It happened again this morning and every time, it just breaks my heart.
I board the Yuppie Express which looks amazingly like the regular slow bus. Really, to tell the difference one would have to be an expert in symbols or, at the very least, speak English. Hence, the problem.
I saw her immediately, an old Chinese woman hunched over her Cantonese-language newspaper, oblivious to the fact that nearly everyone on the bus was dressed for success and not the vegetable markets of Chinatown. Plenty of iPods and Wall Street Journals and not a pink plastic bag in sight.
Immediately, I wanted to warn her, to tell her then that she was about to a make a significant transportational mistake. But doing so would be what some would call 'racial profiling' or assuming that because she is an old Chinese lady, she is going to Chinatown and not some high rise office building downtown.
So I kept to my novel and waited for the inevitable distress to come, as it always does.
Sure enough, after several blocks with no stops and the bus sliding straight down into the cement jungle, she looked up. Her face began to twist in confusion and alarm settled across her brow. She searched faces on the packed bus and realized that we were strangers. As a whole, we had felt it coming because we'd seen it so often before.
At this point, one of two things happen: There is frantic caterwauling in her native tongue or there is quiet whimpering, a resignation to her fate. (It is always a woman, never a man.) This morning, it was whimpering and it touched my heart. I decided to bring out my best Chinese and explain to her the obvious.
"Ba see. Mmm-hoy. Tong yun fow," I said. This bus does not go to Chinatown. After many episodes of this sad little scenario, I'd finally asked a Chinese friend to teach me this one phrase. It has come in handy before and again, today.
She was grateful someone spoke her language and looked to me for more information. Sadly, I only knew the one phrase and just kept repeating it. Once the bus finally came to a rest at Montgomery and Sansome, I steered her petite frame in the right direction and sent her off in the rain. Poor thing.
I realized then that I need to learn a new phrase: "Please, tell your friends."