It is a breezy day in Chicago and the light jackets are unzipped. In clear view is the public bus, a little over one block away from where three men stand.
Every bus stop in the city of Chicago boasts its own microculture. Some stops, like major metropolitan cities, bustle at all times of the day. Others, far from schools or supermarkets, are more subdued and unassuming, often lacking an advertisement-heavy shelter to protect riders from the elements. And just like in any society or community, small and simple or otherwise, there are rules, and the first one answers this question: do you bunch in front of the bus door and anxiously pray for order, or do you form a line and wait your turn?
The answers vary and are often unpredictable. On one three block stretch down Lawrence Avenue just west of Albany Park, for example, the rule alternates between stops.
At Taylor and Ashland, where these three men have waited for many minutes now, you form a line, always.
At the head of the line is a young man, S, in his mid-twenties. He does not normally wear glasses but today he does.
Behind S is a man twice his age, inconspicuous in his navy blue collared jacket. His name is R.
J foots the line. A college student, judging by his sweatshirt, he is slender with blond hair running diagonally across his forehead. His earphones are in and he is staring intently at his phone. A movie, perhaps, to bide the time.
They wait in silence, S then R then J, as the bus lurches forward but still at the opposite end of the intersection.
What follows happens in moments, but a lot is felt and more is learned.
R jabs S in the back, suddenly and without provocation. It is not a sharp jab and certainly not a punch, but it is uncalled for.
S turns reflexively to meet R face to face and sizes him up. S is not normally so quick to snap especially in such an uncontrolled setting, but he is understandably irritated. Nobody wants to be interrupted when they are deep in their thoughts.
R stares back. J, behind them, looks up from his phone and pulls out his earphones.
Suddenly, R jabs again, this time swiping at the air beside S. S watches defensively, confused at first but suddenly overcome with guilt. He is beginning to understand.
R’s arm jerks again and he bashfully backs up. The light turns green and the bus begins to trundle toward them.
Gaps in the middle of lines are fascinating insults against social norms. Stand too close and the person in front of you feels exposed, threatened, and justified in their judgment of your upbringing. Stand too far and the people behind you find you irresponsible and become impatient, anxious, even internally distressed.
J, having not seen R’s apologetic eyes or registered the dots that connected in S’s mind, is himself becoming distressed with the solid three feet of space between past-adversaries S and R. Sometimes, and most unfortunately, this kind of distress can precipitate an anxious outburst. J barks at R to move forward.
The social pressure mounts as people queue behind them, but R refuses to budge.
The bus slows to a halt. Before the doors swing open, there is the compulsory ejection of air as the hydraulics decompress and allow the bus to kneel.
J, sandwiched now between R and the line behind him, barks again, louder this time and with an air of insult. Close the gap voluntarily or I will do it for you, his tone suggests.
S gives R an understanding smile and tells J off. Give the man his space.
R mouths a thank you, to which S subtly nods his head. By now the bus doors have opened and S slinks inside.
Imagine a life in which you are always at fault. Those around you perceive you as the problem, and when you attempt to right your wrongs, you are wrong again.
This narrative is an adaptation of a powerful story shared with me about a man with Tourette Syndrome, a relatively common neurological disorder characterized by repetitive motor movements and vocalizations, who found himself in an uncomfortable situation after a he accidentally struck another man at a bus stop. He was stigmatized for what was perceived to be a hostile act. But by putting space between himself and the man closest to his arm, he was inconveniencing and testing the patience of those behind him. He was embarrassed and stuck between faults.
Disease does this to people. It tears at our social fabric and challenges our ability and our willingness to understand. R was rather lucky that S was able to pick up on it so quickly, but this is often not the case. Inevitably, pathology becomes less a medical abnormality and more a social aberrancy. People living with disease are cast as misfits and, worse, deviants far removed from the norms of society.
I like to be deliberate with my words and ideas when I write, but in this specific instance, I encourage you to allow your mind to wander. The further it goes, the darker it gets, and the more it should compel us to feel for R and those caught between two faults.