This small, seemingly insignificant story affected me deeply.
It was my first year at college and I was commuting 1 hour each way to and from school. It kept me from getting too involved in any activities on campus. But on one particular day I was drawn to an evening lecture by an incredible theologian named Christopher J. H. Wright (I recommend The Mission of God). I'm sure the fact that there were refreshments afterwards stood out to me too. At that point, I was not doing so well financially and was mildly concerned about the price of food.
I was not disappointed. The lecture was excellent, and Chris Wright had an accent that was an exquisite blend of British and Irish accents; I could have listened to him for hours. I sat quietly, absorbing it all. By the time I left, it was dark and creepy outside and I had a whole hour before the bus dropped me off a good 15-20 minute walk from home.
I got on the bus, which was packed. At the next stop a lady entered the bus and tried to skip out on paying fare altogether. The bus driver yelled at her and, becoming exasperated eventually called out, "Can someone come up here and escort this lady off the bus?"
One man did go up to the front. Not to escort her off, but to pay her fare. He caught my attention.
On public transit I liked to play this game. Chicago is known for being one of the most segregated cities in the U.S. I liked to look at passengers and guess whether they'd be going as far south as I was. This was a middle-aged black man. He had a few plastic bags with him. I figured he'd be going pretty near my final destination. As time progressed, my assumption proved itself true.
The further south the bus went and the later it became, the emptier the bus was. It was finally quiet enough that I could distinguish individual conversations. I have no shame in eavesdropping on public conversations in public places. I have learned a *lot* that way. I am so glad I did this time too. The conversation I heard was between the same man who paid for the woman's fare early on, and the bus driver. They were in the very front of the bus, and I was a far ways back. By then, only the three of us were on the bus and I could hear every word of the conversation. The passenger began talking about dope fiends and quickly ushered the conversation towards a recent movie with Denzel Washington in it about drugs. They couldn't remember the name and it was driving them crazy.
Me, in a full display of creepiness, piped up and called out the title for them, "American Gangster?!" His face lit up and he goes, "Yes, that's the one!" Then I realized how weird it was that I was involving myself in their conversation without being a real part of it. Rather than going back to eavesdropping, or actually minding my own dang business, I thought to myself, "Shoot. If I'm going to be a part of this conversation, I'm going to be a part of it. Why not?"
I stood up, grabbed my stuff and moved to the front of the bus so that I was sitting in a row that allowed me to see and communicate with both men. They didn't seem bothered, so I joined in on their conversation. Again, mostly listening, but throwing in my two cents occasionally. The man actively included me in the conversation, shifting his eye contact between the bus driver and myself. He seemed to be quite eager to have two people listening to him.
As we continued our commute, the man pulled an unopened water bottle out of one of the plastic bags he had stowed on the seat next to him and handed it to the bus driver, who was both surprised and pleased. The man continued talking. I hung onto his words. He was a very charismatic person. He shifted among several topics rapidly. Some were deep, some were silly, but most were quite thought-provoking. More than anything it was the way he spoke that intrigued me, as though everything was of the utmost importance. History, drugs, female circumcision, tribalism, Tazmanian devils... I'm not making this up.
He stopped suddenly, looked over at me and said, "Young lady, I think I have..." He trialed off as he began digging through his plastic bags. I considered stopping him by saying, "Oh, no thanks. I'm good." But I didn't want to be rude. And to be honest, my curiosity got the better of me. Finally, he found what he was looking for, and out of the bag came scones! Three very large scones wrapped together in plastic wrap. He claimed they were from Starbucks, but I wondered. I'd never seen Starbucks 1) use plastic wrap or 2) wrap three things together.
Hesitantly I asked, "Are you sure you don't want them?" He motioned to the cup of coffee in my hand and said, "Naw, you do the coffee thing, you have them." I graciously said thank you as I silently wrestled in my head with what to do. I have a hard time accepting gifts from people. Also, it's kinda common knowledge not to accept food from a stranger. Especially not food that could easily have been handled/poisoned.
I thought for a second about throwing them away to be safe, then I became angry that I would ever consider such a thing. Not only would I not throw them away. Not only would I eat them. I would eat one right then, just to prove to him that I truly was grateful and that I trusted his gesture. And I did, though I wasn't particularly hungry, and though technically it violated the rules of bus-riding. The driver sure didn't mind.
The scone was incredible. It was maple flavored and it was everything an Americanized scone should be. The man who gave it to me looked pleased that I was eating it and he asked how it was.
I wrote about it in my journal. I was amazed by this gesture that, to me, was anything but little. This man chose loss over his gain. Either I accepted his gift, and he missed out on 3 scones, or I rejected it and he feels silly for offering. The gesture crossed boundaries of race, age, and gender. His offer extended a bridge that I could choose to walk across or to reject entirely. Either way, he takes a loss. It bothered me for days. Why would he do that? I was some random girl. Why? Why give water to the bus driver? Or pay fare for the lady who acted entitled to a free ride (or was too broke to afford it, but was too proud to ask for help - which is surprisingly common and supported by commuters in Chicago)?
I understood my motivation for accepting his gift. I wish I understood his motivation for offering it.
A movie I really like poses the question, "Does anyone do something for nothing?"
"Nothing" is not as clear of a term as you might think right away. But if by "nothing", that means "nothing that directly benefits the self", the answer is yes. I found this answer in maple scones from an eccentric stranger.
This man showed me what faith is in a new light. And in that sense, it wasn't for nothing.