Despite our Mayor’s slogan of “One City,” Washington, D.C., often feels like at least two cities. Gentrification has brought people of different classes and races closer together than they were a generation ago, at least geographically, but it’s no secret that there’s still a huge divide between Upper Northwest (where, as the title of this blog indicates, I live) and Southeast, or even Northeast.
Still, once in a while there’s a moment of cross-boundary human connection that is all the more precious because, given our preconceptions, it’s so unexpected.
Yesterday I did something I suspect few of my neighbors have done: I took the 97 bus out East Capitol Street. It was the simplest way to get from Point A (Eastern High School, at #1700, where I was tutoring some students in writing) to Point B (DC Scholars Public Charter School, at #5601, where I had a meeting). But a couple of people who knew of my plan cautioned me against taking the bus. Who, after all, knew what might happen?
I scoffed. I grew up taking buses in Baltimore, where, being white, I was often in a distinct racial minority. I never felt unsafe or uncomfortable. Then, the day before my bus ride, a front-page story appeared in the Washington Post focusing on gun violence in a neighborhood called Capitol View—which, I realized after a little sleuthing on the Internet, was the very neighborhood traversed by the 97 bus.
But I put any hesitation aside. Whatever might happen on the side streets, East Capitol Street is a pretty heavily traveled thoroughfare. And despite some recent rock-throwing incidents in Southeast, a bus has always struck me as a pretty safe place to be.
I wasn’t the only white person on the bus when I got on, but the other one got off after a couple of stops. Around the same time, an African-American mother and her school-age child—a girl, I eventually realized—got on and took the two seats right next to me.
“You can’t put that in an essay for school!” I heard the mother say to the girl. “I’ll need to edit that.”
I couldn’t hear the girl’s response (the mother was sitting next to me, and the girl was on her other side), but apparently it had something to do with freedom of speech, an objection that the mother emphatically overruled. Intrigued—not just because I wanted to know what the mother planned to take out, but also because, having recently discovered how little writing is being done in DC schools, I was curious about the assignment—I continued to discreetly monitor their conversation.
I never did find out what scandalous factoid the girl wanted to put in her essay, but I did hear some other interesting stuff. For one thing, I heard the mother mention the name Oscar Wilde. Oscar Wilde? On the 97 bus? I couldn’t really see the girl, but I could tell she was pretty small, surely no more than 12 years old. Maybe, I thought, she was reading “The Happy Prince,” Wilde’s collection of stories for children that I had read when I was about her age. Did kids still read such things? Especially kids who live near East Capitol Street?
But it wasn’t “The Happy Prince.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be reading ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’?” the mother was asking. “No, first you need to finish to finish ‘The Portrait of Dorian Gray,’ right?”
What? These were works I became familiar with and learned to love in high school (in fact, I was in “The Importance of Being Earnest” in high school, and I can still recite whole chunks of its dialogue). Was the little girl reading Oscar Wilde for school? Or had her mother given her an Oscar Wilde reading list as an extracurricular activity? Frankly, I would have been surprised if I’d overheard this conversation in my own upper-middle-class neighborhood, but I confess that hearing it on the 97 bus was nothing short of mind-boggling.
I was itching to say something, to ask them what school the girl went to, or at least to comment on her sophistication in reading material. But it was only when I heard the mother utter the words “Molotov cocktail” that I couldn’t hold back any longer.
“She’s learning how to make a Molotov cocktail?” I interjected.
The mother smiled and showed me her iPad. It was a game, she explained, designed to teach kids about chemistry.
I had my opening. “Excuse me, but did I hear you say something about Oscar Wilde a few minutes ago?”
The mother smiled again and nodded. “I love Oscar Wilde.”
That reminded me of a story, I told her: A few years ago I was on my way to see one of Wilde’s more obscure plays with a group of people, and the conversation turned to what the evening might hold in store. “Well,” I’d said, “I love Oscar Wilde.” Whereupon a young woman in the group had said, “Oh, is he in it?”
The three of us had a good laugh, and the mother and I agreed that it’s too bad Wilde isn’t still around, because we’d give anything for a conversation with the master of the bon mot. I wanted to ask more of the questions that were jostling around in my head—questions that basically boiled down to, “Who are you?”
But before I could, the two of them were collecting their things and preparing to disembark. The little girl—who I now saw clearly for the first time—gave me a sweet, shy smile. “Have a good day,” she said, and her mother echoed the sentiment. But somehow I could tell that what they were really saying was: There’s something about us that’s the same. We’re kindred spirits.
I watched them go, reluctant to relinquish the connection but powerless to do anything about it. And then I realized, with a start, that their stop was my stop too.
I scrambled off the bus, but they were already far away, on the other side of East Capitol.