This post originally appeared in the Fall 2014 print issue of the Swarthmore Independent.
I hadn’t realized it would be Game Day when I went to visit my friend Natasha at Boston College (BC). It was sensory overload and a strange mix of referents; about as often as Swarthmore’s campus features a cluster of carefully cultivated native plants, BC’s lawn gives way to a grease-darkened grill, around which were clustered (on this particular afternoon) what felt like thousands of sports fans in full regalia. Where Swat’s solid, square-edged buildings indicate the secular nature of our educational experience, BC, which is a Jesuit school, is all spires and stained glass. It demands a different sort of awe. As far from Swarthmore as I felt, these features of BC referenced a different part of my life, when I attended a giant regional high school with Natasha. My own square-mile town had four churches within its borders. Football was a big thing. Walking with Natasha through campus, I sensed the flickering chance to recapture something I’d lost.
At BC Natasha has a best friend, Mary Kate, and a boyfriend, Jake. She and I have the kind of friendship that renders Mary Kate and Jake my friends by extension. When I arrived on campus, Jake showed me a map he’d printed from a David Foster Wallace wiki with drop-pins for all the places the writer had lived in nearby Brighton, the inspiration for the Enfield of Infinite Jest. Mary Kate and Natasha laughed at him for being so eager to talk about the book with someone who’d read it, but I knew the feeling. “Let’s get going,” said Jake. We set off to explore.
By the end of our walking tour it had begun to rain. We caught a BC shuttle bus heading back to campus. It was just before six, but already almost lightless beneath the stormclouds. The bus was humid and harshly lit. Most of our co-riders had just been at the game. The couple snuggling behind me seemed to vaguely know the girl across the aisle, who kept nodding off. Every several minutes or so, the man would clasp her shoulder or thigh and give her a little shake. “You okay? Hey, you okay, bud?” Other than this, the bus was nearly silent.
After about ten minutes or so, we were no longer moving, but hadn’t yet arrived. The windows were completely fogged over, preventing a personal evaluation of the post-game traffic. I was hot inside my layers, ready to be somewhere where conversation could resume. Around me I could hear other people start to complain. “Too hot,” said someone behind me. “Yeah.” Then, unusual for public transport, a full sentence shouted out from the front: “Can we get this thing moving, please?” A few titters. “Fuck it, I’d get off the bus right now!” The voice turned out to be that of a man in sports-fan clothes but none of the the relevant colors. His large blue eyes were the one feature I noted immediately. To my surprise, I saw that he was coming over to where my friends stood by the second set of doors.
“Do these open?”
The four of us avoided eye contact with each other and him. The man who kept shaking his friend muttered “I wish.”
Blue Eyes strode back to the front, rejoining what I assumed was his crew: several other white guys in tight shirts whose holds on the overhead bar seemed to be an opportunity they were taking to flex their arm muscles rather than a strategy to support themselves through the long-stopped sway of the bus. “How about the emergency exits?” This prompted a more general mutter from those assembled, suddenly cast as audience.
I was keeping my head down and didn’t see who it was, Blue Eyes or a comrade, who leaned over me to look at my window. “Will this shit open?” A couple of people laughed. I still wasn’t sure if it was a joke. When the agitator moved to actually push at the window behind me, people began to stir. “Hey man.”
“Don’t open the emergency exit,” articulated Natasha and Jake, speaking over one another.
“Hey man,” said the crowd.
The man in question retreated. There were a few moments of silence. Then:
“Hey, will you let us off this bus!”
The silence had become loud enough to match the shouts.
“It’s fucking hot! I could walk faster than this!”
“…” (Picture that in caps.)
“Hey, why is no one answering?”
“Don’t you all want to get off this bus?”
“Why the FUCK won’t they let us off!”
“Yo bus driver why are you keeping us LOCKED here!”
“Bus driver! Let us off!”
“What if I said I had Ebola!”
“I have Ebola!”
“Ebola on the bus! Let us off!”
I stared at the ground and willed the noise to die down.
“ISIS! ISIS is on the bus!”
“Let us the fuck off!”
“Why are we SLAVES to this BUS! Where are our RIGHTS!”
The voices were overlapping more and more. A slap of foot sounds forced me to look up, where all of the sudden, six or seven guys had collected their muscles from where they hung and amalgamated into one pulsing, muscular unit, crowded right on the edge of the white line which marks the edge of the bus driver’s territory.
In a flash, Jake, who is also a muscular guy, had joined the group, skewing its shape towards the back and away from the driver.
