I am back, stomping Chicago slush off my shoes and tugging my suitcase a foot ahead of the man following me step-for-step. He mutters profanities at me that sound like incantations, but does not follow me to the ticket counter. When I loop my baggage card around the handle of my suitcase a few minutes later, I observe him, still muttering, as two police officers lead him out in handcuffs. Before he disappears from view he grunts and rams one cop’s shoulder with his head.
I have been through this station once, twice, two dozen times on my way to visit my fiancée in Toronto by way of Kalamazoo, Detroit, Windsor, and London. With a roof and a snack bar, it’s far nicer than the bare curbside pickup location a couple miles away where I occasionally catch a Megabus to visit my parents in Dallas.
When I first started making these trips, I brought books and music, but I learned to leave everything in my bag and wait. My fellow passengers were largely content to travel by themselves, wrapped up in their own sundry problems, but a handful wanted to talk. They wanted to verbally workshop the relationships they were considering breaking off, perhaps, or they needed to fix themselves in time with their own voices, or they simply wanted to make contact with someone else in the tumult. Contact.
Here we are, the dregs of a whole continent: while a moneyed class crossed distances through the air, we settled at the bottom and waited to be tipped in the direction of LA or Savannah or Buffalo. We listened to the roar of a dozen engines, to the unintelligible intercom, for a sign that it was time to present our tickets to our drivers and board. Mounted televisions brought news of foreign wars and fluctuations in the global economy. No one watched these reports, of course. We were all too busy making sure we had our papers ready and bags close at hand.
I am now a permanent resident of Canada. I carry passports from the United States and the Netherlands, and used to live in both Europe and the Middle East. I am about as international as they come, but I find it hard to consider this a meaningful category for social understanding. In North America, at least, national difference melts into formless abstraction when the heat of race and class are applied. National differences can be seen from afar; race and class differences make themselves apparent in the encounter. National differences betoken order and stable organizations of people in distant places; race and class differences announce themselves in a person’s discomfiture, anxiety, and feelings of alienation. I know this, because I have so often been that discomfited person.
I always come to the station alone, but I come knowing there is always an opportunity to opt-out of my aloneness in the unexpected encounter. I am looking for the opt-out now. Time and again, you taught me to look for it: You of the chain mail belt, of the black velvet suit, of the business card proclaiming “Jesus Lover and Friend,” of the home-spun philosophy of death and the Navy dry-bag. Out of hundreds of bipedal objects in space I managed on the way to my gate, a You inevitably appeared: a soul, a handful of animate dust, a person going somewhere. You always managed to show up, and you reliably still do.
It was on an international bus that I learned how it is that listening can take over all of a person’s senses. It became a ready posture, and then a door through which I timidly allowed an unknown world of other people—and of people who are truly “other” from me—to enter. I became taken with these experiences; I needed humanity in small doses at high concentrations. I soon realized that there is simply too much to hear about. The stories never end.
You sat next to me in the terminal two seats down, or three seats, and I don’t remember who started the conversation, but we got to talking. You were stranded in Chicago after losing your job as a satellite dish installer; you told me about walking miles to open shelters, how your woman back home had finally sent you money for the ticket back to Georgia (or Louisiana?) but the snowstorm had kept your bus from coming. This would be your second night in the station. I bought you a Gatorade, or a granola bar. Maybe both. You cracked the seal on the cap or peeled the shiny wrapper after handing me a ream of smudged computer paper.
Your blue pen drawings were of geometrical shapes, flowers, skulls on fire, men in various states of undress (standing next to bunk beds—for scale, or context?), and women, many women, many of them winged or emerging from lagoons and all with enormous breasts. I raised an eyebrow at these while you spoke, and when I handed your drawings back I only said, “Yes.”
You were going home to your woman. She was a good woman, had been with you for years. You didn’t often meet my eyes through your glasses, and I figured this to be a tic of shame. When you talked about her, you still didn’t meet my eyes, but it was because you were looking at her in your mind. I tried to tease out her image from the quality of your stare, but could not do it. My bus came.
