Thursday, April 10, 2014

Independent Living

There is a Trailways bus that takes off from Burlington, Iowa every morning of the week heading east. It stops in towns along Interstate 80 before arriving at the bus station in downtown Chicago. You can get on the bus in Ottawa at the Dunkin Donuts in front of the North side Kroger at 4:30 a.m.. Dunkin Donuts is open twenty four hours a day so you can wait inside, with or without a donut, if it’s cold or rainy.

You pretty much have to buy bus tickets on line these days with a credit card and print them out. Of course, by getting on this bus you can travel on past Chicago. From there you can go anywhere. Remember my young friend, the one I bailed out of jail on a cold night around the new year and helped get a social security card and State ID? He got on that bus Saturday morning. With any luck he arrived in a good town near the West coast Monday afternoon. For him it’s a fresh start. A clean slate. My young friend got on the bus with little but a paid ticket and an old friend to stay with at the other end of the line. Some may call that ill prepared but from where he started it’s not bad.

I think there is nothing sweeter in life than a fresh start. Some say it’s a God send. I think all of us need a clean slate at least once as we make our way through the years. Maybe more than once. But we can’t expect too many. It was the immortal and astute Muddy Waters, I believe, who once said:

Every dog has its day.
If you’re a real good dog you might get two days.

Given the pain of completely leaving a community, a group of friends, perhaps family; walking away from those we love or who once loved us, to say nothing of abandoning habits and routines we rely on, know so well, and are so comforted by, it’s amazing anyone deliberately makes major life changes. But we do. We do amazing things-cross borders, brave deserts, sail oceans, risking everything to strike out on our own to escape our lives as they are. My young friend’s break was less dramatic. He simply set out across the country to find a job, keep a roof over his head, stay out of jail, and experience life as an adult not dependent on anyone else. All he had to do, on the surface anyway, was get on a bus. The hard part would come soon enough.

He talked about leaving with anticipation over and over this winter. I helped him put together a plan that included steps needed to make it happen. He followed those steps. When we talked calmly, at breakfast usually, he knew he had to go. He knew it was the best thing. He isn’t dumb, and he can see his personal reality clearly at times. Yet like all of us he has to balance reason with emotion. And for him, emotion wins much of the time. At the very end he broke down. He left during a crisis. He was beaten up and beaten down. But he managed to leave in spite of all his fears.

“I’ve taken long bus trips,” I told him, “and there’s nothing better than looking out a big window at the countryside going by for two days or so. Gives you a chance to sort out where you’ve been and figure out where you’re going. Hopefully somewhere in Colorado, which is about halfway, you’ll turn the page on Ottawa and start looking ahead to that new town out west.”

Traveling alone gives us a chance to look at our life closely. No one knows you out there. There is no one to remind you of past faults and weaknesses. At those times, short moments really in the scope of a whole life, we escape our past. Over the winter he slowly shared some of that past with me, though I’m sure not all of it. We shouldn’t require that of each other anyway; absolute full disclosure of regrets and fears, weaknesses and mistakes. Well perhaps to one other human being. I didn’t want to be that human being for my friend. I just wanted to help him get through this time in his life. No matter who ends up really knowing us, if anyone, it is more important I think to see ourselves for who we are, to look at ourselves honestly, in order to both celebrate the beauty and face the ugliness we discover in there.

I tried to help my young friend by talking to him. I made observations, thought about what he said, tried to explain simply how his life looked to me, and how he might expect to be seen by others. I hope some of that helped. In the end though, I could only make arrangements.

I gave him rides, encouraged him, reassured him, and bought him food. As so often happens, it was his family that put the money together to finance his trip. He’s lived through more than his share of pain and brought pain to others in arguable proportion. He has plenty of critics. What is in short supply are people who support him. Not that it matters much now. His past can’t be changed. It’s the future that’s matters. It is the choices he makes next, and not forgetting that life is long and anything is possible.

On the short drive to Dunkin Donuts at 4:15 in the morning we joked about the secret of life. I told him my version and he laughed, which made me laugh back. I would tell it to you here but it’s a secret, which is why they call it the secret of life. If we run into each other you ask I’ll tell it to you, but then you have to keep it to yourself as well.

He was tired but in good spirits; weepy but optimistic, if those things go together. I think they can. Under the bus, in the luggage compartment, was a single suitcase worn out from too many trips of mine. In a shopping bag he had five sandwiches, three big cookies, two pops, two bottles of water, and a book. In his pocket was cash and with it a cheap cell phone loaded with one month’s worth of minutes. That was everything he owned. As departure time neared the bus driver looked at his ticket and asked to see a picture ID. My young friend promptly pulled it from his wallet and showed it to the driver. I chuckled to myself. Few know how hard it was to accomplish that simple step of establishing his identity, something most of us so take for granted.

It was time to go. He gave me a big hug and I hugged him back. Yeah, he’s officially somebody now, with papers to prove it. He just has to figure who that’s going to be.

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