I wrote this story some years ago and it was digitally published on Southern Voices, Southern Visions. I actually lost my copy of it through various moves and computer meltdowns. I decided to rewrite it and start to tell/read it to people again. I read it at the Colored Pencils Lunar New Year event on Friday, January 28th.
I liked telling this one at an event that celebrated cultural diversity because it’s about the borders and stereotypes we set up even within our own culture. We seem to be most comfortable when we are set apart from others whether by race, economics or age. But it’s when we mingle that we grow.
This is a true story. I have a whole binder filled with stories that take place on the bus or in some form of public transportation. I had an idea for a series called “Adventures in Transit.” I started it in Memphis and worked on it a little more when I moved to Portland. But I got a job and put the whole sloppy project aside. Now that I’m gainfully unemployed again, I’m looking forward to revisiting and revising these stories.
I’ve never driven and have taken public transportation for about 40 years now, mostly in Memphis. I tell people you can never be too idealistic when you take public transportation. There’s just too much public. Your ideas of human behavior are constantly challenged and not always broadened. If you’re truly observant, you can’t cling too tightly to your prejudices. I feel like I see mythological archetypes almost every time I ride. I have to be careful. If I start attaching too many metaphors to people’s behavior, I’ll miss my stop.
This story is about a time when my own prejudices were challenged when I witnessed a simple act of human kindness where I least expected it, one that I was too selfish to offer.
The Little Madonnas
By Joy Corcoran
It was a hot sticky day and I was waiting for a bus that was supposed to arrive 15 minutes ago. I wasn’t too upset. I had my bottle of water. It was the first of the month and I’d cashed my disability check. I’d done some shopping and it looked like financial ends were going to meet for the month.
The bus stop was down the street from one of those technical last-chance high schools. While I waited with a crowd of others, two girls in school uniforms joined us. I say uniforms – but they had tied their shirts above their waists and hiked up the skirts so they showed plenty of leg. They came cussing, gossiping and laughing. This was back in about 2003 and the girls were wearing their hair in elaborate sculptures of swoops and curls that were studded with gold combs, silver barrettes and fake diamond bling. Their hair was piled so high it almost hid the fact they hadn’t grown to their full height.
They were each burdened with a massive backpack for their school work, a massive purse for their appearance work, and a big pink sling to carry their babies. Tiny baby girls were nestled in the slings, each with pierced ears and a pink ribbon tied artfully around their sweet bald heads. They were an innocent contrast to their foul mouthed mothers.
I was pretty disgusted by their language. I rolled my eyes at the other people waiting for the bus. Most of us were much older than the girls and we all shared that sneer people tend to develop as they age – like an allergic reaction to the youth of today.
Time passed. It got hotter. Then to make matters worse, a crazy lady dodged traffic and crossed the street to join us. She cussed and fussed at the cars as they swerved to avoid hitting her. She was dressed in such thin clothes you could see the bony contours of her famine-thin body.
In each hand was a plastic shopping bag filled with what appeared to be trash – rags, cans and something jingly. She quieted when she got to our stop and so did we. She smelled of a rank summer day and urban despair. I looked down to avoid eye contact and saw long brown toenails sprouted through her thin canvas shoes.
“Anybody here got a green dollar?”
I had plenty green dollars but wasn’t about to open my wallet in front of that woman – or those girls, for that matter. We all looked down the street and tried to conjure up the bus that just wouldn’t come.
“All I want is a green dollar. I got change for it.” She flashed us a decayed smile.
Immediately, in unison, the girls shifted their baby carriers to the side and their purses forward. They both opened their wallets and each took out a dollar.
“Oh, I just need one,” the woman laughed. She reached deep into one of her bags and drew up a handful of coins. She slipped the bags down to her elbows and moved the coins from one hand to the other, trying to count them out but was not quite able to.
One of the girls took the woman’s filthy hand and said, “It’s alright, ma’am, I can count it for you.” She picked out a dollar in dimes and nickels. “Now put the rest back in your bag so you don’t lose it.” The woman obeyed and the girl pressed the dollar into her hand.”
“You need some more money, dear?” the other girl asked. “I can spare a little.”
“Oh no! This is plenty.” She started to walk away.
“Hey, the bus’ll be here in a minute, don’t go now.”
“I don’t need no bus. I just needed a green dollar.”
“You got somewhere to stay, ma’am? I know a place that….”
“No, no. I’m a rich girl now.” She sauntered away singing,
“I got a green dollar,
Ain’t no need to holler.
You got a dollar in your hand,
You can make it in this land…”
The girls took out their wet wipes and cleaned their hands. They unbundled their children and held them tight.
We all waited in silence for the bus. We waited and waited and waited.
When it finally came, the driver said there was a car accident downtown and all the busses had to be rerouted. I sat down and let the air conditioning breeze over me. I tended a slight ache in my heart.
I only had a short ride, but the little Madonnas had miles and miles and several transfers to make before they reached home.
This is a woodcut print by the Ugandan artist Fred Mutebi, who I got to meet when he was on a Rhodes Scholarship in Memphis. He has a unique and brilliant vision about how people in village communities can help first world people deal with their troubles. His print making process is quite remarkable. You can find out more about him here: