The Hampton Jitney didn’t turn the corner of East 41st Street and Lex on time, which meant a host of my fellow “citiots” were restless and indignant. You would think these “New Yawk” patricians would equate a late 5 p.m. bus with rush hour’s heavy traffic.
“I hate waiting on the street like this,” one wilted flower hissed.
Another woman huffed: “Will we get out there in time to go to the Chandlers’?”
“Call the car service and make sure they’ll wait.”
Membership has its privileges.
I received an upgrade to ride the Jitney’s Ambassador coach, exclusively made for the rich and famous-like. Men and women whose shoes cost as much as my rent paid a premium price to travel in a coach, rather than a bus, to have elbow room, and not ride with the help. Or tourists.
I had been traveling to Sag Harbor by the regular Jitney for years — especially when I didn’t want to drive or take the Long Island Rail Road. Traffic on the Southern State Parkway could be gruesome, and the L.I.R.R. wasn’t fun when sitting next to a young drunk pilgrim sliding out to a frat house rental in Hampton Bays. I liked the idea of not having to concentrate on the road; I would leave the driving to Ms. or Mr. Jitney and would even get a little bottle of water and a choice of munchies for my patronage. I guess we all deserve our privileges, no matter how small.
Nonetheless, what was most interesting about the journey were the people. From the elite to the eccentric, they would enter the coach, avoid migrating to the rear, and try to sit alone so not to risk rubbing elbows with an “other.” I, too, would play musical chairs until I claimed my turf, then I would use a secret weapon, a particular trope to my advantage — I put on a “sista-don’t-want-no-stuff” look and spread out like I was Jabba the Hutt. If I had to give away my adjacent seat, I would remove my belongings, flashing my “Relax, I’m harmless” smile. It would usually be followed by a challenge to prove it. That’s when the games would begin.
In Flushing, the bus made the airport connection, a stop before the long haul to the Hamptons. Few would leave the bus, but a slew of people would board, filling the rest of the seats . . . if it were a regular Jitney. But this was the AMBASSADOR. (Play angelic chorus now.) Luckily, only one person boarded the coach, a white woman noticeably unfolding from her 9-to-5. Unluckily, I watched her make a beeline to my well-usurped seat.
She and I were probably peers, but she appeared oversaturated with Lancome, filling things that had not cracked on me yet. Her hair was in a ponytail, which I never particularly liked on mature white women (too severe), but it suited her in this circumstance; her ponytail was declaring the commencement of her weekend.
She nestled into her seat, trying to create a zone of inhibition around her. She smiled at me as if she saw a baby but smelt the diaper. I returned the diaper. As she examined her domain, she spoke:
“Did you catch the bus in the city?”
“Oh, you traveled downtown.”
“No, from Brooklyn.”
“Oh really. Where?”
I slightly turned to her. “Kensington.” Be careful . . .
“Oh, I know where you live, near Prospect Park. Right?”
“Yes.” Oh boy. My head tilted. What fresh hell is this? Then Madam’s voice became singsong-y.
“Have you ever been out to the Hamptons? East Hampton? Southampton?”
“Yes, Sag Harbor.”
She tilted her head.
“Oh! Who are you going out to see?”
Before I knew it, before I could purse my lips, my world went from Technicolor to black and white like a B horror flick. My eyes followed the formations of her mouth as she uttered the next phrase: “Are you working for someone?”
It caught up to me again. Karma. The Trope Twit. More obnoxious than that elf on that shelf. And far more insidious. Channeling my inner Dorothy Parker, I replied, “Why yes. By day, Uncle Sam, by night, Uncle Remus.”
She looked at me as if Barbie were about to meet a speeding Chevy. The pause across her face told me she knew she had stepped in something but didn’t want to look down. In those few seconds, I decided to have some mercy.
“My parents retired to Sag Harbor. Have you heard of Eastville? Maybe Azurest?”
“Your parents?” The scrunch on her forehead started to smooth out. I had climbed up a rung on her ladder. (But mind you, I had started below ground.)
As the bus began to gain momentum on the Long Island Expressway, I tackled putting earplugs in my ears, and she insisted on carrying on: “So, your parents have had a summer home in Sag for . . .?”
“What area are you in?”
“How long did you say you’ve been going to the Hamptons?”
I responded with limited verbiage, thinking, Can’t believe it, huh? And I didn’t say.
I have in my Black Toolbox a monologue, more a presentation, about my decades of existence with other African-Americans in the Hamptons. Based on an earlier assessment made in nanoseconds, I knew what and how much information was adequate. And it was noticeably clear that this would determine how comfortable the rest of my ride would be. I gave her my 1 minute, 30 second pitch, knowing it would satisfy my seat neighbor without putting me in Macy’s window.
I don’t know why some people of the lighter hue think they can step on, no, trample norms of etiquette and just jump in, pry into Black folks’ business, almost as if they have the license to evaluate. I anticipated her flashing a score card, like in a pageant, to express her approval. Or disapproval. My “Black girl magic” kept me intact; Rene, my inner BAP (Black Anglo-Saxon Protestant), was handling the coach ride. I tried to leave my inner Dorothy Parker at the city line.
After our exchange, I turned on my iTunes and tapped “random” on the playlist. It started playing the theme from National Lampoon’s “Vacation”: “Holiday ro-ooo-ooo-oooad, holiday ro-ooo-oooad . . .”
That upgrade to the Ambassador was just what I needed that day, I was able to tune into my old-school music and tune out the new world. The ride lulled me to sleep, especially when the traffic thinned out as we rode east on the L.I.E. and the humming sound of the bus became hypnotic. I didn’t have a care in the world. Until I woke up.
Manorville came quickly. This stop was a hub for every Jitney — splitting the folks who live in Quogue, Westhampton Beach, and Hampton Bays from the folks who must trek farther east. It was a seventh-inning stretch without the song. The shift in gears and speed and sway of the exit’s curve shook me up enough to contemplate: We’re at Manorville already?
Initially my eyelids popped open, thinking of my seatmate making her exit. Then it dawned on me her mentioning she was going to Southampton. Realizing that, I rolled my full moon eyes and in doing so glanced over at Madam. Her eyes caught mine. She put on a warm grin. Not smelly this time. She was ready for round two.
“How was your nap?”
Lora Rene Tucker, a poet, is the leader of antiracism and cultural empowerment workshops, the author of “Writes of Passage,” and the poetry editor of African Voices magazine. She lives in Sag Harbor and is studying for an M.F.A. in creative writing at Stony Brook Southampton.