By Pat Gallagher
I didn’t notice her when I got on. It is my first time riding the #57 bus in our new neighborhood. Figuring out the cost of the trip and digging in my purse for the correct change preoccupies me. As the bus lurches into action I grab the pole, struggle to keep my balance, and fling myself into the nearest vacant seat. Fumbling with extra coins, I toss them into my purse and hear a voice nearby. “Excuse me,” she says. I look up. She is sitting to my right, on a seat reserved for the elderly or disabled. “Excuse me,” she says again, leaning forward. “Would you take some advice from an old lady?”
Is she talking to me, or is she speaking to the universe? You never know. I guess some days, when you’re feeling lonely, you just have to up and shout out – to hear the sound of your own voice, for company. I look in her direction and am greeted by a smiling slender older woman, a handbag propped on her lap. Uh-oh, what have I done. I’ve just moved here and it’s the first time I’ve taken public transportation. Have I violated protocol of city bus-riding? Am I sitting in the wrong seat? Even though I’m thirty-seven years old my adolescent laundry list of perceived faults creeps back. But, instead of resisting her, turning away – as I might have done when I was fourteen – I look directly at her and declare, “As a matter of fact, there’s no one I’d rather take advice from!”
She leans closer, looks me directly in the eye. “Whatever it is you have to do, do it before noon!” She says this clearly, with authority and confidence. Before I can respond she adds, “Leave the dishes in the sink, the bed unmade; put on your coat and go out! People –in the shops, the bank, the post office – are more relaxed, fresher in the morning. You get better service. Take care of your business early. You have the rest of the day to pick up and do chores at home.” I nod slowly, about to reply, as the bus shudders to a stop. We both look up briefly. A few passengers get off, a few get on. The bus starts moving again and she continues, launching another bit of advice in my direction. “Write a letter every day! That way you’ll get mail and friends. I have a friend who has done that all her life. She gets letters and news from people all over the country.” And then she falls silent. “That’s very good advice,” I say. “Thank you. Thank you very much.” At the next stop she gets up, nods, makes her way to the front door of the bus, and gets off.
It was not a conversation. I don’t know why she chose to deliver her bits of advice to me. But as I am now- forty years later – about the age she must have been then, I think I understand the impulse to pass on what I have learned and believe helpful. So much knowledge of the practice of living demands to be shared – perhaps to make life easier for those who come after? As time has its way with us it seems we more readily talk to anyone who will listen. There is urgency as we age. I think of those who are shut up in nursing homes, alone, with no family or friends to care for them. Or those living alone through choice or complicated circumstances, who spend their days with only television for company. What have they learned about living that they could pass on–if only there were someone to listen? If only someone would ask them to tell.
This afternoon I overheard a woman say, “I tell students, follow your passion!” She went on to elaborate, telling how in her own life it was her passion for a subject that led to her overcoming obstacles and achieving considerable success. She said this with confidence. I have heard this before; I believe it myself. How easily young people can become isolated from their talents, how easily dissuaded from following a path of their own design. Her advice, dispensed to students over the years, had found an audience. Teachers have impact – sometimes long after the fact. Most often the teachers never know its power. Like the old lady on the #57 bus they tell their truth, because they must.
I would like the now [presumably] long-deceased old lady to know that she was heard. The advent of the Internet has made it possible to connect with people on a daily basis. Although I am not a participant in social media I am in contact with friends and family around the world. Daily communication is not a luxury–it is the norm. There is no shortage of ways to impart advice to all and sundry. But for all that, the appearance of a handwritten personal letter in my mailbox still lifts my spirits in ways no electronic text can match. I remember that, and the other bit of advice given to me on the “57” bus rolling along the streets of my neighborhood on that sunny morning in spring. When a doctor’s office inquired last month what time I’d like to come in for an appointment I asked for the earliest slot available. When the receptionist said “Eight-fifteen?” I thought of the old lady and said, “Excellent!” thinking to myself: more parking spaces, less traffic, and a doctor and staff not yet burdened by the demands of a full day’s complement of patients and procedures.
I have shared the old lady’s advice with many over the years. It meets most often with a chuckle, followed immediately by acknowledgement of its usefulness. Whatever her circumstances forty years ago, whatever propelled the urgency with which she offered her words of wisdom, and why she offered it to me I will never know. But I do know it made a difference in my life at a time when I was finally receptive to words of wisdom. I have my own words of wisdom now and don’t need much provocation to share them. Near, if not at, the top of the list is this: Let people who have influenced you know how they have affected your life. Let them know what you appreciate about them. We are in this together. An old lady on the #57 bus taught me that a very long time ago.