Tuesday, March 15, 2016

A Cold Rainy Day- #Sol16 -Day 15

A Cold and Rainy Day at the Bus Stop- #Sol 16
Day 15

Yesterday was rainy and cold: the kind of damp cold my mom used to say usually seeped into her bones. As I approached the bus stop, I noticed an elderly woman waiting.

The woman had a coat and hat. She was well bundled and warm. She was not being fooled by our capricious March weather. I could see in the deep lines of her wrinkles and her tired eyes that she was from the island, my parent's home, Haiti. Please do not ask me how, but there is something in the face and poise of an older Caribbean woman. I am rarely wrong. 

I struck small talk with her about the weather. My hope was that our words could warm us as we waited. At first, I spoke English.
When I detected her Haitian accent, I decided to let her know I also spoke Haitian Creole. 

This is a language I learned despite my parents' earlier elitist directives that I speak only English and French. The more I was scolded for sneaking Haitian Creole words into my daily dialogue, the more I was hungry to listen and practice. I even used to sit in a corner with the Haitian newspaper to decipher and read aloud the Creole columns. I am proud to say often fellow Haitian men and women are surprised that even though I was born in New York City, my Creole is not heavy and awkward.

To return to the bus stop, the lady and I indeed warmed ourselves with small talk about the cold, the situation in Haiti, and our hopes for better times for our island.

Then buses finally started flowing in our direction : Amen! She mentioned which bus she needed. I could take two of the several routed buses, but she mentioned one. One bus came without a front sign. The bus driver rolled in and shouted the bus number. As he yelled the bus number, she steadfastly yelled her street name.

The woman must not have had faith in me because she stood at the door of the first bus even as I told her the second bus carried the route number she had mentioned.

 As she yelled her street name to the driver of the first bus, he must have shaken his head, "No" because she came down to my bus just as I was embarking (when I finally told myself to mind my own business). I was tired and cold after all. As I stepped into the bus, I heard her yell her street name and the driver said,"No." The woman looking a bit stressed and returned to the bus stop awning. I did not even have a chance to say goodbye.

At that point the driver began to tell me that some people at this stop ask the same question every day. I responded in a friendly manner that it may be confusing because this stop hosts one bus number that goes in different directions. The key is to read the destination as not to get confused. My son and I when we first moved in the neighborhood years ago had gotten confused. We quickly learned our lesson.

The bus driver kept expressing his frustration and mentioned that this particular woman always asked. I then realized that other than not speaking English this woman may be illiterate. She may be unable to read the signs. Even if someone wrote down the bus number and destination on a notecard, she would still have to yell her street name at drivers. Today, I realize she yells her street name, so she will not be invisible and inaudible. She needs to be heard before that bus takes off and leaves her stranded in the cold and rain. Her yell makes up for her incapacity to read the signs on the bus.

I did not realize the full reality of illiteracy until I tried to tutor one of our maids at the time. When I was young, I loved to follow the maid around our house until she was finished with housework. Then I would pull out my saved old workbooks and begin to teach her English. With some maids, I soon realized that pointing to the words did not help. I used the images and objects around the house and encouraged them to repeat.

Illiteracy is a reality for many.  When volunteering in Haiti, I decided to help with the president's initiative to eradicate illiteracy. I headed to the central headquarters and picked up my materials: a book, notebooks and some chalk. Then, I headed to the maid's church to teach. She had gathered some church members who were excited to see how letters strung together made words.

Week after week, I wrote combined consonant and vowels on the board. Some students remembered how to combine the letters to make sounds. Some even graduated to reading sentences.  However, some could not work out the sounds of even monosyllabic words despite many lessons. Patiently, I read the sounds that they later repeated. They excitedly held their pencils to shape the letters of the day, the letters of their name.

I was hoping to be patient with the bus driver...almost like a mediator listening to his complaint. I thought if I listened, I might squeeze in the older lady's perspective. Yes for the driver, it must be annoying to repeat the same information every day. And yes for the old lady, it must be downright scary to navigate a world where the only words you may recognize are your street address, where glowing yellow conspicuous bus signs consists of strange letters that constitute more a barrier than a link to information. Each party needs to be affirmed.

I am hoping next time this bus driver sees the old lady that he may stop, listen for her street name, and nicely say, "No, next bus. See you tomorrow."


  1. Wow, you are out their running a ministry on your commute home! This post gave me shivers because of the rain, yes, but also because my grandmother was illiterate. She was born in a time in China when girls were not educated (unless they belonged to the upper class). She had her own system of keeping track of things and navigating the world. I marvel at how brave she was. Can you imagine trying to take public transit and not being able to read? Your affirmation of the frustration of the bus driver is brilliant... I sure hope he speaks nicely to the old lady at the bus stop next time.
    And your work with the your maid and then at the church!!!

  2. How insightful of you to stop and reflect on this woman's behavior and wish her goodness in finding a bus tomorrow.

  3. I was thinking, too, when you wrote that "The woman must not have had faith in me because she stood at the door of the first bus even as I told her the second bus carried the route number she had mentioned"... this can very well be her system that she's worked out to navigate the world. I know my grandma had her own system for everything, so even if I tried to "help," she still needed to do it her way. So don't think of this as the woman's lack of faith in you, but rather, this is a way of coping for those who cannot read.
    And also, I've always believed that even though my grandma didn't read and didn't go to school for a day of her life (girls did not get to go to school in that generation in that social class), she was one of the wisest people ever.

    1. Thank you for your insight. After having read your poignant pieces about your grandmother, i can literally feel her fortitude and wisdom. Thank you again for your feedback.

  4. This piece is amazing -- your writing and the story itself. I am blown away by your insight and your kindness, and honored to know you in person. Thank you so much for today's post!

  5. Wonderful slice! Taking time to notice and listen is what we need more of.

  6. This is a great story. You show such compassion for all the persons involved. I also was impressed that you worked to help adults read. I've tried this work myself, and it is very difficult (as you know). Well done.

  7. I love how I had no idea where this piece was going as I began reading it--and then I loved where it went. Thank you!