I was looking through some emails today and came across the very first "thick description" I wrote for an anthropology class when I was but a wee undergraduate at the U of A. For those who don't know, what we call thick description in anthropological writing is the act/process of being somewhere and simply taking it all in. So if you're somewhere doing research, it is important to recognize both who and what is around you - from the ground you're walking on, to the seat you're sitting in, to the clothes and shoes on (or off) the people around you, to the noises, and the smells, and the sensual world that envelops you. This anthropologist named Clifford Geertz (and others, too) said that this sort of "thick" description is important, because the social world can be thought of as a web of significance. Even something that seems unimportant may be the thing that makes the whole world tick. The assignment was to go somewhere and observe, with an anthropologist's eye, what was happening around us. I remember being really proud of this little piece of writing, even though this was before I understood that thick description wasn't supposed to include my personal opinions or assumptions. It still makes me happy, because I can remember sitting on the bus to the county jail (where I decided to do the assignment) and thinking, "If this is anthropology, I'm in."
Maybe I should not have done this. Maybe I shouldn’t have put on perfume, or worn this shirt. But I am here, so I might as well write. It’s running late, and a group grows larger around the designated stop for bus 23, destination Laos center. I will not ride this bus to its terminus; instead I will take it to a stop called “Silverlake/County Jail.”
At 11:53, 8 minutes later than scheduled, the bus comes. Getting off are people that look tired, maybe, or distraught. Or maybe they just look like they didn’t want to ride the bus this particular Saturday, and had to. I stand in a line of twenty or so people. Two men motion for me to go ahead of them. Both of these men are wearing Vietnam veteran caps. I nod, and take my place, waiting to board.
I choose to sit in the raised portion of the bus towards the back. These seats are not padded, and face towards each other. The reason escapes me as to why this portion is raised, but for all intents and purposes, it fits my needs. Four seats away from me, as well as directly across from me, two mothers hold infants close to them. The women are dressed in lace tops and tight jeans, and have no carriers or diaper bags. One has a bag full of magazines and soap from Walgreens. The infants are both asleep.
The seats are hard, and grey. As I look down at the lowered portion of the bus, I see another woman holding a Snapple bottle, with her eyes closed. She is wearing pink high heels and large, gold earrings. I imagine her earlobes will be sore later. The two Vietnam vets are gripping the poles of the bus, and when we leave the station and move quickly away from downtown Tucson, one of them holds his head and rocks slightly. Perhaps he is about to trigger. I rehearse my counseling bit in my head. I know I have jumped to conclusions, when rather suddenly, he pulls out a picture from a brown, faded leather wallet and shows it to a stranger. It is too far away to hear what they are saying. The photo is passed around to another man, then the woman with the pink heels and Snapple bottle. I wished I were down in the lowered portion of the bus so I could hear who this photographed child was. At the next stop, a woman and her school aged daughter board. This child runs to the veteran and kisses him, and sits on his lap. I believe it is the child in the picture. They were - the veteran, his daughter and his granddaughter - eventually to get out of bus at the jail. A Saturday family outing.
The scenery changes to a bilingual one. Just less than ten minutes have elapsed from downtown Tucson, and mesquite trees have given way to taquerias and vacant lots. There are mesquite trees here, too, I suppose, but they look different when their branches are intertwined with plastic bags blown up from the wind. A man and his two sons board the bus, talking car-talk. The man sits down in the seat beside me, blocking the view of one of the mothers with the sleeping child. The man points out car after car in the used lots we pass. The son asks what kind they are, and the father responds, listing obscure details of the model, the engine type, and the price of the transmission. How fast it goes, this type of thing. The children are far apart in age, it seems, with the elder son being sometime in high school, and the younger one being no older than 10. They stop talking when one of the infants on the bus begins to cry. Then the man looks over at me and says, “prison two days in a row, I guess its gotta be a bad week for me.” I’m not sure what to say, so I just say, “wow.” We passed a car lot that has signs in Spanish, some of which are translated to English. One of those translations reads ‘Got a Job? Get a Car HERE!’ The older son sees this, and asks his dad, “Dad, could you try and get a car there? Over there, dad?” The father doesn’t here his son’s quiet voice over the din of the bus engine.
I ask the father if the stop is coming up soon. It’s been about twenty minutes. He nods and asks whom I’m visiting. I feel foolish and voyeuristic and I say a friend. He smiles and puts his arm behind my seat, which I noticed earlier was riddled with stale pink gum. “I don’t bite,” he said, and I reassured him I wasn’t thinking that. In fact, I felt it was a gesture of mutual experience, or understanding. Both mothers and infants, along with now about 30 other people, are slowly standing. I follow suit, and when the bus stops, every single person exits. Not one remains. The photographed child holds her mother’s hand while they wait for the veteran grandfather to slowly descend the steps. I climb down to the high curb, and the car-knowledgeable father looks towards me, expecting me to walk with them. “You better hurry, its busy on Saturdays,” he says. I tell him I need to smoke a cigarette before I go in. I am a liar.
I cross the street, and wait for the northbound bus to come. Already, a woman is crying at the bus stop. I sit next to another Vietnam veteran. If public transportation is a microcosm of any given society, I have sorely misread my own. I ask him where he’s headed, and he says back home. He just visited a friend who got busted for violating his parole. We talk about how he got caught under an army tank for two and half days after being shot in the stomach twice in a place called ‘rock city’ in Vietnam. He told me how, when the hospital plane landed in the USA, students threw eggs and lettuce at him and told him to go back to Vietnam, you baby killer. He is in a wheel chair, one leg amputated and the other atrophied from disuse. His chest is barrel shaped and his breathing is heavy. He says the VA treats him well.
I sit in front of the weeping woman on the way home. The seats face in a different direction on this bus, forward, and more secluded. I wonder if Suntran does this on purpose, so people leaving jail would have more privacy. I doubt it. I wonder if the crying woman is thankful she does not have to face anyone during this. A man next to me is carrying a bag full of rolled white socks. I ask him what they are for, and he says they are for his brother. They didn’t let him take them to him, but they let him keep them. That doesn’t always happen, I guess.
This bus ride is more somber. Less crowded. There is much less anticipatory camaraderie. No pictures being passed around this time. The route is exactly the same as it was on the way to the jail. I sit close to the Veteran and I listen to his labored breath. His wheelchair allows him to recline, and he does so and closes his eyes. I wonder what the bus is like at 3 pm, when visitation hours end. The shocks on this bus are better than the first. The engine noise is always the same – loud. Loud enough to block out, for example, someone quietly crying.
When I get off the bus again downtown, a man is standing with his daughter, holding a pink foam crown that says happy birthday. The little girl is wearing a pink dress to match. I wonder if they will let him take the hat in to the visitation room. It seems to be for the little girl, so I hope they do.
-- September, 2007