January 16, 2021

I Am Hoi Polloi

Here’s the Monday routine now.

I wake up a little after 2 a.m. I stumble to the bathroom where a hot shower washes some of the numbness away. Returning to the bedroom, I dress in the dark, then lean over and kiss my slumbering wife goodbye.

Down the stairs to the kitchen I go, making sure I have all my books, my computer, my tickets, and various other items I might need. It’s dark and still when I go out the back door onto the deck and down the steps to the car. Wallet? Check. Tickets? Check. Fanny pack? Check.

I drive through MacDonalds and get a Diet Coke, then swing toward the strangely deserted highway. Normally, my trip toward Indianapolis would be a tense dance in a crowded room, as I along with other cars and trucks jockey for position on the interstate. At this time of day, however, my car is one of only a few. I arrive downtown almost before I know it and pull into the empty all-day parking lot. I put my bills in an envelope, mark my information on it, tear off the receipt and put it on the dashboard, and drop my fee in the pay box. I remind myself to stay aware of my surroundings. Empty downtown parking lots in the wee hours are not my native territory.

Gathering my things, I walk the block to the bus station. A few men are sitting in the all-night White Castle. I’m thinking they are probably cabbies. I see other drivers standing on the street corners and a few more sitting in their cars conversing. Waiting time. Entering the bus station, I step across the form of a man sleeping just inside the door, taking shelter from the cold. A few people, awake, are working on their computers or talking on their phones. Most are just sitting on benches, glassy-eyed, wrapped in coats or blankets, like creatures from the netherworld. I’m sure I look the same.

A TV blares. A baby cries. I can hear the muffled sound of rap music in the headphones of the fellow next to me. Together, we wait.

Once in my seat, I read for a few moments while the bus driver loads the luggage and the lights are on inside the coach. I feel a little wired. Soon we pull out, the lights go down, and most riders try to find a comfortable position in which to snatch a few winks.

This is impossible for me. I twist and contort and fidget and sigh and curse under my breath. Head against the window. Head back against the seat. Seat back. Seat up. Feet on the footrests, then sprawled under the seat in front of me. Head on my backpack, then against the window once more. Roll up my hoodie again, put a book under my arm to protect it from the metal grooves on the window sill.  Give up. Turn the reading light on, read a few pages. Pull out the laptop and test the wi-fi. Check my mail. Check the blog. Who can do anything on this bumpy road? Put it away and start all over again. Fidget. Fidget. Fidget.

For about an hour this goes on. Then we make our first stop in Lafayette. By this time the adrenalin has been used up and I’m feeling sleepy. I find a position I can live with (and no more) and get maybe a half hour of fitful sleep. Then we play the fidget game again for a few more hours until we enter Chicago, where golden morning dawns upon the skyline.

Some of us disembark at the southernmost end of the Red Line train. I swipe my card and trot down the steps to the breezy platform. It’s filled with kids going to school and workers going to work. Stepping on the train, I find I am usually the only white Caucasian in my car. I am the suburb-dweller, the out-of-towner and occasional visitor who has intruded upon a world that is, for most of these folks, everyday life. I am the other, the stranger here. Nevertheless, deep down I feel at home, in my element. Safe among my own. One of the crowd.

On one of those morning train rides, I heard the voice of a black preacher farther down in our car. He called his captive audience to attention, gave his testimony, and then held a revival service. He focused his attention on the young black men around him, exhorting them to be responsible when it came to their sexual activities. I don’t think too many of us were thinking about sex at that moment, but you never know. Mostly, we all stood or sat shoulder to shoulder, enduring the ride and looking at the ground and waiting to hear our stop called. Nothing sexy about that.

We arrive. Moving out onto the platform, I follow the crowd up the stairs and across the street to await the local bus, the final link. The din of traffic on the interstate below is incredibly loud. One last boarding, one last stop. The bus drops me off at the door of the seminary.

