A Window to the World: Transcribing and Editing Conversations On A Bus, A Photo Essay Project

When photographers Heather and Jameson Hooton invited me to transcribe and edit the conversations they initiated and recorded on buses all over Omaha, I couldn’t have imagined how exciting and difficult the work would prove to be.

As I listened in on the audio files of these conversations, I found myself transported not only by the voices of the people being interviewed, but also by the sounds of the bus—the steady whir of the air-conditioning, the rumble of the engine, the voices of other passengers and the bus drivers in the background, the furious squeal of the brakes as the bus made stop after stop. With all this activity, all this motion, it makes sense that the tagline for this project has always been about movement, asking, Where Have You Been? Where Are You Going?

In early July of 2012, Heather Hooton stepped on the buses and started the conversation (her laughter and enthusiasm as she asked questions and swapped stories with participants was a thing to marvel) while her husband, Jameson, took pictures of the participants.

These interviews and photographs capture a brief window of time in the daily lives of the people who were brave enough, open enough, and generous enough to share their stories with total strangers. I was aware of the participants’ generosity as I transcribed and edited each interview. I mulled over how I might feel if I was represented, and perhaps then forever defined (in print, no less), by the smallest piece of a conversation I might’ve had with a stranger on a bus.

Did the waitress coming from work who was on her way home to celebrate her 2 year-old’s birthday, want to be defined as a waitress (she loves her job and the people she works with) or as a mother? What about the gentleman on the cusp of retiring who was hoping to go back to school to study photography? Should I focus on this new passion of his and where it stemmed from, or should I throw that out the window in exchange for the wonderful moment when he muses on Avant-garde pop star Lady Gaga’s last visit to Omaha to film a music video (this was in context of a discussion about photographic shots of the Midwest and how the images of our cornfields are more viable than the images of our modest downtown skyline).

In the end I did my best to honor these voices, looking for ways to piece each conversation together so that it might sing and illuminate the ways in which our lives intersect.

I teach creative writing at a university, and when my students get stuck in their own writing, I tell them what a mentor of mine once told me: “Just talk to the page.” After transcribing these interviews, I wonder if this advice is as sound as I once thought. The fact is, talking out loud doesn’t always translate well on the page. The spoken word and the written word are two very different beasts.

Because of limited space on the page, and in the interest of clarity and cohesion, the participants’ answers to a series of questions were often placed together in one block of text and presented as a kind of monologue. In some cases, I had the interviewee say, out loud, the question posed by the interviewer, so that the reader could be given context for the answer that ensued.  Also, if the interviewee referred to a spouse or friend or family member as “he” or “she”, I replaced the pronoun with “my husband” or “my best friend” and so on.

With all this in mind, I invite you to view each page in this book as a window to someone’s world. Slow down, take a breath, step onto the bus with us and have a seat. We’re bringing you along for the ride. As one of our interviewees, Phyllis Knight says, “When I’m riding the bus, I sit back, think, and just listen to other people talk, you know? You never know what’s going to happen on the bus! It ain’t going to happen in your car!

-Sarah McKinstry-Brown, August 2012.