On the last Sunday of 2019, before Golden Empire Transit's generous offer of free rides on local bus lines during the month of December ran out, I hopped on a bus at the Downtown Transit Center and went to the Valley Plaza Mall.
I went because I'm a sucker for free or discounted stuff: a free ride to go check out the after-Christmas sales? Duh!
I'm also a sucker for experiences that take me out of my comfort zone without making me too uncomfortable. I did my own "park & ride" and parked my car on Chester and 21st, walked around the corner, asked the person at the information booth which bus to take, and waited for it to arrive.
I also wanted to show my appreciation to GET Bus: After all, who doesn't want guests to show up when they throw a party?
Finally, I wanted to exercise mindfulness, a Buddhist practice that can be described as focusing one's attention on what is happening at the present moment, intentionally, objectively, nonjudgmentally. I wanted to observe the reality of the usual GET bus riders.
Following are some of the things mindfulness revealed to me that day.
Many people who ride the bus are loaded with stuff: heavy backpacks, totes and shopping bags, bicycles, wheelchairs. It's almost as if they carry with them everything they're going to need during the day, plus any new things they acquire, because they don't have the luxury of going home — or to their conveniently parked car — between errands to drop off anything.
There is a sense of community among the passengers — and the drivers, as well. Some of the people on my bus immediately recognized each other and said hello with a handshake or fist bump. Others readily looked for a way to start a conversation. One man saw another reading a Bible and asked what church he went to. Before taking off for the mall, our bus driver offered information to her passengers about the long-distance buses that park in front of the Rite-Aid across the street and "take people to Vegas for five dollars." Lots of excited "For reals?!" and "I'm down for dat!" type comments followed from her listeners — although many didn't look like they had money to spend in Las Vegas, even if they could afford a $5 bus ride to get there.
Entire families ride the bus. I saw a group of girls who looked like sisters, one of them with a toddler in her arms, rushing to get on. I saw a young boy bonding with his father over the things he saw outside the window and pointed at again and again as the bus carried them to their destination.
That was on the way to the mall. The trip back, after some fun shopping and more people watching, was a completely different experience.
The sun had gone down by the time I started back in the early evening. On that bus were just the driver, a young couple, me and a scruffy, heavy-set elderly man who looked homeless. He was able-bodied enough to climb onto the bus — which the driver hydraulically lowered to make it as even with the curb as possible — and find a place for himself and his folded-up wheelchair.
His feet, in flip-flops, were grimy. His toenails were months overdue for a trim.
For the 15 minutes it took to get back from the mall to the transit center on Chester, he exposed us all to the flotsam and jetsom of a mind capsized by mental illness, as he loudly verbalized each thought that got tossed into the maelstrom. A car accident. An injured shoulder. Three's company. The chief of police. Finding a place to stay outdoors when it's raining. The words sober and sobriety now and again. And drive within the speed limit, please, because the lives of kids matter, thank you very much. And have a Happy New Year.
Buddhism teaches that all living beings possess the Buddha nature: the inherent potential to achieve Buddhahood, or enlightenment.
Mindfulness allowed me to see numerous manifestations of the Buddha nature that day: in the dreamers who fantasized about what a $5 bus trip to Vegas could do for them; in the warm community connections expressed in familiar smiles, fist bumps and hellos; and in the incoherence of a mentally ill man who still finds the wherewithal to get around on public transport and understands when the old year is coming to a close. I also saw it in myself, a practitioner of mindfulness who wasn't going to let a free opportunity pass me by without using it to inch closer toward enlightenment by focusing on a reality I seldom get to see: the reality of GET clients, for whom public transport is very much a need, rather than a whimsical freebie.
Good karma back to GET Bus for giving a month of free rides to people who truly needed them. Thank you for helping me catch the tiniest sliver of a glimpse into the everyday world of the riders of public transport on the streets of Bakersfield.
And, in the words of the crazy man-sage, who has the potential for enlightenment in him, as do we all, Happy New Year!
Louis Medina attends a local Mindfulness Meditation group that meets Sundays at noon at The Center for Sexuality & Gender Diversity, 902 18th St., in downtown Bakersfield. All interested in learning about meditation are welcome.