Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Back on our feet again

Saturday blended into Sunday for me, as I was issued with the same bus from the day before - though it was a different route. Instead of an interminable trip up and down University Drive, today would be a series of short skips back and forth across Atlantic Boulevard. The engine retarder light still blinked at me from the dash.

A different light had gone out this bright morning: José Fernández, ace pitcher for the Miami Marlins, had died in a boating accident off Miami Beach at age 24. Unsavory details would emerge later to tarnish the shine, but we still mourn our local hero. Several determined crossings of the Florida Straits followed by deportation, and heroically saving his drowning mother in the process, added to the legend behind the perpetual easy-going Cuban smile. Life goes in cruel circles sometimes, like Jaco's brutal coda on Wilton Drive, mere blocks from his childhood home. The same waters that brought José to his new life were also the setting for its end.

Starting out the shift, a regular from the University Drive route was waiting for me. A quirky older woman, always nervous about getting stranded somewhere. She'd dyed her oily lank hair and the gray roots were working their way back into view. She was short on the fare which made her more nervous, so I reassured her it wouldn't be a problem.

At State Road 7, the regular with his Mickey Mouse floppy hat boarded.
"This is my last Sunday. I got fired from my sign job. It's illegal now." He was on shaky ground at this shock, and unsure of his next step.
   'You're a sign waver? That's not illegal.' I was sure the First Amendment protected this.
"They just passed an ordinance..."
   'In Margate? Maybe try another city, like Pompano?' I suggested, looking for another option.
"I'm looking at Pembroke Pines." A drastic move to a south county city.
The somber news made for a quiet trip eastward. We arrived at his stop and he made sure to shake my hand: "In case this is my last Sunday."
   'Don't give up, hang in there.'

Cruisin' back the other way, at Rock Island a red PT Cruiser pulled up in the next lane with a five foot ham radio antenna sprouting from the center of the roof. At the red light he was obvious as he peered over at me with his scraggly white beard and ponytail.
"I used to work at BCT, wanted to see who's drivin'!" He explained with friendly sociability. "I used to be a driver, then a mechanic on road service." Apparently he loved buses enough that he bought an old one and was converting it into a motor home.
   'Must get great gas mileage!' I joked about this eccentric project.
"Well, if you sleep in it every night, you save a lot of money."

We'd finished our first round trip and spun around for the next, when the sky opened up about halfway through. The downpours were heavy throughout Pompano all the way to A1A, where they were extremely heavy and flooding the streets. A morning that began with a serene dry calm had devolved into frenzied, blinding monsoon. East of the Intracoastal the storm sewers were maxed out, excess rainwater burbled up like mini geysers through the lift notches in the manhole covers. At the layover, not one person dared exit the bus and endure nature's wrath.

The clouds drained themselves dry by the time our next trip was underway. A little west of US 1, at her usual stop under fat old oak trees, stood the slight Indian girl with an endearing smile and enviable cascading jet black hair that covered her entire back. An enormous umbrella shielded her from some invisible Totoro shaking raindrops off the dripping branches.

It was now our final eastbound journey, and a man boarding must have misheard my greeting since he immediately began reminiscing about some streets in the Bronx ("Jerome Avenue!"). The mood took a creepy turn when he mentioned a documentary called Faces of Death. He was convinced we'd talked about the movie a couple weeks previously, but I certainly had no memory of that discussion and chalked it up as another passenger confusing me with one of my 'twin' bus driver co-workers.

The Banks Road stop always gets some play on this trip, and a familiar grinning face met us as we pulled up. The type of guy who is your friend at first sight, he wore a new accessory: a bulky medical boot. With his girlfriend there to nurse him along and provide moral support, he ventured out with his injury.
   'How's the foot today?' It's quicker to comment on the obvious when we don't have time for lengthy conversation.
"Meh." He shrugged. "Wanna see the scar?"
   'Not really. Scars freak me out.' Though a collection of them is certainly a sign of an active life.
His random offer hung in the air and I took him up on it when we got to their stop. He peeled down a white sock to reveal the 5-inch wound. It came about during a drunken episode, and the humor of it outweighed any embarrassment in the telling. I wondered whether this man's malady was the end of another cruel circle, and where it began. Perhaps this event was the beginning, another instance of Life knocking our feet out from under us. And another opportunity to get off at our stop, hobble forward, and not look back. Well, maybe a glance - and a grin.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Gotta do something

