Monday, June 21, 2021

They need you


The only new normal we were settling into was constant change. Each day seemed to bring new policies, behaviors, and adaptations. This was the first week of new runs, picked at a time when we thought we'd be doing them for several months. Instead, it was not only the first week, but also the last. Today was my day to make a selection for the COVID-19 Pick, slated to begin in a couple days. The length was yet to be determined - it could be a month or it could be the rest of the year. This was still March, when nature would resume its annual growth cycle, while transit service would be reverting to a time of shorter operating hours.

Even so, the day was bright and warm with a few scattered clouds. At the road relief spot Miss Carla passed me control of the bus, like a slow-motion relay race with a sixty-foot baton. She also relayed the news that bus operators filled the radio waves all morning with reports of their buses being full. Fares had been lifted, and it seemed the whole town heard the buses were free. This would not be conducive to social distancing - a term new to our daily vocabulary, yet intuitively familiar.

Like the previous day, I again caught my leader at the eastbound relief point after we'd changed direction out west. Normally this is where drivers change shifts, just as I'd done across the street. His dozen-plus people again boarded my bus, and the addition nearly had us at capacity. The cabin would thin out in a few miles once we passed Powerline Road, making more than enough room for the slight-statured man I'd been picking up all over town for years. A former commercial fisherman who gained his sea legs trolling the icy blasts off Alaska, he'd long since thawed out in our subtropical paradise and no longer wished to relive those days. He beat me to the punch and yelled out "YO!" in recognition. Face masks were rapidly becoming commonplace, making it difficult to recognize people you were otherwise familiar with. I called back and we were good.

We flipped it around for a mid-day westbound, leaving the salty air of Galt Mile in the rear-view. Normally, this trip starts out light until we reach Andrews Avenue about fifteen minutes in. This time there was a crowd waiting to board at Blessed Sacrament, between US 1 and Dixie Highway less than ten minutes from starting. Even more were milling outside the church, arms laden with boxes from a food give away. many of those boxes now boarded my bus. A few enterprising folks took maximum advantage of this generosity and heaved up their wire carts piled high for the pantry.

The bus was filling up, but there's always room for one of my regulars. Especially when that regular is Jay, who is joined at the hip to his bicycle but disconnects just long enough to put it on the rack when catching the bus. We made room for him up front as he boarded at Powerline. He thanked me for the watchband I'd given him as a belated Christmas gift, the same kind I use and which he'd admired in the past. The watch discussion soon changed gears to the news of the day and the growing impacts of the spreading virus. He was not only upset at the government's response, but the public's nonchalant attitude.

"Americans won't take it serious till there's blood and dead people in the streets." He morosely prophesied. "The whole country should've been shut down for two to three weeks till the thing passed, then care for the sick."

This dark mood was out of character, and I tried to steer him back to his normal positive demeanor by commending him for cycling and staying active. He downplayed the compliment with a comment about diminished lung capacity before switching to a good report on the generosity of motorists as he 'waved sign,' slang for panhandling. After exiting, he cut across traffic on his bike, then waited out the light cycle in the median. While out there in the middle of the torrent, he twisted his torso to look back my way, yelled out "Hey!" while holding up his watch hand with the new band and flashing a bright smile.

Halfway into the ten hour shift, we were making yet another westbound trip, now in late afternoon. The Allied Kitchen & Bath marquee has a different message on each side, so it's best to pay attention as you pass.





A solid reminder that we can support each other on this journey. Immediately past that we arrived at Powerline and I immediately recognized Sebastian, a former co-worker who'd worked his way up from maintenance at Central Terminal to join the ranks of bus operators in the driver's seat. He had since left the driving corps and was now on a different path. Though I gestured to him through the windshield, he didn't notice and boarded without acknowledgment. For now I could support him by getting this bus down the road.

One stop later, after cruising under the ever-expanding I-95 overpass, a familiar cyclist from a previous trip awaited. It wasn't Jay, but this gentleman was no less resourceful with three heavy boxes of power tools in tow. Though we now used the rear doors to board, this called for an exception and I invited him to load everything up front. Between putting the bike on the rack, then lugging in a weed whacker, leaf blower, and pressure washer it took several trips to get everything on board. The effort had taken its toll as he appeared beside me half an hour later, sleepy-eyed and wondering if we'd passed his stop. Yes, we had - but he wasn't in a hurry and decided to ride back around on our rolling motel.

At this time of day, the sun had descended to just the right height to activate the reflective strips on the front of my uniform. A safety feature to make us visible to others in dark conditions, it was now glowing back at me in the windshield, a bar of light obscuring the vehicles ahead. This design oversight was more annoyance than hazard, perhaps intentional to keep us on our toes.

After a lengthy layover at the mall, I awoke the tools guy to let him know we'd be leaving. Exhaustion had reduced him to a fetal position in the front row of seats behind me, and he'd need to sit up for us to get moving. I'd been in the seat myself for seven hours at that point and could sympathize, so I didn't give him a hard time. Back in training, our instructor told us a sleeping passenger is the biggest compliment for a bus driver; it was proof of a smooth ride.

