The Back of the Bus
There are sufficient seats at the front of the bus so he doesn’t need to sit anywhere near the back. A stolen glance as he boards and presses his Darwin bus card against the scanner while greeting the blank faced driver, confirms this. Relieved, he walks through a curtain of fetid air and takes an aisle seat so he can move at least one of his legs. The buses are rarely crowded, in fact on a number of occasions he’s enjoyed their cavernous and frosty interiors in solitude. The bus pulls out into what passes for traffic in Australia’s northern capital, before he’s settled, so he’s forced to grab the handrail and swing his backside down onto the seat.
Stony faced passengers stare out through the windows if they don’t have mobile devices, as he allows the icy air to cool his skin. After a five-minute walk to the bus stop he was sweating already. It’s only seven thirty but the mercury is already poking thirty and the build up humidity draws sweat from the skin as though squeezed from a sponge.
He watches them through the window, meandering through the park in a loose herd formation. The front runner is dressed in a hi-vis shirt and King Gees. Thongs adorn his feet, but he’s carrying a Coles shopping bag in which he probably has a pair of boots. He reaches the bus stop seconds before the bus pulls in, having received its command via a long high pitched beep instigated by a passenger wishing to disembark. The bus stops. Two exit through the back door as hi-vis enters via the front. He shuffles down the aisle without making eye contact with anyone, and makes his way to the back of the bus. The back of the bus is dark and it smells. It’s noisy too and with the arrival of a hi-vis guy, the hubbub ramps up. They appear careless of the presence of others as they chatter loudly in a language he doesn’t understand.
So far, his curiousity has not compelled him beyond speculation. He’s still disappointed that the stereotype he hoped would be destroyed by his actual experience in the Top End, has instead been unambiguously reinforced. Hi-vis guy is a rarity for two reasons: he has a job and he’s sober. Listening to the back of the bus jabber makes him wonder why hi-guy sits with them. The reason strikes him quickly, making him feel stupid. He is one of them. He looks like them and speaks their language although as gainfully employed citizen he is inhabiting a different world. There are many worlds on the bus. Individual planets in which people sit in safety, enjoying their self-imposed isolation. Darwin draws people from all over the world, but no matter which piece of geographical space one occupies it is always different from others. Everyone experiences the world through the lens of their own culture.
The bus stops again, relieving itself of another burden, before proceeding along the Stuart Highway towards Palmerston. He becomes aware of other conversations taking place, but they are not in English either. All of his fellow passengers can speak the local language with varying degrees of proficiency, which makes it an unsecured mode, and besides it is infinitely easier to converse in one’s own tongue. Even though there’s no need for discretion when no one else can understand what you’re saying, most people, mindful of others, speak as quietly as they can. The mob at the back of the bus are boisterous, loudly calling to a couple of their members as they leave the bus at the next stop. Perhaps, it’s the parting shot of an argument now severed by circumstance, or maybe it’s a hearty wish for health and happiness. It’s impossible to tell. They always sound angry. The disembarkees, don’t smile as they gesticulate towards the back of the bus on their way out.
Others takes their place, dressed in the uniform dirty rags of their tribe, and set off nicely by an assortment of bandages and plaster strips. They fight all the time. He’s seen them in the parks, staggering around in an alcoholic fog hurling curses and fists at each other. He studies one of the women and realizes that she might have been beautiful once, before her lip had been split a dozen times, and her nose broken. She’s shrouded in weariness, her dull dark face framed by thick unwashed hair. The back of the bus waits for her: a broken and battered woman bearing ten extra years of life in every crease of her face. They are not a good-looking race. Oversized noses, brows and lips. He quivers with disgust at himself, but this latent racism has been nagging him ever since he arrived. They are more different than any other people and yet this land is theirs. They belong while everyone else, in one sense, does not.
He wishes it was different. That his only conversations with them hadn’t involved humbugging. That making eye contact meant being hit up for money or cigarettes. He wishes he had not seen them sifting through handfuls of cigarette butts looking for a smokeable remnant or staggering around the streets of Darwin in the middle of the day, menacingly intoxicated, or sleeping in the middle of footpaths and on bus shelter benches and in parks, flat out on their backs and oblivious. The awful statistics are on the news every night, as they valiant efforts of community leaders to rescue their people from despair. He would rather not have seen or heard any of this. The rampant racism and typecasting he heard back was easy to refute when distanced from actual experience, and nothing is more powerfully influential than an individual’s own experience.
It was becoming a torment for him to endure this increasingly undeniable awareness of his own prejudice. He wanted desperately to do something about it, to transform himself, instead of merely joining the eye rolling and long suffering majority who with differing degrees of tolerance shared the city with its minority of resident natives. His stop was approaching, and he would soon be at work, fully engaged mentally and unable to give consideration to the troubling thoughts he suffered on every bus ride. He often thought of purchasing a car, but it made him feel sick to think that was his best and only solution to the festering problem of how to live with his Indigenous brothers.
He presses the stop button and shuffles in his seat. When the bus stops, he rises and walks to the front door. Fifteen minutes have passed but the stench of the back of the bus passengers still hangs heavy in the air and it drapes him as he exits the bus with a nod to the blank faced driver.
As he walks, he thinks of Rosa Parks: a champion of the American civil rights movement in the 1960’s. Her particular brand of protest focused on ending the restrictive and racist law which saw negroes forced to sit at the back of the bus. More than half a century later, black Australians choose the back of the bus. It’s their territory, as they travel around aimlessly, resenting the white invaders who stole their land and their children. The same invaders who pay for their pitiful, violent and alcoholic lifestyles. The irony takes his breath away, makes him feel dizzy and despondent.