I sat up on one of the stone ledges before the windows of the U.S. Appraisers Stores building on South Gay Street. This was my ritual of waiting on the 19 bus that would transport me from the Inner Harbor through downtown and up Harford Road to the county where my parents lived. I often retreated there for comfort and sleep. It was easier than making the several connections to my home.
The bus made its wide turn and stopped for me. The interior lights displayed how crowded it already was from the first few stops. I boarded and slipped by the people huddled behind the driver and those holding on to the straps and rails above the aisle. I took a front-facing seat in the back quarter.
I made and received no more than the ordinary indifferent, tired or pleasant eye contact exchanged on a late evening ride, occasionally glancing up and around at the other passengers. The bus clobbered over pitted streets and jerked at times to follow its route out of the city. It was my habit to listen to any good conversations, read, or rest my head to allow the time to pass.
In time, I noticed a guy about forty, in a baseball cap, two seat rows in front of me. With an arm across the headrests, he sat with his back to the window and peered back at me. He said nothing.
But that changed about three or four stops later when the bus packed to capacity. People were standing the full length of the aisle and grumbling every time the driver hollered, “Move back! Move all the way back!”
It was then that a tall, gloomy-eyed twenty-something and his older relative came aboard. The young man deftly weaseled his way through the mass of bodies when he finally stood directly above my chair. He held the strap above my head. He looked at me at length. I looked up, scaling the ascent of his billowy, oversized white tee to his arms, sparse beard and knit cap. We settled on each other’s eyes. His eyes had bags underneath them, creasing the skin over his cheekbones; however, his magnetic pupils were intense. I tried to acknowledge him with a nod. He examined my pants.
“Look at this businessman! Nice pants. Them shits high waters though. Why you riding this bus?”
The question greased the gears of the seated guy in the baseball cap. He jeered, “Look at him! He’s scared. He ain’t ever been on a bus with a bunch of spooks before.”
The center of the bus thundered half in laughter and half in shock at the audacious direction of this conversation. All eyes looked at me for an answer. I said I took this bus all the time. I wanted to say, but didn’t, that I took offense at the suggestion that I was somehow afraid of, or unaccustomed to, sharing a public space with black people. I knew I didn’t need to answer these assumptions, that doing so might intensify the heckling, but the irony and awkwardness hurt. In the moment, I was a surface, a stereotype, a symbol of power or ignorance to prod and pick apart.
The young man looked down on me as the bus sped along to new stops. I remember the bus also skipped some.
“Look at this motherfucker’s hair.” He got his laughs. The guy before me contributed additional damning comments.
The young man’s relative, his uncle, did his best to save me the hassle. When the teasing and laughter kicked in, he would scramble from up by the driver down the aisle to retrieve his nephew.
“Come on now. Leave that man alone. Leave him be. Come up with me. He’s my nephew,” he explained. “Don’t make no trouble on this bus!”
The young man would not budge, or if he did, he would only move up for a second or two to make a comment about me to the center crowd. Then he’d return, dying of laughter before composing himself to renew the harassment.
“I should light your hair on fire. Light that bush on fire!” He got out a lighter and flicked it above my head. The uncle rushed back, swatting his hand and reprimanding him severely.
“Leave that damn man alone! Let him rest. It’s not right. He trying to ride like everyone else.”
The heckling guy in front of me said, “He probably like, ‘Goddamn niggers.’” That was too much. I was feeling sick, hearing the laughter from that blow. I told him I don’t talk like that. Then I concluded it was in my best interest to remain silent.
“I should stomp your shoes.” The young guy stood on them with his boots and worried his weight into my toes. He swiveled and then hopped to try to crunch the bones. My pants were tight; he could see my wallet. He placed his hand on top of it.
“Look, I’m holding your wallet. How you gonna let me hold your wallet like that? Bitch, I should steal that shit!” He addressed the crowd: “Look, he’s letting me hold his wallet.” He started moving the wallet. “You a bitch?” He cocked his other arm and faked striking me.
I can’t remember the number of times the uncle came back to separate us. He grew tired and, with little else he could do, stayed at the front. The young man said, “Watch, I’m gonna get off at the same stop as you. Beat that ass when we get off.” My stop was the last, Carney Park and Ride. It was always pretty desolate at night. I imagined it would be the driver and us. I doubted how serious he was. I couldn’t imagine him doing much then, with the crowd departed. I could yell to the driver and hope that would be enough. But I didn’t want to think about it.
Finally, his stop came. It was the stop for a whole busload of passengers–in front of Valentino’s at Harford and Northern Parkway. The uncle got off first and screamed for his nephew to hurry. My tormentor stepped off my feet and removed his hands from over my head. But the baseball cap guy started joking again, cracking himself up and voicing indistinguishable slights into his hand. Meanwhile, the young man got off the bus and quickly ran down the side to my window, which was partway open.
I felt a weight on my conscience, both to relieve myself and to challenge him. I opened my window more. I said, “Would you light Jesus’ hair on fire? Would you punch Jesus?”
The young man appeared shocked then fumed, “What?” He punched the bus as we pulled away. The guy in front of me, with equal disbelief and vehemence, protested, “What did you say?”
“I asked, ‘Would you punch Jesus?’” The guy scolded, “Never say anything about Jesus like that to black people! They’ll knock your teeth out. They take that shit serious.”
The only other remaining people were a couple of women in their late twenties, early thirties. They sat ahead of the guy and me on the left. They looked back. One woman asked, “Why did you let him do that? Why you let people treat you like that? You act like a pussy. Grow balls, stand up, fight! Or you’re a bitch.”
The heckling guy got off at the second to last stop, near the Wendy’s. Then the women and I rode to the Park and Ride. We said goodbye. I thanked the driver and walked to my parents’ house.
It felt weird to have invoked Jesus. It was instinctual. I was not particularly religious, nor could I have known whether the young man was.