Frolicking at LPMP
This summer I had an opportunity to work for an incredible nonprofit organization called Life Pieces to Masterpieces. It is located in a challenging area of Washington D.C. and it strives to empower the young black males of the area. Though I learned innumerable positive qualities of the community through my work, I also learned quite a lot from my daily commute.
One of my favorite things about living in D.C. was the bus. Growing up in suburban Greenville, South Carolina people drive. School, work, activities, shopping, the doctor? You drive. Needless to say the idea of living in a city for an entire summer without a car was daunting. Surprisingly, it took me almost no time to adjust to public transportation. In D.C. there are a multitude of transportation options. There is the famous metro of course, walking, taxis, biking, and the Uber service. But my favorite mode was the bus. I loved it in all its loud, slow, bulky, and crowded glory. It gave me time to sit and decompress after a long day at the nonprofit I worked at, Life Pieces to Masterpieces. It provided a chance for me to reflect on and analyze my experiences. Most importantly, it showed me the true inhabitants of Washington D.C., the ones who had been there for generations, those who lacked the resources to commute by car or more expensive means. This was their natural habitat. Though the summer was filled with a multitude of adventures and lessons at Life Pieces to Masterpieces, one of my favorite memories of my time there is from the smudged and scratched window of the X9 bus.
I rode exactly three different buses on an hour and a half commute to work each day: the 80, the X9, and the U8. The 80 pretty much took us through the nice part of the city and the U8 through the bad part. But the X9 bridged the gap. It traveled from H and 7th to the Minnesota Avenue Metro station. It was along this route that we could see the gradations of poverty increase at a steady rate.
When I first hopped on the X9 I saw tall, clean, and prosperous buildings from the window. I saw crowded streets filled with the busy movement of working people. I saw expensive clothing. I saw the pale skin of the people who lived in the center of D.C. And I saw tight uncommunicative faces that did not want to engage in idle chatter at a stoplight. Slowly the businesses and people began to blur and change as the X9 crossed the Anacostia River. In my head I referred to this portion of Benning Road as “The Border.” Buildings shrunk down in size and grandeur. Businesses were smaller but still prospering, sidewalks became more littered, and bus stops were filled with more people. The people themselves were multiracial and varied in social class. Some dressed in suits and ties and others in sagging jeans and yellowed shirts. As the X9 progressed still further the buildings grew into disrepair. Dilapidated structures covered in graffiti lined the street, racial variance grew slim, liquor bottles and endless cigarette stubs covered the sidewalks, and people had a hardened demeanor. This ending point was the community my organization, Life Pieces to Masterpieces, served.
It was on the X9 that my perspective of this community was forever altered. I sat by the window with my headphones plugged dutifully in. I gazed out in a sort of detached way at the lackadaisical busyness of Benning Road. Coming up the street was a pair of people: A tall lean man in simple worn clothes and a shorter plump woman in bright colors and a made-up face. As the bus drew nearer I saw that the man held a long thin stick out in front of him. He was blind. In the stream-of-consciousness way a person thinks to herself I noted that this must be a man guided along by his daughter. The bus screeched to a stop and threw open its doors with a loud snap and I became privy to the sounds of the interaction before me. I discreetly removed an ear bud of my headphones. The man was exclaiming his thanks exuberantly to his companion. She seemed less than excited about his lingering presence on her arm and shooed him onto the bus. She grimaced as he hugged her in overwhelming gratitude. As soon as the bus doors closed she turned and walked briskly back the way they had come wiping the residual grime of the man from her clothing and I made an alteration to the story in my head. The woman did not know the blind man. She had walked out of her way to escort this strange fellow to his bus stop.
The bus waits for no one, even poor little old blind men. It lurched into gear and he was thrown forward barely keeping upright. He regained his balance and thrust his stick out in front of him. Before he could move a young man sitting in the front row jumped to his feet. He gently guided the blind man to the seat he had given up. The young man asked where the blind man needed to get off and promised to sit with him and tell him when the X9 reached his stop. The blind man asked in a loud voice if anyone had a phone he could borrow. Another man in the near vicinity immediately handed over his phone. The blind man called out a number and let the two men help him dial. He had a short conversation with someone on the other line who seemed to be waiting for him at his stop. When the bus came to his stop the two men carefully guided the blind man off and saw that there was someone to collect him. Then they sat back down and continued on with their lives.
I was haunted by this series of events for weeks afterward. Before my arrival in D.C. everyone I talked to warned me of how hard my experience would be in such a rough area. They braced me for the broken community I was about to step into. So I had battened down the hatches in preparation. I was prepared for the screaming of a couple on the side of the road, even when she shoved him viciously. I was not surprised by the teenage mother allowing her three toddlers to run screaming all over the bus. I even felt equipped to process the people I saw strung out on the bus in front of me, their veins bulging grotesquely and their heads lolling around with glazed-over eyes. But when I saw this unknowing system of strangers band together to help a needy man I was shaken and moved to my core. This “broken” community had been compassionate in a way that I, in my privileged existence, would not have dared. It gave me hope that there is still unexpected good around and within us as human beings. Even among the poor and marginalized communities there is a resiliency of goodness whether it comes in the form of strangers on the bus or individuals who create and support nonprofit organizations to provide help. I can only hope that the next time I encounter someone like the blind man I will have the courage and compassion of the woman on the Benning Road and the two young men on the X9 bus.