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Annotated Conversation: Two African American Men on a Bus

I ride the bus everyday to work. The bus runs along a major street, starting from downtown and going all the way to the outskirts of the city proper, a good 5 miles or so. My wife and I sit in the back of the bus, usually. It’s less crowded there, especially when university is in session.

Occasionally, we are forced to over-hear conversations; I’ve heard crying cell-phone conversations that seemed awfully private, a man reading a children’s book to a young girl in a very loud and annoying voice, and other snippets.

The conversation I heard today was interesting in that they discussed their lives as poor, African American men living in a metropolis. They discussed topics that anyone else would discuss, such as family and work, but the answers differ sharply from what two middle class men would offer. I didn’t take notes, so I am paraphrasing the quotes. To offer context, I annotate the quotes with websites.

The Setting:

Today we heard two African American men discussing their lives. One was old, missing some teeth and dressed in a tan winter jacket that could have used a day at the dry-cleaners. The other was a younger man, dressed in a heavy looking black winter jacket. Because the older man was missing teeth, he had trouble enunciating, but the younger man seemed to have no problems understanding him.

The younger man entered the bus with a woman, probably in her 40′s. The younger man asked the woman for a cigarette, which he took from the pack and held in his hands. He greeted the old man, saying he hadn’t seen him in a long time.

The two men talked in a slang, which made it difficult for a white, suburban raised man like me to follow. It was especially difficult to follow what the old man was saying, considering the status of his teeth.

The Conversation

Younger Man (YM): Hey man, how you doing? I haven’t seen you in a long time.

Older Man (OM): Alright, alright, how are you? You been working?

YM: I haven’t had a job in two years, man.

OM: Can’t find a job?

YM: I’ve been working here and there, construction and such. This time of year, can’t make bricks, can’t paint. I gotta get a job.

OM: Yeah. How’s your brother?

YM: Oh, I don’t know. He’s probably in jail. Yeah, probably in jail. Haven’t seen him in a while. How’s your son?

OM: What?

YM: Your son. How’s he doin’?

OM: My son? He’s in jail. Fifteen months.

YM: Fifteen months? What did he do?

OM: Dope. Got busted with it. What are you up to?

YM: Going downtown, see what’s there. I gotta find a job, man.

Postscript

They talked about other things, laughing at stories and people they know. It was a very friendly conversation, despite the heavy subject matter. I found it especially interesting that the YM said he hasn’t had a job in two years, yet he’s worked jobs within the past two years. The YM’s definition of “job” is steady work, not just any work.

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