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Christmas on the M5 Bus in Manhattan

by Rami G. KhouriReleased: 22 Dec 2010

NEW YORK -- During this Christmas season which finds me in New York City for ten days, I experienced one of those special moments that offer fleeting insights into life’s meaningful dimensions. Like most good things that happen to me, this also occurred on a city bus -- one of the world’s truly magnificent bus routes, in fact, the M5 that goes up and down 5th and 6th Avenues and Riverside Drive in New York City. This bus route spans virtually the entire island of Manhattan. It passes through areas of wealth, middle class life and relative poverty, from Fifth Avenue to Houston Street to West 179th Street in the Washington Heights area, slicing through residential and business districts, touching the edges of great universities and towering skyscrapers as it also skirts the East River at one point and hugs Central Park at another -- making you feel you are on an ocean-liner at one moment, and in the wild forest at another.

The M5 is a magnificent urban bus route at any time of year, but at Christmas time it is truly magical mainly because of the Christmas decorations and music that light up many of the city’s shops, buildings, trees and public areas. The Fifth Avenue section of the M5’s route is especially beautiful at this time, particularly around the Rockefeller Center area around 50th Street, where bus passengers can catch a glimpse of the massive Christmas tree surrounded by several stages on which live entertainers enchant residents and visitors alike. It is freezing cold in New York this week, but in this landscape there is only warmth these days – strangers who are kind and polite to one another, friends who meet and hug, volunteers who stand in the cold for hours to collect donations for the Salvation Army and other charities, and shoppers who answer the call of the bell and give money. Perhaps they know in their heart that our ultimate wellbeing and survival depend on our commitment to showing compassion, and translating that into a spirit of giving and solidarity, powered by the kindness in our hearts.

Two other things heightened the joys and lessons of that particular ride. As I listened to songs I had purchased for my iPod, I was suddenly captivated and uplifted by Bruce Springsteen’s strong rendering of Bob Dylan’s 1964 classic song, “Chimes of Freedom” -- recalling the condition, needs and hopes of the poor and outcasts, reluctant soldiers, refugees cast out into the night, the luckless, abandoned and forsaken, the mistreated, mateless mother, misnamed prostitute, the searching ones, the unharmful gentle souls misplaced inside a jail, the aching whose wounds cannot be nursed, and the countless confused, accused, misused, abused and strung-out ones and worse, as Dylan called those whose rights he championed.

How typical of the best of American life and values, I recalled, that leading cultural icons like Dylan and Springsteen would bookend the last two generations with powerful songs about human rights. The song in the midst of the Christmas scenes of generosity and compassion in New York warmed me from the inside, just like the bus heaters warmed me from the outside.

As the bus was slowly working its way down the west side of Manhattan on Riverside Drive and approaching Fifth Avenue, it stopped for longer than usual to take on passengers. The driver left his seat and took a few steps towards the first few passengers near the front, asking them to move back a few rows, which they did. He then folded their vacated seats into the side of the bus, creating a space that puzzled me for a moment. Then he pushed a button on his dashboard that lowered a ramp from the front door to the sidewalk, and within minutes a middle-aged lady pushed a wheelchair onto the bus that had an older person huddled in it and all wrapped up in warm clothing. The bus driver helped her position the wheelchair in the space he had created, strapped the wheelchair and its occupant in place with a seatbelt, then returned to his driver’s seat and continued our journey into mid-town Manhattan. The procedure was repeated in reverse about fifteen minutes later when the person in the wheelchair and the lady companion went down the ramp and joined the crowds of mostly joyous people.

It was warm and cozy on that bus, and maybe just a little more so than usual, as I pondered Bob Dylan’s cry for the rights of those in society who are most vulnerable and in need, and felt good that at least on the M5 bus in Manhattan people make an effort to provide for those who have special needs.

So, Merry Christmas to all. May the blessings of the season warm us, whoever and wherever we may be.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.

Copyright © 2010 Rami G. Khouri -- distributed by Agence Global

Released: 22 December 2010
Word Count: 800

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