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The Kindness of Strangers This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

By , Berkeley, CA
It was about 1 p.m. on a Saturday. It was unseasonably warm, and after practice I had swapped my running shoes for flip-flops. I hadn't been home in 36 hours. I sat on the bench in the bus shelter with my fellow bus riders and ate my veggie burrito. An old and tiny Chinese woman sat down next to me, holding a tin can that was bigger than her whole upper body. A boy with curly black hair sized me up while sipping an iced coffee. I ignored both and focused on my burrito.

The bus came on time and I let them get on front of me, struggling to balance my takeout bag on top of my gym bag and pull out my Clipper card at the same time. I succeeded, and the little machine beeped its approval at my balance of $23.68. It was attached to Mom's credit card so I could always get myself home. I looked around for a seat in the half-full bus, and that's when I sat across from you.

You looked like you were a nurse, or somebody's loyal secretary. You were wearing a gray sweater over a white button-down shirt and a dark blue skirt that fell below your knees. I think I saw a thin, gold chain glinting at your neck and guessed it had a cross attached to it. You had on those transparent tights that old people wear, and orthopedic shoes. You had freckles sprinkled over your coffee complexion. You were not overweight exactly, but you had real-woman curves that told me you were not afraid of a second helping. But it was your eyes that made me want to sit across from you.

They were somehow brilliant and cutting despite their darkness, in the way you most associate with clear blue eyes. They sparkled as they flicked up at my intrusion into your space. I could tell you would have rather spent your time alone on that bus. You didn't really want this gangly, sweaty, falling-apart teenager sitting across from you. I suddenly felt ashamed of all my stuff and realized what I must have looked like to you. I blushed as I moved past you to sit in the seat next to the window. I mumbled an apology when my bag brushed your arm, then collapsed without taking off my backpack.

You stared at me unabashedly for a bit, then returned to gazing out the window. I also looked out. There was nothing going on in the street, but the light was nice.

At that point, we were just strangers, content to wait together until we got to our destinations.

As the bus doors closed, a man even more disheveled than me, and obviously homeless, stuck his hand through the doors. I heard him carefully counting out $1.75 in change and then heard them clink into the machine all at once.

He sat down behind you, facing the second set of doors. Almost immediately, he launched into a monologue about how he had lived in Berkeley since 1981. For a second I thought he was the same crazy guy who rode my usual bus and hit on all the teenage girls, even though he was about 70, grizzled, stinky, and unpleasantly fat. Then I remembered I was on the 18 and realized it was a different crazy homeless guy.

I reflected on the abundance of crazy homeless people in my city.

We rode on like that for a couple minutes, the entire bus silent except for the homeless guy, who was now to talking about how he would like to be mayor of Berkeley.

The bus stopped to pick up an older lady with a shopping bag. She sat next to another old lady with her own shopping bag. I think they might have been wearing the same shirt too.

The new lady suddenly began talking over the homeless man. She spoke to the bus in general and repeated over and over how she had been waiting for an hour. This was basically impossible, as the 18 ran every 25 minutes. Everyone pretty much ignored her.

At the same time, the homeless man started a rant about Zachary Running-Wolf, the activist, but couldn't remember his name and kept calling him “that Zachary Wolf-Man” or “the Wolf Man.”

The new lady turned to the other lady and violently asked her opinion of the bus situation. She just smiled politely and scooted closer to the window to avoid the crazy lady's spit. One of her front teeth was missing, and her lisp was unmistakable. The two gabbers spoke over each other while the rest of us held our breath, hoping nothing untoward would happen.

I looked up and made eye contact with you, hoping that someone else would realize the ridiculousness of the situation. I thought maybe you would look away, but you surprised me. You cracked the tiniest of smiles, really just a movement of the lips to the side. My mouth split wide open into a smile, but I shut it fast so no one but you would see.

The two nonsensical monologues went up in volume suddenly, and I had to suppress a laugh, but you caught my eye and gave me a real teeth-and-all smile. I let out a little chuckle in surprise and felt the comradery spread between us. All the tension went out of me, and I leaned back in my seat, basking in the beauty of the kindness of strangers.

Then you said something. I didn't hear, so you leaned forward and I leaned forward. Our faces were inches from each other, and I could see every tiny freckle.

“Do you have much further to go?” you whispered, equal parts concern and amusement. You spoke formally, but your voice was rich with the history of another country.

I said the next stop was mine, and you nodded. You leaned back, smiling, content with my well-being. I pressed the button and a couple seconds later the bus stopped.

We got off at the same stop. You went to the corner to cross the street and didn't look back. I walked to the opposite corner and looked back at you.

For a second, I saw the two of us from above. There you were on one corner, sure and steady, coiffed and loving. There I was on the other corner, untidy and mixed-up and irresolute and needing to be loved.

I imagined that you were heading to your daughter's house where you would help her spoon-feed her baby, and then you'd hum in the kitchen while various things fried and gave off steam. The whole house would be alive, and the light would be orangey-pink like a sunset.

I thought of my house, which was too big for the family it held. I knew that when I got home it would be cold and empty, and the light somehow wouldn't penetrate the windows. The shadows were always darker at home. I thought maybe if you were my family, no house would feel too big.

I wondered if I could ever give love to a stranger the way you did. I decided I didn't know how, and wondered how I could acquire such knowledge. Was it just age? Was I too young to know how to love in this way?

There were no strings attached to your love. There were no games to be played with it. For a girl who had never known love without a caveat, it was beautiful. I hope someday to find this kind of love, but until then, it's nice to know you're out there, and that you cared for the tall, awkward stranger on the bus.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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Mary said...
Jan. 13, 2013 at 10:03 pm
I was captivated by your memoir. I am printing out some to use as exempary writing for my 7th grade class. Your is my favorite. It made me sad, remembering feeling the same way when I was your age about my cold, empty home. Now I am 45 and I still get teary-eyed when a stranger is kind to someone else, especially me. You captured that feeling so perfectly. 
guardianofthestarsThis teenager is a 'regular' and has contributed a lot of work, comments and/or forum posts, and has received many votes and high ratings over a long period of time. This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Dec. 4, 2012 at 5:06 pm
Cute ^_^ I really enjoyed reading that.
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