One morning in January, Rachel Simon’s sister Beth wakes her up and tells her to get dressed for the bus. Rachel is exhausted and wears all black, while Beth is full of energy and wears a brightly-colored T-shirt and shorts. They’re less than a year apart in age, but their lives couldn’t be more different, especially because Beth has a developmental disability. For the holidays, Rachel is visiting Beth in the mid-sized Pennsylvania city where she lives. Beth survives on a combination of government assistance and ingenuity. Since October 18, 1993, she has spent every day riding a dozen different buses around the city. She knows every bus route by heart and has friends spread out all over town.
In this opening passage, Rachel uses clothing to emphasize the vast differences between herself and Beth: Rachel is a conventional, burned-out professional, while Beth shamelessly embraces her individuality and finds joy in her everyday life on the buses. In turn, this vast difference shows how Rachel’s decision to live a year with Beth requires radical empathy: she decides to totally discard her ordinary expectations and values for a year in order to try to understand the world from Beth’s perspective. Of course, this is rooted in her sisterly love and her desire to bridge the gap between herself and Beth. Crucially, Rachel also presents herself and Beth as equals—she emphasizes that Beth’s routine, emotional range, and social network are just as sophisticated and complex as anyone else’s. Through this depiction, she fights the stereotype that people with developmental disabilities are incapable of living unique, fulfilling lives or making meaningful choices about how they want to live.
Beth guides Rachel down Main Street to McDonald’s, where she buys a coffee, and then to the bus shelter. She boards her first bus with her portable radio and city bus pass, which is numbered 000001. The driver, Claude, gives Beth $1 for the coffee, and then she sits down across the aisle from him, like she always does. Rachel, who hasn’t taken a bus in years, follows Beth inside. The bus takes off. Beth giddily tells Rachel about Claude’s upcoming birthday, their habit of listening to loud music when there are no other passengers, and a fight with another passenger a few months before. The bus passes Beth’s boyfriend Jesse, who is also intellectually disabled, and Claude calls out to him.
Rachel emphasizes two different dimensions of Beth’s personality. On the one hand, she describes Beth’s quirks—like her boundless energy, portable radio, and special seat—which are no doubt linked to her disability. On the other, she highlights Beth’s well-defined place in the world around her: she has a clear routine, a cordial friendship with Claude, and a stable relationship with Jesse. These aspects of Beth’s life don’t fit with stereotypes about people with developmental disabilities, which generally suggest that they are not capable of living independently or participating meaningfully in communities of non-disabled people. In fact, Rachel’s comments about her long lapse from public transportation suggest that Beth is actually far better integrated into her community than Rachel is into her own.
For the rest of the day, Rachel follows Beth on her buses. She knows all the drivers and helps them with their routes; she also helps other passengers, giving them directions and carrying their bags. Most drivers and passengers are nice to Beth, but some hate her. A few drivers refuse to pick her up, and some passengers insult her to her face. When she was little, these insults always fazed her—but they don’t anymore. Now, Beth is self-confident, highly social, and full of energy. On the way to McDonald’s, she even proudly yelled out, “I’m diffrent! I’m diffrent!”
Beth’s friendships with the drivers show that her bus-riding isn’t just an eccentric pastime—rather, it’s her unique source of identity and links to the community. In other words, her unusual lifestyle doesn’t separate her from other people, but rather connects her to them. Moreover, her indifference to her foes and chant about being “diffrent” suggest that she is living precisely the way she wants. This demonstrates that people with disabilities can live satisfying, meaningful, joyful lives when they get to make their own choices and follow their own desires—even when non-disabled people might not fully understand them.
Unlike Beth, Rachel has always wanted to become “a Somebody who would live a Big Life.” But, during her winter with Beth, Rachel realizes that her successful writing and teaching career won’t make her happy. She loves her job, but she has gotten used to working every day of the week, from 7 a.m. till after midnight, like a corporate workaholic. She hasn’t had time for friends, leisure, or love since for four years, ever since she ended things with her boyfriend Sam. The breakup left her penniless and lonely, so she started working as much as possible.
Unlike Rachel, Beth is satisfied with a small life: she has a consistent routine and enough close, stable friends to keep her happy. In other words, while Rachel has sought happiness through work and struggles to take her relationships seriously enough, Beth has sought fulfillment and happiness through her relationships. Thus, as Rachel’s goals and lifestyle reflect mainstream U.S. society’s expectations, Beth’s life offers an alternative vision of what a good life can look like—for everyone, not just people with disabilities.
During her workaholic phase, Rachel didn’t see Beth for several years. Instead, they wrote letters: every week, Rachel sent Beth a card, and Beth sent Rachel at least a dozen short notes scrawled in magic marker, covered in stickers, and signed, “Cool Beth.” They struggled to make conversation on the phone, but Beth always asked Rachel to visit. Rachel never did: she was too busy, too far away, and too embarrassed about Beth’s eccentric bus-riding hobby. Rachel’s friends didn’t understand Beth’s disability, and Rachel avoid talking about the buses with her. They practically became strangers to each other.
