There are moments of introspection and then, there are moments of brilliance. For writers, staring at an empty page, whether on paper or the computer screen is the hardest part. Writing is easy, they say, but all writers know that this is not true. Writing is work. All good writing begins with a main idea that is successfully carried to its logical end.
Personally, I have had numerous “Aha!” moments when writing, but the best have always come when I have looked to my own personal experience. Having lived through the fall of the Berlin Wall, Israel’s war with Lebanon in 2006, and the revolution in Thailand in 2010, I found even harder circumstances in Los Angeles in 2008, and a piece of writing that was not mine saved my life.
In 2008, I held a fellowship at the Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive at the University of Southern California. One night, I missed the last university shuttle bus back to L.A.’s Union Station, where I could catch the Metro Rail back to my apartment in Pasadena. Instead of springing for a taxi, I decided to take the city bus. Everything, although time consuming, was going according to plan.
After switching buses three times, I ended up on the correct bus line headed towards Union Station at around 10:30 p.m.
The problem: The bus stop for Union Station is not called “Union Station,” so I went sailing along on past my stop and ended up at the El Monte Bus Station, passing through some of L.A.’s meanest streets and toughest neighborhoods. When I arrived at El Monte, I was greeted by an array of characters: a few homeless, a number of former gang members wearing L.A. Kings gear (and using canes because of injuries suffered during their service), and a well-dressed young man who had gang tattoos on both sides of his neck. In my hand, I held a mechanical pencil and under my arm was the draft version of an M.A. student’s thesis, which would prove to be my guardian angel.
The young man with the gang tattoos struck up a conversation with me. He said “How come you’re takin’ the bus? You don’t look like the kind of guy who needs to take the bus.”
“I like to take the bus,” I replied.
“I sure wish I had a car instead of havin’ to take the bus,” he said.
My response: “Cars are overrated.”
“But I sure wish I had a car,” he continued, dreaming of the day when he would no longer have to take the bus.
All of a sudden, he said, “Hey, what’s that you’re holding under your arm?”
“It’s a Master’s thesis,” I said.
“Yours?” he asked.
“No, a student’s,” I said.
“So you’re a professor?”
“Hey guys, look, the professor’s taking the bus!”
Oh brother, I thought, but all of a sudden, I had “street cred,” the credibility that comes not only from an education but also by being “normal” enough to still take the bus. Pretty soon, I had the homeless lining up to ask me whether they should go to the emergency room to have their ailments treated. The former gang members began telling me their life stories and asking me what sort of jobs I thought they could get with their educations.
It was an eye-opening revelation about the power an M.A. thesis has to start a conversation and the allure that an education has to those at the very lowest rungs of the social ladder. There is a saying that the best life insurance policy is a good education. That night in L.A., this was certainly true for me, but the conversation that rescued me would never have occurred without the piece of student writing that I carried under my arm.
For the next couple of months we will exchange ideas and blog posts with Metropole. This guest post is by Gregory Weeks
Dr. Gregory Weeks is the Founder of HSI, The Human Security Initiative in Vienna, Austria. The Human Security Initiative is an academic platform for research and publication on the concept of Human Security. It touches on the main aspects of Human Security with articles published by students and scholars of International Relations.
Photo credits: Cover image by Unsplash