The other day I was video chatting with my mom about, of all things, the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS). If you read my Pulitzer-winning piece about cheese-filled burgers and depression, you might remember that I’m originally from Minneapolis and spent a good part of my 20s riding the bus around Milwaukee after moving here for school.
“Remember when that guy followed you home and the bus driver saved you?” my mom asked with a dazed expression, clearly still traumatized nine years later by the story I must have casually texted her the morning after it happened.
“Yeah, that was nuts!” I said dismissively and changed the subject. I have more important things to do than reflect on the horrors of my youth, Mom. It wasn’t until hours later, while trying to unclog my garbage disposal, that I actually thought about the event in question. (Cue that harp flashback sound effect.)
Allow me to take you back to the year 2012. The London summer Olympics had us all considering adult gymnastics classes. Uncles at weddings across the U.S. danced their hearts out to “Gangnam Style.” And I was 25 with a creative writing degree, so naturally, I was working at CapTel.
My commute from my apartment in Bay View was a straight shot on the GreenLine, or the number 15 bus. While some people equate public transportation to a form of torture, I happen to enjoy it and have met several interesting characters while riding the bus. Sure, I’ve also witnessed some unspeakably disgusting things, but it’s all part of life’s rich tapestry.
Now is the point in the story where I admit to doing one very dumb thing in my 20s (among others): instead of taking the bus home after my late shifts, I would make the trip on foot from Downtown Milwaukee to Bay View. This means I would be walking alone for over an hour at 10 or 11 at night so I could listen to music and think whatever 25-year-old thoughts I found important back then. I felt invincible in the way we all felt at 25. My, how things have changed!
My walk home began like any other. It was a Sunday night, and the streets were mostly deserted. I made it to Walker’s Point and was about to go under the bridge near O’Lydia’s Bar and Grill when I saw a tall man up ahead walking towards me.
I passed him under the bridge without making eye contact, and he shuffled out of my way, paused for a moment, and then deliberately changed direction. He was now directly behind me, albeit at a wobbly gate. He looked like an aging frat boy, and while I was relatively tall at 5’ 8”, he towered over me.
“Hey, what’s your name?”
I ignored him, as was my go-to method of dealing with these types of interactions back then. I was a naturally fast walker, but I sped up my pace even more in an effort to lose him. He persisted.
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
I ignored him once again, and what followed was a series of questions and comments, none of which I responded to, and only about a third of which I could hear over my music. For this, I was grateful.
Finally, after what seemed like hours but was probably a good 15 minutes of being followed, I realized that this guy was not leaving. And while there were lots of better ways that I could have handled this situation, instead, I whipped around to face my beer-soaked admirer and nearly collided with him, having not realized how close he was following me. I remember him looking genuinely startled.
“What the [EXPLETIVE] do you want?! Get the [EXPLETIVE] out of here!” I yelled.
But before he could respond, like a giant deus ex machina with a Gruber Law Offices ad on the side of it, a bus pulled up and groaned to a halt next to us. The door hissed open, and the driver leaned over with her head cocked in my direction.
“What are you doing?” she asked. But she wasn’t talking to me.
“What?” the man said defensively, taking a step back and shielding his eyes from the florescent lights of the bus like a modern-day vampire.
“Do you know him?” This question was directed at me, and I silently took off my headphones and shook my head, suddenly feeling like a child.
“You leave her alone!”
He mumbled something incoherent before skulking across the street, hopping the small fence surrounding a parking lot, and disappearing into the night.
“Do you need a ride?” she asked. I hesitated, embarrassed. I didn’t want to look like a baby, but I finally realized that continuing this journey on foot might be a bad idea. Seeming to read my internal conflict, she said, “Come on,” and beckoned me forward with one hand. I stepped aboard and dug out some cash.
“It’s fine,” she said, waving her hand over the fare box. I looked up to give her some meaningful eye contact, but she was checking the gigantic side mirrors and pulling back out onto the road, having already moved on from the interaction entirely.
These kinds of things happen all the time with MCTS drivers. They’ve saved 10 missing children in recent years, including a lost toddler on a highway in the middle of winter. Milwaukee Record has covered a ton of these stories already, and reading them is a delightful way to avoid a few minutes of work.
While I’ve always remembered this experience as being a bit of a wake-up call, it wasn’t until nine years later, as I pulled chunks of rotisserie chicken from my sink, that I really reflected on the impact that this driver’s actions had made. I’ve never had a problem voicing my opinions, but it wasn’t until after this occurred that I seemed to focus that energy on things that actually mattered.
A year later, I loudly objected and vowed never to return after a convenience store clerk made a racist comment to me about another customer. A couple of years after that, while walking my dog, I saw a man screaming into the face of a woman outside Camp Bar. Without thinking, I immediately approached and asked her if she was okay.
“She’s fine,” the man answered for her.
“I wasn’t talking to you, [EXPLETIVE],” I responded.
She nodded sadly at me, and I reluctantly left, feeling bad about the situation but also about the idea of being punched in the face.
Helping strangers out, or at least trying to, seems to have a domino effect. I remember telling the story of that night to friends, and later hearing about them stepping up when witnessing injustice or just someone in need of a hand. This MCTS driver might have unknowingly inspired countless good deeds simply by seeing something weird on the side of the road and stopping.
As we finally turn the corner from a nightmarish year into an already nightmarish 2021, looking out for one another seems like the only resolution worth making.
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