Halfway through the route, an old man -a veteran it appears- boards the bus. As he hobbles down the aisle, I unwittingly smile at him.
Mistake. He stops in front of me, articulates something incoherent, and shakily produces a Dum Dum from his pocket. A ghost of a beard covers his chin. Everything I learned about drug safety in elementary school flashes through my mind, but I take the lollipop, smile, and immediately break eye contact.
That was the only time I ever accepted candy from a stranger.
Whenever I tell people that I semi-regularly ride the metro in a city where public transit is associated with people who aren’t rich enough to have a car, I feel like I get judged. Maybe it’s because they expect me to have a bunch of stories like this. Maybe it’s because they know I also have my license already.
But that first year, taking a lollipop from a stranger was the only interesting story I had. I was coming and leaving during rush hour with people working in the medical center, and I wanted to believe that my red volunteer polo and khakis made me fit in with their scrubs and business clothing. This was nothing like school bus rides in elementary and middle school, which were characterized by conversations with my friends and frantically bugging people for food.
Here, I was amongst a bunch of strangers and eating was prohibited. But in sixth grade, I did run a origami business from the front pocket of my lunch box, folding on the bus rides. (Instead of money, I charged Post It Notes.) I could still do that. I spent my bus rides folding with scraps of paper in my purse, leaving the piece on the bus in an attempt at an artsy project.
Over the next few years, I began travelling other places at other times, and I began to notice more things.
If you were selfish, you took the aisle seat so that no one could take the window seat next to you. Most people generally sat in the window seat. Not that the buses were full enough to warrant filling up both seats. No one in my neighborhood ever waited at my bus stop. The buses usually came at least a minute later than the published schedule, so being slightly late was ok.
As an Asian girl, I was stereotypically one of the most vulnerable populations on the bus. The further away it was from rush hour, the more likely I would be the only non black person on the bus. And the bus wasn’t the place to forge lifelong connections, but I acutely felt like an outsider. The drivers would always answer questions if you asked them, even the stupid ones. If there were a lot of people waiting at the stop, there was a good chance that the bus was coming soon.
On more than one occasion, I’ve been 5+ miles from home waiting for a bus that’s 15 minutes late, with my phone at 1% battery, with no data plan, alone on the edge of a busy street, in the middle of a Houston summer day. I have a friend who was mugged after getting off a bus, yet I choose to have an almost sickening faith in the good will of people. That maybe the rational side of my brain telling me that crime rates are at record lows might actually overpower whatever psychological fears I have.
Even so, I still keep my keys and money in my pockets when I have a choice in case my purse gets stolen. I rarely take out my phone on the bus.
Sometimes, I feel like a tourist on the metro, since I clearly don’t rely on it as my sole source of transportation. Yet, I’m grateful to know that for 60 cents, I could get an air-conditioned ride to anywhere in the city without bothering anyone else for a ride. The metro makes me feel like a silent ninja, moving me around while leaving behind a minimal carbon footprint. I have $1.80 left on my metro card and less than 2 weeks left in Houston.
What are my last three rides going to be?