For Matatu Writing

Taking the bus in Baltimore has convinced me that it’s time to start writing bus stories. These would articulate the same sense of awe, wonder, and disorientation available in the tourist-matatu genre. Available as “how to be white in Kenya” websites, “how I was white in Kenya” poems and stories, and “how I will be white in Kenya” student personal statements—“to fully immerse myself in Kenyan culture I will ride a matatu”—the tourist-matatu genre permits the fantasy of total cultural immersion via 20-minute rides. Refusing the myth of a fixed Africa, an “ungeographic” Africa to use Katherine McKittrick’s helpful term, the tourist-matatu genre features a mobile Africa, a helter-skelter array of voices, bodies, commodities on the go. Unmoored from Conrad’s dock(ing) imagination, matatu Africa promises real contact with real people living real lives.

Kenyan writers, too, are endlessly fascinated by the matatu. Including a matatu in a poem, song, video, or story demonstrates that one is in touch with where culture (as exchange) happens, with the contingent proximal publics that foster stranger sociality. Anything is possible in the matatu: we fall in love, break up, meet new friends, discard old ones, steal and are stolen from, affirm our savvy urbanities, and reveal our naïve suburbanities. Kenyanness is made and unmade, figured and refigured. Matatus transform us.

Baltimore buses are similarly transformative. This morning’s ride featured a busted electronic fare collector—free rides for all; a trio of black folk trading phone numbers, napping, and eating breakfast sandwiches—a ballet that had to be seen; middle-class and college-bound folk folding in on themselves to avoid dangerous proximities to the working and unworking uncolleged; and a slew of posters that, variously, threatened, prohibited, exhorted, cajoled, and reminded us that we live in a surveillance state.

The dark, unblinking eye at the front of the bus is Dalek-like. Threatening in its absolute refiguring of vision and eye-ness. Unlike the Dalek eye, though, it offers no sign of animation: a glow, a blinking light, some indication that it is working. The extensive codes of behavior listed on various posters—talk, but not too loudly; dress comfortably, but not inappropriately; mix well with others, but not too promiscuously—assume new weight as they are enforced by our fantasies of what that unblinking eye sees. Posted warnings about “unattended luggage” re-geographic the bus as kin to planes and trains, airports and train stations. Buses, perhaps the last public intimate space, have been joined to these other sites of surveillance. Our safety is at stake.

Our safety.

I buy into it.

Of course, this unblinking eye and the numerous posters guarantee my safety, alleviating my anxieties. They will help modulate excesses: unsightly clothing, unseemly eating habits, unbearable noise. If technologies of surveillance work, they will transform the bus into a polite salon. We will be civil, quiet, well-behaved. Properly docile bodies to invoke Foucault, occupied territories to cite Hemphill.

Modes of surveillance rarely succeed completely. Bodies are rarely entirely docile. We slip and slide among rules, learn to choreograph our bodies otherwise. Wear earphones to comply with rules and crank up the volume to sound beyond what is suggested. We eat surreptitiously and noisily, daring others to challenge our hungers. We are unseemly, as though the unblinking eye dares us to be our worst selves. Or mischievous, at the very least. On one memorable ride, a passenger rolls his joints.

But this, I realize, is not the story I want to tell. Bus marronage is fascinating. But not right now. Nor do I want to contrast the ostensible subject-making, subject-unmaking labor of matatus against the subject-disciplining labor of the Baltimore bus. Though I have, in fact, done so.

I’m intrigued, instead, by what feels like the transformation of a unit of mobility—and, here, one can extend the figuration of mobility in numerous ways—into a space of confinement. No doubt, I am working from a too-romantic view of contemporary mobility. Attending to a longer history of slavery would invalidate my claims. After all, slave ships were mobile units of confinement.

Still, the bus opens up vistas. Richard Onyango’s bus paintings promise exotic locations coupled with the unexpected of stranger socialities and stranger intimacies. Bus communities are not free from surveillance: we watch each other and watch each other watching each other. Sometimes this watching helps to avert disasters and at other times we fall prey to sly strangers.

The indifferent, unblinking eye promises unceasing surveillance, increased security. Even as crowded buses camouflage criminality. And, certainly, the unblinking eye does not determine behavior. All kinds of craziness happens in Baltimore buses.
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I pause to note that it is considered bad form to write about taking U.S. buses. It demonstrates that I don’t have a car. I fail some elaborate immigrant calculus.

I was never very good at calculus.
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The shorter bus story would discuss how bus travel has changed. It would describe how taking Greyhound taught me how to ride Akamba Bus. It would detail the fantasies enabled by bus encounters: intimacies envisioned, intimacies realized, intimacies fractured. It would ask about the relationship between an ethical watchfulness—which I learned from the old folk in Pittsburgh who sat on their porches and monitored traffic in the busy Southside neighborhood where I lived—and the indifferent stare of state surveillance. It might say something about anonymity and collectivity. It might dare to think beyond the terrifying indifference of the unblinking eye.

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