I live in Eugene near the freeway dividing it from Springfield:  two cities, two different worlds.  Most have heard of Eugene:  the University of Oregon. Springfield is poorer.  One immediately notices the change upon crossing the McKenzie River.  The houses are smaller, there are strip joints, pawn shops, bars for loggers, but no sign of the University of Oregon.  One of the high schools is for problem students. There are no IB (International Baccalaureate) high schools or even Duck Stores in Springfield.  Eugene has three of each.

There is a divide even in Eugene, evident when one rides the bus, which I often do.  A neighbor has lived here for decades and has never ridden it.  In a week, I had been all over both cities.  I know many schedules, the routes, and never am concerned if I get lost, because I will learn something.

Many poor people ride the bus, because it is far cheaper than having a car:  insurance costs alone are more than a year’s fare.  I’d say 90% of riders have some type of pass.  I do. I see single mothers hauling large bags of groceries, maybe with a child or two in tow.  There are students, with no other way to travel, the disabled, who can easily get on the bus and strapped in. The bus allows cheap, efficient mobility for many who would otherwise have no way to get what they needed.

The riders are polite.  I’ve never been yelled at, nor have I seen unruly behavior, although it must exist.  Daily, I see a lot worse from vehicle drivers. People who take the bus often strike up a conversation when I meet them at a bus stop or on the bus.  They thank the driver when they get off.  They are ordinary people: young and old, male and female, poor and …. poor.  They call me “Sir” and offer a seat, which I politely decline.  They are trying to get by.  I see many of these same people when I pick up my medication at Wal-Mart. I find myself becoming more polite and tolerant in the presence of those who have little, perhaps because I realize how much I have.  I made it to 65; Steve Jobs didn’t make it to 60, or even 57.  I struggle to learn German; but millions of people would give much to speak English the way I do.

Recently, on a rainy day, I decided against taking the bus home, walking instead. I got some hot chocolate at Dutch Brothers, chatted with the clerk, and left a decent tip:  a year ago, I would not have done any of the three. Columnist “Dear Prudence” once wrote how important tips are to service workers.  It matters. I walked home along the Willamette River, in flood, spotted a man, stopping to talk.  This is difficult for me to do; last year I would have continued walking. Lately, however, many on the other side of the fortune divide have become easier for me to talk to, this man’s being no exception.  His face had a lot of miles on it; he had ridden his bike from Springfield, in the rain, just to watch the river.

We talked about the water’s going to the sea, rather than California, which needs it, or to storage, where it could be used later in a variety of ways. He told me that the large, empty, moss-covered pipe behind me was once going to be used to pump water elsewhere.  What happened, he didn’t know.  I had wondered about that pipe. I wonder how many rich folks looked at the river, really high, the whole character different.  If you are a mover and a shaker, you often don’t have time for these sorts of things.  Charisma, looks, ability to pitch ideas, money, and business plans are on one side of the divide.

I’m on the other side: I am old, neither good looking, charismatic nor a businessman.   But on my side is an intense curiosity about the world.  Perhaps if others came across, they would discover useful ideas from a curious old man: a safe way to report and learn from medical errors, how to conserve resources, especially fresh water; how to count outcomes of high risk medical procedures; the need for mandatory national service; keeping public schools open evenings and weekends for tutoring, by volunteers like me, who know how to make the material relevant.  We also need to get kids outside to see nature, the rhythms of the sky, listen to the music of the spheres, smell, and touch the Earth. I keep trying to open the door to my side of the divide.

The man from Springfield listened, as I computed aloud the approximate volume of water passing us.  I mused if we could build an oil pipeline across Alaska, we could build a waterline to Lake Shasta, in northern California.  I called fresh water 21st century oil, which he thought interesting.  We have enough water; we must use it better.  He listened.  Maybe he didn’t understand me; maybe I didn’t, either, but we both knew a big opportunity was being lost.  He and I were on the same side of the curious-not curious divide, the side where one lives usually decided in early childhood by whether parents allow kids to be curious. I was lucky; I grew up in a household where you could ask three questions about a topic at the dinner table.  I was taught to be curious, and that curiosity required asking good questions.

Crossing a few divides has made me happier, perhaps because I am more grateful for what I have.  I smile more, which others return.  They talk, thank me for allowing them to sit, or tolerating their child.  I’m not part of their side of the divide, but traveling there has taught me compassion.




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