I am sitting on a bench at a bus stop just off of Dupont Circle, the one in front of my favorite bookstore, & it's begun to rain a little bit. It's not enough to send me running for cover, but it's enough to make me hope the bus arrives quickly, especially in this cold. In front of me, a sedan with its windows down rolls to a stop at a red light; inside it, two burly men with Boston-sounding accents are waiting to drive north on Connecticut Avenue. "Look at all these poor fuckers waiting on the bus," the passenger cackles, & they both have a nasty laugh at our expense.
I want to tell them that their window is down & that their car's metal skeleton is not a barrier to sound. I want to tell them that given the choice between waiting on a mostly-reliable city bus & driving in the District, I'd choose the former every time. And I want to tell them that we are not "poor fuckers," just plain old people, like him, who are trying to get home at the end of a long work day, & that he is not better than we are because he has access to a private vehicle.
The bus arrives a few minutes later & we board slowly, shuffling on & swiping our Metro cards to the loud buzz of approval that says we've paid what we owe for the privilege of a ride home in the rain. The bus isn't as full as I'd expect it to be in inclement weather at rush hour, & I find a seat quickly, one of the sideways spots meant for elderly folks & people with disabilities. I'll get up if someone needs my seat, but for now, there are plenty available, & I'm not passing up an opportunity to rest.
I put my phone down & watch the people around me instead.
The clean-cut twentysomething hipster across from me is on his laptop - a full laptop, not a phone or a tablet, balanced upon his lap on the goddamn city bus. In an argyle sweater & green Vans, he looks better suited to start-up culture in San Francisco or Austin than to D.C., too quirky for this place but with the same sort of work ethic.
The young woman next to him is playing the Kim Kardashian on her phone; I can see it reflected in the bus window behind her. She's wearing the same winter coat as me, but we look like low-budget versions of one of those "Who Wore It Better?" features in celebrity fashion magazines. I can't tell which of us wears it better, but I make a mental note of her patterned tights & shiny Oxfords. I like your style, girl with the matching jacket.
I turn my attention to a tired-looking middle-aged man with long, thick locs spilling out from under a pilled Redskins hat, standing even though there are seats still available. He's wearing a Safeway apron, & I wonder if he's just getting off of work or just heading to it. I hope he's on his way home, because he looks like he deserves a nap, but he's still smiling in the direction of every single person who shuffles past him to exit through the bus's back doors.
There's a guy next to him in the thick Patagonia jacket & L.L. Bean hiking pack who looks far too outdoorsy for D.C. What's in there, man, a campfire stove & an ax? I can't conceive of any city situation in which his get-up is needed, but I have fun trying. Maybe he's from Portland, & he just misses home. Maybe this is just his style. Maybe he's a tourist, & he's carrying all of his travel gear in there because he doesn't want to leave it to be stolen at his hostel. I find myself impressed by his grasp on public transportation in a foreign city.
Sitting next to him is an older woman who looks like she'd be better suited to the Middle Ages. She's wearing a brooch, the old-fashioned kind, pinned to the lapel of a woolen plaid blazer. It's an airplane or a hummingbird, maybe, something silver with wings. Her hair is pulled into a severe bun & over it, she's wearing headphones, the kind we all wore before earbuds in the advent of the Discman. The result is a look that is somehow both contradictory to her image & perfectly in line with it.
A petite blonde girl is wearing a Newsies cap over her pixie-cut blonde hair, a bouquet of flowers in hand, & I wonder who they're for. Is she headed to dinner at someone's house, & they're a hostess gift? Did she get into a fight with her girlfriend & pick these up on the way home to make amends? Maybe they're for herself, just meant to brighten her studio apartment on a cold, rainy weekend.
As I continue to take in the people around me, these characters in my city story, I press play on my iTunes & the synthesized starting notes of Taylor Swift's "Welcome to New York" pipes through my headphones & into my brain. The song is meant for someone else's city, but I can tune that out, modify it for my own. It works here, too, this song about a city full of people trying to become the best version of themselves, living small lives but dreaming big dreams.
I love the way that cities brings you together with strangers, allows you these moments of closeness, of intimacy, with people you don't know & will never see again. A city full of real-life Sims, people with their own lives & details & goals & fears & everything, moving along in tandem, crossing paths for a minute & making an impact whether you realize it in the moment or not. We are never alone here, even when we feel most like we are, & it is that feeling - of being just one tiny moving part in a much larger whole - that helped me gain the perspective to feel just slightly less overwhelmed by the maddening magnitude of my own sadness.
Everybody here was someone else before, Taylor Swift sings into my ear, & it's true of me, too. This has always been my number-one city, from the time I set foot here in June of 2006. I knew I would come back, knew I would make it my own, knew that this would be the place that changed my life for the better. I remember who I was then, when this place first took me in: broken but reassembling the pieces, desperate to shed an image & a mental state that I was ready to move beyond. This is where I became myself, & later, when I started to slip, it's where I found myself again. And I know now that even when I find a new one - like I've done before, like I'll do again - this will be the city that made me. This place changed me - once, twice, forever.
I'm ready to leave now, & I don't think I'll be coming back this time, but just like before, I will carry a piece of this city with me, quiet & tucked away, a perpetual reminder of just another one of the many ways that I became who I am.