Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Albert and Lionel, raising the sparks.

Just as rivers are much less numerous than the underground streams, so the idealism that is visible is minor compared to what men and women carry in their hearts, unreleased and scarcely released. Mankind is waiting and longing for those who can accomplish the task of untying what is knotted and bringing the underground waters to the surface.

–Albert Schweitzer

Four days a week, I take the 54 bus to the top of a hill in Oakland, Merrit College, where I am tutoring students in Chemistry. On most days, Lionel takes me there. Today I had my bike with me—I had never taken a bike on public transportation before, but I heard that the Bay Area Rapid Transit system prides itself in being bike-friendly, so I decided to give it a shot. But I could not figure out how to get my bike onto the rack in front of the bus—I just could not figure out the geometry of it. Lionel got up patiently from the driver’s seat, and came out in front of the bus beside me.

“Lift the bike and place the front wheel vertically here in this groove, then you take this hook and pull it over the front wheel.”

His words were slow, deliberate. Each syllable, well articulated. This is the way in which he always speaks, whether he is explaining a bus fare or engaging in an intellectual discussion. So I knew that this was his way. He did not speak slowly in a way that belittled me or my complete lack of coordination with bike racks.

“Use your strength,” he said. Yesterday, I had suggested to him that my parents gave my brother and I names meaning “lion” and “strong” in order to endow us with strong characters. He smiled faintly as this allusion to yesterday's discussion. He showed me how to secure my bike to the front of the bus, with astonishing patience, especially for someone who is paid to be exactly on time to a different place every minute. Then, a teenager in a wheelchair arrived at the bus. With no less patience, he pulled out the ramp, and helped him attach his seat.

About midway through the ride up the hill, a woman stood up and asked, struggling to find the English words, if we were going to Chinatown. She was clearly disoriented and concerned. We were quite far away from Chinatown and not getting any closer, but Lionel did not miss a step.

“Would you like to go to Chinatown?”

After some discussion with her, Lionel discerned that she did not want to go to Chinatown, she was going to 35th street but was in fact concerned she was going in the wrong direction. “We will get you to your destination. Do not worry.”

I like watching how people change when they interact with Lionel. Most of these interactions are not that extensive—an explanation about how much a student transfer fare costs, a question about whether we have arrived yet at the Safeway—but the change in people is visible. They speak a little more confidently and openly. They smile. They breathe a bit more deeply. They sit more calmly, and they give small blessings as they walk off the bus.


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