It was 1971 on a 7:38am Niagara Frontier Transit bus going north from downtown Buffalo. The destination was the suburbs 45 minutes away, my private day school.

I could have taken the private bus company’s ride that the school offered, but it was a 7am pickup. Buffalo offered free bus passes to all students, so why not save 45 minutes of sleep?

I was one of the few white kids on board. I was 15 and still healing from being wrecked on the football team last fall. I sat alone, looking out the window in the dark winter morning.

I spent my days going to school, studying, pretending to wrestle, talking to a few nerd friends, but no one saw our home, my brother who lived with me, my mother who visited, let alone my father, who I saw two weeks a year. Essentially I was alone.

In the middle of the 20th century, alcoholism was a silent part of many families, because no one wanted anyone to know that disorder was in your intimate’s lives. It was a dark disease of human impossibilities. Drunks make strangers feel threatened. So having friends was simply impossible, since they couldn’t visit. I never had a friend of any kind in those 15 years. It was just too dangerous.

The bus doors crashed opened a few stops down Main Street, and three kids I recognized got on. One was in my class. An equally loud, hippily put-out fellow sophomore. She walked down the bus aisle, with coke-bottle glasses, a Tyrolean hat (the one with the feather), and fully frizzed-out hair. We had never talked, despite my being in the private school she’d attended since kindergarten.

SLAM. She and her leather backpack fell down loudly next to me.

“HOW ARE YOU?”

I looked at her. She cared. I was, well, flustered. No one had ever done that before.

I made it clear to everyone that there was a line in conversation, and it was my family, so no one wanted to engage much. But I looked in her eyes, through the coke bottles, and, well, I knew that someone cared.

We were best friends in high school despite any unfulfilled romantic anything (her choice) and we remain great friends, continually in touch over hundreds of miles, even in Covid-19: over 50 years, with children, marriages, and life.

I think that’s because her companionship that morning simply said, “Lean On Me.”

That song crushed me when I heard it after that encounter, because she said just those words to me: “I’ll be your friend, when you’re not strong.” Some gifts are beyond understanding. They are the ones that God has given you.