Tuesday, October 20, 2009

When Manners Met Grace (A Question of Culture)

Though it was a requirement of this last census job to have - and be able to use a car, I found myself using mass transit as much as possible. By and large, the mass transit system in greater San Diego doesn't entirely suck. The light-rail trolleys are pretty cool. The buses run very early to very late, some of the routes actually make sense, and for the most part the drivers run on time...

...Except for some Chula Vista-based jackasses who roar through stops about 5 minutes early. I'm looking at you, Route 712 guy. (I've called and complained several times. To their credit, all the dispatchers but one were pretty horrified by this. The other - clueless - one said, "well, at least he wasn't late!" No, he wasn't late, moron, he was too early for me to catch. Here's a quarter; buy a clue.)

I did a week of training and a week of prep in San Diego, with no fieldwork. I used the bus and trolley then. Because of the insanely talented crew I had, our fieldwork lasted a short period, and I went from "in the field" to mostly "in the office." Several of those days I came in by trolley and bus. I'd guess that about 40% of the back-and-forth travel I did was via mass transit.

I learned something that bothered me. I'm going to talk about it, even though I am certain I will be labeled a racist, or narrow-minded, or somesuch. I've thought about it, and frankly, this time....I don't care.

My trolley stop was only three stops away from the U.S.-Mexico border stop at San Ysidro. At any point in the morning, by the time I got on, most of the seats were taken, most of the cars were full, and people were straphanging and leaning on the bars. This doesn't phase me; I've ridden buses in most cities I've lived in. I've hanged on straps with the best and worst of them. But here, the worst of them seem to be in the seats.

As a Southern man, I was taught a few of the most important things in life: always say "yes, ma'am" and "no, ma'am"; hold the door open for others; don't cuss in church; and give up your seats to those who need it more than you.

This last one clearly isn't taught around here. Every morning I watched in disgust as young or middle-aged men sat in the trolley or bus seats, listening to their iPods, reading, texting, talking, or just staring ahead, while older women had to stand. I watched daily as hale-and-hearty guys of all ages rode in relative comfort while women balanced grocery bags, children, and schoolbags fought to keep their balance.

It should go without saying that I never once kept my seat if someone else needed it. On reflection, I realized that I'd actually ridden into town only once. Each other time I'd stood up the entire way - which isn't all that far.

Do I need spell out that almost all these women were Hispanic? Should I continue with the fact that most of the men too lazy to stand for them were also Hispanic? I will. I will also admit that there are a very few Hispanic men who will offer their seats to women - and all of them appear to be in their teens or early 20's.

The inaction of these men disgusts me; I won't deny it. Is this a cultural thing; is it expected that Hispanic men will sit while their women are forced to ride on their feet? Or is this a local San Diego-Tijuana concept?

I gave up my seat numerous times. Only once I can recall was it to a Caucasian woman, and only once to an African-American. In both cases, both ladies thanked me for the courtesy. Every other time - somewhere between 20 and 30 times - I gave up my seat to a Hispanic woman, usually older than me. Only once was I thanked. Two or three times I received a nod of appreciation, but that was it.

Is this a base lack of gratitude, a lack of understanding, or simply a self-centered belief that I should get out of their seat? I swear I don't know. Logically, it doesn't make sense, and trying to figure it out confuses and annoys me.

But late last week, when I witnessed something I'd never seen out here, I felt an actual true-life paradigm shift.

The Route 712 had run through about 5 minutes early again, so I caught a bus on an adjacent street. It would get me to a different trolley station later than I needed to be, but it beat waiting another 20 minutes for the next bus.

This one wasn't quite full, and I ended up riding for a few stops, until a lady in a motorized wheelchair got on board. They take up quite a bit of room, and those folks at the front of the bus moved toward the back. I hopped up to let someone else have my seat. Just a couple rows in front of me, a very young African-American boy was riding alone - clearly on his way to school. I guessed him to be 11, maybe 12 years old.

A few more stops, and the seats were finally full. At the next stop, a woman got on board. Yes, she was Hispanic, and she was probably around my age. She was also clearly in excellent shape, youthful-seeming, and was carrying nothing except her purse. Full of energy, she bounded up onto the bus, and grabbed the nearest strap - near the young boy. He looked up, grabbed his bookbag and backpack, and jumped out of the seat.

"Sit here, ma'am," he told the woman - and that is a quote. She looked at him, looked around, and began to demur. Clearly she didn't need the seat. She was probably healthier than anyone else on the bus, and was holding only that little clutch purse. He had bags dangling off his arms and couldn't even reach the strap.

The bus started to move. She looked up, past me at someone behind me. She then looked at me, and then glanced down at the boy - still waiting.

"Go ahead, ma'am," he said, offering his seat again.

She smiled at him; one of the warmest smiles I'd ever seen.

"Thank you, sir," she said - again I'm quoting. She nodded to him and slid into the seat. He grabbed the bar on the back of the seat, and still clutching his bookbag and backpack, rode standing up to his stop - so she could ride.

It was one of the most genuine moments of courtesy and manners I'd ever witnessed, and it was matched by an act of true grace. I do not exaggerate when I say it was the high point of my day, possibly my week. It's rare to see someone that young be that gentlemanly, a reflection of the man he is certainly going to grown into. I'd like to meet that young man's parents, and I'd like to shake their hands.

And her? Her moment of grace in the face of what could be seen as an absurd action from a wide-eyed young boy only illuminates the gulf that separates types of behavior. With her words, her acceptance of his offer, she reminded him that what he did was right. It couldn't have been handled better. I suspect that if she has children of her own, then they are the very ones who do stand and offer their seats to others; I suspect that she has brought them up right.

That afternoon, when I gave my seat up to a surly woman who never so much as nodded a 'thank-you' in my direction, I thought about that graceful lady and that young man - at that moment when manners met grace. I smiled at the woman who didn't thank me and took my station standing up.

As long as I ride, I'll continue to do this. Whether my offer is appreciated doesn't matter. It's not the point. The point is to make the offer, to do the thing that we know is correct. Where it took watching a pre-teen make a stand for courtesy to remind me of this, maybe my act of common courtesy will sink into one of these others. Maybe a little bit of apathy will blow away, and maybe he'll stand and offer his seat to another.

And maybe not. I'm not here to change anyone else, but I'll be damned before I'll let it change me. I'll stand, thanks.

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