“I see men like trees, walking,” the blind man said when Christ restored half of his sight with mud made from spit. I think about this story while waiting and watching others who are also waiting. The interval in his perception between humans and trees is fascinating to me—was it a difference in visual form alone that rendered people instead of limbs and branches? Could it be instead that the miracle of his restored sight gave him a posture of absolute openness, that he actually saw people in place of objects—fellow human beings, radically individuated? Did he receive the eyes of Christ when Christ daubed him a second time?
I watch an Eastern European family separated, the father and daughter going to Cleveland while the mother and son stay here. Forms in space. When lost in a crowd of trees—little more than visual furniture—one needs something on the order of a miracle to see the people walking. The site of the miracle is the ear; the result is an eye that listens. I have to believe Christ was synesthetic. The visual forms of the family dissolve easily enough into a general picture. The sound of the daughter crying does not dissolve.
Clearly, you were hoping for someone to talk to. Within two minutes of my sitting down, you were laughing solicitously and making statements intended for a general listenership. I smiled without looking at you and moved a seat closer. You were a performer, and said so explicitly after I asked you what bus you were waiting for. We were both headed for Detroit.
“My whole thing is standing so still, people think I’m a statue,” you said. “I got paid one time to stand at a wedding reception, you know, like one of those statues at restaurants that’s holding a tray, and one old white woman even looked right in my sunglasses and said “that is just an amazing statue.” They didn’t even know until the emcee told everyone, man. I made two thousand dollars that day.”
Two minutes after this, maybe five minutes into our interaction, you were handing me a variegated stack of papers. “I was so worried, man,” you said, “them bitches is dirty, man.” HIV Negative, from a clinic in St. Louis, the information center-positioned on nice paper as though printed on some kind of diploma.
You were going back to Detroit to see your girlfriend, a woman who gave you your first home since you’d been in high school. You told me you had spent two—three?—years on the street before she took you in. “I’m surprising her because I think she might be cheating, and I want to catch him.” I frowned and nodded.
You slept on my shoulder on the ride to Detroit, and when the bus bounced you awake, you would clench your fists so hard your whole torso shook. “Blu,” you told me before we boarded, while I was looking at your busking license. “They spelled my name wrong there, see, “Blue Man”—I think they thought I was part of the Blue Man Group.” You told me the tourist area where you performed and showed me promotional photos taken by a friend, but I forgot the location. We arrived in Detroit before either of us had fully woken up, and when I looked up to say goodbye in the terminal I saw you already on the sidewalk outside. I watched you walk away. I hoped that you wouldn’t catch anyone.
Sight is an active sense; hearing is passive. The focal point of vision is an expression of will; by it, you filter your visual field and arrange your impressions into manageable data. You do not choose when to hear, or with what quality; apart from the choice of physically obstructing your ears, you have no say in whether a noise is audible to you. With sight you are in the driver’s seat of consciousness; hearing puts you in the trunk.
Seeing, you exert some measure of control over your surroundings, making them containable and amenable to avoidance or manipulation. To hearing, however, you submit. Hearing leaves you vulnerable to what is without: able to be jarred awake, shocked, jolted. Hearing is physical, the result of disturbances in the intermediary matter. Hearing is also the sense by which you are addressed.
Listening is the active inflection of the passive sense of hearing: the choice of paying attention, which, Simone Weil reminds us, is a form of prayer. Listening is the means by which visual forms in a bus station can be transfigured into human beings. Listening bridges the gap between material and mental. It is a miraculous capacity.
On the way to Dallas from Nashville to see my parents, I first noticed you at a rest stop. You wore a shallow-necked white tank top and no jewelry. We were somewhere in the hot thick of the South, parked on a weed-strewn acre of concrete separated by a tapered grass slope from a gas station parking lot. I watched absently while everyone leaned toward the slope as they walked up, each person taking two or three steps at most to get to the sidewalk at the crest. You were behind the pack of passengers headed for the gas station convenience store; you were keeping up with an old woman in a dowdy dress, but barely. I hazarded guesses at the state of your mind by your unsteady gait; it seemed as though you were failing to keep an invisible hula-hoop aloft while walking. Your shoulders were bare, your flip-flops street-grey over an ancient yellow-green.
