At the Bus Stop

17

Guest writer Dreamer tells how a mundane day of waiting and lateness and frustration turns into a moment of opportunity.

I am pacing towards the bus stop, anticipating being late to class again for the third time this month.

Of course I missed it, I think angrily as I reach the stop. I open my mouth to vent the frustration that had been clinging to me since I had woken up. My breath is visible in the cold air.

Winter is still dragging, the snow not yet melting, and I am dying for warmer temperatures. I shift my head to the right, noticing a middle aged man dressed in a decent looking suit and tie. He catches my eye and walks towards me.

“Assalamu Alaikum,” he greets me.

He is the typical Uncle you would see cruising on Devon Avenue, with his wife stopping to linger her eyes on the gold necklace in the window. He may have even been to the same wedding I had attended the past summer with 1100 guests but there is no way of knowing unless I ask.

“Walaikumasalaam,” I reply and say nothing more. I am still angry about missing the bus and possibly missing the pop quiz my professor occasionally gives the first ten minutes of class.

I stare at my brown boots and find comfort in them. It had taken me more than three months to find the perfect pair that looked well with my flowing abaya.

“Can I ask you something?” I hear the man asking me.

It is frustrating to commute in Chicago. Not only does it get crowded, but seeing other Muslim commuters automatically triggers communication. I am not antisocial, but sometimes, like today, I want to be left alone.

I think of the polite way he asked me and I reply, “Of course.”

He gives his head a little nod. “On account of your scarf,” he begins, using his fingers to gesture towards the cloth wrapped around my head, “Do you experience any racism in Chicago?”

I am a little surprised by the question. This is a question I may receive from a non-Muslim, but the usual question is “Where are you from?” or “What do your parents do?” and even “Are you a U.S. citizen?”

I open my mouth to answer, looking at the Dunkin’ Donuts shop across the street. I want to think about this a while before I reply too quickly. The traffic is getting heavier and the vehicles on the street slow down at the red light.

“No,” I finally answer. “Not as much actually. People do stare sometimes, but it isn’t bad.”

Is that a good reply? In thirty seconds, my brain whips up memories of past experiences. They are not all pleasant, but this man is clearly not from Chicago and I do not want to scare him.

“Oh,” he nods. “Just wondering,” he continues, speaking more to himself. “So many terrorist accusations in the city. They see a Muslim and think he is a terrorist.”

I am paying attention to his accent. It is clearly Pakistani or Indian, but he speaks English well.

“You’re right,” I agree, thinking of how grueling it is just to watch the evening news or browse through the Yahoo news page. “But here in Chicago it isn’t that bad. There are a lot of Muslims here and it’s not uncommon to see one. Some people are curious, others are ignorant.”

I see the expression changing on his face. I have really gotten him thinking now.

“You see,” he begins, his eyebrows pulling together, “they do not understand this philosophy. You see, if there is a cat in your house and you surround her from all sides. You push her against the wall and you corner her. In the end, she has no choice but to take out her claws and pounce you.”

I think his analogy is clever but could be more accurate. You don’t have to pounce, I think, and you do not have to remain cornered either. You can crawl away fast and quietly.

The bus finally comes and he lets me board first.

On the bus, I turn around to say goodbye, “It was nice meeting you.”

His mouth suddenly forms a wide smile. “Yes!” he says excitedly, “I am from Pakistan you know. I am trying to get a visa. But best of luck to you!”

I smile and thank him, and then head towards the back of the bus. I sit down, gazing out of the window, thinking of what a nice Uncle he is and I feel somewhat better.

The bus stop in front of the train station crowds up really quickly. There is no space to stand under the canopy of the stop, so I stand outside. It is snowing again, but I don’t mind the way the snow falls softly on my gray wool coat and on my nose. Snow is pretty until it turns into ice or is mixed in with mud.

A lady happens to be standing beside me and she touches me. I turn to look at her and I see a woman a head shorter than me, dressed in a red spring jacket. She is clearly Asian, with her black hair and eyes that are shaped long and narrow.

“Assalamu Alikaum,” she says, staring at me curiously.

I am surprised. I had no idea she was Muslim. I reply to her greeting and quickly check to see if the bus is coming. There is no sign of it so I focus back on the lady.

“What?” she asks me, but I know she is trying to ask something else. She cannot speak English very well. She scrunches up her face as if in thought to gather the right words and her eyes become even smaller.

She gestures with her hand and I finally understand what she is asking me.

“I am Indian,” I tell her and a look of surprise crosses her face. She looks excited.

“Malaysia,” she says, pointing to herself.

Of course, I think, why hadn’t I guessed that?

“Nice!” I reply, trying to sound as enthusiastic as her.

She takes a step closer and touches my scarf, tilting her head upward to get a good look at me. Surprisingly, I do not feel uncomfortable.

“You come,” she asks, pointing to the ground. “When,” she adds after a pause.

“Oh, just right now. I just finished my last class.”

She shakes her head; I’m not answering her question.

“Oh, um. I was born here,” I inform her, understanding her. This is not the first time a stranger has asked me when I immigrated here. Perhaps my attire triggered the assumption.

I look away while she takes in the new information. The last time I answered this question to an elderly Gujarati lady, she had begun to ask me questions like one would when searching for a daughter-in-law.

She again touches my scarf. Maybe she likes the small blue floral print on it. It really is a pretty design.

“You wear?” she asks, slightly tugging the cloth.

I nod, smiling proudly.

“So beautiful,” she says. “You beautiful in hijab.”

“Thank you,” I reply, touched by the compliment. It is not everyday that I receive such a flattering remark.

“Me,” she points to herself, “wear too. Here, no.” She motions her hand in a way to demonstrate pulling off an invisible hijab.

“Oh,” I say. That was something to be sad about. “Why?” I ask her, curious now.

She looks around at the people who have gathered around us at the bus stop. She turns back towards me and shakes her head.

“Too hard,” she simply says, and I can understand. She is an immigrant, and she does not want to be a stranger in this country.

“But you,” she beams at me, “You beautiful. So nice in scarf.”

I laugh, not knowing what else to do. She really does think I look beautiful in a hijab.

“I am sure you do too,” I comfort her, imagining how she would look like in one.

She nods confidently. “I wear again. Soon,” she says softly.

“Yes, it is not hard,” I encourage her. “Many Muslims here wear it.” She nods again, but does not say anything.

The bus arrives and I wait for her to board, but it does not seem like she wants to. The crowd is urgent, pushing to get out of the snow and into the bus. Before I realize it, we are separated.

As I stand towards the back of the bus, I try to find her. But it is useless; there are too many people and I cannot see past the tall heads.

I am upset that I could not say goodbye to her, but recalling our conversation, I hope that I have given her a newfound inspiration to start wearing the hijab again.

_______________

Dreamer is a young Muslimah who lives in Chicago and is inspired to write creatively about Muslims and their daily lives.  She writes fiction as well, with the hope that her stories will promote a better understanding of Muslims.  The link to her blog, “Blog of an American Muslim Girl,” can be viewed at http://muslim-dreamer.blogspot.com/.

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