I wasn't paying attention to the conversation until this: “No, go ahead. You can keep using the phone. I've got plenty of minutes left.” Another voice said: “No, I'm good. Thanks.”
I looked over and the second “voice” handed the phone back to a guy sitting one row behind him.
The second “voice” was a Hispanic kid I guessed to be in his mid-twenties, wearing athletic shorts, sneakers, a sports jersey and a light windbreaker. It was -15 below at the time. The owner of the phone was in his late fifties. His face was weathered, his beard and hair, gray. He was dressed for the weather in a beat-up Columbia winter coat, the obligatory hoodie underneath the coat, scuffed and worn but good shoes.
He said to the kid: “If you don't mind me asking, why are you dressed like that.” The kid said: “I just got sprung from county jail. I'm from Texas, this is all I got.”
The old guy said:
“It ain't my business about your jail, but if you walk to the avenue, two blocks east of here there's a place you can get a warm jacket, pants, gloves.” The kid says, “Thanks, man. No, I'm good.” Two minutes later the kid grabbled a small plastic garbage bag, jumped on a bus headed for West Acres and disappeared.
I witnessed that scene because as a special ed para-educator at Fargo South, I've been riding the bus five days a week, every week since September. I'm a job trainer for South High's Transition program. I'm riding with a special-needs student to a north Fargo elementary school, where he works in the cafeteria. Part of my charge is to help him grow to independence by teaching him to navigate the MATBUS system. We take two busses to the elementary school and back to South High, with a bus change at the Ground Transportation System each way.
I've been a keen observer of those who ride the bus. I take notes, make observations objectively, without prejudice. This I know: there is an underclass of people living on the fringes of what we would consider to be acceptable lifestyles. They've been marginalized by low income lives, mental and behavioral issues, bad luck, bad breeding, bad breaks and by the multi-generational cycle of poverty and alienation.
Fully 80% are ethnic minorities. Many are homeless. Most live in group homes, cheap apartments, they buddy-up together to rent cheap hotel rooms and God knows what else to eek out the barest of comforts.
In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, it's these souls that I worry most about. This has little to do with riding the bus. MATBUS has established protocols for social distancing. The bus is merely a metaphor for these untouchables, the unseen and forgotten souls in our community. How does social distancing work for those who simply can't isolate themselves?
But understand. These people have code of honor among themselves. There's a level of trust and judgement that unites them. I've seen the immediate bond between and the careful judgment of others. They share an incredible sense of humor and their own unique hubris.
A few weeks ago I witnessed two interactions: “I'll give you a banana if I can use your phone. I have to check on my mom.” Banana delivered. No questions asked. Done deal. The second was between a Native American and a young white man. Native American: “You need warmer clothes man.” The white guy said: "No, I'm good. I'm from up north. I'm used to -20 below.” The Native American said: “You can't get used to -20 below in those clothes. Be careful man, you could perish out there.” How eloquent from someone most of you wouldn't look twice at. “You could perish…” Pandemic or not. Please don't forget about these people. I can't.