Our final eastbound trip, approaching the busy side of University Drive, everyone boarded as usual. Then one more figure emerged from behind the bus shelter. It was the hipster from the other day, scurrying aboard with wide eyes. He had been quite vocal the last time, but was perfectly silent today.

The tools guy decided almost two hours on the bus was enough and decided to exit when we reached Deepside. The same lengthy process it took to load up was now executed in reverse, as he took several trips to deposit the large boxes on the sidewalk before retrieving his bike from the rack.

   'Got your hands full!' I piped up with an impressed tone.

"Yes. It's gonna make me money and I'll get a car."

   'It's gonna happen.' I agreed with him.

"Yessir." He replied in that way you often hear with those formerly enlisted in the armed forces. His salute after reclaiming the bicycle would be confirmation enough for me as the new entrepreneur fell back into the flow of the boulevard.

We grew as the sun shrank behind us, casting our shadow ever longer. The passing minutes and miles stretched our profile on the road out ten, twenty, fifty, then a hundred feet or more before it all merged into one on the streets of gold.

Since this was the final trip east, it was also my last chance to read the west-facing marquee sign at Allied Kitchen:





More welcome encouragement, especially for those doubtful they were capable of the message on the reverse side. Things we rely on in life may fall apart, and not giving up may mean picking up the pieces and moving forward.

One gentleman was doing just that as I pulled up to him at Dixie Highway before the tracks.He was barefoot, but not for lack of footwear as he held a pair of sandals at his side.

   'Could you put those on, please?' I requested, for his safety.

"They broke. I just gorilla-glued them, so I can't wear them or they'll flip."

   'Interesting.' I pondered his situation. There were no immediate threats he might step on, and the bus was nearly empty at this stage, so I let it go.

After a ten minute break on the east end, it was time to glide west and wrap this up after starting nine hours earlier. The trip began empty, but that only lasted for the Galt Mile loop and the two stops on A1A, as a guy hopped on at the first stop on Oakland Park Boulevard.

The old routine at Dixie played out like clockwork as we sat out another train delay. This one required three engines to haul a thousand cargo containers to their next destination. The load may have been too much as it crawled along in no particular hurry. Six minutes later we rolled over those pounding tracks one more time and resumed our steady crawl across the county. Oakland Park Boulevard is normally one of our busiest streets, but with all the lockdowns the congestion had thinned out nicely, at least in the right lane.

A familiar face on another route appeared after 441. The former boxer via Jamaica, I'd met him on the 88, a suburban route otherwise devoid of boxer-types. His distinctive bass-baritone combined with an extreme islander accent sounds like a punch-drunk Shabba Ranks and requires a full effort to decipher. Fortunately, he's not much interested in a two-way conversation, so a good listener gets by fine. A bit of extra fortune for me this time as another older man from the island boarded at the same time. They proceeded in a tag team spitting match of unintelligible patois. The only word that emerged more than once was "virus" as they clicked on the same frequency. The older man exited first, but the syllables continued as if he were still there. The retired fighter left a few minutes later, and soon after the bus was all mine again.

The day is long but the time is short. We'd all done our part for this day, not disrupting each other's orbits too much as we'd rotated through the cosmos of the bus. A season of ill winds had begun its sweep. We would have to adapt, stay strong, and be rocks of stability. And though we see the shadows grow, never give up.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Miracle on wheels


Calendars are great tools, but their usefulness only goes so far. Example: The calendar told us it was Thursday, but since I was off duty the previous two days, this was in effect my Monday. We had just begun a new set of routes and schedules, and I was mentally settled in for several months of doing the Oakland Park Boulevard route five days a week. Each new day seemed to bring more unexpected behavior through my doors, and that's saying something in this line of work. I took it all in stride and sought to adapt along with everyone else, but it was still a blessing to take off a couple days to recharge my batteries.

When I returned to the garage energized for a new work week, I found my coworkers studying new run selections. The schedule I thought we'd have for months had been reduced to a week, another casualty of the coronavirus. A COVID-19 pick was slated to begin starting next week and we'd have to make our choices immediately. No one saw this coming, but with all the lockdowns of businesses, offices, churches, and other gathering places ridership had plummeted accordingly and we would be operating on a reduced level of service. We stood ready to provide essential travel as we entered a new normal.

Upon arriving at the relief point to begin my shift in the seat, I learned of some new policies on the bus. Passengers were now required to both enter and exit through the rear door only, so as to limit exposure for the bus operator. Since the farebox is located by the driver, all fares were temporarily suspended. The onboard announcer also had a new message encouraging social distancing.

Passing folks at the bus stop just enough to line up the back door for them to board would take some getting used to. A driver already sits in an area isolated from the passengers, now it was almost impossible to even say hi.

The novelty of it all distracted us from this loss of sociability, and we reasoned we could tough it out a couple weeks until things leveled off. We'd flatten the curve and return to more familiar turf. Heading west on the hazy, warm boulevard with no traffic kindled feelings of nostalgia for an earlier, quieter Broward County. The world was growing colder, but we'd always have the Sun and good memories to warm us.