The slope loomed, and no one knew to help you but the old woman. You clutched her arm, doubled down, and almost took her with you. I recalled the word “degloved” while biting my knuckles and, my God, I prayed for you. She shook free after two attempts and summited the berm without falling, shaking her head. Others passed you by. You were still at the base. I stared shamelessly through the window, gripping my seat.
You stood up the way a swan’s neck uncoils and swayed in the sun. The driver offered you a shoulder to lean on, and you almost ricocheted off. He walked up without you. Squatting, you assessed the situation. You half-stood with a bounce, but getting to a fully erect position was beyond you, and you sank again.
It was then, as you corkscrewed back down into the dirt, that the thongs on your sandals broke.
You rested for a moment on all fours, then kicked out in unsteady arcs behind you to get the sandals off. Unencumbered, you crawled up the slope. You stood up in the parking lot at the top amid broken glass and walked barefoot into the convenience store. Your flip-flops stayed at the bottom of the berm, and when you came back out with nothing in your arms, you passed them by like they were trash. I guess they were. I looked at them on the ground as the bus pulled away.
I sat with my brother in front of the stairs going down to the lower level on this trip. When we were back on the highway, you stood up in the aisle, still shoeless. I grew tense, as though bracing to be struck. Your hand seemed firm on the rail by my brother’s head as you started down the stairs, but the driver merged left and you came down with such a wrenching sound below us that I thought your skull had cracked. People gasped. I shuddered and did not think to pray.
Five minutes later you were back on the stairs, coming up. “Sorry, everyone,” you said, teeth yellow as old newspaper, “I took a little tumble.” You laughed, and the rattle of phlegm cackles in your throat gave your voice the quality of a serrated knife. I didn’t see you leave the bus in Dallas. I think you got off at an earlier stop. You walked as though falling horizontally, or as though falling through time.
Where did you land?
It is easiest to convey yourself to another in terms of trajectory when the context in which you meet is defined by travel, passage from place to place. The shift from trajectory into narrative occurs when you express the non-incidental reasons for your movements: motivations that go beyond sheer animal need. Something eternally nascent announces itself: I am going to see my beloved; I am returning to my family; I am going to straighten out my life. Hopes, aspirations, the essential and characteristically human longings that give us the idea that we are more than our circumstances or species, that some of the energy given off in the ongoing explosion of life can propel us in a positive direction—or at least an intelligible one.
If you can make sense of yourself, and communicate that sense to another person, you have made the essential statement: I am alive. If you cannot, you are left with bare trajectory, characteristic of all objects that move in space—space which, when empty, carries no sound.
“Diamonds cause I gotta shine,” you explained with no irony, “Money cause I gotta make it.” A diamond and a dollar sign: These were the tattoos below the thumb on the outside of your left hand. You told me about your two kids, how beating the shit out of the white trash scumbag at the bar for calling them “half-nigger” children got you 18 months in a penitentiary in Georgia. You broke his ribs, his face, his jaw, all with your boots and elbows and hands; he was still in the hospital at the time of your sentencing. “They gonna beat the shit out of me when I get back, I know that,” you said. You were talking about the gang you had not left, which didn’t take well to members getting in legal trouble, especially out of state. “Just gotta take it.”
You were the only white kid who lived in your tower in Cabrini Green, and you understood the language of violence before you knew how to write in sentences. You told me how your mother held you in her arms in the dry tub each New Year’s as you both hid from stray bullets. “Everyone was always shooting, man. Up into the tower, at the other tower, at people below.” I pictured it, my mind defaulting to an establishing shot of the buildings before superimposing the gunfire. Reality is not constituted in this way, of course.
You started showing me your tattoos chronologically, going back in time across your skin. The crooked, splintery form over your heart was your first; you got it at age nine to show that you were not someone to fuck with. You talked about it with two fingers over it, pulling down your overlarge polo shirt to expose your chest.
