It seems that many Americans tune right out when they see another story about health care these days, so I’m not going to make this a story about health care. Instead, I’m going tell you a tale about a dream and two buses. I hope it delivers the point I feel compelled to make.
It’s like I’m trapped in a dream, a dream so vivid and real I find myself questioning if I’m awake or asleep. It starts with me finding myself crammed in a crowded bus terminal with scores of other Americans waiting for a bus, any bus, to arrive at last. We’ve been huddled together for the last fifty years, watching one bus after another just pass the terminal right on by, but now, finally, after the eternal wait, two buses pull in together, but neither is marked.
Desperate to leave the station, I spring to my feet to go ask the bus drivers what their destinations are. I’m filled with hope that this miserable way station will soon be behind me once and for all.
So I approach the first bus. It’s old, dusty and dented and has obviously seen a lot of hard miles.
I climb on and pose my question to the driver, “What’s your destination?” The driver sets his beaten cap back on his head and says, “This bus is on the road to a new beginning. You should know before deciding on which bus to take that on this bus there are going to be many stops along the way, there will be bumps and potholes, curves and traffic. This bus is always crowded, we’ve got nurses and mechanics, teachers and plumbers. We’ve got hard working couples and single parents, we’ve got seniors and students, and a whole bunch in between, all of them doing what they can to make ends meet. Since there are so many that need to ride this bus, the fare will be what you can afford and no one will be turned away. I should also tell you that we will be stopping for anyone broken down on the side of the road and offer them assistance or even a lift. If we happen to break down along the way ourselves, we’ve got all the tools with us we could possibly need to fix any problem that arises, but we will be asking everyone on board to work together to get us back on the road and you may have to get your hands dirty. Our destination is the journey itself – we’re going that way my friend.” He points his calloused finger through the grit covered windshield and adds with a smile, “forward.” Not knowing what to think, I thank him and climb off for the other bus.
This bus is different, this bus is shiny and clean. This bus looks sleek and fast. This bus not only has a driver, but a tour guide with a microphone sitting right behind him. This bus has air conditioning and little plasma TVs on the back of every wide, comfortable seat. This bus is really, really nice.
So I pose the same question to the driver, “What’s your destination?” This driver doesn’t answer the question, he just shrugs and points over his shoulder to the tour guide holding the microphone and says, “don’t ask me, I’m just the driver, the guy with the mic tells me where to go.”
Mr. Microphone takes his cue and starts his well polished pitch, “Welcome friend, you’ve come to the right bus. I heard you ask where this bus goes, well, that’s the beauty of it, this is an express-liner that is going exactly where we know you want it to go. There will be no stops along the way, no delays, no traffic and you will feel like you are driving on air. We mainly cater to captains of industry, CEOs and leaders of business, so there is plenty of elbow room and we have spared no tax dollar to guarantee a comfortable and enjoyable ride for our select clientele. Our fare is simple and affordable, only one crisp, new, three dollar bill. If you don’t happen to have one, have no fear, we will gladly sell you one for five dollars. Should we experience any unexpected trouble on our journey, you will be comforted to know help is just a cell call away, I have the best cell phone money can buy right here. We will have a highly skilled team on the spot in no time and be right on our way. If you want to arrive in style, this is really the only choice.”
That’s all I needed to hear. After 50 years in a crowded room with stale air, only one word popped in my head and just as quickly escaped from my lips, “Sold!” I reached into my pocket and found four singles and enough change to make five because I certainly didn’t have a three dollar bill. It’s all I had left, but this was going to be well worth it. It was a meager price to pay for such comfort and luxury.
As I made my way to my window seat, I was pleased that no one had sat down next to me when I heard the hiss of the doors closing. I looked around and counted six other people, well dressed professional types, all sitting relaxed and in comfort. From my seat I had a view of the other bus and had spent the last few minutes mesmerized by the chaos. So many people were trying to squeeze in, there were kids running around, and they had a devil of a time trying to get an older gentleman in a wheelchair up and onto the bus. But the driver I spoke to was on the case and had a few husky men from the bus get out and help lift him in.
Their bus got on the road before ours. We were still getting a speech from Mr. Microphone detailing all the frills available to us, champagne, sparkling water, roasted duck, filet mignon, and 4 spacious bathrooms for the seven of us. Our seats could fold open into beds and there was even a Swedish masseuse available at no charge. Ahh, this was the life.
I was so comfortable and relaxed, I must have dozed off, but I was awakened by Mr. Microphone and felt the bus starting to slow down. “If you were wondering if you made the right choice choosing our line, let me draw your attention to the roadside just up ahead.”
There was the other bus, broken down on the side of the road. They had blown a tire and caused some damage to the underside. We had slowed to a crawl so everyone was sure to have a good look at what they were missing. I noticed a few passengers getting the spare, another working the jack and the mechanic I had met at the terminal sliding under to see what he could do. The teacher was leading the children in a game to occupy them and the nurse was caring for the elderly gentleman in the wheelchair that seemed to be having difficulty in the desert heat.
“Shouldn’t we stop to help?”, I asked.
Mr. Microphone took on an arrogant tone and said,”This is an express, remember? We don’t stop for anything or anyone. They made their choice and picked that bus, and now they are just going to have to live with it. I consider it a lesson well learned for the next time they face the choice.”