Out at Sawgrass Mills mall, we wouldn't be needing all sixty feet of the bus for the handful of passengers boarding there. One of these was a talky fellow, instantly familiar with everyone he encountered. New in town, his stuff was stolen and he was looking for a soup kitchen. The first one that came to mind was All Saints Mission on Powerline, a long trip from way out here. This could be a good pairing for him in other ways, as he was a muralist by trade and the soup kitchen walls featured distinctive art that might need a touch up. Even his pen had been stolen so I gave him a spare to take notes.

There was plenty of elbow room on the bus until just before State Road 7. There sat my leader, broken down and awaiting road service. All of his passengers waited with him outside, ready to board as we pulled up parallel. About a dozen climbed on and I wished the driver luck as we continued in service.

Without that bus ahead of us, the cabin filled steadily as we headed east, with no less than two mobile scooters aboard simultaneously. A man in one of them was sociably chatty much like the muralist, discussing various topics with anyone nearby. He looked to be middle-aged, yet that didn't stop him from striking up a conversation with a young man half his age, and his girlfriend. The couple had a rolling cooler in tow, entrepreneurs of the street hustling cold drinks. Theirs was the original clear beverage: water. Only it was self-bottled and touted as high alkaline. The older man was eager to support the younger's business venture and bought a bottle on the spot. He expressed satisfaction with each sip, which made the young man's day and led to more sales. The scene had an air of orchestrated promotion, until the duo exited with a lightened cooler. Once the doors closed the man in the scooter wondered aloud if it was toilet water, a bit suspicious of the DIY packaging.
"My throat is dry," he complained, thirstier now than before.

As we grew accustomed to the new boarding procedure, it was kind of nice only having to monitor a single point of entry. Most people caught on quickly and seemed to know the drill. It was a bit more lonely for me, not being able to easily greet everyone who boarded. I consoled myself with the reminder that this would only be temporary, and in the meantime I could look at it like operating a train.

A few hours into the shift and we headed west again. Par for the course, we got caught at the Federal Highway red light. This placed us right next to the Coral Ridge Mall parking lot, where a few people were hanging out. A woman with a baby stroller cut a familiar profile and as she turned into focus, I recognized her immediately. It was Catherine, a regular on a different route for many years. The pink stroller was an accessory I didn't expect.
"I got a new puppy! Her name is Miracle." She shouted over, showcasing her fur baby in the buggy.
"I was just in Houston," she continued. "We had two and a half good days before we had to hole up in the hotel." Yes, the entire country was shutting down, and she returned to a less than ideal situation.
"I'm not working, but my boss is still paying me." She told me before the light turned green and we waved good bye.

Thanks to Daylight Saving Time, golden hour now took place about 7 PM, a surreal sight at our backs as we cruised eastward. No blinding yellow light piercing in this day. Just a red hot glowing disk floating behind low clouds on the coral horizon. A thick atmosphere muted the sunset so that I could look directly at it via the mirror, a mesmerizing sign of cosmic shifts underway.

The Sun said good night as we began our final trip of the shift. It had been a day of changes both at the garage and on the road. A woman boarded at the east end layover, anxious to get to Target. Soon after we got going, the fiery fumes of an adult beverage wafted up to my nostrils. She hurried to the rack displaying schedules, then spread a few a few on the floor to cover her spilled contraband.

She exited and my regular the tennis devotee entered. He was a bit on edge as he explained the virus was making everyone overreact out of fear.
"My friend wouldn't fist bump me," he exclaimed, perhaps taking it as an insult.

While he brooded about the lapse in etiquette, we sat at Dixie Highway, delayed by one of those mile-long freights the FEC RR is famous for. The endless line of rusting cargo containers had travelled around the world to head south adorned with fresh Florida graffiti.

The Sun had long set when I reached the end of the line, switched the sign to NOT IN SERVICE, and headed back towards the garage after nine hours in the seat. The new moon cast no light on our path as the thin sliver resembled a giant eyelash.

Along the way, on the darkest stretch of Flamingo Road made darker by the trees, stood two figures. One was considerably taller than the other, and as my headlight beams washed over them it appeared to be a man with his young son. They waved their arms for attention, fearing their bus would miss them in the darkness. Unfortunately this wasn't their bus and when the father realized I wasn't stopping, all but one of his extended fingers went down. His shirt read #1 DAD, and hopefully the low visibility and height difference would keep that label intact for his son.

An eventful day came to a close, with imminent service changes and immediate policy revisions. Yet some things refused to yield their old ways: the trains would keep running, the moon would continue its celestial cycles, and people would drink from the well of Life till their thirst was satisfied. Everyday miracles would still occur, regardless what the calendar had to say.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Can you believe


Wise ones have said that what's old eventually becomes new again, and we'd see if that was true this sunny warm Sunday in March. As long as I've been doing this, we've always started new Picks on that day. This normally happens three or four times a year, and it's a chance to start afresh, a welcome reprieve if the previous months took a toll on you. That's the 'new' part of this equation. The 'old' part is that we are again on the 72, the same route we just did yesterday to finish out the old Pick.

The bus itself was a bit long in the tooth as well. A 700 Series just a tad past its expected service life, but not about to retire. Getting it ready for a day on the road, the only glitch that came up was a card misfeed on the farebox, preventing it from printing passes. If this was to be our biggest problem today, we were off to a good start. After grabbing a handful of extra passes from another bus in the yard, I pulled through the gates for a bit of Sunday driving.

