A bus ride costs $1.50, and you pay at the front of the bus when you get on. Sometimes, broke students or other penniless people slip in through the back door, which is supposed to be used only as an exit. Last Monday, a few minutes into my ride, the bus pulled up to an especially crowded stop, where more than two dozen people were waiting to pile in. Not a few tried to sneak in through the back.
"I don't want to see any of that sneaking onto the bus through the back exit without paying," the driver bellowed into his microphone. "Especially after what happened this last week, people, I don't expect to see any of that sneaking on without paying."
What happened last week? I wondered. Had I, absorbed with boyfriend woes and deadlines at work, missed some local tragedy? Had there been a bus massacre sparked by a driver challenging a young punk looking for a free ride? "I guess some people just don't care," the driver, a Denzel Washington look-alike, said with a sigh.
Two stops later, the scene repeated itself: long lines outside, several ne'er-do-wells trying to slip in through the back door, and the driver reaching for his mike. "This is why they shoot us 41 times, people," he said. "And get away with it. After all this mess, I don't expect to see anybody sneaking in the back. You can't give 'em an inch, people." A minute later, the driver added, "I don't know why you're so eager to go in the back door anyway. We spent enough years being shown the back door and having to sit at the back of the bus."
Oh, I thought. That's what he meant. The Diallo trial--the four police officers who were charged with murdering Amadou Diallo, the West African immigrant they shot 41 times on February 4, 1999. Diallo was in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building, holding a wallet, which the officers mistook for a gun; fearing for their lives, they opened fire. On Friday, an Albany jury found the officers not guilty. Reporters were talking about the possibility of riots.
But in the Bronx on Monday, I wasn't hearing the untempered fury that leads to riots. I heard, instead, more variations of the bus driver's self-help lesson. Keisha Burton, a mocha-skinned 26-year-old, was waiting at the Fordham stop for the Bx9 when I got off my bus. "People still think of blacks as second-class citizens--that's why the officers got off," she said. "What we've got to do is never act like second-class citizens. You've got to give people no room to criticize what you're doing. You've got to act just as good as, and usually better than, everyone else. Then there won't be room to criticize, and there won't be any room to shoot you 41 times for no reason. That's what I tell my son."
At the bagel-and-coffee kiosk outside Fordham's gates, people were talking about the ruling, too. "Amadou was innocent, and they killed him anyway, and they're guilty but they're getting off," said Gordon Meeks, who was buying a glazed doughnut. "Something's messed up with that." Then Meeks turned to his daughter, a high-school junior thinking of applying to Fordham. "There's a lesson here, Darlene. As a black person in this society, you've got to do better just to get the same treatment. You go to college here, and you'll have to do even better than the white kids just to get the same respect."
Munching on my own glazed doughnut, I launched into history-lecturer mode, pushing up my glasses and pointing out to Meeks and his daughter that black Americans had been urging their kids to work harder, stand straighter, and generally act more respectable than their white peers since before the Civil War. Black leaders in the 19th century argued back and forth about whether education and genteel clothing--rather than activism--would buy African-Americans dignity, the vote, middle-class creature comforts.
Duane Drummond, an older black man in line behind us, chimed in. "That's surely true," he said, "but with Amadou it's something different. It's not about blacks having to work harder so that they get a good job. It's about black men acting respectable so they don't get shot."