One day years ago I took the 71 bus from Watsonville to Santa Cruz, California. It was a local bus, a milk run, that made many stops along the way. Depending on the time of day, it could take you well over an hour to ride the twenty-mile route from one end to the other. I got on in Watsonville, paid the fare, and found a seat in the middle of the bus.
I have always liked riding buses. The large windows, the elevated view, the feeling of power as the bus surges forward, the wagon wheel used to steer it. All of it has a giddy effect on me. Sure, I’ve had unpleasant experiences, but for the most part riding has been a joy.
This time, though, something was off. I couldn’t tell exactly what was wrong, but something did not feel right. I looked around for confirmation, but no one seemed to notice or look my way. So, I ignored my gut. Besides, I am used to that pained expression of people on public transit.
Things changed when we got to the local community college. A student boarded, took two steps down the aisle, and exclaimed while waving his hand in front of his face, “What in the world is that smell?” This caused everyone to look up. The driver shuffled back, sniffed around, and ordered everyone off the bus. Later, when the mechanic arrived, they determined that nitrous oxide had been seeping into the bus through a crack in the exhaust system.
I felt like a fool on two counts. First, I relied excessively on other people instead of trusting my instinct. Second, I never spoke up, settling into complacence rather than risk being thought a fool. These are exactly the things I have tried to teach my children and students. Ironically, it took a student to open my eyes, or, in this case, nostrils.
I remembered the bus experience this weekend while traveling on a flight back to New York. During the flight the woman directly in front of me, who had been knitting with determination, suddenly stood up, looked around, and exclaimed, “What in the world is that smell? Somebody’s been fartin!”
I looked immediately at the thin, Chinese woman next to her and decided that she was the culprit. I must have been right, because the thin woman got up and stood in the aisle, scrolling through photos on her phone. Luckily, there were no further emissions, nitrous oxide or otherwise.
Again, someone relied on what they saw as the truth (the knitter) and then spoke up about it. I still can’t imagine standing up and yelling on a crowded plane like that, but there it is. The lesson is clear.
Here’s the thing. The smell that the student and knitter identified can take many forms. It might be a used car one day, a piece of fish the next. It could be a person, which was my reason for traveling this week. I visited a friend who was having problems with a relative who went “berserk” on him because she feels threatened by him. Family members who witnessed the display of vitriol and venom admitted that she acts like that on a regular basis. She did it again in my presence and then lovingly attended to her pet poodle.
Barring a medical condition like a brain tumor, such behavior is inexcusable, and even then you can’t excuse it as much as try to understand it. Such behavior constitutes abuse, and when other people permit it either because it has been going on for years or to keep the peace, they become accomplices to evil. I don’t think that’s too strong a word to describe what I witnessed this week. Not to be dramatic, but writ large you get Neville Chamberlain proclaiming “peace for our time.”
As I told my friend on the way to the airport, somebody needs to stand up and yell, “What in the world is that smell?” And then, if they want the family to heal, they should do something about it. Especially when the smell has become a stench.
After all, the children are watching.
Image credits: feature by João Jesus; B&W by Burak K; middle by Wesner Rodrigues. This post is dedicated to Joseph Bradley, Ralph Kramden man about town. Happy birthday to Josephine Frasula Brancatelli, March 22.
Note: Remember to send me your dad jokes by replying in the Comment section of this post. I will include them in the post scheduled for Sunday, March 31, 2019, the day before International Dad’s Day. See the March 10th post.