I move directly from public transportation into the ivory tower. From the 21st century to the 16th. From the mundane concerns of a traveler to the musings of theologians.

We are discussing how a gifted Bible professor in Wittenberg, Germany proclaimed a revolutionary alternative to medieval scholasticism. Suddenly I’m immersed in the storied careers of Church Fathers, German monks, and condemned heretics. We discuss Latin phrases and theological definitions. We talk of popes and princes and castles and peasants. We distinguish “alien righteousness” from “proper righteousness,” look up profound passages in heavy hardbound books, and laugh and blush when we read things like Luther saying, “Listen, papal ass, you are a particularly crass ass; indeed, you are a filthy sow!”

We enjoy our coffee, delight in our discussions, revel in what we are learning, and occasionally catch a glimpse of how something might translate from this classroom to the workaday world where most people live and move and have their being.

After a little while on campus, I retrace my route home. Board the bus, hop on the train, get to the Greyhound station. Take my seat and start fidgeting. All the way home.

You know, I think maybe we should feel a little of the discomfort of this journey we’re on. It ought not seem easy to be a member of hoi polloi and at the same time contemplate the things of heaven, where the saints dwell in inexpressible glory. The ivory tower is a privileged place, but in the end it won’t mean a thing if I can’t carry what I learn with me on public transportation. I need to feel that struggle more keenly, more often.

So I’m glad to be reminded each Monday that I’m hoi polloi, one of the common people. A hard seat on a long, sleepless bus ride is an effective antidote to imagining that this sublime theology I’m learning makes me some kind of a spiritual hot-shot.

Because frankly, my butt hurts and I’ve got a kink in my neck. I spilled my drink on the floor of the coach and I’m finding it hard to catch up on my sleep. The folks around me look just as uncomfortable. This journey we are all on can be a bear. There’s precious little glamour in it.

But I sure hope to find some Gospel. It’s what all of us need.



  1. Beautifully written.

  2. ‘The ivory tower is a privileged place, but in the end it won’t mean a thing if I can’t carry what I learn with me on public transportation.’

    Very true. Great observations in this – thanks.

  3. Glad you didn’t write “the hoi polloi.” 🙂

    • Quite the tautology, that…

    • I was just about to post this too! So, seconded.

    • Richard Hershberger says

      Where I, on the other hand,take the opposing view: “the hoi polloi” is good English, indeed better English than the clumsy, unidiomatic use of bare “hoi polloi” in a syntactic context that calls for an English definite article.

      As a matter of historical record, “hoi polloi” entered English usage in the 17th century, apparently via the poet John Dryden (who is responsible, by the way, for the erroneous belief that it is ungrammatical to end a sentence with a preposition). Dryden use the English “the” with it, with “hoi polloi” in Greek letters. By the 19th century the expression was entirely in the Latin alphabet: “the hoi polloi” (or occasionally, “the oi polloi”). It wasn’t until the 20th century that usage commentators began to criticize this construction and insist that it is redundant.

      From a syntactic perspective, there are certain contexts which require a definite article. There is no general principle that a borrowed definite article from a foreign language fills this slot. Many English words beginning with “al-” come from Arabic, with “al-” being the definite article. But it would be absurd to criticize “the algebra test” as redundant. “The Alhambra” is the standard form of the name. And so on. On the other hand, there are some familiar languages which might get tossed into conversation, with their definite articles filling the role. If, for example, one were moved to throw a little French in while discussing a house pet, one could (probably unwisely) say “Le chat is hungry!” and be readily understood.

      So when one criticizes “the hoi polloi” the implicit claim is that Greek is such a familiar language that of course erudite persons such as ourselves just casually toss it into conversation. The interesting observation is that in the earlier period, many of the persons using “the hoi polloi” were routinely educated in Greek. The teaching of Greek fell off with the 20th century. This suggests that the explanation for the criticism of “the hoi polloi” is anxiety: a felt need to demonstrate that the user knows what the Greek means, since this could no longer be assumed as a matter of course.