“Hey guys-“ I couldn’t hear the rest of what he said. The mob refocused itself around him and his voice reemerged.
“I just feel uncomfortable, as a fellow passenger, with the way you’re swarming the bus driver, and I also think that a lot of the things you’re shouting are degrading to him.”
“We aren’t degrading!”
“Do you want us to ‘degrade’ YOU?” They stepped in close.
Natasha hurried forward. “Listen, don’t you see how we all want to get off the bus? We don’t disagree with you that you should want to exit the bus! That’s what all of us want! It’s just that you’re threateningly swarming the driver-“
Mary Kate was already walking up. “We could swarm you-“ someone said as I joined. With the four of us together the threat of a swarm dissipated slightly.
“You know that the bus driver is just doing his job! He probably has a contractual obligation to not let people off at the bus between stops-“
“How is his OBLIGATION stronger than my PERSONAL RIGHT to leave a place I don’t want to be?”
“Because – it could be a liability for BC-“
“Who gives a fuck about BC’s liability! I’m only here for four years, I don’t want to spend any of it trapped on a bus-“
“You should care because the driver might stay here for longer and could lose his job if something happened to you-“
Natasha was doing most of the heavy reasoning. Jake was sequestred behind her; as a male his was our only body which could suffer physical violence under their honor code. MK stood directly behind Natasha and stared through each man who yelled at her. In the back, I faced the tallest of the men, who seemed to be closer to the happy side of drunk. He took up his flex pose on the bar once more to parry insults with me.
“You don’t have to come up here and tell us we’re being dicks, you know. We’re just having fun. We have rights. This isn’t ISIS.”
“No one said that.”
“No but then why are you coming up here and talking to us like-“
“We just want you to leave the bus driver alone.” I was uncomfortably aware of my first person plural.
“How is it a liability for BC if I am totally satisfied and doing exactly what I want to do?” He bobbled his head at me. “You don’t have to tell us we’re being dicks when you’re coming up here where you’re clearly not wanted-“
“So I can’t stand here? As a fellow passenger? With passenger rights?” Natasha interjected.
“-which really makes YOU…well, you know,” Tall Guy finished to me, smiling a smug smile.
“So you guys are being dicks, but us coming up here to call you out on it makes us dicks?”
“If you don’t see…that’s part of it.” He raised his eyebrows meaningfully.
“We don’t want to call you dicks, really. We want you to stop being dicks.”
“Listen, assholes,” said a new voice, a man with a cap seated behind the argument. His girlfriend clutched his arm. All the men spouted partial sentences and made jeering faces at one another until it became clear that no one really wanted to throw a punch. Dissatisfied, Blue Eyes called over:
“I see you’re wearing a Nantucket cap, PUSSY.”
The man in the cap snorted and was re-absorbed into the crowd as we all turned to look at Blue Eyes, who hadn’t spoken in awhile. His outburst was so unequivocally absurd that I think everyone expected some kind of backtrack. Instead, having secured universal attention, he faced Natasha straight on.
“You come up here RUINING our bus ride – we were NEVER trying to get off – we didn’t SAY ANYTHING to the bus driver –“ His blue eyes were huge and encompassing. However, in the face of this logic, his first person plural was beginning to dissociate. A couple of guys mumbled their “Hey man”’s and slunk back.
“Hey man, she’s right,” a guy in a yellow shirt said suddenly. “We were being dicks, let’s just leave it.”
Blue Eyes broke through and stormed away, and I realized all at once that most of these men had just met.
“Yes!” said Natasha. “Let’s just be human-“ said Jake, who I remembered then I’d met just hours ago. “Yes human what’s your name I’m Natasha-“
“I don’t WANT to be human with you,” said Yellow Shirt. I took hold of Natasha’s shoulder in preparation to pull her back, but then he relented and said his name, which I didn’t register over the pounding of blood in my ears. Tall Guy unslung his hand from the bar again and offered it to me.
“Hey, I’m sorry.” He had a good handshake, and, I was to discover, a nice smile. “We were just being dicks. I didn’t mean to call you a dick. Or imply you’re a dick or whatever.”
“Yeah no I mean you were advancing a pretty good argument there-“
“Do you guys go to BC?” asked Jake.
“Naw, we graduated last year!” said Yellow Shirt. “Class of ’14,” chimed Tall Guy.
Natasha listed all the ‘14’s she knew with no common acquaintances. The conversation had changed drastically, but she kept her tone of supplication, which made it sound like a prayer.
