Every weekday morning I take the bus to the metro and the metro to the office. I’m not anti-social, but with that being said I am certainly guilty of the headphone commute. While chatting invigorates a certain type of soul, mine is consistently depleted by social interaction. The white headphones are my salvation from pre-work energy drainage.
One October day, in a race against morning malaise and a particularly finicky coffee cup lid, I left my headphones at home. They were no doubt haphazardly trailing off of my kitchen counter, or more likely perched innocently on the top shelf of my refrigerator next to the coconut coffee creamer.
My mules, the business woman’s flip-flip, clicked trot-like as I arrived to the plastic bus stop. I sipped my coffee in silence, nodding to the two elderly gentlemen sitting next to me. Every morning, for the past 8 months, we have nodded at each other. I have never heard them exchange additional pleasantries, but then again how could I above the belting of Natasha Bedingfield?
That morning, however, without an escape into podcast land, I listened as two men who I would soon know as Salvador and Philip make a fruitless yet determined attempt at wishing each other a good morning.
Salvador, a tiny man with worn olive skin and a pristine Starbucks cap perched upon his shiny bald head, straightened his sweater vest and said to Philip; “Cold. Very.”
Philip responded, “Yes, it’s freezing. Winter is here.”
Salvador looked blankly at Philip, but Philip unfazed, persisted, “Are you going anywhere for the holidays?”
This time, Salvador broke into a grin and nodded vigorously.
“Holidays!” was all he could say.
Philip, a bit more exasperated, sighed and smiled at his bus bench companion. He didn’t have to say it. “This isn’t our first rodeo” was painted across his face.
I looked down the street. The bus still wasn’t coming so I turned to Salvador.
“Where are you going for the holidays? Are you going to visit family?” I asked in Spanish.
Both men looked at me as if I had crawled out of my skin and transformed into a dancing Llama.
“You speak Spanish, right?” I continued, pressing Salvador for an answer.
I wasn’t shocked by their reaction; most people are surprised to see a blond girl from Los Angeles speaking Spanish with ease. It’s just not something anyone expects.
Philip was the first to respond.
“Oh my god! Oh wow!” he declared with an enthusiasm one would not associate with a rail thin, 80 year old veteran with a few missing teeth. “Ask him where he goes every morning! Ask him where he’s from! Does he have children?!”
I couldn’t quite understand his urgency. Why all the questions?
Together, Philip and Salvador (once he decided I could actually speak Spanish) explained their story in tandem, one narrative in Spanish and the other in English.
For the past 10 years the two men, one from Virginia and the other from Mexico City, have been riding the bus together. They are retired, in their 80s, and often worry when the other doesn’t show up. Salvador said Philip was once gone for two months, and he was so nervous he started taking the later bus, then the earlier bus, incase Philip had changed his schedule.
Everyday Salvador gets off first, waving to his friend, and Philip always wonders where he goes. Neither one knows where the other’s going. Once Salvador gave him a cookie, the best cookie he’d ever eaten, but he’d never been able to ask Salvador for the recipe because of the language barrier. Salvador told me he has always admired Philip’s walking cane. He said it looked regal.
I have spent every morning since that first encounter sitting in-between the two men. My head swivels back and forth as I answer their questions, some mundane, others deeply personal.
When Salvador lost his wife 12 years ago, his children helped him come to America. He is very proud of his daughters, as he should be. He likes Telenovelas and goes to Starbucks every afternoon for lunch, hence the hat. In the morning he spends time either in the library or playing chess. He is happy now, but longs for his friends in Mexico City.
Philip’s favorite food is Pumpkin Pie, and he loves chess and hates polyester. (I did indeed have to look up the word polyester in Spanish). He recently submitted his paperwork to run for President of the United States in the next election, he’s still waiting for a response. Philip has roughly four hairs atop his head and spends his mornings at the VA. Sometimes he volunteers, sometimes he takes the courses.
I still translate for the two men every day. I am a 23-year-old girl from Los Angeles translating for two men in their 80s, one from Mexico and the other from the US – people often stare and we think it’s pretty funny.
“Do you think they think I’m your father?” Philip once asked me.
I laughed, “Probably!!” I replied.
When I explained what Philip said to Salvador, he responded with two words: “You’re crazy!”
These men have a deep bond, regardless of the fact that they have never communicated fully. For 10 years they have become friends through patchwork sentences and kind smiles across the bus isle. I feel lucky to have been welcomed into their circle, honored to have gotten to know them.
Through their stories I have learned more than I could have imagined about life, loss, and patience.
Once I asked them how they have been friends all this time without having ever had a full conversation. I’m a words person, after all.
“It’s not about what you say,” said Salvador softly, “At the end of the day it’s not about what you say or what you give the other person, it’s about how you make them feel. People remember how you make them feel.”
That is a lesson I won’t soon forget.
Recently, I taught them how to download Google translate onto their smartphones. In two months when I move, I won’t be there to help them share their stories with one another. Philip has assured me he will take a Spanish class at the VA. I made him pinky promise.
I felt inclined to write this story down not for any other reason than that this morning, Salvador put his arm around me and said I looked sad. He was right, I was sad. I couldn’t explain to him why, but that didn’t matter. “You’re doing great” he said, and I was flooded with relief. As if, even though lately I feel like I’ve done something wrong – I was reminded I’m doing my best.
Maybe this is a case for commuting without headphones, or maybe it’s a case for using public transit. Maybe it’s a case for taking a moment to listen to older people, to recognizing that we have a lot to learn from those who have lived much longer. Maybe it’s a case for showing compassion, even when someone is wildly different than you and finding the similarities in us all.
Or maybe, maybe it’s just a story about two old men and a girl. In my exhausting quest to find meaning behind all that I do, I wonder if the simple beauty in Salvador and Philip is that, in the end, they are just two humans who have found in each other a happy commute. And maybe that is enough..