I hadn’t known anyone could keep talking while taking a breath. The woman across the way from me on the bus could do it, though.
She filled the aisle seat as full as could be. With the bus being at capacity, that meant she had a trapped audience in the window seat. He was a young man — younger than my 35 years then — and was dressed neatly enough. I sat by the window across from them; your grandma dozed on and off next to me. We were headed home after going to a funeral on her side of the family.
After the first two minutes the young man across the way didn’t so much as grunt to encourage the woman to keep talking or to make her think he was listening. He closed his eyes for a while, either trying to feign or attain sleep. She didn’t mind at all and he gave up on that and stared out the window.
An hour and a half of this on a hot day in the old bus wore mightily on that young man’s nerves. Truth be told, I was wishing she’d run out of steam, but I knew I had it better than he did.
The driver pulled off the dirt road and up to a bus stop. The young man stood up and interrupted the torrent of tales from his seatmate. “Excuse me,” he said, a bit sharply.
“Oh, is this your stop?” the talker inquired.
“It is now,” he said, and he strode almost the whole aisle to the front of the bus and stepped off behind a married couple about his age. I could see them eyeing him closely, wondering why he was following them.
The little town behind the bus stop looked like all the other little towns on the route in those Depression days. There were maybe a thousand souls calling it home and they’d done nothing to differentiate themselves from the little towns around them.
I saw the young fellow breathe a sigh of relief at his escape. Anywhere, he obviously felt, had to be better than next to that mouth on the bus.
The doors closed and the bus started to pull away. I turned in my seat and gave the escapee a last look. He didn’t look so happy now; in fact, he looked downright scared. I looked in our direction of travel to see if I could spot what had so quickly curtailed his enjoyment of freedom.
As I said, this place, wherever it was, was like all the other little towns on the route. Each of them had the same big sign: “NIGGER — Don’t Let The Sun Set On You In This Town!” To press the point, there was a crude painting of a black man hanging from a tree.
I knew that this was the only bus stopping there that day. And I knew there was no point in trying to get the driver to stop and let that young man back on. He wouldn’t have done it even if I had been a white man asking.
A long couple of hours later, we arrived in the city and the driver pulled up under the bright streetlights at the station. Your grandma and I got off the bus, leaving behind that yakkity woman who was still yammering at the empty seat next to her.
And that, Grandchildren, is a story about what it was like to live back then. Remember — you asked.