August 11th, 2020


Someone to sit next to me

 Garrison Keillor

By Garrison Keillor

Published Dec. 7, 2018

The Nobel-Prize

There's so much good news. Gorillas appear to be thriving, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, and there are about 361,919 of them, twice as many as had been believed.

Humpback whales, who were nearly hunted out of existence in the 19th century, are making a comeback in the seas off Antarctica: the birth rate is on the upswing, according to a recent study. (The animals are the size of a school bus and have a life expectancy similar to ours.)

And a study at the University of Michigan shows that people who work out even 10 minutes a day tend to be more cheerful than those who don't.

This is science, people. This isn't fake news. These conclusions are based on actual facts established through observation by people who can count. What I learn from this is that it brightens your day to skip the front-page stuff about Washington and focus on science. Someday I expect to find a study showing that 75-year-old men who rode school buses as children have a longer life expectancy. That's me.

I rode a school bus for six years, 12 miles each way morning and afternoon, on a highway in Minnesota, cornfields to the west, the Mississippi to the east. I stood at the end of a gravel road, a gawky kid with wire-rim glasses, wearing second-hand clothes, knowing there would not be an empty seat because mine was the last stop.

The bus pulled up, the door opened, I climbed aboard, and the driver waited until I sat down before he started the bus. Nobody squeezed together to make room so I had to pick out a seat with skinny girls in it and hurl myself at them and hold on for dear life as they tried to shove me out when the bus went around a sharp curve. This is a fact.

I had emotional problems in my youth -- who didn't? -- and a religious crisis and a search for identity, all of that --- but the struggle for seating on the bus was my No. 1 problem. My mother had five other children so I didn't bother her with this. The school had no grief counselors that I could discuss it with. I had to pull up my socks and fight for a few inches of seat, enough for one cheek, and hang on with all my might.

Now you know why I avoid public transportation. And when I fly, if I'm upgraded to First Class, my heart sings.

Six years of classmates resisting my physical presence had a big effect on me. I learned to not be put off by rejection, that all you need is one acceptance. Somewhere on the school bus of life is one beautiful person who will move over and make room for you. That is all you need.

The fellow passenger who has made room for me all these years happens to be a professional musician, trained to read tiny insect tracks on a page and perform as indicated while a man with wild hair waves a stick in the air. She is no slacker, in other words. She has run a marathon, given birth to a child, hiked alone through foreign landscapes, lived close to the poverty line in New York City, and recently read Anna Karenina. She tends the plants in the yard and knows their names. She is well-versed on social convention and has sound opinions about music, books, and design. She is more than capable.

It's a comedy routine when she's around and a lovely system of checks and balances. I say, "Let's put a ping-pong table in the living room" and she says, "I'd rather we didn't" and so we don't.

She says, "You're not wearing that tie with that shirt, are you?" "Not anymore," I say. She points discreetly at her left nostril and hands me a tissue. She reminds me of the name of that woman with the glasses (Liz) whom I ought to know --- I told my wife, "Her and me went to school together" so that she'd have the satisfaction of saying, "She and I went to school together." "No," I said, "You're 15 years younger; you didn't go to school with Liz and me."

The loner with the guitar is the American hero, but I love a member of the orchestra, and try to submerge my individuality into a good marriage. The secret of civility is synchronicity.

The gorillas and whales know that and now I think I do too.


Garrison Keillor is an author and radio personality.