      In other words, this has nothing to do with good English (or, for that matter, good Greek). It is all about status anxiety and keeping up appearances.

      In idiomatic English usage, “hoi polloi” is a syntactic unit. “Hoi” does not act as a definite article. My advice is to either use the expression idiomatically, being prepared to stare down people offering helpful miscorrections, or avoid the expression entirely as skunked.

      • I find either use acceptable, and decided to use the more “grammatically correct” approach in this post. However, I will never, ever accept the way certain grammar police similarly insist on saying, “Roger Maris had 142 RBI in 1961.” After all, baseball must ever and always be a game for the hoi polloi.

      • Thanks for this detailed explanation. “The hoi polloi” it is! 😀

  4. “Always remember that you are unique… Just like everybody else.” 😉


  5. Thanks for this. A particularly good reminder on a mundane Wednesday in the middle of a mundane week.

  6. You’re right about the noise of the expressway. It freaked Spikey, my dog, out the first dozen times we walked on a pedestrian bridge over the Eisenhower. Even the El that goes by there didn’t bother her as much as the sound of the traffic.

    I hope it gets more comfortable for you over time.

  7. Chaplin Mike…

    You’re a gifted story teller!! 😀

    I could tell you many different stories of experiences I’ve had on buses, trains, even the Washington, D.C. subway called Metro.

    One of my favorite stories involves a bus. When I attended college in Montana I used to travel from Helena to Butte to spend time with my grandmother.
    This was in the 1990’s…. Anyhow let me paint the picture…it was late at night and I’d go to the bus station. There were always some interesting characters…
    There was snow on the ground and often times it used to be fresh. I looked forward to my bus rides because it would always by a symphony of nature and beauty in Montana.
    Even at 8 or 9 a clock in night when things were long dark.

    So this college kid boarded the bus for an hour and half bus ride. (We’d stop in Boulder and another town…) But we’d leave Helena and drive in between the mountain passes.
    The mountains were blanketed with snow. The moon would be out reflecting down on the snow. And the sight was amazing. Though it may be 9:00 at night it was so incredibly bright and you
    could see all the majestic Montana scenery reflected in the moonlight. In Montana there was an absence of light pollution and it was so dark and the moon illuminated everything in
    the dark Montana wilderness. And this college kid would just look out the window of the bus and look in awe and wonder.

    I miss Montana…I really do. And at the bus station in Butte I’d see my grandmother. Seeing a love one after a journey was another joy!

  8. Thanks, this gives me much to think about. What if we reverse the model? Instead of learning in the ivory tower what we can hopefully bring to the common people, we listen as the common people and bring that to the ivory tower. In a way, I think that’s what you’re doing as you write this piece.

  9. I learned several things traveling long distance on Greyhounds. First, there is no first class. Likewise, there is little pretension. The bus goes to gritty inner city terminals, not touristy places. Its cattle class and we understand we’re all basically there, not because our Mercedes broke down, but because circumstances required it. Your meal is a candy bar or McD’s, if you remember before boarding. Its cramped and you can’t avoid invading your seat mate’s physical space. No one likes the readers at night – their overhead lights are really annoying when everyone else wants to sleep. Its easy to just tune it all out and just stare out the window. But the person right next to me always had a personal story, and I had one to share as well. Like Thielicke says, the neighbor is not hard to find, he comes to us.

  10. “You know, I think maybe we should feel a little of the discomfort of this journey we’re on.”

    If you changed “a little” to “a lot,” well…I think that might more appropriately capture what Jesus felt during his journey here on Earth. If we are living overly comfortable lives, we’re probably not engaging in the lives of people He would like us to engage on His behalf. (And I say that speaking to myself, for I LOVE comfort.)

    Great meditation, CM. Very rich, deep.

