My Get On The Bus Story
This is an essay I wrote about the first family I encountered through the Get On The Bus program (pictured on the site) and melded with my own Get On The Bus story. Note, names have been changed to protect people’s identities….
With MapQuest directions, a tote bag full of paperwork, and an unsteady stomach, I ventured off to a place foreign to me. . . South Central Los Angeles, an area known for gangs, drugs and broken dreams. From the perspective of this small-town suburban Pennsylvania native, this place seemed to lack in value.
As I pulled off the exit, I immediately realized that I was unwelcome. My presence seemed to draw the interest of a few local street loiterers as one nodded my way and said, “White chick don’t know where she be.” As I navigated through the streets clutching my will tensely, a drug bust unraveled before my eyes. Further disillusioned, I realized the man’s nonchalant comment was absolutely true. I had no idea where I was and started to doubt why I had agreed to come here.
I identified my final destination, and luckily found a parking spot in front. My mission was to meet with a family on behalf of Get on the Bus. I was in charge of filling out required paperwork for the prison so that families could be approved for the upcoming visit. Upon arrival, I quickly gathered my bag and made a dash for the apartment complex. Apprehensively, I searched for the doorbell while my mind began to wander to four years earlier. . .
It was a sticky summer morning in Pittsburgh and I was preparing to leave for my summer internship. As I rushed down the steps of my parents’ home, I heard a doorbell. I peered through the window of the front door and saw two men dressed in dark suits. I had no clue who they were, but their presence seemed unsettling.
I opened the door and the morning light flashed across a badge adorned with three engraved, recognizable letters–F.B.I. “Tom Clark* and Victor Levy*, F.B.I,” they stated, “we are looking for Joseph Costanzo, Jr.” I politely told them that he was not at home. They informed me that they needed to speak with him and know his whereabouts immediately. I took an uneasy breath and explained to the men that he was at our family restaurant. The men gave me an empty “Thank you,” and disappeared.
Back in Los Angeles, Ms. Alice Turner* appeared at the door. She greeted me and led me into her apartment. The dwelling was small and unkempt. After falling into conversation, I learned that she shared the one bedroom apartment with three of her grandchildren, all belonging to her incarcerated daughter Vanessa. Her deep-set, dark eyes looked drained and overwhelmed. I knew that in a couple of minutes we would have to start the paperwork and the questioning, but not yet. As we sat and made small talk, she seemed relieved to take a break from her reality, and I was happy to mask mine…
Immediately after the two men left the house, I ran to the phone and called my father. I explained to him exactly what happened and that I was concerned. He reassured me with gentle words. He promised to call me as soon as they left. I sat in vigil by the phone for three hours . . . nothing. I frantically speculated about what they were asking him.
As I pulled out the paperwork, the room fell silent. Moments later, the bustle of the children barging into the house filled the empty air. Alice introduced everyone: Sam*, 19, was the oldest. He was a husky boy who seemed withdrawn. Tom*, 5, was a ball of energy. With inexhaustible enthusiasm, he launched into a discussion about kindergarten, Spongebob, G.I. Joe, and his love of cookies. Angel*, 3, was the youngest. With a child’s innocence, she bonded with me by crawling into my lap. I soon felt right at home. My moment was cut short, however, by the inevitable questioning I knew I had to begin. Clearing my throat, I remembered how it felt to be on the other side of the table…
After being held in suspense, I finally heard from my father. He said the questions revolved around a federal grand jury investigation in which his name was mentioned. The F.B.I. suspected he was doing something illegal, and they planned to criminally prosecute him. After a four-year investigation filled with questions for my father and family, that’s exactly what happened.
When he went to prison, I remember being jealous of him because at least he was able to escape the stigma of his sentence. I couldn’t; I was labeled as child of the incarcerated. This humiliating label made me the focus of small town gossip, shameful whispers, and looks of disappointment. My father’s incarceration stripped me of my former identity and replaced it with my new self-image drenched in fear and isolation.
As I glanced down at the paperwork, I drifted back to reality. I started with the usual questions: name, telephone number and address. Alice was shooting out answers faster than I could write. When I asked whether she or any of her grandchildren had been convicted of a felony crime, the once verbose Alice turned silent. Quietly, she nodded and answered, “Yes.” We both knew what that meant: she would not be able to visit her daughter. I reached out and gave her a hug. Holding back the tears, she laughed and said, “You are very different from those other prison worker folks.” She had no idea.
On the day of the visit, I arranged to have the children ride the bus with me. After a four-hour visit with their mother Vanessa*, the children were worn out from eating hotdogs, playing tag, and braiding their mother’s hair. On the ride back, I had the pleasure of sitting with Angel. Right before she nodded off to sleep, I saw a tear in her eye. As I wiped the tear, my own eyes began to well with emotion. Angel reached over and wiped my tear and it dawned on me that we were not so different from each other. I learned a powerful lesson that day on the bus when Angel said, “Don’t cry Maria, I am here.” For the first time in a long time, I let all the hurtful accusations melt away.
Even though Angel and I parted soon after, her compassionate act will always remain with me. The moment that we shared further solidified my desire to go into this field. She and other children are my motivation for working toward justice for all. As Emerson once said, “Life becomes broken, but some become stronger in the jagged edges.”