I’ve been meaning to get this story out since I came back from Philly, but actually driving home and visiting with family and friends has gotten in the way a bit.

Molly and I had decided to stay an extra day in Philadelphia in order to sightsee a bit in the city.  We drove into the city and parked near the Philadelphia Art Museum (of Rocky fame).  In order to get to our destination of Independence Square, we took a trolley that Molly’s brother Mike had told us about.  Everything worked out fine; after we finished walking through the American galleries, we hopped on the Phlash Trolley to get to Independence Square.  After we finished walking around Independence Hall and touring the National Constitution Center, we realized that it was about 6:00 PM — the last stop for the trolley that evening.  Looking through the pamphlet and schedule for the trolley, we saw that we had some time to work with since the trolley was not scheduled to come back to Independence Square until 6:22.  Even so, we waited at the stop.  At 6:18 the trolley pulls up.  I got up, stood next to it, and waited for it to open its doors so we could get on — except the doors did not open.  The woman driving the bus seemingly ignored us (I think she knew she was going to have to drop us off someplace where she had already made her last stop) as she was stopped at the red light at the intersection.  When the light turned green, the trolley rolled on down the street with Molly and me watching in disbelief.

“What now?” I asked.  Molly called her brother and notified him of what had happened.  Mike advised us to find another trolley (luckily there was one within sight, across and down the street).  We asked the driver if she was headed in the direction of the Art Museum.  She was not, she told us, but the trolley that had driven off without us might be heading back in our direction.  Also, the SEPTA bus — the 17 line — should go toward the Art Museum.  Did we want her to wait on us?  No, I told her.  We’d figure things out on our own.

Sure enough, the Phlash trolley returned.  Instead of pulling up alongside the curb, though, it drove up to the same intersection as before, but in the opposite direction.  It was also in the left lane.  Choosing to notice us this time, the driver opened her doors and yelled toward us.  I couldn’t really understand her, but her face and her actions and mannerisms made clear that she had already made her last stop and we were not welcome to get a ride.

We elected to wait on the 17 bus.  It arrived fairly soon, but the driver told us that it would not take us to the Art Museum; instead, the driver said, we shoud wait on the other route at that stop, the 33 line, which would take us there.  Another five minutes passed before the 33 arrived.  Upon boarding, I inquired of the driver the price for tickets.  The driver said “$2.00” and instructed me to slide the bill that I had in my hand — a $10.00 bill — through the machine and told me I would get change.  As I let go of the bill and the machine recorded the dollar amount, the driver suddenly became exasperated, asking me in disbelief why I would slide a $10.00 bill into it.  “If I had known you had a $10.00 bill, I would have given you the change myself.”  You see, apparently the machine on the bus does not process that amount.  Exasperated, tired, and ready to be out of the city, I, without thinking, replied, “Whatever.”  This is not a smart move when you’re around people that use the public transportation as a lifeline.  Immediately, I got the collective opinion of those on the bus.  “That’s a damn shame.”  “Unbelievable.  $10.00?”  Even the driver chipped in — “In my eighteen years on this bus, I’ve never had anyone do that.”  As the driver filled out the rebate form (for $6), I was bombarded with detailed instructions on how to redeem the rebate.  Eventually the driver asked us where we were headed.  When I told him the Art Museum, we again elicited frustration.  “We’re not even going there!” he exclaimed.  The driver dropped us off in an average-at-best neighborhood with coupons instructing us to get on the 43 line, which would take us to the museum.  After asking a local teenager for help, we eventually got on the 43 and got to the Museum — finally.

The point of all this?  I realized that while I spend so much time in the ivory tower, academic frame of mind, I really don’t have the opportunity to feel the differences between different lifestyles and cultures.  And when you’re in that situation, it’s so challenging to see the commonalities in all of us.  When we’re truly scared of something socially, we notice the differences in our dominant culture and the prevailing culture instinctively.  Too many people don’t get past that.  We need to challenge ourselves, no matter what the situation, to look at the things that bond us together.  No matter how big the differences are, there are those links.

Four months before he was shot, President Kennedy discussed these bonds in a commencement speech to American University (June 10, 1963):

…Let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.

Differences — things that make us unique — should be celebrated, and the linkages we share should be remembered.

What is a situation in which you found yourself challenged?