The moral of this story is not that people born outside the U.S. are inclined toward bewilderment or learned helplessness. (Rest assured that in most life skills, the majority of people the world over could rocket figure eights all around my level of competence.) This vignette is only an example of a parallel conversation — times when you think and I think that we are describing the same picture, when in fact we are looking at two different views. Parallel conversations are a mainstay of comedy shows and cross-cultural mishaps of all kinds. Onward.
On a clear summer evening the bus rolled along through open fields, heading for our small town. Over wild blackberry and yellow Scots Broom and crying killdeer, the sun was setting in a clear apricot sky.
The town was a resettlement area for a wonderful array of refugee families. For this white Anglo lady, it was a great interest and pleasure to take in the scene among fellow commuters: thin bronzed wiry young men speaking Spanish, women with grocery bags speaking Ukrainian, teenage girls veiled in graceful hijab gesturing with henna-patterned hands speaking Arabic, senior citizens with splendid silver mustaches and Sikh turbans speaking… Punjabi?
The bus driver turned off the highway toward our little transit center on the green, at the heart of the historic downtown. Just then, a police car behind us switched on its siren and pulled us over, parking in front of our bus. A second car with siren came flying, and parked in back. One officer approached the driver’s window. From the first seat I heard him mention the Justice Center, a local landmark several blocks from downtown: “… So, pull in there, in the back parking lot. They’ll just have to walk the rest of the way.”
Later, the neighbors told me why. At our bus terminal, a high school student from out of town came for the first day of the annual Street Fair; he exchanged words with some local teens. One of them had a gun, and the gun went off. Fortunately, no one was hurt. In the alarm and confusion on the street, police took the teenagers in for questioning, diverted the traffic, and roped off the area to watch out for further incidents.
Meanwhile, the police officer boarded our bus. (One of the teenagers smoothed her veil closer, hiding the baby girl in her arms.) The officer tucked his thumbs in his belt and shouted an announcement. “This bus is coming out of service. We’ve cleared the downtown. Station’s closed off.” He waved his arms at us in a herding gesture. “Last stop will be up here, on account-a the rioting, okay?” He looked around at his listeners, all sitting very silent and very still. “Riots, riots,” he repeated for their benefit, and left the bus.
Passengers whispered from seat to seat. “Riots? Ri-ots?” I crossed the aisle to the Ukrainian women and explained in Russian that the police were there only for our safety, to inform us of “some fighting” downtown. (To my chagrin, the only word for “riot” that came to mind was забастовка, and that applies to the Pugachev Rebellion of the late 1700s.) Then I explained to the Spanish speakers, again having no idea of the correct word, and hoping that peleando was close enough for describing argumentative trouble. The passengers had the same problem I did: “riot” is not a high frequency word in anybody’s language class, and for the other languages on this bus my vocabulary would be no help at all.
At first, when the sirens first pulled up, the families and friends looked so tense that they might have been wondering whether one of them would be pulled off the bus by these pursuing police. But now it dawned on them all: the squad cars were escorting the lot of us straight up the driveway to the County Jail!
To this day, years later, it’s a heartache to think back on the fear and helplessness that crossed their faces. Most sat stolid and resolute. A few covered their eyes, or leaned their heads on one another’s shoulders, or shook their heads and whispered whatever words came to mind during that three minute trip up the driveway.
Then, we heard a child’s cry from the back of the bus. “Mira, Papi! Look, Dad!” he shouted in Spanish, bouncing in his seat. “He said RIDES! RIDES!” The passengers turned to stare at the little boy, then looked outside. Oh! Clever kid. Rides, sure enough! Once we pulled behind the building, there they were in plain sight — a Ferris wheel and carousel, and a little roller coaster. There was a stage too, with folk singing and dancing, all kinds of amusements and concession stands with ethnic foods, an ice cream truck playing “Bicycle Built for Two,” and all of it up in lights.
The driver braked and flung open the door. He pointed out the way, saying he was sorry for the inconvenience and wishing us all a hearty good night. The passengers burst out with clapping and laughter. “Rides!” they sang out. Imagine, the U.S. police showing up just to tell everybody about a Fair! They scrambled for their groceries and lunch pails and diaper bags and poured out of the bus like it was dry land on Ararat.
I struck out alone into the grass near the train tracks, with goldfinches skimming all around me. Once I turned back for a last look. The travelers, hand in hand with their skipping children, hurried toward the celebration across blackberries and Scotch Broom, under the apricot sky.