Back when I was an undergraduate, approximately a million years ago, I visited my friend Miles in Boston. We had shared a house together in England the year before and were currently finishing up college, he at Boston University and I at Sarah Lawrence. So one weekend, with no particular agenda or expectations, I hopped on a bus and went up there.
I remember that I was studying The Iliad at the time, which made for very poor bus reading. When I got there, Miles and I weren’t sure what to do with ourselves. There were no movies around we wanted to see. So Miles, who was a huge jazz fan (he was named after Miles Davis), suggested we go to a jazz club. I at least liked the idea of jazz, so I agreed.
It was a smoky club (as I said – a million years ago). We got a seat near the front. Sitting to my right was a small African-American man with tonsure-pattern baldness. He looked old to me, but almost everyone did back then. My guess is he was in his 50s. He was a bus driver, which I could tell because he was still in uniform. I don't recall the name on his nametag, but I remember what was on the table in front of him.
There was a case there, a soft thing with a zipper. It looked like the case diabetics use to carry insulin and needles, but longer. It was alone on the table. There was no drink anywhere around.
The bus driver loved the music. His eyes were completely focused on the band, following along as the music changed tempo and direction, his hands and feet in constant, subtle motion. I found myself watching him more than the band.
Then the band stopped and the horn player spoke. He smiled and gestured to the bus driver. The bus driver lit up at the attention! He unzipped the case in front of him. Inside were two drumsticks cradled in worn red velvet. The sticks looked lovingly cared-for, like they had been put to sleep on a silky soft pillow.
I can’t remember how long the he played. Maybe 15 minutes. Mostly I remember how hard he worked. He loved every minute of it, but he wasn’t showing off. He was a craftsman, working diligently. He seemed very good to me, but then I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference.
When the band’s drummer returned, the bus driver got up and returned to his seat. He smiled and waved to the small crowd that clapped for him. And he sat back down.
I think of that bus driver a lot. I’ve written many stories for him in my head. Was playing those few numbers satisfying for him? Did he drive his bus happily dreaming about Friday, when he got to sit in for a few numbers? Or did it go the other way? Did he wake depressed on Saturday morning, knowing that it was six more days until his next 15-minute slot, the one time a week he got to do the one thing he truly loved?
I don’t question that I’m a writer. Writing is where I engage most deeply with myself and the world. I would do it alone on a desert island. But why have I built so much of my life around writing? And why in God’s name have I tried to make a living at it?
Some of it is circumstance. While I’m not a rich man, I’ve never feared starving. This makes pursuing art a lot less frightening. Maybe the bus driver didn’t have that luxury. Maybe he was always a few paychecks away from homelessness. There are other circumstances as well. He was older, from a different era. He’s black and I’m white. I can’t know how those circumstances affected his decisions.
That said, those circumstances are not definitive. People from all walks of life, with less money and more than either of us, have put making art at the center of their lives. People from all walks of life have succeeded and failed.
Maybe that’s the real question - what connotes success or failure? How do we view what we’ve accomplished? I’m sure there are people who are very envious of my writing career. I’m equally sure that there are others would consider the best year I’ve ever had to be a complete disaster.
More often than not, I have failed to make a living writing. But I’ve written some plays that I’m very proud of. My work has been very meaningful to some people. And my life has been filled with artists, wonderful people who are actively and passionately engaged in living. At the end of the day, I have work that fulfills me and a family that loves me. I can’t imagine anyone feels too bad for me.
I wonder how the bus driver feels. I hope doesn’t feel like a failure. When I’m at my most sanguine about writing, I think of myself as just another tiller in the fields of art, trying to make sense of my life and maybe make the world a little more beautiful in the process. Maybe that’s how he feels. I hope so. That’s how I think of him. Just watching him that night certainly added some beauty to my life.
He’s always seemed like a kindred spirit.