I couldn’t help but read as she messaged her granddaughter on her severely outdated flip phone in the seat next to me. “Did you get to school okay today? I got on the bus at Pioneer Square. So slow. Be home after work. Love u.”
Seattle’s University District and Downtown are connected by a multi-faceted bus system. Generally speaking, the quickest routes are marked with an “X” after the route number, signaling express. These routes skipped surface street stops on the freeway, heading directly into the downtown tunnel from the University of Washington. That evening, we were not on an express bus.
Before long, Angelica had begun a conversation with the man adjacent to her opposite me about the bus system. She had only been in the area since April, but hadn’t yet mastered the transitions from job to job after her promotion a week earlier. Her three jobs came daily in succession, the first beginning at 9:00 am with the last finishing at around 4:00 am. The downtime was usually spent sleeping or checking in with her granddaughter, who was a middle school student also dependent on King County Metro for transportation.
Without admission of my intrusion into her text messaging, I mentioned the fact that the buses with the express label would get her where she was going faster. She was entirely overjoyed to hear the news, and quite frankly more thankful to me than necessary. She told me about her day on and off the phone with King County Metro, calling every step of the way to be sure that her transportation would get her where she was going on time. I asked her what stop she needed to exit at in order to connect to her next step, which would end up being the same as mine. She told me that her strategy was simply to “follow all the young people”, and expressed hope for the futures of these students with the blessing of a university education. As our conversation persisted over the following fifteen minutes, I began to ask her questions about various parts of her life.
At times when dealing with strangers I find myself overcome by my own curiosity, and unfortunately it seems that the answers to this curiosity are not always what I hope they will be. It’s not that Angelica responded negatively. If anything, she responded energetically and enthusiastically to the idea of a college student being interested in her daily life. It was entirely more the content with which she responded, a quickly told tale of financial struggle and lack of opportunity that began when she was a little girl growing up in rural South Carolina, and had followed her like a shadow from there to New York and eventually to what she called “transitional housing” in North Seattle.
Once she saw my interest, there was no stopping her. She expressed frustration with the opportunity gaps in the framework of the American dream. She told me about mistakes she made in her youth, and the way every one of them haunted her every day. She gave me a glimpse of what it was like for a young black girl in South Carolina during the civil rights movement. As the conversation continued after exiting the bus, Angelica’s positive disposition seemed to slowly deteriorate. She told me about her guilt, and the lives she wished she could have given her daughters. She told me about her son, and how long it had been since she was most recently able to visit him in prison. She told me about her husband, and the process of moving to Seattle and wiping the slate clean after he was gunned down in a drive by back in New York.
Within the framework of DukeEngage, it is these situations that bring me the most enrichment. I am here from a position of privilege by design, a Duke student here to impart my skills and intelligence on an issue that I’m passionate about. I’m here because supposedly, “they need me”. I guess I’m just not so sure it always works that way.
We had been chatting for a few extra minutes, and I knew that my roommates were no longer waiting for me. Angelica was visually despondent, and guilt began to set in that my curiosity had ruined her day. I just had to know, though. What keeps her going? How does she possibly work 19 hours per day, every day, making just enough to get by? She smiled for the first time in a few good minutes.
“You just smile. At everyone. Sometimes, it’s not about what you have, it’s about who you have. You just smile, and you dream. I dream for my granddaughters every day. That’s what keeps me going when I’m grinding. Good luck to you honey.”
I stood on the sidewalk for a moment as Angelica walked away, and I began to wonder who was serving who in Seattle. Sometimes, an unrelentingly positive perspective is all the privilege necessary to make an impact on the summer of a DukeEngage student in need.
Duke Student '15