Saturday, October 3, 2009

On the 92 Bus in DC

Even though I live in two cities, I'm still pretty much a creature of habit. If I'm in Albuquerque, I walk over to the Downtown Grower's Market; if I'm in DC, I go south to Eastern Market.

Mostly, I like to walk the 20 minutes or so to Eastern Market, but I prefer to catch the 90-series bus home after I've bought my groceries. Just as the 66 series buses that run down Central define most of my public transit adventures in Albuquerque, the 90 series buses mark my life here in DC, whether I'm headed to Adams Morgan, U Street, or to Capitol Hill.

The last two times I've ridden the 92 bus back to Gallaudet University, I've ended up sitting next to guys with interesting reading material. A few weeks ago, it was a man about my age in cool retro glasses holding a dog-eared copy of a 1980s issue of the Wisconsin Law Review (or was it Michigan?) Today, it was a sixty-ish professorial looking fellow with coke bottle glasses and a stack of books at least 8 inches high.

This man offered me his seat as I got on the bus, but there was a communication glitch and I missed what he said initially. Shaking my head, I pointed to my ears. He got it, and pointed to me and then his seat. Evidence of quick thinking, or perhaps just previous interaction with deaf people - who knows?

Anyway, I declined the seat with a smile, figuring that it was likely someone else would board who needed it more than I did. A few minutes later, he got off his seat and stood in the bus aisle. Nosy person that I am, I peeked at his book titles - one was a state of Virginia publication about the Battle of the Crater in the Civil War, and another was titled "The Crater: A Novel of the Civil War" by Richard Slotkin.

Catching me in the act of scoping out his titles, the man caught my eye and asked if I could read lips. I told him yes, and asked him if he was a professor. He shook his head slightly and identified himself as an historian. (I'm pretty sure he used "an" not "a"). And then he commenced to tell me about the Battle of the Crater, a Civil War battle in Virginia that was fought by (mostly?) black soldiers.

This was a creative plan - Union soldiers dug a tunnel under the Confederate front in hopes of a surprise attack, and then blew it up (hence the crater). He told me that many black soldiers were murdered (his word, not mine) in this battle and that his position was different from the prevailing view. Essentially he suggested that this had been a set-up, and that he was doing research reviewing Civil War soldiers' diaries and other primary sources in hopes of establishing his hypothesis.

I got off the bus shortly after he did, walking up the grade quickly to rush my groceries into the refrigerator. As I trudged uphill I thought of how much I prefer taking the bus to taking the Metro (subway).

The Metro is clean and efficient, and it gets me where I want to go, but Metro culture is less friendly than Metrobus culture. I can ride on the Metro and have no one say a word to me, but on the bus people chatter, chat, chant, and even sing.

I will never forget the ride on the 92 bus the Saturday after President Obama was elected. There was a LOT of joy on the bus that day, and a lot of jokes about the "White" House, and about forming a line at the White House to ask Obama for work. But what I remember most are some amazing vocals - including one woman who sang "Cry Me A River", "Go Down Moses" and a few other songs. Several others on the bus joined her; a young man in his twenties even harmonizing to her melody.

There were just three of us on that bus who were not black - a young couple from Gallaudet had boarded the bus with me, and they kept looking around, trying to figure put together what was going on. People were laughing, clapping in unison, smiling and everyone's expressions were just flat out happy - it felt like a party.

Normally I don't "interpret" unless asked, but I thought that their expressions indicated curiosity, so I introduced myself to them and gave a quick summary of what was going on based on what I could hear/speechread.

A few people seated near us spotted our signing. One man signed "O" and mouthed, really slowly - "O -ba -ma" and gave a thumbs up. The deaf couple smiled and responded with thumbs up of their own.

It was a moment on the bus.


A different kind of moment happened today.

Here's a shout out to the unnamed historian who taught me about the Battle of the Crater this afternoon.

Thanks for the history lesson, and I hope your research goes well.

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