The idea of “paying it forward” of course has much merit. It means, simply, that the response to a kindness is not so much to pay it back, but to pay it forward by being kind to someone else. It’s a feel-good concept, certainly. But I remember a kindness done to me that I have felt for some years deserves to be paid back.
In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s I lived in Pittsfield Massachusetts. As a country boy suddenly relocated to city life, they were some difficult years. Odd as it may seem, some of my loneliest years as a child were the years I lived in the city. I was truly overwhelmed by the numbers and differences. I really didn’t fit. I knew it and it was obvious to others. The term “bullying” hadn’t been invented yet; there were just some really mean kids—gangs, actually—who were about power and control. Those of us who didn’t fit learned how to appear invisible and avoid confrontation, but success was only relative. We learned, for example, to take different routes while walking to school, sometimes sneaking through backyards to avoid meeting certain schoolmates along the way.
When I started what was then called junior high school, it became necessary to ride the bus every day. There were actually very few yellow school busses. Mostly we received tokens that allowed us to ride on Berkshire Street Railway buses that were blue and white. They were tired old buses, with that token collection machine next to the driver and big yellow line on the floor with a sign that read, “Standing passengers must remain behind the yellow line.”
As the bus filled up it became increasingly difficult to stay behind the yellow line—we were jammed in like sardines. More importantly, it became increasingly difficult to avoid bumping others as the bus jostled along its route. One particular gang of girls resolved this problem by sharpening their fingernails to points that could stab and scratch anyone within reach. It was not unusual to arrive at school or home bloodied. We didn’t report it, perhaps out of a strange sense of shame or a fear of even greater retaliation. There are times when I convince myself this was just one of those nightmares; it didn’t really happen. But if it had only been a nightmare, I would not have met nor would I remember the bus driver who made a difference.
I suppose bus drivers back then can be forgiven for not taking action—they were outnumbered forty or fifty to one. We weren’t really students. We were a commodity that needed moving through the city. This was public transportation. Most drivers kept their eyes glued forward, concentrating on the driving, occasionally glancing in the side mirrors and making sure the masses stayed behind the yellow line. As if it were yesterday, I remember the day I boarded the bus and the driver reached out with his hand and stopped me as I deposited my token. While it was clanging through the machine, he said, “I need you to stay up here with me by the token machine. Hold on to it while we’re moving, then step aside and make sure everyone puts a token in it when they get on.” It seemed a little strange at first that he needed my help.
But what mattered was where I stood. Standing in front of that line was an unusual privilege. At first, it seemed very secondary that I was also safe from sharp fingernails, punches, and kicks while standing there—that was a bonus, really. Monitoring the token machine became my regular job, although I don’t ever recall needing to remind anyone to deposit a token. Of course, we’d talk some—mostly about me, my schoolwork, etc. I noticed that he always wore a gold tie clip with the letters “OP” on it. I learned those initials stood for Otis Phillips—he loved to make sure I’d remember it by saying, “Think elevators.” Sure, I took some teasing from the girls with the pointy fingernails, but they seemed somehow less powerful and less aggressive. They’d stick out their tongues as they’d pass me to get behind the yellow line, but that didn’t hurt very much.
Otis became a friend, really. He never let me feel like a victim who needed rescuing. Instead, he made it seem that I was needed in front of the line and that I was somehow a pretty important passenger on his bus. But it wasn’t limited to being on the bus. Sometimes after school a friend and I would go on long bike rides around the city, sightseeing, and exploring. We’d always jump a little when a big blue and white bus would pull up beside us, the door would creak open, and a smiling face would call to us, “What are you guys up to? Everything okay?”
In today’s world, some might suspect his relationship with me was inappropriate. And It saddens me to think that today Otis would likely be disciplined for letting me stand in front of the line. (Truth be told I also got a few free rides when he’d spot me walking somewhere on the weekends.)
But it makes me happy to remember him, his kindness, and I now appreciate his simple solution to a problem—standing in front of that line made a huge difference. I don’t know why he chose me for that honor and today, over fifty years later, I wonder if he knew what an impact he made in my life. As is often the case, a simple act of kindness was not so simple. From his kindness I learned that where one stands can make a huge difference. And he’d probably like the fact that I often think of him when I get on an elevator.
For some years now, I’ve felt the need to “pay it back,” to acknowledge his kindness not just in deed but in word. I really never learned many details about Otis. I know he was married, but he never mentioned children. He seemed a bit grandfatherly to me at the time, so perhaps they were grown. I’ll tell you what I’m hoping. I hope through the magic of social media and blogging I can let it be known that there was an incredible bus driver working for Berkshire Street Railway around 1960 whose name was Otis Phillips. Perhaps this story will find its way to a descendant or others who knew him. It just feels like the world should know, Otis was a hero.