Rowan O’Neal

When the old man boarded the bus dragging his rolling metal basket, laden with groceries, he joked that he had nearly 200 pounds. The driver asked how far he was going, to which the old man replied, “Oh two, three stops, just up to the top of the hill.” There really was not much of a hill, but it was clear that the old man would not have been able to drag his groceries that far. The driver told the man not to worry about his fare which seemed sensible, as the man was only riding from one end of the village to the other. But the man, perhaps due to the incomprehension of senility or out of pride, placed his crumpled dollar – 50% senior fare – into the machine before making his way to sit next to me.

In contemplation of that little interaction I wondered if what I had just seen was an exhibition of idealised communism, straight from an early Soviet film, but I had difficulty imagining a participant in the communist state so easily displaying kindness to a complete stranger. It is exactly such kindness which communism is meant to enact on an institutional level, yet if one makes a concession to a single old man, what about the next and the next – what about those who will fain a degree of frailty to take advantage of the system? From one perspective it is unjust that a bus driver may, at his implicitly biased discretion, waive a fare. Does the pursuit of social justice extirpate any human touch or kindness, all in the pursuit of banishing human cruelty?

At the third stop the driver lowered the ramp, and the old man began to trundle his way out of the bus. The driver warned him to be careful on the ramp, and the old man made some joke about rolling down it at high speed, to which the driver replied, “Evil Knievel!”

Evil Knievel? In those two words I heard young boys running and screaming in a primary school playground, or perhaps the more ill-behaved among them jumping onto a desk in a classroom and leaping over chairs. I heard them racing each other down the ramp to the school bus, some showing off their new shoes with the wheels imbedded in the heel, pulling stunts which would eventually get those shoes banned. And I heard them laughing and shrieking, daring each other on, trying to impress each other, to gain hierarchical standing by showing fearlessness and power. “Evil Knievel,” they would shout before making a leap off a park bench or over a curb, their arms flailing about in juvenile clumsiness. One wonders how many of them did aspire to be like Evil. At some point, however, they – we that is – must have stopped saying this, stopped engaging in ridiculous uncoordinated stunts intended to gain us social capital when status is now something that we could buy. When did that happen? Maybe at the end of middle school? Or perhaps it started, ever so slowly, in high school when some students could afford better clothes, could take the trip to Paris, could afford not to work, or could work, and could go to university. So he had once been a child who jumped off chairs, and now this Good Man was a bus driver; is this success, victory, or failure and defeat? I remembered how the old man had sat next to me – his nose was running, mucus having flowed over his short cut moustache, and, reflecting upon the runny nose of the old man, I began to hate the world again – it was only the bus driver’s kindness which had interrupted the general disposition of things.

As if to prove the kindness of strangers to me, just as the bus was about to leave from a later stop, a woman called out, “Hey wait, that man forgot his wallet!” The bus driver stopped and the woman went running outside. Another man went out to help her when the man who had forgotten his wallet did not hear their calls, and the bus driver blew the horn, eventually unbuckling himself from his seat to run after the man along with the two riders. All of this allowed a woman who was late to catch the bus. Upon reboarding, the woman who had run out with the wallet explained that she was asthmatic and found it difficult to run – yet still she had tried. If all this was human kindness, then what would institutional kindness be?

Perhaps institutional kindness would be to eliminate fares altogether, since they hardly pay for public transit anyway. If we fail to support such a policy, is it because we, individually are each unkind? Is it not unkind to argue that because I don’t ride the bus, I shouldn’t have to pay for it? Is that not essentially a prioritisation of individual self-interest over patriotism and the self-interest of the community? Perhaps one argues that it is unjust to be made to pay for something which one does not use. And why does one not ride public transit? I have written books whilst sitting in the bus – what have you done whilst riding in your car? After the incident with the wallet, the driver asked one the the riders about an elderly man with a walker who apparently used to ride the bus but had not been seen for some time. The obvious conclusion was that he had died. Perhaps less obvious, is that the man with the walker simply was no longer able to board the bus, and now had to pay six dollars for the door-to-door shuttle for disabled people – a cost imposed rather than lessened by age and disability, rationalised by the fact that the door-to-door service is more expensive to operate. We are mistaken if we believe that a just society is the same as a good one – such Platonic ideals do not in actuality exist.