“What are you preparing to study?” asks the woman next to me on the bench.
English literature, I say.
It is approximately 82 degrees Fahrenheit and our bench, which does not have a protective awning, is placed squarely in the sun. Three hours have passed since I first got off the bus at this stop, and I have walked in toto something like three and a half miles in a pair of sandals not made to live up to my usual brisk walking pace, so consequently my feet hurt like hell. I have visited four bookstores and have $250 (15 pounds, ~6.8 kilograms) of books in my lap, this being no doubt the reason the woman asks me what I am studying. My bus back to my apartment will arrive, by my estimates, in more or less 25 minutes.
“English, good,” says the woman. “It’s a good thing to learn. Good luck to you and bless you.”
She hesitates. “God bless you, I mean,” she says after a moment of thought. “His blessing has got a lot more weight to it than mine, I can say from experience.” She laughs.
I laugh too, to be polite and thank her. “I know it can be a hectic time right now,” she says. “A big, new experience.”
I tell her that it is indeed, though I sort of have a head start. I’m here for my MA/PhD, I already have my BA, but that was from a much smaller institution, and a very different institution, with only about 1,000 students combined compared to this place’s 40,000.
“Well, maybe you can teach them to concentrate,” the woman says, and laughs.
I laugh too.
“I know it’s supposed to be a place of learning,” she says, “but come dusk…” She shakes her head.
I know what she means. I’ve been here for only a week and multiple times now, and before 11 o’clock hits, I’ve seen the roaming herds of frat guys and sorority girls drunkenly jaywalk, like flocks of petulant birds in muscle shirts or miniskirts, respectively.
“Your degrees,” she says, “after the first one, when you get those does that mean you’re gonna teach the teachers?”
I say yes, because, well, I am sure some of my hypothetical future students will teach in their turn.
“Ah, that’s good. I don’t have any degrees, but I have some experience with that area.”
The woman is maybe forty-something (she is 54, she will tell me later) and has on her lap a K-mart bag with some boxes in it and a Nalgene. When I first sat down the woman was eating goldfish crackers from the K-mart bag, popping handfuls into her mouth. She is thin without looking drawn in the way that some older people sometimes have, though her blonde hair is starting to look a bit gray in a certain light. She is wearing a pair of sunglasses that sit close on her cheeks, the lenses so large and round that they obscure a third of her face and look a bit like goggles.
I am already mentally kicking myself when I ask her what it is exactly she does, because I dislike talking to strangers generally and dislike talkative strangers even more, plus what are the odds a random bus station conversation will not turn weird, especially given the God thing from earlier, but there I go, I ask her, I ask her what it is exactly she does.
“I teach ministry,” she says, smiling that I’ve asked. “I work with a group of believers here and do some street evangelizing.”
I nod and consider asking her if she’s associated with any particular church but don’t. I also consider mentioning Quakerism, the theology with which for various reasons I tend to be most copacetic, but don’t. Instead I ask her how long she’s been in town.
“A year,” she says. “I was doing some wandering — I was in fact part of the homeless community for a while — and ended up in a tent. Literally, in a tent! Like Abraham!”
I know there is something of a housing crisis in the city, forcing many lower-income locals into nearby tent communities, and I am struck by the Old Testament parallel the woman has drawn.
“Of course, we’re moving on now,” the woman continues, “and the ministry has gotten stronger. We were in our prayer circle back then,” I assume she means the tent city, “and we heard God telling us ‘boot camp.’ My minister-friend just looked at me and he says, ‘Boot camp.'”
The chain of association here is beyond me, though I guess the idea is that boot camp whips you into shape for deployment whether you like it or not, and the woman and her prayer circle were being told by God to stop feeling sorry for themselves in a tent community and move on with their lives, an act which apparently consists of spiritual deployment into the Gomorrha of a Big Ten University town. Whatever the case, combinations of military and religious terminology make me uneasy (cf. Quakerism, above), so I just nod and cross my arms over my books.
“And you know,” she is saying, “it took some humbling when I heard that. I had to get rid of my pride. My minister-friend asked me, if you were ministering in a jungle somewhere where they hadn’t heard of Christ, would you try to change their culture, or be Christ-like in their presence?”
Though I’m still not really following the chain of association, I think this is a pretty good theological sticking point and I tell her so.
She nods. “That shut me right up,” she says. “Now I think that when we do minister, we have a lot more behind us than we wouldn’t have without that experience.”
