This is a story about a Metrobus and a jacket.
Yep, as primary returns roll in and the future of our too-fragile (we now realize) democracy hangs in the balance, this is fluff about public transit and rush hour stress.
Maybe this is the best I can manage. Maybe the chilling prospect of the Fourth Reich overtaxes a mind until it can bear no further weight. Maybe getting up early to vote means the work day was long and a girl is weary.
Maybe it’s just because this is what happened.
On a day when the temperature creeps up to 60 degrees, the leather jacket needed to ward off the morning chill becomes an encumbrance by 5:00. I heft backpack, lunch bag, jacket onto the bus to head home. It squeals to a stop, I hop off and walk about 50 yards before I realize.
Backpack (check). Lunch bag (check).
Jacket. . .?
I stand frozen for a full 15 seconds. The bus is long gone, heading north on that crowded rush hour artery. Riding quietly in the back is one of the nicest pieces of clothing I own. The fine leather was a gift from my sister maybe 15 years ago. Trim and versatile, it’s grown buttery with time. It’s one of those rare possessions that helps me feel less poor.
When it goes, I won’t be replacing it. Coats are like the rest of our wardrobe now: Hand-me-down, charity from Grandma, or Goodwill.
I start to run. Not towards the bus, though. Towards home. Backpack and lunchbag flopping against my back, I run through the park past the strollers and dogs and teens shooting hoops. The dog can wait. I pull out my keys and leap into my car.
Where does the bus go? Think think think. I’ve never taken it further than my stop. It must go to the Metro here before it heads further north. I wait at one light, then a 4-way intersection, lines of cars, a polling station. A bus pulls out onto the road ahead as I turn right before I realize — too late — that it was my bus. I crawl through the Metro parking lot back to the main road. Another red light. Another line of cars, another polling place. Idling, I pull out my phone and bring up the timetable. It’s 5:25 now, the next stop is a couple miles down the road, at 5:31. Can I get there?
Nope. Intersections, commuters heading home. Cars and bikes and pedestrians. More buses, the wrong buses. I just miss another light and sit there clutching the wheel for too many minutes. It’s 5:28, then 5:30.
Then the tears come.
They come riding a cold gale of thoughts: I hate rush hour, screw this soul-killing, congestion, this is why I take the goddamned bus, that jacket is one of the last nice things I have, somebody probably stole it anyway, why does everything suck?
And without even a blink of a transition, local winds swell to global catastrophe.
That self-promoting demagogue is going to be president and I’m so fried and weary I can’t even keep track of my stuff let alone do anything good for my kid’s future and here I am DRIVING a BUS ROUTE, as if the apocalypse isn’t coming fast enough already, Smirk.
I hear the swell of self-pity and anxiety, and just when it’s about to drag me under, my tears stop. Click, just light that. A quiet grin creeps up from somewhere buried. With it, this:
I choose my mind.
So I decide, right then, that chasing down this jacket is not a burden. It’s a quest. The light turns green. I crank DC101, roll down the window, and peel out.
Onto the main road, a snaking ribbon of taillights. The lanes widen from two in each direction to three then four. It is 5:37 now. The timetable tells me that my bus will be leaving the monstrous new Metro station at the heart of the mega office-commuter-consumer district at 5:45.
Eight lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic fan out before me. Buses are turning in and out from every direction. The station is connected to a shopping mall and parking by an elevated footbridge over this surging mass of cars. I have no idea which way to go, so I turn right because why not? But all the buses are the wrong bus, and now it’s a mall entrance — wrong wrong wrong.
I turn then turn again, back onto a different major road. I pass over the Beltway, its travelers trying to squeeze on and off its ramps into unbroken chains of cars. I cross eight lanes, turn again, go al-l-l-l the way around a second mall (they’re a matched set!) and now it’s 5:44, and the Metro station is somewhere ahead of and above me, and where are the buses? Where is the parking?
Another bus bay. Big red signs say “AUTHORIZED VEHICLES ONLY.” And there, at the end of the queue, is my blinking chariot. I swerve right, pull up behind, and hop out.
My driver is stretching his legs by the shelter, counting down his last minute.
I jog up to him. “Hi! I think I left my leather jacket on your bus!”
“That’s your leather jacket?”
“Yep, it’s my leather jacket.”
He steps on board and opens up a cabinet near the front. There next to the fire extinguisher is my soft, folded baby. He hands it to me with a smile.
“Geez, thank you. That would have been one expensive bus ride.”
I stride back to my car with a stupid grin on my face. I pull back into traffic and my driver pulls right out behind me. We inch our way south now on the same road we just followed. He keeps going as I veer off into the first chain restaurant I see, order a plate of fish tacos, and wait out rush hour in the company of my New Yorker.
I am tired. Not like that bus driver is tired, driving back over that same loop again and again, but tired all the same.
Tired of nursing my precious helplessness. Tired of letting crippling thoughts limit my capacity for action. Of depression’s terrible lies. Of assessments based in archaic narratives no empowered person would ever choose.
Demagogues rise in part because each stunned and disbelieving individual fails to act in some way — any small way — to stem the tide.
This isn’t a story about a jacket. It isn’t a story about a Metrobus.
It’s a story about choice. And about power. And about the moment when those two snap together and the truth becomes clear: they are a force, a matched set.
Choice + Power.
Choice = Power.
If a series of small acts can buck DC area rush hour traffic, put the lie to the anonymous self-interest so easily ascribed to strangers, and land my beautiful leather jacket back in my possession, then maybe I — maybe we — have a little power.
Just a little.
But a little is more than nothing.
And that’s all we need, each of us, as long as we keep our purpose in our sights.
Even when we don’t know the way. Or when a thicket of obstacles blocks the view. Or when — especially when — we break down and want to give up because we have no idea if we’re going to succeed or even if we’re doing the right thing at all.
As long as we choose to hang onto each other and keep tracking what we hold dear, we have power.
As long as we don’t let anyone — especially ourselves — steal our capacity to choose our minds.
We have power.
Image: Baltic Way, a 600+ km human chain linking Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in 1989 as they demanded their independence from the Soviet Union be recognized.