At the base, there’s an operator hang-out area called ‘the bullpen.’ I don’t spend a lot of time in it, but on this particular afternoon I was comfortably ensconced in one of the chairs listening to another operator air his complaints. He was hung up on littering, and wanted to hear my perspective. People litter on his bus all the time, and he was tired of it. He drives the E, and I the 7; two routes whose coach interiors you can instantly identify by the sheer amount of wanton filth (I prefer the term ‘neighborhood flavor’) left by the passengers. He wanted to know how I maintain a positive outlook on people. “I don’t get it,” he said.
My initial reply was a line you likely know: if you can’t control it, let it go. That didn’t resonate. He said, “yeah, but….”.
I tried telling him all kinds of things. I told him about how littering is a form of asserting control. It may be the only opportunity available to effect change on your environment. I told him how if you feel society has wronged you, you may not feel inclined to follow its rules. I talked about lack of role models. I talked about how these guys who act entitled by littering and not paying are not exactly living luxurious or enviable lives. We’re not talking feudal lords or robber barons here. Their entitlement comes from a place of frustration different from other forms of the same: they act entitled because they’re not.
The lines above are the self-talk I give myself when I get frustrated. I thought I was laying down some pretty good stuff. But my driver friend remained perplexed. He expected other people to have similar values and perspectives (that is, experiences) as him, and was surprised and disappointed when their behavior revealed otherwise.
He said, “I just want to know, what’s going through their head when they throw a bunch of chicken bones on the floor? What frame of mind could make you think, ‘this is the right thing to do?'”
The indelicate thing to say here is, that’s the line of thinking that will get you assaulted.
He believed there’s a wrong way to do things and a right way, which sounds okay in a principled sort of fashion, but when people say that they’re usually just referring to their wrong and right way, which everyone else should follow. “You know what my problem is?” he asked, at one point. “I have no empathy. I believe everyone is in the situation they’re in because of their own choices, their own actions.”
The conundrum he was outlining is one I wrestle with myself. I can understand where he was coming from. There are attitudes that creep up in the night, attitudes of my own, easy ugly answers for what I’m seeing rather than the more nuanced view, questions I berate myself for asking. There’s a line of thinking in East Asian thought, especially East Asian parenting, that we are responsible for our own actions. We are creatures of free will; instead of apologizing for making mistakes, the idea goes, just don’t even make them in the first place. Hold yourself accountable for your behavior. He and I are both East Asian, and I know this perspective is familiar to both of us.
The problem with that outlook, of course, is that humans are fallible.
America, by contrast, is the land of second chances. It’s where people come to start again. The imperfection of us mortals is not a concept exclusive to western thought, but it in our contemporary culture it figures as a universally accepted truth. As Jack Lemmon says at the end of Some Like It Hot: “nobody’s perfect!” Intelligent, decent people do make mistakes. We’re disappointed when it happens, but not surprised. We believe bad things happen to good people; that we all need a little help sometimes; in forgiveness; in false appearances.
We believe in wiggle room.
Our operator friend in the bullpen was not of this outlook. For myself, I believe more greatly in the second of these perspectives because I have to. I appreciate the high expectation of integrity in the first mindset, but I am alive only because certain people throughout my life have been kind to me, and offered me a second chance. I’m mindful of this daily, and it’s why I treat people as I do and feel so thankful to be here.
But back to him. I said something like, as a bus driver, if you think people should act as if they come from highly functional and comfortable backgrounds, you’ll go insane. You can’t expect people to be reasonable or do things that make sense. Sometimes I have to give up on understanding the things I see, and just resign them to the mysteries of the universe, because I simply have no idea where people are coming from.
He really was trying to listen, but I could see I was getting nowhere. By now a couple other drivers had gathered round to listen. One was a tall fellow I hadn’t seen before. We’d nodded with our eyes while I’d been struggling with what to say.
Now that man spoke up.
“In my country, there used to be these wild birds.”
There was his height. There was his accent, dignified, somewhere Mediterranean, Greece maybe. There was the fact that he’d been listening for a while without speaking. He had a certain stately gravitas, a polish, such that when he butted in with something about wild birds, we didn’t interrupt him. We had no idea what the relevance of this wild bird stuff was, if any. But he surprised us into attention.
“In my country there used to be these wild birds, that if you shot them, if you shot one of them, you would get five dollars selling it on the street. And that five dollars would feed your whole family for a week.” The storytelling pause. “So for you, the farmer with a family and mouths to feed, it’s very important to shoot the bird. But the government was saying, these birds are endangered. You can’t shoot them because they are rare, endangered species. It’s bad for the environment. But if killing one of those birds feeds your family of four, five people for a whole week, you don’t care about that at all. It doesn’t matter if it’s endangered or not! You have to feed your family.” Now he looked directly at our conflicted operator friend. “So: you want the people on your bus to clean up after themselves so you can feel more comfortable? No. These people have nothing. They don’t even know where their next meal is coming from. They have different priorities.”
We were all silent when he finished. I’m pretty sure that got through.
We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider subscribing or donating. The Urbanist is a non-profit that depends on donations from readers like you.