Having left Malawi a few days ago, I am now in small town North Carolina ahead of a big water-related conference taking place next week. Its quite a change from the life I’ve been living overseas the last few months, and as usual, makes it easier to notice things that might otherwise seem quite ordinary.
Yesterday morning, I had just finished running an errand and was looking for the bus stop to get a ride home. I saw a lady sitting in a parked car and asked her if she knew what direction I should be going in. Lucky me. She knew the area like the back of her hand and told me exactly what I needed to do. Her voice had a strong Southern twang to it and she was eager to help. I thanked her, barely noticing the brightly coloured vest she had on.
As I stand at the bus stop, a woman and child approach and sit down on the curbside. The boy is not a day over two years old; the mother in her mid-30s at most. They are of Asian ethnicity (from Thailand or Vietnam perhaps). The boy is shy and looks at me with big eyes. He looks away and burrows into his mother’s lap; she rocks him in her arms. I chat them up and discover they are in fact from Cambodia. The woman speaks in broken English with a bright smile and a soft voice. It makes me happy, somehow. I’m not sure why.
Waiting for the bus, small-town life passes by. There is something very pleasing and comforting about the slow pace of life. The interactions of the townspeople betray a familiarity and a security not often seen in the big city. A Ford Mustang roars by and honks his horn at a boy on a bicycle. An elderly couple, the man pushing a walker, shuffle by without saying anything – that comfortable, understanding silence that comes with time, communication that needs no words. The mother and son duo beside me, enjoying the sun and blue sky on their faces. Two strangers, one of whom asks the other for the time – to which the response is: “I’m not sure, but I just came from the post office and the lady had come from a late lunch. Maybe it’s about, ehmmm, 2pm?”
Then, I notice the woman from the car, the one who had given me directions, walking across the street. She is carrying a stop sign in her hand. She is a crossing guard and she is about to start her shift. Oddly, there are no children around and I look around searching for a crowd of kids from around the corner.
A woman with a stroller approaches the intersection. Suddenly, the crossing guard blows her whistle and strides confidently out in to the street. She raises her sign and signals for drivers to stop. The woman and her baby are waved across. They smile and thank her.
I get up and walk over her. “Hello”, I say, and introduce myself. Her name is Willa Mae. I tell her that I have been admiring her doing her job and am wondering where all the kids are. She points to a building and says that they are about to finish class. Is she a volunteer, I ask? She proudly declares that no, she works for a nearby elementary school and has been doing so for about two months. “I took over this job from another fella who recently passed on”, she says in a matter of fact way. “Bless his soul!”
As we stand there chatting, a man begins to cross the intersection. Willa Mae excuses herself and hurries out to stand between him and the traffic. He says hello to her. A woman from the opposite side crosses him, and they nod. All seem to know each other. I realise that although Willa Mae’s role is to ensure the safety of children, she is really an asset to the community. Traffic gets busier during these peak hours and she helps any man, woman or child cross the road safely. People meet and greet each other, perhaps partly because of her. She is a bridge, so to speak, between people and points. I feel somewhat self-conscious standing there, an outsider. Moments like these feel somewhat voyeuristic. An intimate glimpse into the personalities of strangers.
I spot the bus approaching, call out a quick goodbye to Willa Mae, and sprint back to the bus stop. The door opens and the driver grins at me, saying hello. Buses are free of charge in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. They have been for years. Feeling “bridged”, I return the smile and the greeting and sit down.