Wide-eyed and still blind to bigotry

The following is an excerpt from Wheels on the Bus, Copyright 2010 by Ken Bilderback.

In the early 1970s, bus travel was waning as a mode of middle-class travel. It was no surprise then that when I got to the Detroit station and looked around the crowded waiting room most of the faces were black and ran the gamut from obviously dirt poor to only relatively affluent. The white faces, by contrast, seemed to fall pretty neatly into two groups: Young college-age travelers and older, sad-looking poor people. Many of the black faces looked happy to be going to wherever it was they were going, as did some of the college-aged white faces. I don’t think any of the other faces were quite as wide-eyed as mine was, however, as I eagerly waited for the bus that would take me down Interstate 75 to Florida.

Wheels on the Bus

Wheels on the Bus

There must have been something else showing in my eyes that day, too, because I was startled when a couple and their young daughter approached me. “Are you going all the way to Cincinnati?” one of the parents asked. When I said I was the father drifted off and the mother asked me if I would watch over their daughter, who looked to be about 10 or 12 and who was traveling alone to visit her grandmother in Ohio. The family was dark-skinned, although probably not as dark as I thought they were at the time. In the subsequent 40 years I’ve learned to appreciate the many subtle tones of skin color more than I did then. Back then they were black. All that set this family apart from the other black faces were the matching head scarves worn by the mother and daughter. So why, I wondered, did they approach me instead of one of the many black people in the room? Why would they approach me, the one person at the station who was almost as frightened as their little daughter?

I must have muttered that I would watch the girl because the mother handed me a slip of paper with the grandmother’s contact information and assured me that she would be waiting in Cincinnati when we got there. Either I forgot to ask the little girl’s name or missed it in my confused state, but I boarded the bus with the little girl and sat next to her protectively as my adventure began. She sat tall in the seat next to me with her hands folded on the lap of her clean and ironed dress. The ride through the length of Ohio is a long one, and relatively boring. The little girl said little if anything until we got to Dayton. “Is this Cincinnati?” she politely asked. I assured her it wasn’t, but then looking at the map and Dayton’s proximity to Cincinnati I found myself worried that maybe the two towns shared a bus station and felt compelled to check with the driver, who rolled his eyes and assured me that Cincinnati was still an hour away.

So we rolled on down I-75 out of Dayton. I didn’t know then that in a few years I would be living there, going to the University of Dayton and working as a journalist at the Dayton Daily News. In a few short years I would be able to drive this route with my eyes closed, but on this trip I never closed my eyes, nervously watching for our approach into Cincinnati. A sense of fear had started to grip me. I wasn’t afraid for myself. I was afraid for the little girl, wanting to make sure she got to her grandmother safely. In fact my fear for myself already had almost disappeared, replaced with a sense of myself as the protector, not as potential prey.

When we arrived at the Cincinnati bus station my fears were realized, if only briefly. “Do you see your grandmother?” I asked my little friend. She did not. So here I was, responsible for a little girl in a strange city, a little girl who had slipped her tiny hand into mine as we stood in the depot. My mind raced and I dug out the slip of paper with the grandmother’s phone number and dug out change for the pay phone. What if she’s not home, I wondered, and I have to call the police? Would they arrest me? I had just turned 18. Would that make a difference? But fortunately I never had to call either the grandmother or the police, because the little girl’s eyes lit up at the sight of her grandparents entering the station from across the lobby. The grandparents stood out in a crowd far more than the little girl’s parents had in Detroit. The old man stayed at the other side of the lobby as the grandmother came and embraced the child. She, too, wore a long scarf draped around her head, and she covered her mouth with one of the dangling ends when she spoke to me in an accent her daughter in Detroit did not have, saying nothing more than “Thank you” and that her daughter had called her to tell her I would be watching over the little girl. She happily fussed over her granddaughter and kept repeating “Yes, yes, yes.” The grandfather made a gesture that I interpreted to be some sort of religious blessing. Then this strange family was gone. Relieved of my responsibility, my adventure could begin in earnest.