“I joined because of the protection,” you told me. “There was no one else, you know.” Your mom is crazy now, you said; you planned to visit her in Indiana before getting back to Chicago. I asked about the things you’d done.
“When I was younger I did drive-bys.” You told me it’s because kids who get caught end up getting sentenced more leniently by virtue of being kids. They do the more dangerous jobs and graduate at age 18 into roles that are less risky, less showy, less public-facing. “I don’t think I killed anyone when I did that stuff, but I shot some places up.” You smiled; you reveled in the telling, and I reveled in it with you.
Your own kids’ mom had two—three?—other children with as many other fathers. “I just want to settle down with her and get out of it all,” you tell me. You look away: “but I can’t. You can’t leave. You can only take it easier, have the younger guys do that other stuff.” I asked your age. “20,” you said, nodding. I nodded too, as though I understood what this meant. I will never be able to understand.
You told me to look you up some time. “I’m always getting into something,” you said, and laughed with a smile that was showy with implied menace. “People call me crazy.” I shook your hand and walked up to the customer service counter to ask a question about my schedule. When I came back you’d boarded. I’d wanted to ask you one more question.
Contact. Ultimately, the synesthetic metaphor for the encounter with others resolves into the most bereft sense, that of ultimate passivity: touch. When I touch anything, Aristotle says, it is also always touching me. It is blind to threats at a distance, deaf to those that are nearer by: without the supplements of sight and hearing, touch would leave us in a state of constant surprise and, probably, terror.
Touch is immediate, and its natural condition is one of exposure—to the elements, to attack, to everything that is without. Touch alerts the body to the presence of a world without it; this fundamental disclosure is corroborated by sight and hearing, but it is also partly concealed.
Touch precedes speech and frequently evades it; its vocabulary is built to accommodate expressions of pain before anything else. At this sensory bedrock level, our narratives about ourselves become dim and abstract. Touch is a presentist sense, an imperceptible substrate upon which life is built. Aristotle again: one might be deprived of any sense and continue to live, unless one is being deprived of touch. A creature that loses this sense, dies.
You are waiting for me when I disembark. You smile and bounce from foot to foot in a ritual of celebration. You run to me and, pulling my face down, kiss me on my cheek. “How was your trip?” you ask as you take the handle of my suitcase.
“It was good.”
Hundreds of hours in circuitous transit; too many goodbyes to remember them all. The condition of the possibility of a hand clasp, an embrace, or a kiss remains one of fundamental separation. But by some miracle, it is still possible to make contact.
I step out of the Toronto terminal and into a warm house, where my fiancée’s family graciously welcomes and feeds me. I’m now married and live in a condo. The material reality of my life is far from that of most of my fellow passengers. I have never faced a gang beating upon returning from out of state. I have never moved from shelter to shelter waiting for money to come in for a ticket home. I have never entertained the thought of homelessness as a serious possibility for my own life.
These are true chasms that separate me from my fellow passengers. Thought is conditioned by what exists below it—by an unceasing experience of life that is so close as to be imperceptible to us.
But for all the anxiety and discomfort that accompanies efforts to communicate across divides as deep as these, it is still possible to do so. Language, destitute when its sight is removed, sinks to the level of fundamental humanity. On this level—one of exposure—it remains possible to make contact.
Perhaps this isn’t a fashionable view nowadays, with the elevation of difference to a category of fundamental social ontology in the service of social justice. But there is something that persists in each individuated form that emerges with definition out of the background; “humanity” can be an inclusive and accommodating concept rather than an exclusive and imperial one. Sight, inflected with the passivity of hearing and touch, can be a sense of witness, a sense by which the truth is conveyed without being crushed to fit a category.
How is it possible to see truly in the presence of irreducible human difference? It is possible in the way it has always been possible: through the inflections of passivity, through the deprivations of intellectual synesthesia. To bear witness, ultimately, one must make contact. To do so is to be changed.
Martyn Wendell Jones is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Books & Culture, The Behemoth, The Curator, and other publications. He lives in Toronto with his wife. You can follow him on Twitter here, and find a small portfolio of his other work here.