A Bay Area white kid’s experience from the back of the bus and what he learned along the route

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By Geoffrey McLennan, Special to CalMatters
Many years ago I rode an express bus 35 miles from downtown Oakland to high school in Hayward – a long way to go for school. I was raised in a Catholic family and my parents insisted we attend a Catholic high school. I chose Moreau High School in Hayward because it was brand new and seeking students. I liked the idea of perhaps beginning a legacy. 

My daily bus ride took me through many East Bay neighborhoods in Oakland, San Leandro, San Lorenzo and Hayward. These middle-class communities all had plentiful housing built after World War II.  I sat in the back of the bus because I could study, and I liked the high bench seat over the engine compartment where it was warm and cozy.

Along the 45-minute ride I met many good people, mostly workers going to and from jobs and a few students. But it was the changing ethnicities along the route that made my back-of-the-bus ride notable. Black, Portuguese, Mexican, white, Pacific Islander, Japanese and more made this truly a bus of many colors.  Many spoke in mixed native and English tongues.

On the morning ride, most folks were quiet and used the bus to catch up on small talk and read the newspaper. For me, the best part was around the Hunt’s tomato cannery in Hayward, where the aroma of cooked tomatoes filled the air for miles and made me think of spaghetti and pizza.

The men and women who got on and off the bus at the cannery were mostly people of color. I thought they were cool and greeted them each morning with a smile and a quick glance, then I returned to my studies. I carried my books, paper, pens and slide rule in a dark green briefcase I got by saving Blue Chip Stamps.

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I was so thankful for this man’s courage. And I wondered who was my Black guardian angel? 

After school and tennis practice, I would catch the bus a block south of school. Since my stop was near the end of the line, I always had the back seat to myself. The 31 Express bus traveled back through Hayward, stopped at the cannery, briefly took the freeway, exited in San Lorenzo, then ran along East 14th Street through San Leandro into East Oakland. Back then white folks would warn me, “be careful about East Oakland, lots of crime.” In high school I worried more about grades and getting into a decent college, and to me the folks on the bus were family.

Geoffrey McLennan, retired from state service in 2015, is a mental health advocate and member of the Placer County Mental Health Advisory Board. 

One of the notable stops in East Oakland was in front of the Black Panther headquarters. Led by Huey Newton, the Panthers were famous for “policing the police.” Wearing dark slacks, black leather coats and berets, they took the bus to Black neighborhoods to keep Black folks safe.  Oakland was racially divided in the ’60s, …read more

Source:: The Mercury News – Latest News


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