“You smoking ganja?”he asks into his cell phone as he cozies up to your group at the bus station. He’s selling weed with tact—taking advantage of the crowded space, pretending like he’s making a call. You are all white. He assumes there’s no other reason for you to be here.
It’s day four of internship at The Yellow House, and you’re taking your intentional community’s nine-month residents through a poverty simulation (which you’ve deliberately decided to call An Experiment in Understanding, because the alternative sounds like it lacks humanity).
Your interns deposited their keys, smart phones, and debit cards into the basket on the coffee table. It will all be there when they return. You gave them $3 in quarters and dropped them off in two of Shreveport’s highest crime neighborhoods (Don’t worry, moms. Someone who knows the way home stayed with them). Outside of navigating the bus system, one group has been commissioned to get groceries in a food desert, the other to wash a load of clothes in an area where there’s no laundry mat. And they all have to get back to Highland (another under-resourced neighborhood, but the one that you call home).
You are not visiting a poor people zoo where folks are on display, but you still think it’s important for these green interns to experience the reality of relocating. You want them to know you have not moved to this side of town to rescue the inner city. Rather, you’re all getting yourselves saved a little at a time by doing life together across lines of difference.
The interns have been asked to simply get home, after a few errands are accomplished, and to pay attention.
Fish out of water, that’s what you all are, wandering around Cedar Grove trying to figure out how to navigate a transit system you’ve never considered taking without the iPhone you’ve never considered leaving. You’re staying quiet as to give your interns room to problem-solve, but you speak up when the advice is necessary. “No, no, pick another door to knock on. That’s a crack house.”
All three of them hesitate, laundry slung over shoulders, hoping that the next door will reveal a friendly face ready to teach them the art of getting home. You see how relationships become a vital resource when all other resources are removed. You wonder, subsequently, what your wealth may be costing you.
The Shreveport bus system was not made for your kind, an assumption made obvious by the cops who have now stopped you for questions. No one’s dressed particularly well, but that doesn’t prevent the profiling. You are either lost or you are here to make purchases. “We’re just trying to learn the bus system, ”you say, as if that could smooth over the skepticism.
Finally, a bus stop sign has been spotted at the end of the next block, and your crew has ducked inside a gas station to ask about fare prices. Bars on the windows. Blood shot eyes. Warm and helpful cashier.
It’s a balmy Louisiana afternoon, and you would know it. There’s no shelter at this bus stop, no shade, no iron pole upon which to lean. The weeds around the Sportran sign are hiding the ant beds you almost trample. And there’s no bench on which to wait out the next half hour—a time frame you’re only aware of because of the helpful cashier. Unfortunately, there’s no schedule posted at this spot either. You sponge the sweat from your forehead and think to yourself, “What would change if a hundred rich folks from the south of town decided to take the bus for a month? Maybe the grass would get mowed.”
The interns have knocked back the last of their water and are trying not to look disgruntled. Talk sporadically happens acknowledging the privilege it is not to have to lose two hours of your day maneuvering public transportation. Someone mentions the possible reality of a man having to wait in his business suit, in this heat, with no shade. Now everyone is silent and hot. A young girl and her brother walk towards you, freeze cups in hand. They’re coming from the gas station you visited, and they cock their heads to look twice. You smile, eyeing the freeze cups and then the place where they were bought.
“GAS * BEER * NACHOS * WIC ACCEPTED.”
“Excuse me, ”an intern utters.“Where’s the closest laundry mat around here?”
“Oh, they’ve all shut down, ”the freeze cup girl replies. “Nearest one is in Highland.”
You’re trying to take good mental notes so that you may be able to process later, but you’re suddenly muddled. Someone could easily live in one neighborhood, buy food in another, and wash clothes in another. You know that this is highly possible, and it makes you tired just considering the process.
The bus arrives and no one is expecting your group, especially not the driver who chuckles as he helps you figure out the transfer fee to get you out of the way. People are in their uniforms talking about their days and their families—a community of commuters on the Cedar Grove line. How lonely your personal car rides seem.
You watch a man in his work clothes pull the cable for his stop at Olive Street where he departs with two kids, a bag of laundry, and two boxes of food. And you think, “It takes someone real smart to navigate fare change, daycare pickup, grocery shopping, and bus schedules all at once.”
Then you think, “I’d be real mad if I werethat smart man and people felt sorry for me.”
Though you never move from your seat, you hug that smart man in your mind and say to him, “You’re doing a good job.”And then you resolve that you don’t want to “feel sorry for poor people.”You want to listen to those who are experiencing poverty. You want to pause, impressed and humbled by the different kinds of intelligences in these parts of town that you know you yourself have not cultivated. You want to understand a lifestyle that is different from yours. You want to listen and look twice. You want to join up with these friends and ask together, “Why?”—that some things might have a chance to be different.
After waiting at the station for another half hour, your transfer bus has arrived ready to take you into a neighborhood that is ten minutes away from your first location by car. “This is us, ”an intern says, as the bus rolls to a stop at the Highland laundry mat an hour and a half after your start time. The group counts the remaining change to see if clothes-washing is feasible. After their task is complete, the whole lot of you begins the hot march to your home six blocks north.
You’re not quite sure what has taken place today, but you’re fairly certain of three things. 1. Your heart wells up with pride and humility toward your smart neighbors. 2. You know something about this system needs to change. 3. You hope that together, with a bit of listening and maybe some more bus riding, you can all join up to make that happen.