Halfway into the first trip, the familiar towering silhouette of a man with a walker became clearer. A regular on BCT since long before I began driving, he was wearing a mask for the first time on my bus, though it was hanging on his neck.
"Can you believe, Driver, what's goin' on?"
   'Hard to believe,' I replied. 'But I guess we better believe it.'
Lockdowns and mandates were being issued by the hour, and many food and sanitary staples were becoming scarce as fear led to stockpiling. He was on his way to the grocer, to score some ground beef the butcher was reserving for him.

Along the way, the farebox fixed itself and decided to start printing passes, so we were now glitch-free. The only other quirky feature of this bus became obvious once I'd left the garage: the air compressor was extra hissy, which gave the impression it was razzing every other vehicle passing by.

A fresh bridge delay at the Intracoastal ate in to my recovery time at the end of the line. there was still plenty enough to get out of the seat for a few minutes before turning it around. These Sunday runs are generally laid back anyway and can be peaceful enough to negate the need for a break.

The next trip held to that pattern, since we were smooth and on time all the way across the county. The first round trip in the books, we started our secondtrip east from Sawgrass Mills mall. About ten minutes down the road, another familiar face in those parts boarded. He wears a rotating collection of various t-shirt designs that all read TENNIS, an appropriate selection as he plays it every chance he gets, and frequently boards with a racquet. The physical activity is paying off well into middle age with an energy level younger guys should be envious of. Today he was concerned because his usual court was locked up for the foreseeable future in order to discourage group gathering during a pandemic. It's good to have connections however, and there was another court where his friend knew the gate guy.

That interaction was the highlight of the trip until just past the halfway mark, when thunder rolled in from the rear flank. Four Bike Life scouts leading the way for more to come were going east like us, but doing it in the westbound lanes. A dozen more showed up a few blocks later, shaking brainwaves within a hundred yards. They were followed by another six a bit further, till the convoy fizzled out with a few stragglers on dirtbikes and ATVs.

Oakland Park Boulevard had quieted back to a lull by the time we reached Andrews, when the Music Man blessed us with a rare visit. Toting a bongo and tambourine, he's considerate enough not to play them on the bus.

Another decent little break on the beach end, during which a man showed up with his own bed. It was actually a sleeping bag, and he was trying to get somewhere on west Atlantic Boulevard. Right here he was closer to the Atlantic Ocean, so I informed him where to get off my bus for a connection to his destination.

Due to the loop at that end of the 72, there's only one stop on Galt Ocean Drive so out of courtesy I waited for a runner to reach us before continuing. We made the turn back on to Oakland Park proper and as it was now the 5 o'clock hour, the setting sun resumed its task from the previous day of broiling my lap and belly.

At a stop before Andrews Avenue, a young man of about thirty boarded with a trim hipster beard. He flashed a ten dollar bill, but like every transit company out there we don't make change on the bus. He was apologetic about it, but I don't leave anyone behind so this ride was a freebie. A few minutes later he could be heard talking aloud, as if on a phone call. The catch was, no phone was visible. Not a smartphone to the ear, no headphones, or even earbuds to be see, yet there was definitely a conversation taking place. It was an external display of internal stream of consciousness flowing into song lyrics, preaching, and a colorful word salad.

Even easy Sunday shifts must come to an end, but first we needed to cover our final trip back east across town. Three people boarded at Sawgrass with their bags of afternoon goodies, several more joined on the way to University Drive. This was rapidly becoming the busiest trip of the day.

A little more than halfway through the trip, our tall friend from earlier reappeared, finished with his errands. He wasn't going far, but limited mobility made the bus a necessity. Plus, he's the son of a bus driver so he's a lifelong fan of public transit.

This longtime regular has a default vocal volume close to booming to begin with, but when we arrived at his stop and he let loose with a loud defensive tone, it was still out of character for him. Apparently another passenger directed an offensive comment at him, not a wise act toward someone twice your size while in a confined space. Yet it was happening before our eyes and ears as this man who I've only known as thoughtful and helpful was instigated into raising his voice, then his fists, then a bottle of soda. This was my cue to park the bus and open the doors. As I tried to get his attention and redirect the fiery energy, another complication stepped into the picture. A homeless woman who camps at the bus stop shuffled over to the front door, asking with the sweetest voice and tooth-free smile if anyone left a pass on a seat. She's advanced in years and unwittingly endangered herself by blocking the doorway at a most inopportune time. For her protection, I got out of the seat and coaxed her to the bus shelter, fishing a spare pass from my shirt pocket. This opened the way for my upset friend to exit with dignity, after which I didn't hesitate to hop back in the seat and shut the doors. The sources of friction were now separated, no physical harm had occurred, and we were back in service.

Sundays signal a new week, and this one began a fresh schedule of shifts, a chance to leave the past behind. We use these calendar changes, both as a society and as individuals, to mark times of change. The times ahead would bring more change than we'd been accustomed to, and Life would remind us there's really nothing new at all.

