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Stranger to depend on kindness?

8 November 2013

Two images circulating around the internet today caught my attention. First, a video of a raving bigot on a Chicago bus, swearing away at another passenger under the impression that she is a lesbian. Unpleasant viewing, and language not safe for work:

Having taken Mexico City transit at least four time s a day for several years, I’ve seen sexual harassment of various kinds (heck, I even got felt up one time on the Metro) and serious disagreements between individuals carried over onto the public transit system (only once did I see anyone actually get violent), and any number of people making proclamations (usually mercantile, and once in a while political), but nothing like this… a verbal assault on a random passenger, carried on loud and long enough to discomfort other riders. While it’s been years since I’ve been on U.S. public transit, but from the comments on the site where I saw this (Americablog.com) this appears to be relatively common. What struck me was that so many of the commentators (and the original post) mentioned that the other riders not joining in the harassment was a positive thing… as if harassment should have been expected… or that anti-social behavior is normal in public in the United States. More than a few commentators suggested that the driver was remiss in not violently ejecting the rude passenger, or at least “kicking his ass” in retribution.

How I traveled at least four times a day for five years.

How I traveled at least four times a day for five years.

Living as I do in a society where it is said that violence and dramatic over-reaction is the norm, It’s a shocking image. I don’t mean to say that it is completely unknown for disturbed individuals to act out in public (I have talked before about being followed one afternoon by a junkie who kept throwing rocks at me for reasons best known to herself), only that this is something one would never expect to see on a public bus, or metro car. My sense is that for Mexicans — even in the anonymity of the big city — there is still a sense of community, even if that community is transitory and its members are selected at random… like being passengers together on a bus or on the same Metro car. There are rules of behavior, and we all know them… even the disturbed, the self-absorbed, and the mad.

Oh, people can be jerks on public transit … I once was practically bowled over by a fat little girl (egged on by her mother) to get into the seat I was giving up to an elderly lady weighted down with packages, and I once made a lady cry when she shoved me and I called her a “stupid cow” (vaca estupida.. much worse in Spanish than in English), but those were private disputes, not something to be carried on in public… nor would anyone think of carrying on such disputes in public. It… simply… is… not… done.

Should something like this have happened on a Mexican bus, I’m not sure what the reaction would have been. The victim, as in Chicago, might have answered back, or simply ignored the taunts, and the other passengers would have rolled their eyes, smiled at the victim and shrugged their shoulders… meaning “he’s an asshole, but don’t let it ruin your day”. Were there a few self-appointed cabelleros on board, the most likely scenario would have been a few guys standing in the aisle to protect the victim, and isolate her from her tormenter No asses would be kicked, but the message would be sent out from the passengers… YOU are not one of us. Quite possibly, the driver would stop, and the offender would be removed (exiled for the good of the community), but I doubt there would be any ass-kicking.

I wonder if it is the U.S. sense of individualism, that we are autonomous and jealous of person rights that permits people to accept such behavior as normal, and … if it needs corrected… to presume that some authority figure (the bus driver) is authorized to stop it.

SLEEPER-570The same day, another popular image taken on U.S. public transit circulated, of a fellow asleep on a New York subway car, his head resting on a complete stranger. I recognize that complicated imagery surrounding the U.S. obsessions with race and ethnicity has much to do with the photo’s popularity (the sleeping man is black and wearing a “hoodie”, the man whose shoulder he is resting on is a Jew with a Yarmulke)… but it raises my question again, although based on a positive image. What is it that makes feeling a sense of commonality with your fellow human beings when sharing a common experience in close quarters (like riding public transit) so rare? Is it really so extraordinary for a Jewish man in New York to not be bothered by the unintentional intrusion into his “personal space” by African-American neighbor? Is that alone what makes it an extraordinary photo… or is it that people in the U.S. so obsessed with their personal autonomy that what would go unnoticed elsewhere… simple human decency… is a “man bites dog” story?

Sources:
Americablog.com, Huffington Post

(Mexico City Metro photo:  Bernie’s Travels)

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One Comment leave one →
  1. 8 November 2013 11:58 am

    I could write a book on the subject of the prejudices revealed in the USA’s public transit systems. I worked for SF’s Municipal Railway in several capacities, for many years. Driving a bus in SF was the most difficult and stressful job I’ve ever had, for reasons partially addressed in the video.

    I have concluded that all kinds of bigotry are showcased in the public transit sector. Even more difficult is that the driver often has the difficult choice of calling for help, which probably requires off-loading the whole bus, or continuing onward.

    One day, walking to my assigned post in uniform, a gay man said to his friend, “What’s a white person doing working for Muni?” I was also often screamed at while trying to do my supervisor’s job, and even called a “whore” (by an evident immigrant).

    My first uses of Mexico City’s metro system thus came as such a pleasant surprise!
    I once witnessed a line-delay, in which the passengers were all asked to get off the immobilized train. Guess what? NOT ONE SINGLE PERSON screamed at the supervisor, everyone politely complied, and the delay was cleared rapidly.

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