Rachel’s undying dedication to her job also cut her off from her loved ones: after her breakup, she coped with her loneliness by turning inward and avoiding other people (including her family), rather than by seeking new connections. Meanwhile, her and Beth’s letters show that their relationship depends on a constant struggle to communicate across a chasm created by Beth’s disability. Of course, visiting Beth would be the ultimate way for Rachel to close this gap.
One winter, Rachel mentioned Beth to her editor, who suggested that she ride the buses with Beth for a day and write a story about it. She agreed. She marveled at how people treated Beth, what this reflected about disabled people’s place in society, and how joyous, confident, and independent Beth had become. Her article was a wild success—but she couldn’t take the time to celebrate, since she was too busy with other work. One night, she realized that she was essentially giving up on other people entirely. When she learned that Beth had asked for her to attend her annual disability care planning meeting, she half-reluctantly agreed to attend.
Visiting and riding with Beth was Rachel’s way to try to finally repair their damaged relationship, while fighting her own worsening isolation. But it was also a transformational moment for her, because it showed her that Beth’s life is full and vibrant—something to be proud of, not embarrassed about. Before her visit, Rachel had assumed that Beth and other people with disabilities want the same things as non-disabled people and live inferior, incomplete lives because they can’t fully achieve those goals. But after visiting, she realized that Beth has totally different needs and goals from non-disabled people, and she has built a life that actually fulfills them. In fact, Beth’s life seemed to be meeting her needs far better than Rachel’s own.
Rachel attends Beth’s meeting in January. As usual, Beth is dressed in bright colors, while Rachel wears all black. Rachel realizes that she has spent her own life learning to hide her quirks, while Beth has embraced them. At the meeting, Beth’s aides—Vera, Amber, and Olivia—talk Rachel through Beth’s finances, health, and personal life. She receives $527 monthly to cover her expenses. She’s overweight, has high cholesterol, needs to see a dentist, and is losing her vision. The aides worry that she sometimes walks in the street during the winter, but she promises to stay safe.
When Rachel realizes that Beth gets to embrace her individuality, this is another hint that Beth’s lifestyle might actually hold important truths about what it means to live well and find happiness. Beth’s care meeting gives the reader a clear window into this lifestyle. Ultimately, her life has much in common with non-disabled people: she has to budget her money, make health decisions, and worry about her safety. Notably, Beth’s aides aren’t supposed to make decisions for her, but rather just to provide her with the support that she needs in order to live autonomously. As Rachel will explain later in the book, this is a result of the social service system’s focus on self-determination. This principle also becomes the foundation for Rachel’s own attitude toward Beth: she realizes that if she truly loves Beth, she has to respect Beth’s decisions—no matter how incomprehensible she may find them.
Beth also talks about her relationships with Jesse, the bus drivers, and her family. Rachel notes that the family avoids visiting Beth—they struggle to connect with her, disapprove of her lifestyle, and don’t trust her aides. But now, Rachel understands that the aides are just helping Beth live the life that she wants. They ask Beth about her hopes for the future—she wants to visit Disney World and see her niece and nephew, but she doesn’t want to take classes or get a job. Everyone knows what the aides’ report will say: “Beth does not wish to change anything.”
Beth’s family has largely failed to build consistent, loving relationships with her, but she has found a worthwhile substitute by forming deep connections with the people around her. During Beth’s meeting, Rachel understands for the first time that the family is wrong to hold Beth’s life to the same standards as non-disabled people’s. Just as Beth has found a community to replace her family, she has found enriching daily activities to replace work. Even if her lifestyle poses some serious health risks, Beth still doesn’t want to change because she’s fundamentally happy with her day-to-day activities—if she had all the freedom in the world, she would likely still spend her time riding the buses.
But after the meeting, Rachel learns that Beth does want to change something. As she waits to catch a bus, Beth asks Rachel to keep riding with her—for a whole year. Rachel realizes that Beth is happier than she is and has many more close relationships. But she also can’t imagine giving up a whole year of work. Beth says that Rachel doesn’t need to come every day, and Rachel suddenly realizes, “You need to do this, even if you don’t know where it will take you.” She says yes: she promises to visit and ride with Beth as often as she can for the next year. Beth’s bus arrives; Rachel doesn’t know where it’s going, but she gets on after Beth anyway.
Rachel and the rest of her family have long hoped for Beth to change her lifestyle. However, Rachel ends up agreeing to spend a year riding the buses with Beth because she realizes that Beth has so much to teach her about how to live well. She sees that Beth’s vibrant, joyful life presents an alternative to her own unsatisfying, lonely life, and she desperately wants to change. Of course, when Rachel reexamines her assumptions about Beth’s life, she is also giving her readers the opportunity to reexamine their own assumptions about how people with disabilities can and should live. Thus, Rachel and Beth’s relationship also represents the broader relationship between people with disabilities and their non-disabled counterparts in society as a whole.