  11. I’m plainly missing the “very rich, deep” point of what otherwise sounds kind of patronizing. From what I read, you get up early one day a week to take a Greyhound bus to where you attend Lutheran theology classes. Then you return home. Next Monday you’ll do it again. I say this gently, brother, but it takes riding a bus to class to remind you that you’re one of the “common people”?

    • Bass, that’s the beauty of a “meditation,” I think. Depth and richness in simple observations of life. In fact, I’ll point you at this recent Chaplain Mike meditation…


      …to highlight my thoughts about this. If you read it, scroll down to my comment and Chaplain Mike’s response to my comment, and perhaps you’ll get a sense of the depth some people see in simple slice of life observations/meditations. I can actually imagine Jesus having moments like this during his life on Earth.

  12. Yep Bass, I agree with you. I think you missed the point.

    I encourage you, go back and read it with the eyes of imagination.

    Here is a man who is a Chaplain many times to the dead and dying. He writes for an international audience, and is trying to get certified to be a pastor. And he goes into academia and has some nice erudite conversations.

    As he gets back on the bus to go home he realises ‘in all that I do if I forget that I am no different than millions of people around me I have lost the point of being a Christian’

  13. Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

    Your description of your class makes me miss school! I finished my Master’s about a year and a half ago. This is the longest I’ve ever been away from school, and I’m kind of missing it, especially theology stuff. Maybe it’s time to look into pursuing the doctorate…

  14. David Cornwell says

    Perfect mix, that of the ride on the bus, and the head trip of the classroom! I’d bet something good is coming out of it, knowing Chaplain Mike.

  15. Reminded me of a number of Bruce Cockburn songs:

    You pay your money

    Woman cry — chase man down street crying “No Chuckie, no, please don’t”
    Another girl comes they run along St. Andrew, turn south on Kensington
    Meanwhile Chuckie beats it down the alley by the chicken packer’s
    By the time I reach the corner they’ve all vanished
    Just a deaf kid talking like Popeye to a large fleshy laughing man in a blue shirt

    Down the alley past the fire escape a woman is talking on the telephone
    Kitchen light spills out, laughter riding on its beam
    In the maze of moebius streets we’re trying to amuse ourselves to death
    Under the deep sky that’s squatting so close over us tonight
    You’d think it was trying to hatch us
    The numb and confused
    The battered and bruised
    The counters of cost
    And the star-crossed

    Confused and solo in the spawning ground
    I watch the confusion of friends all numb with love
    Moving like stray dogs to the anthem of night-long conversations,
    of pulsing rhythms and random voltage voices
    In spite of themselves, graceful as these raindrops creeping spermlike across the car window
    Stay or leave, give or withold, hesitate or leap
    Each step splashing sparks of red pain in every direction
    And through it all, somehow, this willingness that asks no questions

    You pay your money and you take your chance
    When you’re dealing with love and romance


    Silver Wheels

    High speed drift on a prairie road
    Hot tires sing like a string being bowed
    Sudden town rears up then explodes
    Fragments resolve into white line code
    Whirl on silver wheels

    Black earth energy receptor fields
    Undulate under a grey cloud shield
    We outrun a river colour brick red mud
    That cleaves apart hills soil rich as blood

    Highway squeeze in construction steam
    Stop caution hard hat yellow insect machines
    Silver steel towers stalk rolling land
    Toward distant stacks that shout “Feed on demand”

    100 miles later the sky has changed
    Urban anticipation — we get 4 lanes
    Red orange furnace sphere notches down
    Throws up silhouette skyline in brown

    Sundogs flare on windshield glass
    Sudden swoop skyward iron horse overpass
    Pass a man walking like the man in the moon
    Walking like his head’s full of irish fiddle tunes

    The skin around every city looks the same
    Miles of flat neon spelling well-known names
    Fat wheeled cars squeal into the sun

    Radio speakers gargle top 40 trash
    Muzak soundtrack to slow collapse
    Planet engines pulsate in sidereal time
    If you listen close you can hear the whine

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