If a nearly naked man begins bathing himself in milk by the folding bus doors, try to stay dry. Or if a guy playing air guitar in a cascading cream ball gown offers you a lint-laden lollipop, gently say no. But if a dude enveloped in a Power Puff Girls bathrobe and bunny slippers starts describing his tumultuous love life, listen. My family never owned a car, so I grew up taking buses and have penned stories, poems, and even a play using scenes like these from San Francisco city buses.
In earlier years my poetry tended to be dark, abstract, and related to experiences I had never had. I wrote about ferocious fires, glorious battles, and dying soldiers. I began a dystopian novel set in 3868 about the daring breakout of a slave named Zed. Stories enabled me to build and inhabit other worlds, no matter how removed they were from my life. I used writing to escape into a fantasy bubble, isolated from the people around me.
For my thesis I am writing about lives not often seen in poetry, especially those of the marginalized and disadvantaged people I ride with on the bus. People notice, think about, and help those around them in a healthy, caring society. I want to encourage this through my writing, suggesting that people “shout ‘Thank You!’ to the driver. This is non-negotiable.” Or that riders give up their seats as the “triple-sweatered old lady heaves herself onto the bus … freighted with torn pink plastic bags bearing broken bok choy and broccoli.’’ Or smile and make space for the “life-sapped mother … clinging to a stroller, a boiling tea kettle of sorts … inside a ceaseless screeching”.
Many riders don’t observe the range of lives around them, often just looking at their phones. I also used to be oblivious to those shaping the city around me. Still, the bus brings other people’s lives so close that we all become “like a can of stewed tomatoes with riders mushed together practically becoming red sauce.”; and these days, I pay close attention. I save fleeting glimpses from our rides that would otherwise be lost, suspending them in time through meter and metaphor. While these moments are random, they are essential because they embody our shared experience of moving through the city together, our community.
I recently published “How to Ride the Mission 14 Bus” in Parallax Literary Magazine and performed it to a large audience of 300 people in our school theater. I paced my words, leaving time for the listeners to respond, and used arm gestures to engage and draw laughter from them. One person even chased me down in the parking lot to share how much he liked my piece.
I used to write only for myself, but now I use my work to connect to audiences and encourage their participation in our community. I write to inspire people to put down their phones, pay attention, be kind and connect with the people around them. To be present and to observe the little things in life.