Monday, December 21, 2009

A Trip on TheBus: Monday, December 21, 2009

I've taught "Poetry & the City" a couple of times now. Better to call it "Poetry & Place," since many of my students are not from Honolulu, but from places like Whitmore Village, an old pineapple plantation community outside of Wahiawa, or from Kane`ohe. One of the assignments that works best is to get students to take photographs of the place they live; the only stipulation is that they not be in any way touristic. Then they are to add captions to the photographs and post them on the class blog. We begin to get a sense of the histories of places that way; I remember one student from Waipahu who took a picture of an old general store that has, in recent years, become a Samoan church. Another assignment that proved even more valuable was to take a public bus (TheBus) and write about the experience. (This assignment has since yielded a forthcoming bus map publication of literature about TheBus and an honors thesis by Gizelle Gajelonia, namely Stop Requested.) Once of Gizelle's best ideas, that the bus is like a cathedral, never even made it into her work. Tinfish Press will be publishing her chapbook, Thirteen Ways of Looking at TheBus, in the Spring.

Like many of my assignments, the bus exercise was one I had not done myself. With very few exceptions, I have not taken buses since my first year in Hawai`i, which was 1990. But today my husband decided we would travel to Ala Moana Shopping Center in Honolulu from our home in Temple Valley as a way to show the kids how to get around. He's been working with our son on taking the bus for several months now. So we took the 65 to Bishop and King Streets, then a 20 bus to Ala Moana. On the way back, we took the 57A to Alakea and King Street, and then the 65 back to Ahuimanu. Between trips, we spent time at what used to be the biggest shopping mall in the United States, where a manic counter-recession seems to be occurring.

The bus leaves Hui Iwa Street and winds around, only to stay put next to the McDonald's for 13 minutes or so. Then it goes down Kahekili toward the Hygienic Store, a local landmark notorious for its reputed drug market, then right onto Kamehameha Highway, past Hee`ia Pier and Point and down the coast back to Kane`ohe. Once through Kane`ohe, the bus turns up the Pali Highway and into town (Honolulu). We were seated toward the back of this bus where

--a young man in jacket and sunglasses was chatting up a young woman in tank top and skirt; his voice was slurred as if he'd been in an accident or had been drinking--he talked about drinking, something about the cops, too--and he showed her a picture of a woman he'd liked on his cell phone, and later a video off his laptop. Another young man sat at the back with slatted earrings through his pierced ears, on and off his phone. After he left, another young man sat in back, talking on his phone, while the young woman fell asleep.

--near Times in Kane`ohe a man ran to get on the bus. White, in his 30s, with a neat mustache, he was carrying a large military backpack and a camouflage jacket, which he put in the seat in front of my husband and daughter. He fumbled for change, turning down Bryant's offer of a quarter, and returned to his seat. He pulled out a sushi roll, the kind with the plastic wrap around the nori, and ate it. Then he pulled out a quart of milk and started to drink it, and then he pulled out a plate lunch and started to eat that. Somewhere in there, Sangha pointed to the seat next to the man who was hungry, and I spotted the nose of a dog that had a bone in its mouth, just peeking out of the backpack. It was a black terrier, to whom the man fed bits of his sushi roll. Then he pulled a brush out of the pack and energetically brushed the dog. Every so often the man would turn to look at the woman in the back (her conversational partner had gotten off at Windward Mall). His eyes were a bit too big, perhaps. There was a story. He got off before us, and the dog, hunting for crumbs on the floor of the bus, almost missed the stop. She was an unneutered animal, looked like she'd had puppies recently.

--Ala Moana Center Makai Food Court: an old white man wearing a Santa hat and a bib wandered around, in his mouth a pacifier. A few minutes later, he came the other direction, a baby bottle hanging from his lips.

--Alakea Street bus stop on the way home. A young man started offering us advice on buses to take, thinking we were tourists. My husband promptly started reciting the bus schedule chapter and verse. The young man was from Kailua, on his way to the airport to try to get a job pushing old people around in wheelchairs, being "friendly to people," which he said he always was. But the guy in headphones and a slant cap pacing back and forth ("fucking going up and down," he said) made him nervous. The guy was overweight, appeared too old for his gangster get-up, hardly dangerous. A homeless woman sat down, asked the young man what he did for a living. He said nothing right now. "Have you trained yourself?" she asked. Yes, he did handyman work, he replied, but business was slow. "Is it Easter?" the woman asked, chomping on ice from a Starbucks plastic cup, when she wasn't taking a drag off her cigarette. She wore a black dress with floral patterns on it, could have been on break from work. "No, it's near Christmas," the man answered, then got on his bus to Hickam/Airport, along with the gang banging wannabe. The woman wandered away, talking about Easter.

--A woman with Down Syndrome, her hair curly and graying, got on at that bus stop. During the trip she leafed through a photo album (family pictures?), smiled, and stuck her hands in her mouth, as if to retrieve something she'd lost there. She got off in Kane`ohe, and trudged beside the bus, likely heading home.

--[late addition]: two overweight teen-age boys get on the bus at Windward Mall. One pulls out a paperback (looks like sci-fi fantasy, something about thieves) and starts to read it. The other guy sits with a Borders bag on his lap. The first guy says, "I can't believe you don't like to read--always watching the tv! The first book I read all the way through was a few years ago, and I loved it!" He settles into his book, while his friend sits looking out the window.

--The bus wandered back over the Pali, beside the golf course, through Kane`ohe town, and down Kam Highway. A white-haired guy in broad brimmed hat and swim trunks got off the bus with a six-pack slung over his shoulder in a plastic supermarket bag. Bryant said, "going fishing!" When I remarked that he lacked a fishing pole, Bryant said, "perfect." The bus turned left at the Hygienic Store, went as far as the sewage plant, then took a right. On Hui Ulili Street, two women got on, one older, not terribly mobile, the other tall, lanky, assisting her. The second woman had large upper arms, a long heavily powdered face and bleached blonde curls; her legs were large, thick. We smiled as I and the family exited the bus to walk home.

A friend who came through Honolulu recently noticed the homeless problem on the way in from the airport. There are Vietnam Vets begging on Nimitz Highway under the H1 freeway; there are homeless people in tents in parks from Makaha to Kapiolani Park and beyond. Today's trip did not offer witness to that level of struggle. But it did offer much else, the promise of stories that might explain something, not only about the person seated in TheBus, but about the larger community. I look forward to my next trip on public transit and to next semester's Poetry Workshop (if it makes...) which will concentrate on poems of place.


Gizelle said...

I still think about that "bus as a church" idea from time to time. I still don't know what to do with it. Maybe I should pray and ask for a sign...

susan said...

I think you might ask for a token of God's love, in which he transfers water to poetry!