The bus had started to move. We’d really been quite close to the stop the whole time. Within a few minutes, the doors opened and all spilled out. Yellow Shirt was still talking to Natasha and Jake, and when Tall Guy came out, he faced me and asked if I was also a sophomore.
“Yeah, but at Swarthmore College, outside Philadelphia.”
He laughed. “Swarthmore! I love it. You totally fit their aesthetic.” I looked down at my two plaid jackets and recently duct-taped Birkenstocks (which literally broke from being paired with too-thick socks) and wondered if I was being insulted.
“No no no!” he affirmed, and touched me on the arm. “It’s just that I knew a girl who went there – she was a genius – whole family of geniuses –“ etcetera.
When he reached the end of his thought, Yellow Shirt asked us where we were going.
“To eat!” said Jake.
“You aren’t gonna come to the party up in…” I didn’t know the place. “You guys would be welcome to head over with us.“
“No, no,” we insisted together.
“But it was really great to meet you-“
In the dining hall we ambulated mostly in silence, collecting various eats, until we could crowd into an already-trashed side booth (the cushioned equivalent of a Sharples date table) and say:
“That was insane.”
“I could cry just from adrenaline,” I admitted.
“I don’t want to cry. I’m still so fucking angry,” said MK, looking as calm as she had for the entire altercation. “Those guys were threatening physical violence.”
“Well, not once Natasha got there,” said Jake.
“Is my face red?” asked she, testing the skin against the backs of her hands. (It was.)
Safe in our corner, hot chocolate secured, our first person plural loosened to allow for more lengthy expressions of individual experience. Jake was elated that we had succeeded in (by his interpretation) making peace with some of the guys.
“I was pretty surprised that you actually interfered,” I told him, “and that you took it as far as you did,” I told Natasha. And that we got invited to a party.
“I’m so confused,” she said. “Did we do the right thing? Were we within our rights, or overstepping them?”
“I think we were okay, because we had a lot at stake in making sure that nothing happened to the bus driver, since we could be killed on the bus,” I decided. “Jake, is that why you decided to go up?”
“Honestly, I kind of decide all these things beforehand.” He shrugged. “I made the choice awhile ago that I would never be a bystander. Then I don’t have to hesitate and think things through as the situations develop.”
I thought of Tall Guy’s friendly smile and felt the converse of Jake’s elation. It was not that drunk game-goers could turn out to be okay people, but that behind every friendly smile is the capacity for mindless cruelty.
I couldn’t stop problematizing. Were we only able to defuse this situation because we were so externally similar to our opponents, all average-sized, average-looking, white, young, and wearing basically “normal” clothes excepting my apparently Swarthmorean aesthetic touches? What if it had been a crowd of black guys swarming the bus driver? How would that have changed things? Would Jake have still interfered?
Although I have known Natasha since elementary school, we only really became friends senior year. Our friendship is built less on shared experience than the shared experience of trying to understand the worlds we grew up in and the assumptions they encouraged. At Swarthmore, there is a lot that’s no longer safe to assume, and that’s important. We have space here to build a parallel system, where assumptions like “Passengers are more important than bus drivers”; “American football is America’s sport”; and “Ignorantly invoking ISIS will scare people into giving you what you want” don’t need to exist.
At the same time, I am disturbed by my own, inherently Swat-influenced response to the altercation we witnessed on the shuttle bus. We could have been killed, so it’s okay that we said something. This is what I said aloud to my friends, that we were just looking out for ourselves, but it’s not what I believe. Really I felt a sense of solidarity with the bus driver – something that may or may not have arisen in other circumstances – while he was being berated. No one likes to be berated for things that are outside their control.
“Let’s just be human,” said Jake, and Natasha sent up all the names she remembered.
Any altercations which happen at Swat are between people who probably know at least each other’s names, if not scores of other personal details, from the get-go. This is a different system from BC for sure, a place where the rhetoric Natasha and Jake applied would not be enough. What interests me is the positionality and self-perception of the Swarthmore bystander. I find myself, in an effort to acknowledge the inherent mystery of other people’s experiences, conducting an ongoing project to abandon the notion that I might actually understand them. It would be patronizing to take action on anyone else’s behalf, even if, like the bus driver, they are momentarily or permanently incapacitated, because how could I know what they would really want?
To me this is a lonely feeling. Individuality is something to value, but if the only assumption we make is that everyone is acting as a true, pure individual at all times, actualizing themselves through the identities to which they can rightly lay claim, what space does that leave us to take care of one another?
I don’t know what kind of rhetoric we need to start reminding one another that we are all human, but I hope I find it soon.