Yeah, I agree, it seems to me she and her friends would have a strong foundation from which to work. They know what it’s like to be in tough spots, unlike some ministers.
She nods again. “I may not have any letters next to my name, but I did go to college, and I’m 54 years old, and I got experience.” She offers me her hand and tells me her name is Tracey.
I shake her hand and tell her my name is Michael.
Something flits across her face and she says, “Of course it’s Michael,” which is a pretty weird thing to say and I mentally kick myself some more while I wait to see where this is going. “You know what that name means, right?”
I say I don’t remember the Hebrew meaning, but I know that Biblically Michael is an Archangel, the general of Heaven’s army. (I know this because I read Milton.)
“And what it originally means,” she says, “is ‘Who is like God?'”
I know this is correct, because I remember the fact as she says it, as sometimes we remember facts. I think it’s a rhetorical question, because the correct answer is that there is no one like God.
She says, “I know that because it’s also the name of the father of my child.”
Oh Lord, I think.
“We looked it up once.”
This is the end of this particular tangent, apparently, as she goes onto how names are very interesting, very meaningful. I sort of wish I knew what ‘Tracey’ meant so I could say something about it, or maybe I could ask her because she probably knows, but I don’t.
The topic of names steers her toward the topic of her ministry again. She works in prisons, leading classes with names like “Emotional Healing” and “Positive Attitudes.” She makes it a point to memorize each prisoner’s name — and with God’s help she does it within the first six weeks — because names are important. A lot of those people aren’t used to being called by their names, just their numbers by the guards and their doctors, and sometimes by their doctors’ diagnoses, which trap them into cycles of thinking about themselves in certain ways, ways which limit how they can act and feel. And part of her job as a teacher, she says, is to help break those cycles, to show those people that they can be loved, to help them learn how to be loved. If you can’t be loved then you’ll never love anyone yourself.
I look in my lap at a copy of The Duchess of Malfi, which is a play where a corrupt cardinal confesses his sins to his mistresses and then murders her by persuading her to kiss the poisoned cover of a Bible.
I tell her what’s she saying is very true. I’m angry at myself a little because I know that despite the sappy rhetoric what she is saying is true, I’m angry at myself for thinking that and at the same time thinking it’s absolutely cheesy, and I’m angry at this woman for talking to me, and I’m angry at myself for talking back, and I’m angry I have this impulse to immediately start forming counterarguments, I’m angry that I have to squash a desire to say, Well, yes, but aren’t there some people who just won’t learn to love?
“It’s all about attitude,” says Tracey. “You have to keep your attitude positive, because — and I know this — in a lot of situations, all you really can control is your attitude about things.”
I agree again, this time more enthusiastically because it really is true, and I don’t think this is a cheesy thing to believe or say, even though I’m aware that other people probably do. It’s a shame, a real shame, I say, that there are so many people who never learn that, who aren’t taught that.
“You’re right,” Tracey says. “And a problem with a lot of people who haven’t learned that early, is later on they won’t learn it. They’ll think they already learned everything.”
I think, what if this were a Flannery O’Connor story? The street evangelical and the modern malaised intellectual at a bus top on a hot day. If this were a Flannery O’Connor story Tracey would be blind behind those sunglasses, or she’d have a club foot. If this were a Flannery O’Connor story I would probably die at the end.
“I have a saying,” Tracey tells me: “If we stop teaching we’ll need someone to raise us from the dead.”
This doesn’t make sense to me at first blush.
“Something I’ve learned, while teaching,” she says, “is that if you’re teaching, you’re also learning, and if you’re learning more, you should understand each time you learn more, how much more you haven’t learned.”
Again she’s saying things I agree with, which makes me happy but then also makes me uneasy, because it makes me wonder how much of what I believe is basically bromides for street evangelists, and then I am angry at myself for wondering for even the tiniest second that something being a bromide, or something being believed by both myself and a street evangelist, makes it inherently lesser.
I tell her that’s she speaking a lot of sense, and I see my bus is coming, so I tell her good luck with the ministry. And then I think Oh hell why not, and I tell her God bless, too.
She takes the same bus as I do, but we have different stops and sit pretty far apart, so by the time I get off she’s already having an involved conversation with the unsteady old man who sat beside her.
I think about how when I first sat down she was eating little goldfish crackers, and the little fish connected with the fact she’s a Christian minister would be symbolically significant in a short story, but I don’t know how to make it work without it seeming silly.