Riding the bus with ex-felons

It is freezing here in Tucson. This isn’t hyperbole: Today it was 31 degrees when I got on the bus. Days when it is really cold – and likewise, in the summer when the temps register above 110 and life on the streets is a health risk – the bus gets crowded with the homeless and those without adequate heat or air conditioning in their homes. Today was one of those days. If you pay attention during that time (and I admit that there are times I do not) you can see real bravery.

About 10 minutes into my ride and as I was reading a great piece in the New York Times, a woman heaved herself into the seat in front of me, turned around to face me and announced, “I hate this cold. It hurts my hips. But they say I gotta go to woman’s group, and I’m going.”

As I’ve written before, I’m trying to actually live like a Catholic during the Year of Faith and, to me that means that when I’m on the bus, I attempt to model Jesus. I’d love to say the experiment has been a rousing success, but alas, honesty demands that I say no. I’m batting about 350 – if that means I’m pretty good about half the time. If it means something else, please just ignore the baseball reference.

“It is cold,” I replied, putting down my paper, and commanding myself to be present. “It’s freezing. I hate it, too.”

“Yeah, it’s awful,” she said. Then she explained that she also needed to “make a meeting” because it had been a few days since her last one.

“I’m still stepping,” she said, but in her house with the Big Book because when she goes out to get to meetings, she would encounter addicts and that was what she needed to avoid. Addicts find people trying to stay clean, she said, as if folks in recovery are magnets for the evil living in – and killing – people who are still using. “Don’t know how they know,” she said, shaking her head. “But they do, and they come right for you.”

I hail from a long line of alcoholics and attended weekly Al-Anon meetings myself for seven years when dealing with relatives who were actively using a couple of decades ago, so I know the AA lingo and understood what she meant by “meetings” and “stepping” and the Big Book. I didn’t, however, understand the reference to a “women’s group” so I asked about that. Which is when things got interesting.

“It’s for ex-felons,” she said, as comfortably as if she’d been sharing her favorite pie-making secret with me.

I’d never had anyone introduce themselves as an ex-felon to me before, and I tried to keep the surprise from showing on my face and my mind from racing through the laundry list of felonious crimes for which she could have been convicted. For a nanosecond I wondered if she had a gun. Then I focused on what she was saying. She explained how she was looking for a job and how certain employers are “paid extra to hire us.”

“We’re good hires because we work twice as hard since we’ve got to prove ourselves,” she said. “There’s only part-time out there now, but I’ll take that. Anything’s better than nothing. It is important to stay busy.”

Then she detailed her gratitude for social services and AA and parole officers and employers compensated by the state all stitched together to provide the scaffolding needed to rebuild a life. In 10 minutes, this woman illuminated why we need a safety net. She also illustrated bravery.

If I had been convicted of anything – heck, if I’d even been accused of anything – I don’t think I could look myself in the mirror, much less pull myself out of the house to get to a group or look for a job. I’d be overwhelmed by humiliation and shame and unable to accept either society’s help or God’s grace because I’d be so focused on how I’d screwed up. How I wasn’t worthy. How one horrible choice defined me. Add to that the minute-by-minute battle of staying clean in the face of addiction and you’ve got a life that is pretty damn hard. A life that many might say isn’t even worth living – or saving. A life that takes bravery to live. And living it deserves some respect, in my opinion.

My stop came and I stood to leave. The woman – whom I wonder if I’ll ever see again, such is the nature of the bus population – beat me to saying goodbye: “You have a blessed day,” she said.

Just like Jesus would.

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