Saturday, March 13, 2021



In training class we were instructed from Day One to 'expect the unexpected'. Those words of wisdom were proven daily as the machine of the city chugged along, grinding all of its moving cogs under the pressure of modern life, greased with the will power of people who never give up.

Up until recent days, that machine was running on all cylinders. A booming economy with a seeming abundance of job opportunities, coupled with the leisure of visiting Spring Breakers, also brought along the frustrations of inconvenience and friction with so many people moving rapidly in close proximity. Societies of the distant past record a history of similar spans of frenetic human endeavor, abruptly halted by natural intrusions into the normalcies we construct around us.

While the previous week had been a lesson in patience and the futility of effort as we contended with crushing congestion, mechanical delays, and encounters with the beautiful chaos of humanity, now we had entered a time of increasing lockdowns and the prospect of mass quarantine.

The day before, the city of Fort Lauderdale took the unprecedented step of closing all access to the beach at the height of Spring Break. The irresistible stretch of sand that swarmed of students from frigid northern towns was now off limits to everyone, including locals who spent millions on their coastal abodes. For the first time in a hundred years, everything east of the sidewalk belonged to the birds and nesting sea turtles.

Into this new normal we rolled on a Saturday. Today would be spent on Oakland Park Boulevard, one of the busiest streets in the county. The eastern segment ends at the Atlantic Ocean but offers only random glimpses of it through the wall of luxury highrises lining the seaboard.

Miss Marcella showed up to the relief point on time - and also for the last time, since we'd be starting new schedules tomorrow. If I didn't give her the best farewell a coworker could give, it may have been because I wasn't really sure it was her behind the movie star sunglasses paired with a new accessory obscuring her face: the now-common N95 mask which at that time was still a novelty.

This shift always started with us going east, and a bridge delay at the Intracoastal pushed back traffic before the span. All these people heading to the beach with thoughts of relaxation were in for a big disappointment.

Soon it was time to head back the other way. A man was waiting at the bus stop on Galt Ocean Drive, prepared to board like a text book transit passenger. There was also a woman about thirty feet away from the stop, standing under a shade tree. Following the gentleman's cue, I made a text book stop at the posted sign. The woman hurried over and brought a teapot tempest with her. She was upset, claiming I passed her on purpose. This triggered a response from the man who'd been waiting diligently, and they proceeded to argue with each other.

Perhaps it was the closed beach and other sudden changes to daily life, that would create such friction on an otherwise beautiful day. More signs of the times awaited at Federal Highway. During election season this corner is a draw for supporters to promote their candidates. Half a dozen TRUMP flags were mounted on cars backed up to the street in the Coral Ridge Mall parking lot.

This westward journey was quieter than usual, and we had no problem keeping the bus on time. That is unusual for this route, and it was an eerie sensation to find ourselves a bit early between time points. The surreal combination of light ridership on a workhorse route and light traffic on a routinely congested thoroughfare reached its nadir when we arrived at the end of the line.

Sawgrass Mills is promoted as the largest outlet mall in the country, and a typical Saturday would create a bustling hive of activity. Today it had become a ghost town. It was completely closed and the parking lot was empty. A sign on the locked doors explained that after discussion with health officials, the mall would be closing for the sake of public safety. This was a shocking development and presented a stark vision of the 'new normal' that had begun. It would be especially difficult for those dependent on steady commerce for their livelihoods.

A single woman boarded there, a far cry from the dozen I would regularly see. We arrived at University Drive in time to catch a red light, a welcome delay on a day such as this. It also gave me a chance to observe my surroundings more thoroughly.




        IS AT HAND

This message was aimed at passing motorists, on an unmanned placard resting on a folding chair. Such enigmatic messages may be common at various corners around town, but this was a new one for this intersection. The absence of a person holding the sign only added to its mysterious nature.


After the light, a familiar man in a wheelchair boarded, quickly positioning himself and declining securement so we could get rolling. He wore his trademark ballcap with hook clip on the bill, and soon hooked my ear with updates on what he'd been doing. Before he left, he was excited to give a music suggestion. "Vitamin S' by Baby Cham, he recommended. "But be careful who you play it around!"

Somehow on my first trip east I'd missed the Allied Kitchen marquee sign after Powerline Road. I'm always curious to see the message on the ever-changing display. This time I'd catch it:



      YOU WILL


Again the good folks there didn't let us down. The world as we knew it was rapidly changing, and those words of encouragement would be necessary in the coming weeks. We finished the trip at the beach with an empty bus, something else I would soon become familiar with.

With a decent break we left on time for the final trip of the day. The late afternoon lowering sun was cooking my lap and lower torso, where the pull shade couldn't protect. Being a Florida boy, I know and appreciate this feeling. Not for any cheap thrills, the simple power of light reaching across 93 million miles and touching us so tangibly.

Now that we'd reversed direction, we could see the flip side of that Allied sign:





A considerably more somber message than its counterpart, but upon reflection perhaps just the other side of the same coin.

As we intentionally crawled across the county to avoid leaving time points early, a couple passengers appeared at stops they normally wouldn't be seen. Everyone was being roused from their comfort zones these days.

