From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

The Lady at the Bus Stop

I was shackled by a heavy burden, beneath a load of guilt and shame. And then the hand of my mother, my godmother, my grandmother, my sister, my sister-friend . . . touched me, and now I am no longer the same.

Monya Aletha Stubbs

Hot and humid was normal for Houston, Texas, in the fall. I was seventeen years old, and one of a handful of black students who attended a formerly all-white college.

On that day, in 1967, I was standing at a bus stop downtown at the interchange. At this transfer point, near the Kress’s store where a bag of Spanish peanuts cost a quarter, domestic workers changed busses from the “other side of town,” where their maid jobs were, to the side of town where they lived in strictly segregated communities.

Dressed in uniforms of white or black and comfortable shoes, these ladies met here twice daily. Their conversations were intimate—quiet and loud, by turn. Talk of hurting bunions, the meanest “Ms. Ann” or the most spoiled white children were punctuated with “Amen” and “Yeah, girl.” Most were middle-aged, but some were elderly— their fingers gnarled with arthritis, and a few were not much older than I was. Each carried a package or a shopping bag that no doubt held leftover food or a child’s discarded dress or toy.

With my huge Afro, clunky shoes and bell-bottomed pants, I was obviously an outsider, but a lady standing near me struck up a conversation anyway.

“What yo’ name, honey?”


“Where you from? You from ’round here?”

“No ma’am,” I said, adding the title Mama and Grama had taught me to use when addressing my elders.

“Well, what you doing here, baby?”

“I’m a student at the college.”

“College? You go to college? I’m so proud of you.” And indeed a look of pride settled on her face.

“Yes, ma’am. But this is just my first year,” I said self-consciously. Since I was the third generation in my family to attend college, I didn’t feel that being only a freshman deserved her pride.

“That’s alright, baby,” she said, disregarding my reticence. “You got to finish that college. For us. I’mo hep you.”

Help me? How could she help me? And who was “us”?

But when I met her eyes, I saw them. They were women of every hue, from blue-black to high yellow. I saw the women who had fervently prayed, to a black god or a white Jesus, for the end of slavery. I saw the women who had killed their children rather than allow them to live as slaves. I saw the women who had died, with their hands tied at the whipping post, because they had learned to read a few words. I saw the women who had given birth to their masters’ children only to see them sold as chattel. And I saw the women who, with heads held high, had stared Jim Crow in the eye. All of these women, who knew education was the key to unlocking the chains that bound them, were in her eyes. They stared back at me—asking me how I could take such a gift for granted.

The lady reached into her high pocket, and pulled from her full bosom a handkerchief tied with the knot that only grandmas and church mothers know. Deliberately and painstakingly, she untied the knot, dug out a crumpled dollar bill and pressed it into my hand.

Although I’d seen my own grandmother untie such a knot to give me a coin or a bill to put in the collection plate in Sunday school, I was embarrassed to receive this gift from a stranger.

“Thank you, ma’am, but I don’t really need money. My parents saved up to send me to college. And I have a part-time job in an office.” I knew she worked much harder for a dollar bill than I ever had, so I tried to give it back to her. But she folded my fingers over it, and patted my hand.

“I’m just doing my part, Sugar. This is all I can afford. I want you to keep it. And you remember me.” Then her bus came, and she was gone.

I will always remember her. I cannot count the times I have regretted not getting her name and address, and that I didn’t save her crumpled dollar bill.

At my graduation ceremony four years later, I was surrounded by friends and family who appreciated the milestone— but who had fully expected that I would graduate from college. I wished the lady at the bus stop was there. In a strange way, I think it would have meant more to her than it did to them.

Ten years later, I graduated from the University of Texas Law School. In the huge and ornate hall where the Sunflower Ceremony was held, again friends and family surrounded me. But my thoughts focused on the lady at the bus stop. A few months later, I opened an envelope, which held confirmation that I had passed the Bar exam. I smiled. The lady at the bus stop would really be proud.

On a cold January day several years later, I was sworn in as a judge. I am so grateful my father, who scrimped and saved for my education, and who died the next November, was able to attend the swearing-in ceremony. I am so grateful that my uncle, who had tied perfect bows in my sashes when I was a little girl, and who never had a little girl of his own, came too—against the advice of his heart doctor. One of my girlfriends took off work and drove two hundred miles to be with me. Even surrounded by friends and family, I wished that the lady at the bus stop could have been there. I know that she—and those women I saw in her eyes—would have been proud.

I have been a lawyer for over twenty years now and I have written three best-selling novels. At every milestone in my life, I have remembered the lady at the bus stop. I wish that she could know that I have tried to earn that crumpled dollar bill she worked so hard for and the pride on her face that hot and humid day. I wish she could know how I strive to emulate her by taking every opportunity to be the lady at the bus stop for another generation of descendants of slaves. I pray that forty years from now, another woman will remember me, and remember seeing the lady at the bus stop—and all those other women—in my eyes.

Evelyn Palfrey

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