This afternoon, my partner Dave and I had to travel to 1700 South on a minor but urgent piece of business. I thought he was planning to drive, but as it turned out, he had already checked the bus schedules and found that the No. 200 bus travels up and down State Street every 15 minutes--even to such far-flung regions as Murray. It surely would get us where we needed to go!
We boarded at 200 South with some trepidation, staying near the front door in case a fast exit became necessary. Still, the presence of not one, but two uniformed UTA officials was reassuring. It was a trainee driver (who nevertheless seemed competent enough) and his intelligent and efficient trainer, standing by to answer any technical questions he might have. (Presumably, more glamorous routes go to tenured drivers.)
Our progress remained glacial within the downtown area. (Not only do buses receive no special treatment from traffic signals but, as I learned by listening in on the training session, all stops are “mandatory” within the free-fare zone—meaning the driver must pull over in the middle of every block.)
On 400 South, we were joined by a booming, rotund fellow who immediately started in on the attractive, blond UTA trainer. “What a day! Been working long?” She barely had a chance to respond before his next question came: “How long’ve you been working here?”
She seemed torn between the desire to be polite and a natural wariness developed over years of working with the general public. Politeness won out—I sensed that, due to her compassionate nature, she didn’t want to hurt the man’s feelings. And so his questions kept coming. Within the space of a few blocks, she revealed the number of years she had worked for the company, and her first name (for the sake of anonymity, let’s call her “Toni”)--to which Casanova replied, “Toni. That’s a beautiful name.”
Dave and I started to worry that things were getting a little stalky. Perhaps Toni sensed this, too, because she quickly mentioned that her husband worked for UTA as well. Far from discouraging Casanova, however, this news of a rival suitor prompted a volley of questions: We learned Toni's husband’s first name (let’s say “Alan”), the number of years he had worked there, and the fact that medical problems are currently keeping Alan off the job—but, with luck, he might soon be able to manage some basic household tasks.
“Oh, Alan! I know him,” said Casanova. “Yep, you’ve got a good man, there …” We became seriously alarmed. What, exactly, was this guy insinuating?
Fortunately, the conversation then turned to some UTA employee who petitioned the courts to change his name to something funny like (let’s say) The Great Pumpkin. For some legal reason, in order that his wife be named Mrs. Pumpkin, the couple actually divorced and remarried on the same day.
And, miraculously, that was our stop.
Dave and I chuckled uneasily about the whole ordeal, and I shook my head in disbelief: Everybody knows that you don’t talk to strangers on buses. And, even if you must, you never, ever reveal personal information! It’s just common sense.
Later, as we waited for the inbound bus in front of the wonderful old South High School building (now Salt Lake Community College), we were joined by a young woman who was, with great difficulty, managing a stroller, a backpack and a diaper bag while thwarting her toddler’s determined efforts to wander out into the State Street traffic. “Get over here! Now!” There’s no sound like the voice of a stressed-out mother.
The poor woman: kid running wild, diaper bag overflowing. My heart went out to her, especially when she blurted, apropos of nothing, “I can’t believe they put this coffee shop here after I started going to the Redwood campus!”
I assumed she was indicating Baxter’s, which is cool, but more importantly, she was taking classes in hopes of creating a better life for herself and her child! I was overcome: “You know, I did my lib-ed at the Redwood campus!” I said, with fond memories of that alma mater. “We used to get coffee in the student union.”
She told me there was a Starbuck’s in the cafeteria now, but the coffee was less than $2, so it was OK. She wondered if the beautiful weather would continue, and speculated on the number of days till Thanksgiving. I pointed out that, since tomorrow was Thursday, Thanksgiving was only eight days away, and forecasts were calling for clear skies. She confided that the reason she was in the area was to investigate some public housing-assistance program for single mothers and noted that, although Barack Obama had been elected president, he wouldn’t take office until Jan. 4. My opinion that the inauguration was bound to occur on a date later than the 4th was met with considerable doubt. However, she added that she had voted for Obama, and was a Democrat despite the fact that she was also a member of the LDS Church.
