When I was in fifth grade, my school bus driver gave me my first-ever cassette tape: Van Halen’s 1984.
I don’t know what prompted him to do it. Big Ricky* was a heavyset black man who never got mad and always had a smile for even the worst-behaved kids on the bus. Maybe he looked at me, with my sagging white knee socks and plaid skirt, sitting alone on the wide green vinyl seat wide enough for three when the bus was otherwise packed full, my hair in scraggly braids and my nose—like always—in a book, and thought, there’s a girl who needs cheering up today. I really don’t know. But Big Ricky had found this tape on the bus and nobody had claimed it, and he gave it to me.
To be completely honest, I’m not a hundred percent sure that’s actually his name. I checked with my brother, but he doesn’t remember. My mom would know, but she’s gone. So I’m left with this patchwork of memories that I’ve stitched together and which I call true.
What I do remember, clearly, is that I ran inside to play my favorite track right away. It turns out, though, that Van Halen’s “Jump” and the Pointer Sisters’ “Jump” are two very different songs. I was more than a little disappointed. The cassette got shoved in a box somewhere, or maybe I gave it to my brother, who would later listen to bands like Poison and Guns N’ Roses and Def Leppard. If Ricky had asked, though, I would have told him I loved it—not because I liked the music**, but because he’d been so kind.
We talk about acts of kindness like they’re discrete and individual incidents. I guess they are, but over time, the edges get blurred and they start to run together. Was Big Ricky the same bus driver who, when the bus got stuck on Stepney Road in a blizzard, walked through the driving snow to the only house within a mile to ask the retired schoolteacher who lived there to call our parents? Maybe, maybe not. Did that schoolteacher give us hot chocolate while we waited, or am I mixing her up with the old lady who lived up the street in the house with all the doilies and the five Bichon Frises? Was it her teenage grandson that used to keep the other kids from egging our house on Halloween, or was that another neighborhood hooligan who’d taken a shine to my mother? I honestly don’t know, and it doesn’t matter.
In the end, what I have is a tapestry of kindnesses. Unlike my patchwork memories, they aren’t stitched together so much as woven: little things that have accumulated over time strand by strand and have melded together to hang on the wall, a backdrop for my own actions and values.
I’d be willing to bet that wherever he is, Big Ricky doesn’t remember giving me that tape, but it will always be part of my tapestry.
* Not to be confused with Crazy Ricky, who was a young skinny white guy who would pull over at the edge of the woods so the bus kids could go play on a rope swing he knew about and sometimes could be convinced to stop at the penny candy store if the bus was running early.
** I actually came to really love that particular song later.