|The Bayswater Omnibus (Geo. Wm. Joy)|
A truly lovely day has me walking the two miles, smiling to myself and checking every garden, tree bud, house color and brick path along the way. A so-so day finds me taking the bus half-way and then walking the rest of the journey. Terrible weather condemns me to a bus for the entire trip
When it comes to taking the bus, I have three options.
The best choice is the small bus that stops very near my cottage and drops me within a four block stroll of my destination. (We'll call this the Lazy Bus.) Or I can take the bus that leaves from the top of the hill (a two block asthma-inducing trek in winter), which has been terribly inconsistent lately making it an unreliable choice. (Let's call it the Hilltop Bus.) And then there is the bus at the bottom of the hill. (I'm calling this one the Last Chance Bus.) The downside of this particular bus is that I need to change to a trolley once I arrive downtown. The upside is being able to disembark mid-journey, if I choose, and walk a mile down one of the prettiest streets in the entire city.
Each bus has a distinct clientele.
The Lazy Bus is a wonderful melting pot of ethnicity, transporting the same 7 or 8 people each morning: students, day workers, and parents with children. I enjoy riding this bus and even though I tend to be somewhat antisocial in public (i.e., I'm an apprentice recluse by nature) I feel very at home with the people who regularly ride. (The driver routinely makes young men let the women board first... be still my heart.) The Hilltop bus is made up of men and women who teach in universities or work in Very Important Offices (VIOs) in Very Tall Buildings (VTBs) in the city. And then there are the inmates on the Last Chance bus.
The general population on the Last Chance bus is like a cast of extras from a Fellini movie. We have had fights break out, people nearly falling out of their seats in alcohol- or drug-induced stupors, riders talking loudly to themselves (and answering themselves in the bargain), and conversations that seem to focus on parole hearings, off-track betting, or the latest fights they've been in. (And which hospital has the best emergency room.) Cell phone conversations are always at the highest decibel possible, there is frequently a lone wolf in the rear of the bus with a radio on (earbuds? forget it), and there always seems to be at least one person who must be leaving the country judging by the number of bags, cases, and knapsacks he or she is carrying.
People always talk to you, whether you want them to or not. Yesterday morning I was seated next to a cheerful man who collects scrap metal (he transports it in two large sacks) and he regaled me with his colorful history, including the number of times he’s found money in the street. (Last month it was a twenty, this morning, alas, only a single.) Last week a woman asked to see the bookmark in a book I was holding and then spent the rest of the ride extolling the joy of reading and showing me her book... which prompted the woman across the aisle to call out where she might find more books by the same author. (Riders on the Last Chance Bus join in conversations that have nothing to do with them without compunction, and the on- and offstage dialogues can border on the operatic.)
One snowy morning a woman schooled the entire bus on the artisanal quality of snowflakes. How each one is unique, and imagine if it were snowing across the entire world, how many different snowflakes there would be, and surely only God can make something this remarkable happen in the world. (Amen, sister, I thought to myself, Amen.)
The drivers on the Last Chance Bus are an incredibly taciturn bunch, no doubt just trying to keep body and soul together as we rumble along. Although when passengers get too rowdy, they are quick to respond. There was a drunken couple—who must have started imbibing around midnight to be that loaded by 7 in the morning—who kept swearing at one another for much of the ride. Using his microphone, the driver yelled back at them to stop and his repeated exhortations and their slurred replies were like a strange antiphonal Psalm-from-Hell as we rode along. And then there was the woman who kept sighing dramatically and muttering impatient barbs because of the time it took to load an elderly man onto the bus in his wheelchair. (I was tempted to break my non-violence rule long enough to give the woman a good slap but thought better of it. This was, after all, the Last Chance Bus.) In this instance, the driver’s response was a simple and wise one: to see that the gentleman was safe and secure and to ignore the woman who was waxing peevish.
But for every bad egg there is a person who reaches out and offers to hold a baby for the young mother who gets on with a stroller, a diaper bag, three children and worn look on her face. And despite all the drama unfolding every morning, the Last Chance Bus holds the distinction of being the only bus on which boys, men, and young girls have offered me their seat when it's crowded.
Once in awhile, a passenger who missed the Hilltop Bus will walk down the hill and catch a ride on the Last Chance. When these hapless folks board, their expressions are priceless as they hold their bags to their chests in a death grip, trying not to stare slack-jawed at the mayhem that surrounds them. (I try to relax my antisocial guise long enough to give them a smile of reassurance but it does little to allay their unease and they can't de-bus fast enough at the end of the line.)
The Lazy Bus is comforting, like riding with my family. The Hilltop Bus is also comforting, in its own fussy way, because at least I can assume no one will draw a knife on us. But for my money, give me the Last Chance Bus every time. It's a glimpse into what it means to be pummeled by life's inequities and face life head on despite lost chances. Its riders are no different than I am, after all, only a bit worse for wear. They remind me to be grateful, to eschew passing judgment on people I don't really know, and to see the human face behind whatever Felliniesque façade might greet me. I envy them their unapologetic sincerity and brio, and I would rather ride with and talk to them than anyone else in this city.