Good and Evil and Bus Stop Benches
About four years ago, a Seattle woman bought a small granite bench and installed it at a bus stop near her house. “It’s my neighborhood,” she said in response to comments from friends. “Who better to tend it than me?”
The bench sat, and people sat on it: art students, coming and going from their classes; a mother and her kindergartener who huddled under an umbrella on rainy mornings; the occasional homeless person who stopped to rest; a cluster of teenagers piled on top of each other, waiting for a parade.
One morning the bench was covered with bold letters in black and fluorescent pink. Somebody’s spray paint signature. The woman bought some solvent, put on a mask and gloves, and scrubbed it off with a steel brush that left little pink and black shadows. Another time it said “Fuck Jews.” She put on the mask again and scrubbed until only shadows were left. And another time and another. “I bought it,” she said. “Who cares about it more than I do?” One day, the bench lay on the ground, its mortar joints broken. She re-mortared it.
Bus passengers came and went. Some read, some listened to music. Some simply sat and waited. Some left garbage: orange peels, Starbucks cups, paper bags, soda cans. The woman picked them up when she walked past. “I want it to be beautiful and clean here,” she said. “Who can I expect to pick up the garbage if I don’t?”
Recently, it lay in pieces again. This time, a part of the top slab was broken off. The woman cursed and cried, and her children cried because she was crying. She wasn’t quite sure what to do, so the bench parts sat for a week, the legs and broken slab stacked by the sidewalk. Young people with iPods sat on the stack and waited for buses.
Finally the woman recruited neighbors who helped her load it into her beater station wagon. She drove it to a mason who said he could cut off the broken part and make the bench shorter. He did, beautifully, apologizing that he couldn’t get off the shadows. He reinstalled the short bench, drilling rebar into the legs and the cement on which the bench rested. “There,” he said. “Now it won’t go anywhere.” That afternoon people began sitting on it again.
Five days later, the slab was off of the legs again, tested by vandals who found that the joint adhesive hadn’t adhered properly. The woman sighed and pushed on the legs. They weren’t going anywhere. She bent and ran her fingers across the shadow of graffiti tracery that made a soft, multi-colored patina on the slab, which lay on the ground beside the legs. Then she walked home and fetched her husband to help her set it back in place with another round of mortar.
Goodness is often painstaking. “He who would do good must do so in minute particulars,” said one of the Medieval Church fathers. Evil—destruction–is easy. It is fast and frequently dramatic. It is bold and sure of itself. But goodness is tenacious. It grows out of the humble, persistent efforts of individuals (often unseen and unsung) who are determined to bring beauty and caretaking to the people that they touch and the communities in which they live.