Standing in the hallway I looked up through the glass exterior of Carnegie Mellon University’s Gates-Hillman Complex and saw something I didn’t like: rain. A Chinese co-worker came out of his office. I hadn’t seen him here before.
“You’re going home?” I asked suggestively, “perhaps you’d better wait.”
He looked outside and nodded in agreement.
“How long do you think it is going to take?” he asked while frowning.
“Trust me, this won’t be over soon,” I assured him.
Frak, it was nearly a quarter past seven, I wanted to get home. I sat down and starting flipping through a weather application on my phone: the prognosis didn’t make me happy. When the rain seemed to settle down a bit I walked outside: bike helmet in one hand, keys in the other. However, when I briefly stepped out from below the protruding roof to feel the rain, it was really a bit too much. Think: what are my options?
Twenty-two hours earlier I was walking down Forbes from Oakland towards CMU with two colleagues. One of whom said:
“I am going to take the shuttle.”
“Shuttle? How often do they go?” I asked.
“Every three quarters of an hour deep into the night,” he replied, “it’s very convenient”.
Back to the present, back to the rain. Ah, of course: the shuttle. CMU runs shuttle buses that can be used by everyone with a CMU card. These are intended to take people to their homes safely late at night and service a number of surrounding neighbourhoods including Squirrel Hill: my destination. I quickly grabbed my phone and looked up the schedule. Luckily the first shuttle would be leaving half past seven from right in front of the university: great!
I waited near the bus stop. The streets looked rainy and bleak. The shuttle arrived exactly on time. I embarked together with a Chinese girl. We were the only two passengers. The driver, a gray-haired middle-aged American man, informed me he would be able to take me to an intersection close to home. I sat down in a comfortable seat about two rows behind him. The shuttle looked like a white mini version of the traditional American school bus.
“Man, the weather is rainy, is it always like this?” I asked.
“Well sometimes it can rain very violently here,” the driver replied, “and in a few months it will also get really cold.”
“A shame, I prefer sunny weather, what about you?”
“Hehe,” he laughed. “You’re talking to a guy who loves cold,” he said while turning onto Schenly Drive. “I go skiing quite often, I was even an instructor at some point, do you like skiing?”
The bus shook heavily as we drove over a badly scarred road. I recalled the last time I was on skis: as I descended I lost control. My right ski ejected, and flew several meters up in the air, while I landed with a thud on my back. Autch!
“Only did the indoor type, and based on falling a couple of times, I can say that it’s not exactly my thing.”
The Chinese girl chuckled. She commented she had tried it too, without much success.
“Indoor: it’s just not the same. You should really go out on to a real piste,” the driver said.
Like many Americans, the bus driver too was a good storyteller.
“I remember this one time when we were going down a huge mountain at night: it was pitch black. We were with a group, skiing down with torches making turns, you know,” he started.
“At one point,” he continued engrossed, “I lost control and went tumbling down the mountain.”
“Oh dear,” I replied. The Chinese girl, also listening, gripped the seat in front of her tightly and leaned forward.
“So, there was this big fence down the mountain. Like this huge thing,” he briefly let go of the steering wheel and gestured.
“So, did you hit it?” I asked.
“I tumbled down like an unstoppable freight train, but miraculously came to a halt just inches before the fence,” his face, reflected in the front window, looked contorted.
“Wow!” The Chinese girl and me uttered in unison.
We had come to the girl’s stop, she got off and darted into the night. I was the last remaining passenger.
“I always find it surprising when people come back from skiing all tanned,” I said with mixed amazement and envy.
“Yes, you’re closer to the sun there and the white snow reflects all the light, so people tan very easily under those conditions. Hell, they even get sunburn.”
“I am lucky: I never burn,” I replied confidently.
“You can get burned though. I mean: everyone can get sunburn, no matter how dark their skin is.”
“Okay, I’ve never noticed it.”
“You can take a lot more than the average white person though. A lot more.”
It was dark, each street light alternated to illuminate the interior of the bus. The Carnegie Mellon University logo on the side of the vehicle reflected on the windows of the cars passing by: traffic was dense.
“Okay, so there’s this one thing I don’t understand about colour,” the driver continued.
“Tell me,” I replied leaning forward in curiosity.
“So, if you wear something white, it keeps you cool in the sun because it deflects the light, right?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“And if you wear something black, it warms you up, because it absorbs the light.”
“So, why is it then that people with a dark skin can tolerate the sunlight so much better than those with white skin, shouldn’t that be the other way around? Doesn’t make any sense, right?” He shrugged his shoulders and threw his hands out.
“That’s a good question,” one with a complicated answer.
“So, these are the kind of things I think about.”
“That’s cool,” I replied with a big grin.
“So what’s your name?”
“Chuck, and yours?”
“Good to meet you Almer, I’ll be driving this route on most days.”
“This is your stop, I’ll let you out once I cross the intersection.”
A minute later I got up, walked to the front of the bus and jumped out.
“Thanks for the ride.”
“No problem, bye bye.”
He closed the door with the extended handle and drove off into the night.