Public Transit Epiphany

Thinking about the Montgomery bus boycott last week reminded me of my own life-changing bus moment. Though the two incidents are as different as can be in terms of the scopes of their impacts, they both have something to do with human equality–which is perhaps why I dare to mention them in the same sentence.

The actual moment described below occurred years ago, in San Francisco, but some of the reflections have evolved since then, as I’ve moved from a city where transit ridership is diverse in many ways, including socioeconomically, to places where public transit is often regarded as a dividing line between haves and have-nots.

I’m going to go ahead and confess that I’ve struggled a bit with this piece. It’s been difficult to get the tone right, and to communicate a bit of the awe I felt in the face of such a specific and unexpected reminder of a principle I believe but don’t always think about during day-to-day interactions: the notion that each human being, no matter their circumstances, has significance and a story–whether that story is consumed and shared by millions or largely played out before an audience of One. I’m still not sure I’ve got it right.

One more preliminary remark… I believe in God, and these reflections incorporate that belief. However, I recognize that belief in God is not a prerequisite for belief in universal human value, and I am grateful to know many people who, while they do not share my religious convictions, embrace and act upon (often better than I do) the understanding that all people matter equally. Now, without further stalling…

Public Transit Epiphany

I look around—
surreptitiously, of course—
at two dozen or so
fellow travelers,
and I am struck by the thought that—
bluntly speaking—
they mean nothing to me.

I have never met any of them before
(technically, I haven’t even met them now),
it’s unlikely I’ll encounter any of them again—
or recognize them if I do—
and I haven’t the faintest idea
what their respective stories
entail.

What twist of plot
brought each of them
to this time and place
where our paths have aligned
for the briefest
and seemingly least consequential
of chapters?

Scanning again—
and this time registering
the mismatched outfits,
missing teeth,
and matted hair
of several of these late-night riders—
it saddens me to think
that some of them
may not have anyone
to whom they do mean something.

That’s when my perspective veers
onto a different course,
and suddenly these nameless strangers
come to mean a great deal to me—
for they are living reminders
that, if there is truth to the belief I profess,
each soul aboard this bus
matters beyond measure
to the One who watches over all of us.

Regardless of our anonymity
to one another,
each of us is known to Him
as the protagonist
of a most important tale,
living an arc
just as crucial
to the ever-unfolding
narrative of humanity
as those traveled by the bravest explorer,
the most brilliant scientist,
the wealthiest businessperson,
the strongest athlete
and the most talented artist.

As our coach lurches forward,
I am simultaneously comforted
and challenged
by the conviction—
long held, and now poignantly illustrated—
that each of us is cherished equally
by One to whom value is not relative—
whose esteem can neither be increased
by fame, fortune or beauty
nor decreased
by obscurity, poverty, decrepitude
or even the need
to make use
of public transportation.

© 2011
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Watts Towers

I stumbled upon the Watts Towers several years ago, and it was love at first sight. This amazing large-scale work of art is a perfect illustration of the profound truth that there is great beauty to be found in things (not to mention people and places) that have been discarded or written off by a society that likes the shiny, the new and the whole.

My hope for my own art—and for my life, for that matter—is that I will develop the kind of eye for potential that Mr. Rodia exhibited. If I can recognize, embrace and celebrate unexpected beauty—and reflect back just a fraction of what I find—I will have done well, I think.

Though it feels presumptuous to attempt to describe something I admire and appreciate so much, I had to try…

The Towers of Simon Rodia

silver spires rise
stretching toward heaven
as though striving
to brush the cheek
of God

unwieldy scraps
of abandoned metal
have been coaxed into shape
fashioned together with utmost care
and precision
secured with mesh and wire
then cemented into one coherent
and breathtakingly lovely
whole

fragments of tile and glass,
dishware and seashells—
detritus of earth and ocean—
salvaged
polished
and situated just so
absorb the rays of the sun
soften the light
and reflect it back
in a glowing declaration
that one person’s trash—
indeed, an entire society’s refuse—
may, in the right hands,
become
another’s treasure

© 2011
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Location

Greetings, and welcome to the inaugural Urban Verses blog post!

First things first, I suppose I should introduce myself. My name is Alexis Spencer-Byers, and I am, among other things, a writer of poetry. My plan for this space is to use it to share some of those poems, in the hope that they may offer encouragement, enjoyment and/or thought-provocation to however many (or few) people stumble across them here.

Most of my adult life has been spent living and working in inner-city communities–largely in the nonprofit community development arena. For a while, it seemed that my English literature degree had no relevance to my life as it was unfolding, but then I discovered that poetry could serve as a way to capture and attempt to understand–if incompletely–some of the difficult, painful, beautiful, joyful and other kinds of moments that come with life in the city (and sometimes just life in general).

Writing “urban verses” quickly became the way I processed things I saw, heard, experienced and felt–and the way I communicated to others some of what was going on in my head and heart as I navigated a life marked by often-unorthodox choices. By way of example, and to really introduce myself, I give you this “oldie”:

Location

They say I’m brave to live here—
A courageous soul, more so than most
And I believe that they intend it
As a compliment to me
But what they fail to understand
Is the grave insult implied
To those I choose to live among
If being their neighbor
Makes me a hero

Why should it be harder
For me to dwell beside
A family who differs from mine
In hue and size of paycheck
Than it is to share a street
With those who show no sympathy
For the differences and weaknesses
Of others?

What would they say
If they knew the truth—
That the suburbs with their perfect lawns
Their swimming pools and soccer moms
Terrify me
Far more than the dangers
(Real and alleged)
Of my beloved ’hood?
What would they say
If they discovered this fact—
That I am not brave at all
Just more at home
Where I can be
As broken as the next?