*Connections is an occasional series about the small but profound interactions with strangers that bolster faith in humankind.
One morning in a previous era, when international trips and handshakes were still possible, a stranger and I joined forces to assist a traveler from afar.
About a million years ago, when people still traveled, I was out walking and noticed a middle-aged tourist squinting at a map as she waited at a busy intersection. I was also waiting for the light to change. After a moment, she approached me to ask a question I did not understand.
She tried two or three times, then waved me off with a “never mind” gesture, frustrated with her dearth of English. “No, it’s OK,” I said slowly and clearly. “Ask me again.”
This time, I got it: She was here from China with her husband, a scholar attending a conference, and she wanted to explore while he was at meetings. She planned to go to the “city center,” had waited at a bus stop to catch a ride downtown, but no bus ever appeared.
She seemed to have only the vaguest idea of where downtown was or what to do once she got there. I told her that downtown was about 30-40 minutes away on foot— I was headed that direction, and she could walk with me for most of the route, if she liked. My destination was Dozen Bakery, so I would turn off at Edgehill, before downtown. By that time, she’d be able to see town and could make it the rest of the way on her own. She agreed to this with enthusiasm.
We stood together on 8th Avenue to wait for the OK to cross signal. The woman wore a big floppy sun hat and an eager expression that seemed youthful and sweet. She was brave, and I admired her adventurous spirit. But I also worried a little. How would she make it back? What would the bachelorettes do to her? If she got lost or stranded, would someone help her? I wondered whether I should change my plans and walk with her downtown.
After crossing 8th and then Wedgewood, we passed a bus stop, where several people waited. I stopped to ask a man when the bus was due to arrive. “Five, seven minutes,” he said.
“This bus is coming soon,” I told the Chinese traveler. “It goes downtown. Do you want to ride instead?” The woman flashed a huge smile and said, “Yes!” then plopped down next to the man I’d spoken to. He had a few-days’ silver stubble and a look about him that suggested nothing had ever come easy.
For non-Nashvillians, I need to explain a painful truth here: In Nashville, public transport is underfunded, inefficient, and virtually ignored by the moneyed percentiles. Bitter debates about whether to improve the system have divided the city along fault lines of culture, class, and race. What it comes down to is that Nashville buses are generally used by folks who have no other option. I rode it every morning in high school, but only a handful of times since. Tourists here, as far as I can tell, do not take the bus.
I considered all this for a moment, a wave of irritation and shame washing over me, wishing my city were more accessible to vulnerable travelers and citizens who cannot afford cars.
I glanced at the woman. Her face was wide open in the way of travelers for whom every sight is new. To her, this bus was just a bus, a vehicle for exploration. Why had I hesitated? Was it some kind of native bias or snobbery in me that made me pause before suggesting this?
I turned to the man again. “Sir, this lady is here from China and wants to see downtown. Would you mind helping her?” He sat up a little straighter. “Sure I will,” he said. “Does she have the fare?” She poured coins into her hand, and he helped her count out exact change.
“Great!” I said. “Could you also help her figure out where to get off the bus and point her in the right direction from there?”
“I’ll take care of her,” he said. A kind of grandeur came over his face: I had given him a mission to watch over someone, and here he was accepting it like a gold medal. He stood to shake my hand. This was a time on earth when people shook hands. “Thank you,” I said, feeling a flush of something profound and unspoken. We three exchanged smiles and waves as I walked north on 8th. Unworried.
They waved at me again as the bus zoomed past five minutes later.