Here? No? Here?

(This true story first appeared at the wonderful

The man waiting on the corner had no way of knowing that the young woman’s bus ride had been thoroughly exasperating. He would have understood her exuberant leap from the bus if he had known how she spent the entire ride from downtown wondering if the next stop was hers, or the next, unsure if she was even close, wishing someone on the #35 spoke Japanese. But he didn’t know, and that’s why he got the wrong idea.

The bus had just gotten into North Portland when the young woman began a semi-frantic effort to find her stop. She showed a laminated card with the address to the older woman next to her, a stranger who was happy to help but couldn’t give the directions in Japanese. The explanation in English was met with polite nods and smiles from the pretty, twenty-something foreigner, the universal sign for “I hear you talking, but I have no idea what you’re saying,” so the helpful stranger tried smaller words, simpler sentences, even hand gestures. The young woman smiled and nodded, eager for the nonsensical explanation to be done so she could turn away and start focusing on the street signs again.

I was two rows back, and wondered if a better explanation could help the situation. Apparently I wasn’t the only person curious about this, as the tattooed woman across the aisle got her attention and pointed at the card that was clutched tightly in the young woman’s hands. She read the address, and began a new description, very simple, very clear. The card-holder nodded and smiled politely, no one within earshot convinced she understood any of it. No surprise, she being in an agitated state – and the directions being in a foreign language.

I’d heard “Farragut” mentioned, a street still six or seven stops away, so I was surprised when she suddenly stood up at North Dekum and hopped out the back door of the bus. The older woman blurted, “No, not here!” and the tattooed woman yelled to the driver, “Don’t pull away.” The back door had closed and we all saw the young woman smiling from the sidewalk, then obeying the motioning of several riders to get back on. She walked to the front of the bus and sheepishly boarded again, probably suspecting that everyone was paying attention to her struggle, and probably right. Though by this time, I doubt anyone was judging her difficulties; we were all rooting for the resolution. The tattooed woman motioned for her to come back to the seat, so the young woman joined her, her foot bouncing rapidly as if she was trying to exorcise the nervous energy that had been growing in her since we left downtown.

She stood to exit again a few stops later, pointing eagerly at a landmark she seemed to recognize, but her seatmate simply shook her head and held up one finger, all of us hoping that “wait a minute” was a globally-known gesture. The excited rider waited, and I could imagine her concern: She hadn’t understood what others were saying, so what if they didn’t understand what she was asking? She had already been on the bus longer than she had expected, so maybe the error was everyone else’s, not hers. At each stop, she would look around expectantly, and the people around her would shake their heads silently. She would nod and smile, the speed of her foot-tapping increasing with every block.

Finally, the bus turned onto Peninsula and the seatmate gently nodded, pulled the stop-request bell, and pointed toward the door. The young woman nodded and smiled and said “thank you” in English as the people who had helped her waved, then she bounded down the steps and leapt from the bus.

Her excitement is what gave the guy waiting on the sidewalk the wrong impression. As she landed on the sidewalk, giddy that she had finally reached her destination and the stress of the journey was over, the man mistook her excitement as enthusiasm to see him. It was clear he was surprised by her energy, and excited by it as well. He shifted his body away from his bike to make room for them to hug, but instead, she stopped 18 inches away and immediately started raving to him in Japanese, recounting the difficulty of her journey. She made no move to hug him.

I watched the man’s body slump slightly, his expression shifting as he realized his error. Her story kept going, and he kept smiling and nodding just like the woman herself had been doing on the bus, because he wasn’t hearing a word she was saying, either – and not because he didn’t speak Japanese. He was busy recovering from the massive surge of adrenalin that had come with her arrival and the sudden disappointment that arrived on the very same bus.

Then the bus pulled away, leaving all that excitement and heartache standing on the corner of North Farragut.


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