things. We look down on those who we believe are not enraptured with these virtues. There is the man who struggles every day to find his next meal, who has stopped looking for work because he has been turned away for so long, who surrenders his dignity to beg for things. There is the man who lives comfortably in a big house, who audits his investments and cultivates his portfolio while sitting behind a desk making decisions. Is the second man by definition more virtuous than the first?
The dream had two frames. In the second I found myself in a great museum, a place with many great rooms and many great things filling these rooms. The museum was cold and dark and I was only allowed to bring with me a small group of friends. They told me that I could open the museum, but only after I had done what needed to be done.
There is a void in the spirit of mankind, and it grows larger every day. We commit crimes against each other on a daily basis. We hear, but we do not listen. We watch, but we do not witness. We judge each other, and we do not forgive. We hate our enemies, and we do not love our brothers. We divide ourselves, and we do not seek understanding. We find reasons to fear, and we hide ourselves in shrouds of safety instead of lifting up our veils. We fool ourselves with false triumphs.