Instinct and hunger brought a buzzard swooping down on fresh road kill in the form of an iguana carcass at 94th Avenue. Nature has no worries to surrender. My own would take a bit more effort to release, as I drove an empty bus to the end of the line.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Doctor's orders


Bus operators routinely drive multiple routes over the course of their work week. Sure, there are straight runs, when we can do the same route, at the same time, Monday through Friday. My preference is for variety, and after a couple exciting days on the beach and inner city, today had me on the 441 Breeze. A decidedly inland route where salty air is merely a memory, we'd be cruising up and down the central spine of Broward County. It may not have bikinis and cookouts, but it's still a throbbing thoroughfare of Life.

Mr. Derrick brought me the bus on time. My pull out time coincided with the changing traffic signal, which kept us trapped to the side until the tsunami of vehicles subsided. When the tide turned in our favor, we eased into the artery like a 60-foot blood cell flowing south. The onboard announcer was mute today, and I'd have to summon my booming bus voice to reach the back seats when calling out stops.

An elderly man with a shiny aluminum cane waited for us at Sample Road. He wore a face mask paired with blue nitrile gloves. This was before mask mandates were issued by the County, so such combinations were an unusual sight. The gentleman was self-conscious about this and felt compelled to explain with two simple words: "Doctor's orders."
'Better safe than sorry.' I replied with reassurance.

Two things are certain in this world, and the woman in a Lady Liberty costume after Atlantic Boulevard reminded us of one of those things. She stood outside Liberty Tax with her placard and waved back as I gave her a couple toots on the horn.

Life is a breeze on the Breeze, and we were never more than a few minutes late. The Breeze is also limited stop, which means bypassing many local stops in between the major intersections. This can confuse passengers unfamiliar with the difference. We serviced the stop at Griffin Road and wouldn't be stopping again for a couple miles, when a man pulled the string. Even though there was a language barrier, he expressed that he wanted to get off. By now I'd switched to the middle lane at cruising speed. Doing my best to explain the situation to him, I gave him a transfer to take the local route back to his stop.

Travel with ease on the 441 Breeze, I imagined a potential tagline for this route. The marketing department can use it if they like, pro bono.

Broward Boulevard is the halfway time point on this route, and also our County's namesake after a one-term governor who vowed to drain the Everglades over a century ago. A cyclist exited there, along with his well-wishes: "May your corona come in bottles."
These were the early days of the viral spread, and our updated vocabulary still had a sense of humor. His light-hearted wish was welcome levity after the previous days of grinding it out on another route. Today's shift was smooth like the undrained River of Grass -  or those cold bottles the cyclist referred to.

Rolling through Lauderhill, I let out a couple love taps for the stalwart sign holder after 26th Street. He leaned behind his upright sign touting a special on oil changes, his stoic pose as reliable and timeless as the shade tree which sheltered him beside the streaming roadway.

Commercial Boulevard eventually appeared before us, and time was on our side. Miss Lita was laying over there with her Route 11 bus, the very route that had vexed me mercilessly before the weekend. Today was Monday however, so I was happy to hear the beach traffic was good for her. We both were having good days, recharging our batteries for the draining days that were sure to return.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Let's rock & roll


COVID Chronicles

All the stories on the blog up to recently have been about the time before 'pandemic' entered our daily vocabulary. Although those stories and others deserve to be told, I am skipping ahead in the timeline to share stories from this unique moment in our collective history. These new chapters will document the early days of life under lockdown and the ways we've been adjusting since. Stay strong. Bless you all.


It's a good policy to leave the troubles of the past in your rear view mirror. Still visible, yet gradually growing smaller with distance. In bus driving, we don't often have the luxury of dwelling on the past when the present makes its presence known in new and imaginative ways.

Today was the same route as yesterday, however when the bus I was taking over showed up on time, it brought a new hope. Clouds were moving in this afternoon, but it was bright enough for sunglasses.

We were still accepting fares at this time, and though the farebox took money in ok, it emitted only an unpleasant raspberry when a day pass was expected. Fortunately the driver of the 83 bus laying over behind me was kind enough to issue a few to see me through the shift.

The traffic at the north end wasn't terrible, an improvement over the previous day. The passengers were in no hurry on this side of town, gentle sea breezes have that effect. Two cyclists at stops a couple miles from each other needed assistance with the bike rack, and we soon found ourselves falling behind.

The first choke point appeared after Sunrise Boulevard, when one lane was blocked so Ruben Ubiera could station a manlift as he worked on his latest masterpiece. A riot of tropical color featuring fiercely delicate betta fish and bursting hibiscus blooms flowed over the entire length of the skywalk connecting Westin Hotel patrons to the beach. Perched above the street directly under the span, the artist worked his magic. I gave a couple love taps on the horn as I glided by, to express support without startling him. We shared waves and carried on with our work.

After the sublime sky bridge, the only obstacles to contend with were the masses of Spring Breakers. When they weren't jaywalking but actually using crosswalks, they bravely trusted oncoming vehicles to observe signs posted giving priority to pedestrians.

