Helping and Human Kindness on the City Bus

Riding public transportation to work can not only reduce your carbon footprint, it can provide one with interesting observations of human behavior.  In watching people riding the city bus, I immediately become aware of a culture of helping behavior that I don’t see in other places.  I experience a sense of camaraderie and community and feel more joined with humankind on the bus.  This is great contrast to the battle against my fellow citizens I engage in when I try to fight my way through traffic to drive to work.

I can’t say this happens in every town or city.  I can only post my own experiences.  I would love to hear from other people using public transportation to know if this is local or universal.  When I ride the bus I find myself joined together with my fellow passengers and even the bus driver.  We work together to get everyone where they need to go.  This is a great divergence from when I drive my car to work.  Then I feel as if I am in a battle against the other drivers, fighting to get where I am going and fighting to protect myself from them and the traffic in general.  The bus experience is quite different. 

Helping Behavior

One day an elderly woman with a cane attempted to rise from her seat just as the bus driver hit the gas.  She lurched forward to fall, and would have, except every hand around her reached out to steady her and a call went out, "Hey!" to the bus driver to ease up until she could right herself.  He carefully steadied the bus and with the help of many hands she righted herself – without a bump or a bruise.  There was no ill will toward the bus driver.  It was simply assumed, correctly, that he wasn’t aware that she had stood up.  We all worked together with the bus driver to steady her and then continued on our merry way.  With the exception of the outcry to the bus driver no other words were spoken.  None were necessary.  I have witnessed this many times with elderly passengers, and also with children who suddenly found themselves lurched forward or backward.  Every hand reaches out to catch them and return them safely to their parent. 

Passengers with disabilities are handled with equal care.  A blind gentleman gets on at the same place every morning and departs at the same place downtown.  The bus driver opens the door and asks, "1M?", referring to the number of the bus.  I never thought about it.  A blind person cannot read the lighted panels on the front and side of the bus which identify it.  The bus driver does think about it.   The blind man enters, tells the driver where he wants to get off and the other passengers quietly guide him to an empty seat.  Again, no words or spoken or gratitude required.  It’s simply something that is done.  He and another passenger discuss what kind of music they are listening to in their headsets as we continue on.  One day when we reached his stop the driver was distracted by traffic and forgot to let him off.  Another regular passenger knew he got off at that street and gently prompted the driver that it was time to let the man off.  Once again there was no criticism or ill will toward the driver.  He so cosistently remembers to let the man off every morning everyone assumed it was an innocent oversight – and so it was. 

I see this happen in a lot of situations.  When a passenger pulls the cord to indicate they want off at the next stop and the driver passes it by the passengers unite again.  Everyone sends up a unanimous but gentle "Hey!" to nudge the driver and he immediately stops and lets the passenger off.  If someone is trying to exit through the back door and there are too many people blocking the driver’s view so he cannot see them the call rises up, "Back Door!".  If a passenger is late for the bus and running to catch it the call goes out, "Hey, someone’s coming!" and the driver stops to wait for them.  But these calls to the driver do not feel like admonitions.  They are the passengers and the driver working together to make sure everyone gets where they are going.  The drivers do not take offense and respond immediately.  The passengers are not being criticial, they are merely trying to help out.

Passengers seem to have a lot of good will toward the bus drivers, and rightly so.  Most of the drivers are very compassionate of their passengers and work very hard to take care of them.  They answer endless questions about routes, schedules and how to get from one place to another with patience and detail that amaze me.  If a drunk or disorderly passenger gets on who disrupts travel or makes the journey unsafe the driver will intervene to have the person removed from the bus to keep the passengers safe.  Yet the same drivers show an amazing amount of tolerance for slightly inebriated folks who aren’t causing problems, homeless passengers and mentally ill passengers who might be acting out their psychosis but are otherwise harmless.  The drivers seem to take special care of the elderly, the disabled and children.  My morning driver picks up a young girl going to school every morning.  The driver greatly dislikes having passengers stand behind her when there are available seats and will gently shoo them away – except for the young girl.  Every morning when we approach the girl’s stop the driver looks for her.  "Where is my student?" she asks if the girl is absent.  Or, "there is my student" when the girl is there.  The girl quietly takes her place directly behind the driver’s seat and they move off in silence.  When we reach the school the driver lets her out and quietly waits until the girl clears the school yard fence.  I wish the girl’s mother knew how carefully her child was watched over by this driver. 

Passengers also work together to help each other reach their destinations.  You can ask most anyone on the bus; how to catch another bus, where the transfer terminal is, where to get off to get to the HEB (our local grocery store chain) or any other business along the way.  At Halloween a young couple was trying to locate the costume shop, "Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds".  (Yes, it is as cool as its name.)  I saw four different people on the bus help them find the right street.  No thank yous were necessary.  It is simply what is done.  It’s a given.

