It Seems To Me

A Tourist at Home

Observing America from a seat on the bus.

When the weather is good, I often take the bus to my office. I suppose that is partly because the bus trip costs $6 less than the taxi trip and I am of the Depression generation that still thinks that $6 is a lot of money. I tell myself that it is only 60 cents in real 1933 dollars, but that doesn’t stick in my mind. Also, I really like the bus. I like to observe the other passengers. And I get a better view of the city and the people on the sidewalk from my seat on the bus than I do from the back seat of a taxi, especially during one of those wild rides where I am closing my eyes to blot out the dangers.

The bus stop is across the street from the Watergate apartment in which I live. Twenty years ago, possibly even 15 years ago, when I came out of the building there would be knots of tourists, often Japanese, standing around, looking to take pictures of the building where it happened. They are all gone now. “Watergate” has become an abstraction, a symbol for something bad a president did. But there are fewer and fewer people who remember just what the president did. Hardly anyone now remembers why Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr fought a duel, or why Andrew Johnson was almost voted out of office. So it is becoming with Watergate.

How accommodating it is of history to have located the break-in of the Democratic National Committee in a building with a distinctive architectural style and name! Suppose the break-in had been at one of those identical cubical office buildings, with names like 1150 17th St., that fill downtown Washington. Would tourists have come to take its picture? And what would we have instead of Iran-Contragate and Whitewatergate and Filegate? Journalists would have been clichéless.

But back to my bus. The driver is always an African-American and often a woman. I can’t get used to saying “African-American.” Her ancestors probably came here long before mine–perhaps well over a century before mine. If she is an African-American, what am I–a Russian-American? But whatever we call her, I am glad to see her. She has overcome centuries of race and gender prejudice to get where she is. I am pleased to see the competence with which she wrestles that big bus around corners, hands out transfers, and answers passengers’ questions about stops and connections. Not long ago, such competence would not have been expected of her.

A fter snaking around eight blocks, we arrive at a corner on Virginia Avenue where one can see, separated by a narrow street, the buildings of the Federal Reserve and the State Department. What a concentration of worldwide power! But more impressive than the power is the concentration of homeless men lounging on the grates and the grass.

Two blocks down on Virginia Avenue, we come to the site of my epiphany. Looking out of the bus window one day, I saw a tall, graceful fountain in the garden behind a building that fronted on Constitution Avenue. I had passed it dozens of times without noticing it, perhaps because the water had not been playing before. I suddenly had the thought that if I had been on a tour bus in Rome or Vienna, the guide would have called our attention to that fountain and explained its history, and we would all have marveled at it. From that moment, at least for a while, I looked at my surroundings with fresh eyes–the eyes of a tourist.

We turn up 18th Street and pass the rear entrance of Constitution Hall, the property of the Daughters of the American Revolution. I wondered how many other buildings are famous for something that didn’t happen in them. Marian Anderson didn’t sing here in 1939. I have recently seen assertions that the DAR excluded Marian Anderson from Constitution Hall because she wanted to sing on Easter Sunday, and not because she was “colored,” as we used to say. I don’t know the truth of that, but it really doesn’t matter. The truth is that conditions in America in 1939 were such that a Marian Anderson could be excluded because of her race, and that conditions today are such that she could not.

A little farther up 18th Street we see the huge building of the Department of the Interior, which houses, among other things, the Bureau of Indian Affairs. That is the locus of one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite stories, about the bureaucrat who was found with his head down on his desk, sobbing because his Indian had died. That is a funny story, but it should not have been told by a president of the United States, who should have realized that the historic relation between the federal government and the American Indians is no laughing matter.

As we proceed up 18th Street, we take on more passengers, almost all of them “African-Americans” or Hispanics. Often I am the only “white” person on the bus. In my new stance as a tourist, I think to myself: “How exotic. I could be on a bus in Tokyo, and all the other passengers could be Japanese. I know so little about them, about their lives and thoughts and feelings.”

But then I realize how superficial that attitude is. Fundamentally the African-Americans and Hispanics and I are pretty much alike, riding on the same bus to the same destination over the same potholes. (And we have reached a degree of liberation that permits me to think of these potholes as Mayor Barry’s potholes without feeling guilty of racism.)

The word “fundamentally” in the previous paragraph carries a lot of weight, but it is important to think of what is fundamental. I mean having the experience of love and loneliness, illness and health, the joy of children, the satisfaction of work, and the inevitability of death. Those are the respects in which we are all alike. That is the sense in which we are all on the same bus. Perhaps it is being 80 years of age that makes me think that these are the overwhelmingly important and overwhelmingly common aspects of life. But many people much wiser than I am have thought that at a much earlier age than mine.

Nearing the end of my trip, I realize that my observations have been largely about race. That is not surprising. Race is the great American problem. From the standpoint of human history, race is not the distinctive American condition–freedom and prosperity are. But even this pretend-tourist takes that for granted. It is the race problem–that tangled web of history, hostility, demands, frustrations, injustice, and lawlessness–that gets, and deserves, attention. And yet, as I think about Marian Anderson and about my fellow passengers and about the female bus driver, I feel hopeful.

At my destination she pulls the handle to open the door for me. I say, “Thank you.” She says, “Have a nice day.”