I felt dirty and cheap, but there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t go back to sleep after that. I just found myself thinking about those people stuck in the hot sun and I started connecting some dots about what Mr. Microphone had said earlier. I hadn’t spent one second applying any kind of thought when he was originally making his pitch to me about this wonderful bus, I was too blinded by all the bells and whistles, and I was too eager to get the hell out of that terminal at along last. I began to feel genuine fear wash over me. How do they know where I want to go without ever asking? How could the seven of us be trying to get to the same place if we are from such obviously different stations in life?
Just then came a loud bang, quickly followed by the familiar rat-tat-tat of a blown tire. Our bus veered out of control and went off the road, nose first into a ditch and came to a jarring halt. Everyone seemed to be physically OK, but very angry none the less. These passengers were not used to inconvenience and it showed.
“Don’t worry people, we’ll be out of this in no time, I’m just going to make a call,” bellowed Mr. Microphone with his amplified voice. He dialed and held the phone to his ear. A frustrated look flashed on his face and he hung up and tapped the keys again, only to have the same look on his face with a tinge of panic creeping in this time. He held the phone higher, nothing. He went outside and tried again, same routine and the same look, anger added this time.
When Mr. Microphone re boarded the bus, he tried to put on the calmest look he could, “I don’t seem to be able to get a signal out here in the middle of the desert.” This was bad – this was really bad, and we all knew it.
After a few tumultuous hours, panic and anger had a solid grip on all of us. There was not enough food or water for this delay. There was no help in sight and all other emotions were quickly turning to rage. My fellow passengers, new to calamity and desperation, were coming apart at the seams.
Just when all hope was almost extinguished, there was a faint sound getting louder. The steady, rhythmic beat of an old engine was heading our way. It was the other bus and they were coming to a stop right behind us. The driver stepped out and came tapping on the glass doors. “You seem to be in quite a pickle, what can we do to help?”
“Do you have a cell phone I could use to call for some help?”, Mr. Microphone asked, somewhat humbled by what he had been through for the better part of a miserable day.
“Don’t carry one, everyone knows there is not a reliable signal out here,” chuckled the driver, “we’ve picked up quite a few troubled souls stuck out here in the desert already, so I don’t have enough room for all of you, but let me see what I can do to help.”
With that he disappeared back to his bus. I could barely hear him trying to get his passengers to settle down so he could explain the situation. After a few minutes that were inaudible to me, the doors to his bus swung open again and he stepped off onto the parched earth below. But this time he was not alone. One by one, every able-bodied passenger on board filed out behind him, and there were a lot of them.
The mechanic had a look and determined that the stranded bus could still drive if they changed the tire and got it out of the ditch. The other bus driver started forming groups and telling them what to do. As the mob circled us, you could sense nervousness from the pampered elite that I had shared my journey with so far, but not one uttered even a single peep of protest. The way the bus was perched in the ditch, the mechanic didn’t even need a jack to change the tire and did so in a flash. Then I heard the bus driver in a loud baritone voice, “One…two…three…LIFT !” It felt like the earth started moving. One back breaking inch by back breaking inch, the bus leveled out and when he finally called for everyone to drop it, you could tell we were back on even ground.
The driver came back to the door dripping with sweat and said, “There you are, all ready to go, enjoy your trip folks, make it a safe one.” With that he waved his hand and called for his passengers to get back on their bus.
When Mr. Microphone said, “See folks, nothing to worry about, I told you I would get us out of here,” I almost threw up, what arrogance, what gall. I knew I had to get off this bus, I knew I didn’t belong here. So, I snatched up my things and bolted for the door, not even saying goodbye.
I ran to the bus behind us and pounded on the door, just as the the driver started it up. “I want to ride with you, can you take me with you?” He cracked the door and said smiling, “I think we can make room for one more, how much of a fare can you afford to pay?” An electric shock pummeled my system when I heard those words, I had given everything I had left in my pocket for the other ride. “I gave the other driver everything I had left,” I said with a quivering voice.
“I told you back at the station, no one will ever be turned away, climb on and find a seat.” the driver said with a knowing nod.
With that I started a new journey. Maybe it wasn’t going to be a journey of comfort and convenience, but I did have peace of mind and I knew that on this bus I would never have the sick feeling in my stomach as we drove by troubled souls without bothering ourselves to stop and assist. I also knew that I would never find myself stuck in a desert all alone with no one there to hear a cry for help. Everything we could possibly need to make the journey forward is already on our bus and if we work together, there is no problem we will not be able to fix along the way.
I’m awake now, and I hope you are too, because today is not a dream. Those two buses are arriving at the station right now.
So keep this in the front of your mind. It’s not about the divisive rhetoric you’ll hear spewed from a microphone, or the zeal and practiced polish with which it is repetitively delivered, it’s about knowing which driver is content to leave you stranded in the desert and which one won’t be. It’s about choosing substance over flash and style. It’s about realizing that it’s the crowded bus filled with fellow Americans from all walks of life that will always allow us to overcome any and all adversity we may face on the twisting, bumpy road that stretches ever forward to the glowing horizon we all instinctively seek. It’s about which driver will incompetently trust your fate to a missing signal in the desert, and which one will have you trust in each other instead.
I hope this will help you choose wisely … but if you don’t, make sure you have a three dollar bill handy, or the ride to nowhere is going to cost you almost double the advertised price.
And yes, I lied. I guess this story is about health care after all. Fifty years of waiting is long enough.