“Their policy is ‘Pay what you wish but you must pay something,'” I told a student when she asked how much admission cost to the Art Institute. “But they do have suggested fees–check over at the cash register.”

While she went to find out the fees, a couple of students and I waited in the museum lobby for the rest of our drawing class to arrive. “I have a friend who pays a quarter whenever he comes here,” a young man said. “They have to let him in–that’s the policy.”

“I have a membership,” a middle-aged woman interjected. “It’s a real bargain. You always get in free, you get free tickets to special exhibits, and you get a discount in the store. I do all my Christmas shopping here.”

“How much is a membership?” he asked.

“I think it’s $40.”

“Forty dollars!” he said. “Why pay that much when you can get in for only a quarter or a dollar?”

“I guess it’s a matter of civic responsibility,” she said somewhat stiffly. By this time the rest of the class had arrived. Those who weren’t members paid and clipped on their colored aluminum tabs. Then we passed the guards and headed upstairs to look at paintings and drawings.

A couple of weeks later I sat on a bench on Stony Island waiting for the Jeffery Express bus. I’d been standing all afternoon during class in Hyde Park, then made a long trek down 57th to the bus stop. My feet were starting to ache, and I was tired.

When the bus came I slid into a seat and gazed out the window at the park. Behind me sat a man and a woman who looked to be in their 30s. I thought the woman had glared at me as I walked down the aisle but I wasn’t sure. She might have been glaring at nothing in particular.

The bus passed the Museum of Science and Industry, turned onto Hyde Park Boulevard, and stopped. Museum-goers boarded, including a group of boisterous teenagers who, giggling and laughing, headed toward the back of the bus.

As the bus rumbled on I heard the woman behind me, her voice low and insistent. “I’m tired of these part-time jobs,” she said. “I’m tired of riding three buses to get to a lousy part-time job. I want a desk job.”

Her companion made no reply. Suddenly, in a louder and more cheerful voice, she said, “Excuse me. Excuse me. Can you tell me how much it costs to get in that museum?”

A boy said, “Um, I’m not sure. We had a group rate.”

“Oh, I see. Well, thank you.”

“Here, this has the admission fees in it,” a girl said. Evidently she’d given the woman behind me a museum brochure.

“Why, thank you. Thank you very much,” the woman said brightly. Then she turned to her companion. “You see, I told you you have to pay to get in there now. It says right here, ‘Adults $5, children $2, seniors $4.’ You see? I wasn’t lying. I told you it wasn’t free anymore.”

If her companion had any response it was drowned out as the bus banged over an enormous pothole.

“I’m sure glad to have this,” she added, starting to sound angry. “Here it is, in black and white. ‘Adults $5, children $2, seniors $4.’ So why’d you call me a liar and hit me when I said it wasn’t free? I wasn’t lying.”

He muttered something that only made her angrier. “You did too hit me!” she yelled. “I got witnesses! Two people saw you smack me when I told you you had to pay to get in that museum. You hit me and called me a liar! I got witnesses!”

He was silent for a moment. Everyone fell silent. Then he quietly snarled, “Prove it.”

“Prove it?” she roared. “I don’t have to prove it! There were witnesses! Now who’s lying?”

After that they were quiet for a few minutes. The people around me looked straight ahead or stared out the windows.

Then the woman began speaking rapidly, sounding more weary than mad. “Every Sunday me and my kids would tear out of church and go to that museum. They’d run all through the place–they loved it. They’d look at the submarine, the coal mine, the heart… Now you gotta pay. Look at this! ‘Adults $5, children $2.’ By the time you pay for the bus and the museum and get the kids something to eat, it’s at least $30. Who can afford that? They kept it free for years. How come they can’t keep it free anymore?”

The man said something softly.

“Naw, I ain’t ticked at you,” she sighed. “I ain’t mad at you, I’m just tired. I’m tired of this lousy job and I’m tired of being broke.” She paused, then sighed again. “Ain’t nothin’ free in this world anymore. I’m telling you, I’m tired. I’m tired, I’m tired, I’m tired.”

After a few minutes she continued, her tone sarcastic and falsely lighthearted. “Well, I sure am glad to have this information. I sure am glad.”

The bus turned a corner and stopped while some riders got off and others boarded. I heard the woman again. “Excuse me,” she said loudly. “Excuse me. Do you want this back?”

“No, you can keep it,” the girl said.

“Well, I thank you. I thank you.”

Silence again, this time for several minutes. I gradually realized the man and woman had gotten off at the last stop. Before long the teenagers resumed their banter. “What made her think I wanted it back?” the girl giggled. Her friends laughed but not one answered. Then the bus turned onto Lake Shore Drive, heading downtown. I gazed out the window at the lake, the woman’s words ringing in my ears.