Context is everything, so while the plentiful parade of skin at the beach was intended to impress, a more graphic display on Sistrunk Boulevard caused us to recoil. A woman came rushing at us from a side street much like someone attempting to catch the bus.She approached without caution, not respecting the enormity of the machine, so I braked accordingly. Her pants had slid down and her rear end was exposed, the face wide-eyed and vacant, clearly under the influence of a fearful psychosis. I kept the doors closed for everyone's safety. As quickly as she arrived, she turned and hurried off. Bystanders observed out of curiosity, giving her a wide berth.

The obstacles continued as we made our way north by the warehouses on 23rd Avenue. A semi truck was backing up to a loading zone, paralyzing the narrow stretch. Sometimes the harder we push forward, the more we're reminded to slow down. If we push hard enough, something comes along to stop us in our tracks. So, like clockwork the bus decided to die as we crossed Commercial Boulevard and came to a silent stop beside Caporella Park. No warning lights, no buzzers - and no restarting. It was thirsty for more diesel and we weren't moving until road service came to our assistance. The passengers transferred to the next bus and continued to their destinations. In the meantime, I'd sit out rush hour with the curious ducks waddling over from the pond.

Gassed up and reset back where I was supposed to be in the rotation, we had a chance for a fresh start. This dynamic town wasn't about to let me glide through the shift that easily. A bridge delay on Las Olas was the first salvo of a trifecta that would remind me of how arbitrary our schedules can be. The bridge funnelled us onto the crawling boulevard, a single lane trickling like sand in an hourglass. At this speed we could vicariously enjoy the sights and sounds provided for the entertainment of outdoor diners and their Friday night reveries. A lengthy train delay after leaving Central Terminal ensured we'd be late the rest of this trip. When we reached the final stop, I stayed in the seat and kept it moving.

The trip back east rolled smoothly now that timeliness was off the table. By the railroad tracks on Sistrunk, I picked up my barback friend from Lulu's Bait Shack, our usual conversation abbreviated to a simple fist bump. A young man at Central Terminal with a cross tattoo under his left eye needed a ride to the beach, and was impressively polite about it. Back on Las Olas, half a dozen bikers in Gideons MC leathers escorted us in a cloud of rolling thunder. They buffered us from an SUV that was intent on cutting to the head of the line as each light turned green. Never did see the kid with the face tat get off, he just disappeared. We may speak to each other with silence, gestures, and ground-shaking tremors, but we get our points across.

For the last trip of the day we started only a few minutes late and I was confident that we could finally get on time since it was now late night and traffic wouldn't be an issue.

An older man in a wheelchair boarded at the start point, the same spot where I'd begun eight hours earlier. He was a bit tipsy and needed my help not to miss his stop. It was Friday after all, and not unusual for folks to start their weekends on a high note. The night regulars emerged from the shadowed bus stops. The Lowe's guy who clocks out just in time to catch the bus, and then the security guard on the way to his graveyard shift. Reserved and quiet, he contrasts with Woody, the man whose post he's taking over. Animated and anxious about missing his connection, he boards with an announcement.
"One on, one off. Alright, let's rock and roll!" 
He stands up front clinging to the stanchions, the anticipation building with each obstacle we encounter until he bounds off the bus in a blur of navy blue.

Our wait at Central Terminal stretched to fifteen minutes as we waited for the other routes to file in from all over the county. Everyone boarded with relief not to be stranded after their long day and we set out on the final leg, usually an uneventful journey through sleepy neighborhoods. Except it was still Friday night and mandated curfews were not yet in effect, so we shouldn't have been surprised to find ourselves in the midst of a block party shortly after turning off Sistrunk. This block party exceeded most, with hundreds of people milling amongst endless cars parked along the street. Squeezing a 40 foot bus through the mass was a game of inches and unlimited patience. Sound systems boomed with a thunder that put the Gideons to shame. As we inched to the intersection to make our turn, flashing blue lights cut through the darkness. Two cop cars closed off 8th Street, their wailing sirens occasionally heard between bass lines. Eventually the bus gets its due respect thanks to sheer bulk, and the cruisers parted so we could break free. It seemed the entire community felt a change was on the horizon, and gatherings like this would soon be rare.

Midnight was nearly upon us as we cruised toward the finish line. The final stop was in sight when more flashing lights came into focus. We needed only to make a right turn on to State Road 7 before switching the headsign to NOT IN SERVICE. That turn would be delayed by a crash scene involving at least four cars, along with police protecting the perimeter. It looked like a tow truck was preparing to remove the main vehicle blocking our path, but they were in no hurry so I secured the bus and walked into the morass to seek answers. An officer had no answer to the question of the road opening, but he did provide a solution by spotting for me so we could reverse and go through the CVS pharmacy parking lot. There were still a handful of passengers on board, and we picked up a couple more who were left behind when their bus bypassed the crash. They all received courtesy stops as I rolled back to the garage. Our sign said we were out of service, but the grateful people inside knew otherwise. The time to shut down would come soon enough. For now, let's rock and roll.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Beach blur


COVID Chronicles
All the stories on the blog up to now have been about the time before 'pandemic' entered our daily vocabulary. Although those stories and others deserve to be told, I am skipping ahead in the timeline to share stories from this unique moment in our collective history. These new chapters will document the early days of life under lockdown and the ways we've been adjusting since. Stay strong. Bless you all.