The Regulars

As I continued to watch the regular passengers I noticed something else.  New passengers on the bus may be somewhat talkative, trying to learn how to use their bus pass or get the right route.  But once they learn the system they seem to divide into two categories:  introverts and extroverts.  There are introverts and extroverts in any population.  But in other populations they are not usually so aware or so courteous of each other.  The bus population seems to accomodate both gracefully.  Introverts can be easily identified because they have something attached to them to identify them:  a book, a laptop, a puzzle book or headphones.  Extroverts are missing this paraphernalia.  Introverts are drawn to introverts and extroverts seek extroverts.  As an introvert, when I enter the bus I scan for someone with introvert paraphernalia, sit down next to them and open up my book.  I see other introverts doing the same and usually find someone with introvert paraphernalia sitting next to me.  I assume extroverts do the same because I see them seeking out and sitting next to each other to chat.  Regulars who are extroverts will even try to save the seat next to them for their friend that gets on at the next stop so they can catch up on the latest news. 

Now here is the interesting part.  Both introverts and extroverts cohabitate peacefully on the bus.  Extroverts chat, but they do so at a level that is very quiet and peaceful to an introvert – at least for this one.  As I’m riding along I’m aware of quiet conversations bubbling all around me like a brook, but their words are not loud enough to jar my senses or disturb my reading.  A babbling brook of language ripples around me and soothes my strained nerves.  And everyday is different.  This afternoon there was the usual strong undercurrent of English with rivulets of Chinese, Vietnamese, Spanish and German.  This quiet stream of dialogue washes over me and lulls me into a calm and quiet place.  Unlike extrovert "yakking" which usually grates on an introvert’s nerves, the extroverts on the bus seem to be modulating their conversations to a peaceful hum.  It actually contributes to the calm instead of disturbing it.  

Another fascinating thing is watching people become regulars.  If they are introverts they may start off talking, but they quickly pick up on the wonderful opportunity the bus provides to indulge their introversion.  People who began empty handed soon start sporting the traditional introvert paraphernalia and gratefully sink down into one of the bus’ seats to relish the next 45 minutes of indulging their own thoughts.  Whether they are writing, reading, listening or puzzling they guard that intellectual space.  They purposefully sit next to another introvert in order to keep the quiet around them.  I remember watching a woman who sat next to state employee who could talk non-stop.  She listened patiently morning after morning.  One day she did not show up and I later found out she began going at a different time.  But she was different now.  She came braced with a Suduko puzzle, buried her head in it and enjoyed the time on the bus languishing in her puzzle.  People on the bus seem to become aware of the pleasure of wandering around in your own head, devoid of the hustle and bustle of modern life and its constant demands upon our attention.  I know I personally resent having to drive to work now.  I look forward to the 45 minutes it takes to get to work instead of resenting it because I get to sink into that interesting book I haven’t had the time to read.  I also have time to think, ponder, wander and dream.  I sometimes take notes on articles for this blog.  I sometimes turn on the mp3 and just listen.  I sometimes open the book (to send off those introvert vibes) but just stare out the window and daydream.  What used to be an exercise in extreme frustration (driving in rush hour traffic) has now become the most mentally healing part of my day.

Dealing with Problems

The bus is not Nirvana and problems do arise.  But problems are few and far between.  In fact, everyone on the bus shows a great deal of tolerance for everyone else, as long as they are not making the bus unsafe.  Then the driver and passengers unite again – to restore safety.  I once saw a man trying to start a fight with another passenger and becoming more and more irate.  The bus driver stopped the bus and refused to move until he got off.  The passengers gently, but unanimously, joined with the driver in asking the man to get off.  One spoke up and said, "You know you don’t want him to call the police, man.  Get off the bus."  I was surprised at the lack of intolerance or self-righteousness with which the event took place.  No one disparaged the guy, called him names or got ugly with him.  No one was loud or aggressive.  They simply came together to let him know that he had stepped over the line.  After the man got off, no one was snickering or making rude comments.  No one judged him.  They quietly went back to chatting or reading or listening to their music.

Another incident involved a cell phone user, of course.  A young woman got on the bus yakking on her cell phone.  An older woman near the middle of the bus had been chatting peacefully with her fellow passenger about the Pecan Street festival until the cell phone user got on.  The older woman’s rather bizarre makeup, dress and speech patterns indicated some form of mental illness, but she was pleasant and cheerful and her seatmate appeared to be enjoying the conversation.  The cell phone girl starting chatting loudly about various mundane topics including the fact that she was on the bus, where the bus was on its route, what she was going to cook for dinner, etc., etc.  The normal hum of the bus was interrupted by this mind numbing dialogue conducted at full volume.  This chatter apparently annoyed at least one other patron.  I know that because the mentally ill woman suddenly started screaming, "WHY DON’T YOU STOP YAKKING AWAY ON THAT DAMNED PHONE???  NO ONE WANTS TO HEAR THE BORING DETAILS OF YOUR PERSONAL LIFE!!!   I CAN’T EVEN HEAR THE THOUGHTS INSIDE MY OWN HEAD OVER HERE!!!)  The chastened cell phone girl stood, stunned, then ended the call and sat down.  I looked around to see covert smiles of gratitude from other passengers being sent over to the mentally ill woman.  For my own part I was jealous.  I wish I had had the courage to say what she did.  Not to scream it, perhaps, but at least say it.  Mental illness can be rather freeing, you know?  The mentally ill woman had the courage to say what everyone else was thinking and by speaking up had ended an annoyance.  Quiet conversations resumed, music in headphones was turned back down and books were reopened.  And an entire bus quietly smiled to itself.  She was Queen for a Day.  At least on the 1M. 

You can read more of my articles about mental health issues on my blog at: