A busload

A LADY once wrote me to ask how on earth, in my life, I could have had so many, many experiences to write about, so many encounters with beauty, goodness, courage, wisdom. I didn't know how to answer her, except to say that every day of my life there had been things so difficult but at the same time so beautiful that it was worthwhile to devote all the time I could to the task of expressing the poetry hidden in them. I think now I can improve on that answer. Let me tell in concrete examples the plenty that happened to me one day just a few years ago as I was engaged in that universal and doughty activity, riding home on the bus.

She didn't look strikingly from an earlier time, this lady in her yellow gingham dress and white straw hat, and especially with those clear, sparkling eyes. But she had been born in England when Queen Victoria was alive, and she was now well into decades of history, having known ``horses and buggies, and then the automobile, and now, heaven help us, Metro.''

We sat next to each other on the bus engaged in one of those natural conversations that strangers can have, knowing they'll soon be going their separate ways, their secrets safe with each other.

``What was it like to live in those early days?'' I asked.

``Strict,'' she said, ``very strict. We young girls were expected to do what was called `deport' ourselves. Whenever we took a walk with a young man, even in broad daylight, we had to be chaperoned. And we had to wear the most ponderous shoes -- boots almost -- that took forever to lace up.''

``I don't suppose you miss any of that.''

``Well, I don't miss those shoes, I can tell you. But I do miss a quality of those times. People were more optimistic then, and even the pessimists were cheerful sorts. And there was a sweetness to the world then. An ... an innocence.

``I remember once giving a young man a little comb of mine, for a keepsake. He wrote me a poem about it, in alexan-drine couplets, of all things. It was a dreadful poem -- something about how the comb was so sacred to him that he would rather go through his entire life with disheveled hair than sully it with use. But we both shed genuine tears when he read his sentiments to me.

``Oh, yes, I miss much of those strict, sentimental times. And it wouldn't hurt the world to have them back again, at least once in a while, hard old thing it can be. But I'm afraid they're gone; yes, quite gone. Except, of course'' -- and she smiled with the bravest modesty -- ``as they live on through timeless characters like me....''

A short, thin young man with Beau-delaire-dark eyes and a beard that half hid his smile nimbly mounted the steps into the bus. Paying his fare, he stood for a few moments looking down the aisle to see where the best available seat was. He chose one at the rear, as if to be at the very depth and mystery of things.

A discarded newspaper lay there, and he picked it up and scanned the grim front page. He sighed and shook his head with a kind of yearning, as if he was sorry there wasn't something he could do to lighten the burdens of the world.

When his stop came in sight, he put the newspaper down with the respectful care that he probably used to put a book back on a library shelf and headed for the front exit. Halfway there he tripped over the toe of a lady's shoe protruding forgetfully out into the aisle, and down he fell.

With dignity, and some chagrin, he picked himself up, brushed himself off, and then, seeing how the lady had guiltily withdrawn her shoe, put on a mock-reproachful face and slowly wagged a finger at his own shoe, the one that had stumbled.

It was an apology, a taking of the blame upon himself, as if to say he should have looked more carefully where he was going. Perhaps this was his way of, if not lightening, at least not adding to, that portion of the world's burdens that was hers.

Just before he got off, he smiled goodbye to her, and to everybody, with a kind of happy pride in having turned out to be the hero of his own mishap, in having done something courtly and old-fashioned. I felt sure that the lady who didn't miss Victorian shoes approved of his kindness to a lady's modern shoe, and may even have seen in him a sign that an anachronism need never despair so long as it strives to be a blessing.

A few blocks later she herself got off, first shaking hands with me and wishing me, instead of the standard ``a nice day,'' a refreshing ``adventure and presence of mind.''

Waiting to let her descend the steps before boarding, Mr. Mendel waved to me through the window. We often rode together and had gotten acquainted. He was a man of tall, thin frame, with a gray, thistly beard, always in his eyes the good-hearted look of someone who had somewhere to go, something to live for. He made a living by illustrating children's books, one of which he'd given me. Its pages blazed with autumn leaves, orange, red, yellow; forest floors shone smooth and silver with moss, or deep-red with ivy; and everywhere were mushroom-like cottages speckled with a rainbow of colors, all drawn lovingly to the child scale of things. He himself had a child, a little girl who always met him at his stop, delighting in him as only a little girl can when she has her father all to herself.

We sat together in silence for several blocks; Mr. Mendel always sensed my mood. Perhaps it was talking with the older lady, or seeing the very young man, but I was feeling reminded of my in-betweenness, my middleness. I was thinking about the rest of my life.

I looked at Mr. Mendel and smiled. He looked like a village wise man in the children's book, and suddenly I wanted to test his wisdom. I asked, ``What shall I do?''

He answered, ``Do what you do.''

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