Taking over an afternoon run generally means relieving another driver somewhere along the route. At that time I try to get a report on the operability of the bus along with any issues on the route (detours, lane closures, accidents). My own operability was compromised this day by a miserable bout of laryngitis, a handicap for this bus driver who likes to make Old School announcements at high volume.

The relief took place near the end of the route, and the previous driver gave me a healthy bus and a report of clear streets. Ten minutes later I was at the north end layover for the 60, stretched the legs until the appointed moment arrived and we went back into service southbound. The crush of students at Broward College North Campus only set us back a few minutes, but the trip was young. Little more than 15 minutes into a one hour trip, we were in the turn lane on Atlantic at NW 27th Ave. There would be no turning for us, the road was completely barricaded. There was some extensive road work happening on the other side of the barriers, either put up in record time after the previous driver passed through or something he neglected to relay to me. It was a low blow at a crucial time of day, but bus drivers don't cry - we find a way forward. I improvised a detour to get us back on route without missing too many stops. However, the damage was done; we were late to start with and that unforeseen obstacle buried us.

In the midst of our storms, the sun peeks through and reminds us why we're here. Hours into the tumult of the afternoon, when my follower was catching up with me repeatedly, a familiar face appeared. Weathered and wizened by years in the sun tending to nursery plants, her dark eyes shone from leathery wrinkles above a golden glint from smiling caps long worn through. No time for extended pleasantries, I could only smile back at my neighbor. Perhaps I shared some brief greeting in painful husky voice or perhaps merely clasped at my throat, but she stopped time for that bus and the impossible schedule became irrelevant.

Settled in and settled down for the remainder of the shift, my friend at Matco Stone hopped on along that dusty stretch by the railroad. A beacon of brightness in his long-sleeve safety yellow shirt, he sympathized with the ailment limiting my speech, the words flowing quickly with his island intonation testing my accent acuity. He had something important to announce. His lady was pregnant and he was going to be a father for the first time. It was a boy. I congratulated him with as much voice as I could summon.
"You have any kids?" he asked.
   'Nah, kids cost money!' I joked back.
"Yeah, but you gotta do something. I'm 48..."
   'It's time.'
The man who moves train cars full of rock went back to talking shop, comparing our long days. We'd worked all day and the bus was late, but the time was right.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

All the time

Seasons in South Florida change subtly, sometimes only indicated by the slant of light and dryer air. Our region shares the tropical nature of the Caribbean islands, though we are technically part of the North American mainland. During the Gypsy Years, I would venture over to England - another island nation. After Canada, more of Florida's visitors are from the UK and it's easy to see why when you visit. A mile-thick cloud cover blocks the sun and after a few weeks this cold Floridian forgot what the blue sky looked like. They have a magical hour over there, just before dusk when the sun comes low and fiery-bright and cracks the clouds. It is too brief to bring warmth, but everything old shines like gold.

An indicator light flashed on the dash since I left the garage. Nothing to keep it out of service, just a reminder for future maintenance. The engine retarder was glitchy, requiring a little more time to slow down, but still quite smooth.

Early morning workers board in darkness, I greet them in foreign tongue and local comfort. They giggle at the anomaly.
   'Koman ou ye?'
"Pa pi mal."

The unpredictable visitors make their way through the doors: a track star, a fisherman, a man with a carved cobra walking stick. It's also the Sabbath, and Orthodox Jewish families are the only ones using the sidewalk north of Sample.

An older man boards, exuding an immediate sociability he's probably had all his life.
"I don't remember much anymore, but I remember this: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." He paused for a breath of resignation. "It doesn't happen all the time."

Sometimes the day is cold as the night, and the sun becomes a memory. Just wait, the clouds will split and what's old becomes new.