On an episode (#253) of the radio program This American Life, which I highly recommend, the topic being dealt with was remembering. What stories and events and people do we remember? How do we want to be remembered? These questions were approached, as This American Life tends to, through stories and accounts of real people. In one segment of the program they borrowed a couple of stories from an organization called StoryCorps. StoryCorps records stories of all kinds, by real people, with the intention of sharing those stories with future generations to connect people to their children and grandchildren.
One of the stories told was about a man named Ronald Ruiz, a bus driver in New York City. Ruiz delivered this story in a thick Yankee brogue, getting choked up at the end of the story. (You can link to the episode here, and Ruiz’s story comes at about 19:51 into the broadcast.) Though some of the power of the story is found in the voice of the teller, the transcript is still fascinating:
I remember one woman, in particular, a senior, who had gotten on my bus and she seemed completely lost. I could see she was confused. I don’t know whether it was an illness, but she looked so beautiful for a hot summer day to have her fur on. So I said, are you OK? She said, oh, I’m fine. I’m fine, but I don’t know a restaurant. I’m meeting my friends. I said, you sit on the bus. I’ll run in and I’ll check each restaurant. The very, very last one on the left, I said, it’s got to be this one. So I said stay here, sweetie, it’s nice and cool in here.
I went in and I said, there’s a lady in the bus and she’s not sure the restaurant. And I saw a whole bunch of other seniors there and they said, oh, it’s probably her. So I ran back to the bus. I said, oh, sweetie, your restaurant is right here. And I said, no, no, don’t move. And I grabbed her hand. I remember my right hand grabbed her right hand. I wanted to make her feel special, like it was a limousine. It’s a bus. She said she felt like Cinderella.
And she said, I’ve been diagnosed with cancer. And today is the best day of my life. Just because I helped her off the bus. And I never forgot that woman.
– Ronald Ruiz, via StoryCorps
The entire story is beautiful in almost every detail. The unlikely setting, the unlikely fur, the unlikely hero, the unlikely diagnosis – they all weave an amazing tapestry of everyday humanity at its finest. But when I was first listening to the podcast a couple of weeks ago I had to replay his story a couple of times before something that Ronald Ruiz said fully sank in.
As he was helping the nameless woman off of the bus, after having checked every restaurant on the street to find our where she was supposed to be, he said “I wanted to make her feel special, like it was a limousine.” As kind and gracious a sentiment as that was, Ruiz, the New York realist then adds, “It’s a bus.”
I can’t help but wonder how much different my life would look, how many more beautiful moments I would encounter, how many more memories would be locked into my mind, and how many more sacred spaces I would have created if I was willing to treat others with a limousine mentality while living in city-bus world. This man never lost sight of where they were, he never actually thought that he was driving a limo and was obligated to help the passenger out onto a red carpet. But despite knowing everything to the contrary he still treated her like it was all of those things. He inconvenienced himself, spent time that he didn’t have to, and involved himself in this lady’s story with no promise of gain or tangible compensation.
Perhaps as Christians, as citizens of the kingdom of Heaven, we should take a closer look at this. We live in a smelly, garbage infested, dirty, and often dangerous world and far too often we treat others, including our own spiritual brothers and sisters, just like the environment we live in seems to demand. But what if, and I know it’s a big “what if”, but what if we stopped looking to the environment to determine what was acceptable and started looking into the faces of the people that we are living with? Limousine treatment has very little to do with the car, but everything to do with the driver.
She told him, “Today is the best day of my life“. She told that not to a friend or a spouse or a sibling, but to a bus driver. In a cancer ridden body, with a taxed and tired mind there was little for her to rejoice in. There was a decided lack of “limousine” in her life. Even the lunch she was trying to get to was just out of reach because she couldn’t remember where she was going. Disoriented and distraught, she needed more than just a bus, she needed more than just the sound of air-brakes and a cold, indifferent announcement of which street corner she was on.
She said that Ruiz made her feel like Cinderella, and maybe that analogy is more true than we would care to admit. Cinderella accomplished nothing on her own throughout her entire story. Her biological parents both ended up being absent, her step-family abused her, and so she relied on mice, fairy-godmothers, the love of a prince, and the persistence of a king to finally bring her dreams to tangible reality. This is where the fairy-tale retains so much truth and power. The pumpkin turned into a coach, just like the bus turned into a limousine not because it actually was that thing but because someone cared.
We will likely have opportunities in the near future to choose how we let this story play out in our own lives. We will either treat people reflectively or redemptively. We will either become mirrors of the soiled world they live in, not offering much in the way of hope or beauty or rest. Or we will become a kind of sponge, absorbing the dissatisfaction, the disillusionment, and disappointment and in then when we are wrung out we will drip redemption. Any bus can be made a limousine, any broken down house can be made a sanctuary, and any nightmare can be made a fairy-tale. I know this because God took a cross and made it the symbol of life, He took a grave and made it the hope of the world.
Friends, find the buses in your life, and find the broken people riding them, and by the grace and mercy and love of Christ in you, make them limousines. In doing so we point to God’s ultimate plan for this world and we give unsuspecting people a taste of it right now.