I commute by bus from my home on Cape Cod to Boston, where I teach at Emerson College. The buses are old – cold in winter and hot in summer. Fumes sometimes rise from the engine into the coach, which packs its 47 passengers so tightly that the back of the seat in front of you makes it almost impossible to hold a book in your lap.
Today, I have a shopping bag at my feet, filled with 90 applications to our master of fine arts program in creative writing. On this morning, I am reading a textbook to refresh my lecture for a poetry workshop later in the day.
As we approach downtown on Route 93, a mile or so from South Station, four state police cars – sirens on and lights swirling – surround the bus. Our driver pulls to the shoulder.
The regulars, including me, think the police must have spotted a flat tire or smoking engine, as sometimes happens with this fleet. But why so much attention?
As soon as the driver opens the door, five imposing state troopers enter and rush down the aisle, the lead trooper pointing to each male passenger and demanding, "ID from you! ID from you! ID from you!"
The trooper behind him inspects each one. A businessman who stands to retrieve his briefcase from the overhead rack is pushed back in his seat.
When the trooper in charge reaches my row, he skips me and continues to call for IDs.
The trooper grabs one guy and frisks him against the door to the bathroom. As he does, he nods to an officer to seize the man in the seat behind me. The trooper tells him to stand and asks his name.
He says, "James Brasfield, sir."
"Your real name."
"Let's see your ID."
The officer takes it and then handcuffs him and leads him off the bus.
The trooper apologizes to the man he frisked, explaining, "I needed a decoy while we got the guy we wanted."
The next day, the Boston Herald will quote one of the policeman as saying, "It was crazy, right out of a movie."
As our bus merges back into traffic, the driver announces he had been radioed that an escaped murderer was on board and would be arrested at the station. He adds that they decided the man was too dangerous for them to wait and so took action on the highway. The driver's voice is nervous but ecstatic: An adventure has been gained, everyone's safe, and the whole bus – usually so quiet that early in the morning – begins to buzz.
But I wonder: Why didn't the trooper ask for my ID? In the English department hallway, I tell the story to my colleagues. One guesses it was my suit and tie, but I tell him others were dressed this way.
A young fiction writer says: "Too old?"
No, the escapee was my age.
"What were you reading?" asks a female cultural critic. I pull the textbook from the top of the shopping bag. There, on the cover, the title stands in large letters: "Poets Teaching Poets."
"That's why!" she says. "A poet seems harmless enough, but a teacher of poetry – that's the ultimate definition of a nonthreatening male."
As I walk to my office, I recall my first teaching job at Southern Methodist University in Dallas 30 years ago. Early in the semester, my students had taken me to a remote roadhouse so they could show me the local color.
I stood on the patio in my blue blazer and horn-rimmed glasses, listening to a band play "Cotton-Eyed Joe."
In the car on the way home, a female student started laughing and said that a cowboy at the bar had looked over at me and one of the girls in our group who had caught his eye. Obviously interested in her, he asked, "What's she doing with the bookworm?"
The girl replied highhandedly, "He's a teacher of poetry at the university."
The cowboy did both of us one better. "I coulda guessed that!" he said.
He guessed right, just as the troopers did.
I unpack the application folders at my desk. I had read all 90 over the weekend. Each candidate was required to write a statement of purpose; at least 80 of them said they want to become teachers.
They want to write in a form where their words will be surrounded by white space – often neglected, always isolated.
And they want to pass on what they learn. In spite of the nearly comic and benign reception of this art in our country, they want to become teachers of poets.