A bus driver's schedule often doesn't resemble your standard Monday-to-Friday the normal world uses. My "Monday" was actually Thursday and involved a ten-hour stint on Route 11. I've written about this multi-faceted route before, how it's a long one that primarily covers the beach road before heading downtown and the northwest section of Fort Lauderdale proper. The main difference this Pick is that it was early March and Spring Break was underway. The beaches were still open and no mask mandates were in effect.

Miss Sheila drove several of us bus operators in the crew van to our relief point at Federal Highway. I was not the first one scheduled to leave, so I waited it out in the van. When the relief time cam and went, I started getting concerned. It usually arrived early and it's never fun to start a shift in the hole. The driver finally showed up and I hopped in the seat, not needing to ask why the delay. I was familiar with the A1A parking lot created by 100,000 college kids. The other driver mentioned the bus stalled out a couple times, so that only added to the lateness. The bright, sunny, clear day and the crowds such a combination attracts would be the biggest factors until night fell.

Starting out about twenty minutes down, the best I could do was just keep it moving. We rolled down 14th Street Causeway over the Intracoastal, and made the tightest of turns onto A1A. A regular who's a chef (and part-time DJ) waited at one of the first stops. With beach towel in hand along with a five o'clock shadow, he clearly wasn't heading into work. Big sunglasses hid his eyes, but a big lazy smile said he was feelin' good.

We finally reached The Strip south of Sunrise Boulevard, the most popular stretch of beachfront. A couple teen boys who boarded uptown didn't dare blink now, lest they miss the scenery of collegiate thongs.
"Check out those water-malones!" one announced without shame.

Red-blooded young men may never change, but the times were stirring others out of their comfort zones. As soon as we turned on to Las Olas, an unmistakable downtown denizen was waiting to board. In so many years, I've never seen him stray from his home turf, yet here he was where the road ran into the ocean. Some mumbling and a handful of change would suffice as his greeting, I invited him to have a seat, shocked at his presence as a passenger. It may have been regrettable for the other passengers as he felt compelled to blurt a four-letter expletive loudly and repeatedly.

Three other #11 buses passed us on Las Olas going the opposite direction. Two would have been a sight, but three within a 10-minute span were proof the route was broken today and the schedule could be thrown out the window.

Soon after leaving Central Terminal, the bus decided to stall out on Sistrunk Boulevard just before Bass Bros. Market, as the previous driver had warned. It restarted a minute later to the relief of everyone aboard.

Rolling our way up 21st Ave we came to a young regular who seemed a bit anxious.
"Bro! What happened!? I've been waiting two hours!" He had to share his upset.
I'd been in the seat about that length already, and rather than recount the reasons for our delay, I chose to sympathize with the young man.

More congestion at the end of the line was the perfect capper to a trying journey, and ensured that the deficit I started with was now doubled. No breaks for this driver, we serviced the last stop and kept it moving.

Every new trip is a chance to be reborn, and hopes were high that things would stabilize after the first one. Like clockwork, the bike rack filled up at Oakland Park Boulevard which meant the next bike would be out of luck. Making our way through Roosevelt Gardens, sure enough a bike tire came into focus. An older man held on to it, and fortunately the rest of the bike wasn't with him.

Back over beachside on A1A, the road flowed nicely once we cleared the Strip. Big Jim leaned on his walker by the curb, anticipating the bus door pulling up to him. I complimented his floral shirt, the man was stylin'.

Where the public beach gives way to condo towers, I picked up my regular under the sea grapes. A sweet little older woman, whoever has her as their grandmother is lucky as can be. She wasn't upset, but genuinely wondered why we were late. This stop is out of sight of the chaos we left behind, so I said simply: "Spring Break" and she understood.

Again, there would be no break at the end as we kept it in motion, whittling away at the schedule. The sweet lady hadn't wasted any time doing her errand and waited for us on the return trip.
"Robert, thank you for coming back." She greeted me the second time.
   'That's what I do.' I reminded her.
"They don't always come back..." she replied with an air of sadness.
   'Well, let's not jinx it,' I implored her, well-acquainted with all possible reasons a bus may discontinue service.

There's nothing sadder than an empty bus in service, but to be empty from Sistrunk to the western end of the line was surreal. My leader soon revealed himself a short distance ahead, doing all the picking up. Our next trip would see a return to normalcy. The evening hours were upon us and the earlier heat had subsided.

On State Road 7, a young man made a funny gesture as I pulled up to him, his mischievous grin gleaming in the night. After he exited, an old woman using a wheelchair boarded, making a timid complaint about a bus passing her as I pulled her chair on board and set the brakes, while she made her way to the upper deck.

Wake-up calls come our way frequently, and I got a jolt as an errant taxi drifted into our lane on A1A. A tap on the horn alerted it to back off and from there it was smooth sailing. 

After seven straight hours in the seat without a break, I finally had time to catch my breath at the end of the trip. There were still a couple hours left on this lengthy shift, but the party people were off the street and in the clubs so there would be no more surprises tonight. We could cruise peacefully into tomorrow, when we'd do it all over again. For now, young men and women could enjoy each other's company, blissfully unaware of how their frivolity would soon be coming to an abrupt halt.