I noticed Dave edging away as I reported that I had voted the straight-D ticket, mentioning that Obama must have garnered a fair number of LDS votes and, by the official count, had actually won Salt Lake County. “That’s our county!” she exclaimed—and then our bus arrived.
Suddenly, I realized I had fallen into the same trap as Toni the UTA trainer. Had I learned nothing during the southbound ordeal? “Well, it was nice talking to you,” I said, making a hopeful attempt to extract myself from the situation.
“Oh, I’m getting on here, too.” And of course she did, managing on that crowded bus to seat herself precisely across the aisle from Dave and me.
Still, it was a bus, full of other talkative people. If I looked straight ahead, I possibly could avoid further contact. There was already a conversation of sorts underway, proceeding in self-conscious fits, starts and mutterings. After a few minutes, however, I started noticing that some of the comments verged, quite casually, upon class warfare. Statements like “Well, poor people like us …” denoting a sense of solidarity; and “Check out that guy in the Lexus,” clearly motivated out of class resentment, astounded me. For years, I’ve been puzzled at the way people seemed so unaware of how our overlords have been milking the nation dry. And now … could it be?
I was considering that, at long last, a waking consciousness of “we poor” vs. “those rich bastards” seems suddenly to be emerging—when the single mother piped up with a random observation about her kid’s teething pains: “I’ve heard that, if I soak a rag in whisky, it’s the best way to numb his gums.”
She must have known—didn’t she?—that my best patronizing, liberal instincts couldn’t help but leap into play. “Well, there are other products available, if you don’t feel like giving whisky to a baby,” I lectured. The six other people within earshot began talking about cloves. “Four-leaf clovers?” the single mother asked. “Clove oil?” I suggested.
But I was well and duly caught, and she reeled me in: “So, what are your names?” she asked, all innocence.
“Well …” Personal information! Personal information! “… I’m Brandon, and this is Dave.”
She lowered her voice. “Are you … together?”
It was a very full bus. The six people sitting ahead of us were all ears, and suddenly I was acutely aware that I had no idea who was seated behind. I was thinking of hobos, hooligans, machetes. Scoundrels, ne’er-do-wells, fagbashers. Get a grip. You haven’t been afraid enough to lie about it since you were 15. I glanced at her and nodded, then looked straight ahead.
“You are?” she squealed, back at full volume. “How cute!” I sunk a little lower in my seat. “So, you’re like boyfriend and girlfriend, right?”
Oh, come on. Nobody has this conversation anymore. “Uh … no.” I shook my head.
“Oh, you’re str—” she began, but Dave had reached the end of his rope: “There’s no girlfriend about it. It’s boyfriend and boyfriend, OK?”
She was delighted. “I think [whisper] gay people [squeal] are wonderful!” She actually whispered the words “gay people.” I couldn’t believe what had just happened when, conversationally, she began again: “So, tell me …”
I knew what was coming. It has been a standard joke among gays and lesbians for decades. I have to admit, though, in 25 years of being out, this is the first time it’s actually happened to me.
“So, tell me,” she said as I cringed. “Which one of you is … the dominant?”
Everybody around us was completely silent—for once. Was this an opportunity to educate and enlighten? No way—it was just too insane. “OK, I don’t think this is an appropriate bus conversation,” I said, a little briskly.
She was stunned for a moment, then remorseful. “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”
Was I embarrassed? I’ve fought for my entire adult life against the idea that being gay is something to be embarrassed about. “No, I’m not embarrassed. I just don’t think the other passengers appreciate this.” Well, that wasn’t too bad. The “guy in the Lexus” lady commiserated with me: “Yes, it’s a little personal, isn’t it?” I wasn't sure I welcomed the commiseration.
I looked at Dave's head for the rest of the trip, mortified, trying to communicate through nonverbal, private brainwaves. Fifth South, Fourth South, our stop. Single mother’s stop, too. “See ya later!” I chirped, stepping right over the empty stroller and through hissing hydraulic doors into fresh air and freedom. As she struggled with the stroller, backpack, diaper bag and toddler, we started running, knowing she wouldn’t be able to catch up to us as we dashed across State Street with seconds remaining on the crossing signal.