I thought this week I would write about awareness, prejudice and progressive politics. I had a rather insightful conversation in Milan over the weekend that was going to be my focus. However, instead, I want to tell a story of a story of bravery.
Yesterday, travelling to King’s Cross, I got on the 205 bus from Old Street Station. At one stop, a man got on and leaned against the open door – staring straight ahead through the bus’ front window. The driver couldn’t shut the door and get the bus moving as long as this man was standing there. I heard the man – probably in his early forties – say something to that effect. – that he knew the driver wouldn’t be able to shut the door. People walked passed him to come on the bus. Finally, after nearly everyone was on the bus, he came in and sat down. For whatever reason, I assumed that he had done what he did to keep the driver waiting so that his friend wouldn’t miss the bus. When a man carrying a parcel (filled with cakes, I assumed it was) got on and then our door-stopper followed in after him, I assumed that this parcel-man was his friend.
But soon it became clear that they didn’t know each other.
I was perplexed. Meanwhile, door-stopper man sat down. And my thoughts moved on.
Until the next stop – or it might have been two stops. Door-stopper man got up and did the same thing . He was repeating something to himself as he leaned up against the open bus door. A woman standing next to me must have saw the look of confusion on my face and explained that door-stopper man has autism. He feels unsafe on the bus, and he has a routine he does until he feels safe again.
With this knowledge, I continued watching him. A young woman – probably in her mid-twenties – got up and started talking to him. She was gentle. She was trying to persuade him to sit down. Without looking at her – she was on his right, between him and the bus driver’s compartment – he explained “I’m okay. I’m autistic. I’m okay. I need to do this (not sure about these last words…but I think that’s what he said). “ She backed off and stood watching him, while he continued to look straight ahead and repeat whatever it was he was repeating.
No one said anything – at least not loudly. The driver just waited.
I asked the woman who had explained his situation to me if the drivers knew him and were familiar with his condition. “Some are, some aren’t.” she said “The ones that know him because this is their regular route don’t say anything. But some of the others, they yell at him. And it just makes it worse for him.” She didn’t say it, but I understood – when the drivers yell at him, he feels more scared and presumably takes a longer time to sit back down.
When he sat down in his seat this time round, I think he said ‘thank you’ to no one in particular – or maybe to the driver or to his fellow passengers – but as I type, I realize I might be making that up. In any event, I got off at the next stop – and he went through the same routine. I got off, but before the driver shut the door I got back on. Before I had hopped off the bus, my eyes had started to tear-up. Something in watching this man touched me deeply. I was feeling a mixture of emotions. But one feeling stood out to me when I got off the bus and saw him sit back down again – this time he only stood for a very brief period: admiration.
So, I hopped back on the bus and as it moved to go to the next stop, I went over to door-stopper man and said “I think you’re really brave.”
To which he said, without looking at me: “Thank you.”
I got off at the next stop and walked to my meeting, having to wipe away a few tears that were trickling. By the time I got to where I was going, I had grounded myself and was more than prepared to walk in and go straight into meeting mode – which I did.
The initial discussion I was having was unplanned and with more than just the person I had come to see. When that was over, my colleague and I moved to another part of the building to have our planned meeting. We sat down and I immediately said “Before we do anything, I would just like to share what happened to me on the way here.”
I told him the story. I used the opportunity to think through a bit more why I had so much admiration for the man on the bus. I said to my colleague: “It would be so easy to stay at home under those circumstances or not go out alone. But he’s putting himself out there – taking on the comments, the looks, the shouts that no doubt come when he stops the bus. His response is to explain he is autistic and do what he needs to do. Right on.”
Brave. That man is brave.
My colleague shared my view. Later, I was talking with someone – a stranger at a bus stop who randomly started talking to me about something she had just seen on a bus. I must have been looking quite serious, because she struck up the conversation by saying “I’m going to make you laugh” and the went on to tell me something that did make smile.
In return, I agreed with her than London can be full of odd-ball people whose behaviour makes you laugh. Then I suggested London is also full of people who touch your heart. And I told her the story. Before I got to say how brave I thought the man was, she interjected: “Oh, he should stay at home and not be disrupting people like that.” After she said this, I paused before telling her that I think he is brave.
She was a bit shocked by this, and then nodded her head in agreement. She said something, too, but I can’t remember what. Her initial response, though, didn’t surprise me. I was, in fact, very surprised at how when I was on the bus and he was keeping us waiting no one shouted at him. On London public transport, people can be very impatient and intolerant. I’m glad no one shouted. I’m glad that man is brave enough to get out and about. He has a right to use public transport like anyone else, no? But then you might wonder about the person on the bus who becomes late to pick up their child from school or who is late for work because of door-stopper man. What about their needs?
Well, looking at this situation from such an angle could make for lively and thought-provoking discussion about conflicting interests and maybe even conflicting rights. We could also probably think about the situation and launch into a discussion about care in the community. But for now, I’m still thinking about that man’s bravery. About the burden he bares. About the freedoms I take for granted. About his strength. About the patience of the bus-driver and everyone else who just kept quiet while he went through his routine. About the young woman who gently tried to get him to move out of the doorway, in what was presumably a combined gesture of compassion and a desire to get where she was going.
And I’m thinking that in addition to telling him I think he is brave (which I suspect could be construed as patronizing, though that was not my intention), I would have liked to have told him I admired him and thanked him for inspiring me by the way he is living so courageously.