Thursday, November 22, 2018

Perpetual vacation

The day after Christmas and I had a 13 hour shift ahead, a split with the 10 and the 114. Days like these will make you forget what your home looks like in the daylight, and your dog forget that you belong there.

The bus today had a voice of its own. Not the onboard announcer, but the brakes. Rather than the signature high-pitched squeal when released, they let out a low, baleful moan. Sort of like a sigh.

The first northbound was sweet as can be for a weekday, during this final week of the year. I made the Mizner loop in Boca and waiting at the very next stop was my joking regular.
"My friend! I thought it was Steve."
   'No, you're stuck with me!' I responded, not sure if it was good or bad to be in Steve's stead.
"I'm blessed to be stuck with you! God bless you and your entire family. Give me a second to sit down."
He was my only passenger the whole time he was on, just a few minutes over Hillsboro inlet back in to Broward.
"Where is everybody?" He squeak-asked  when he noticed the empty seats.
   'I guess they're still on vacation. Not like you, huh?' It was barely eight a.m., not exactly an hour for slouches.
"I'm on perpetual vacation." He ponderously replied after a moment.

On the radio an operator in south county was calling in a harrowing report. A man in a car with paper tags was stalking a girl on her bus. The driver saw the suspect brandish a knife and received instructions on what to do next. Her vigilance may have prevented a tragedy that day.

There was no such stress on my bus, the only issue in the early trips being a sticky transmission during the downshift, which gave us a noticeable jolt before coming to a complete stop. And the persistent sighing.

Across the street, the right lane was closed in front of the Mai-Kai. A forklift was in the street, dangling an enormous wooden Polynesian god by a strap. It would be installed right by the sidewalk, a tireless sentry keeping watch over the restaurant day and night without closing its eyes.

In Pompano I picked up a coworker heading downtown for a shift at Central Terminal. He was on light duty which involves assisting customers, providing schedules, and other low impact activities. He was itching to get back in the saddle. Arriving at the terminal in good time, I secured the bus and walked with him to the driver's lounge. The schedule gave me a nice little break before my final trip, something not guaranteed in this business.

Rolling back north, another disturbing call came over the radio. A driver reported Oakland Park Boulevard was closed near Deepside due to police activity. Apparently they were chasing a naked man running in the street.

Our quiet day continued as it had all morning: drama-free. I picked up one of my Brazilian friends and she wished me Feliz Natal.

At the Pompano Beach Cemetery stop, a slight older woman boarded.
"How much do I owe you?" she asked in a gentle voice.
   '$2 regular, $1 reduced for seniors, medicare, disabled...' I replied, counting those eligible on my fingers.
"Well, I am 72," she declared. Her nimble entry gave a far younger impression.
   'I never would have guessed,' I found myself admitting. 'You must be doing something right!'
"I am. I'm living for God." She explained as she found a seat. "I have a son who's 58," she added to remove any doubt.

The Copans Road relief point was soon upon us and the next driver waited to take over. He greeted me as "Driver of the Year" - certainly the most mild of the many playful jabs I'd received during my Operator of the Month tenure.

It was more than seven hours on the clock by now, the morning shift of the split completed. The afternoon piece was a trip to the Health District in Miami, a commuter route with lots of highway time. The District was uncharacteristically a ghost town, with no traffic to speak of. A world change from the typical daily crawl during the rest of the year.

A man in navy blue scrubs and glasses waited at one of the last stops before we got back on 95.
"Is this the 595 Express?" he asked. The headsign had reverted to NOT IN SERVICE.
   'Yes. The sign is acting up. Everything else works.'
"It reads SOUTH BEACH," he cracked, clearly ready to relax.
   'I was hoping for Key West! We'll just hop on the highway and head south.' It's ok to dream, even when you're going north.

After servicing the Sunrise Park & Ride at BB&T Center and dropping off the final passenger, the bus truly was out of service and on its way back to the barn. The Sawgrass Expressway took me through the coral hues of the setting sun flaming out over the Everglades. Sample Road took me east where the early evening darkness descended quickly. There was no hurry now, just one final mission to return the bus intact.

A surprise delay appeared while I sat at the University Drive red light. Police escorted a caravan that seemed to be a mile long as it slowly drifted south. Just about every car exhibited a lighted menorah of unique size and style on its roof.

Dusky dimness transitioned to night blackness, punctuated by this illuminating procession. Part of me tried to believe the day had been like any other, ending as it had begun. Part of me knew better than that, as the light turned green and our own caravan called it a day.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Flighty paths

Christmas happened to fall on a Sunday this time, which kept things smooth and avoided confusion. Had it been on a weekday, we would still run on a Sunday schedule. It was going to be an easy day with light traffic, no rush on the bus, and schedules adhered to.

I pulled into slot B-1 at Central Terminal where a handful awaited me. The regular with his wheelchair greeted me with a fist bump and a Merry Christmas. He rolled on ahead of everyone else into the spot I'd readied for him before leaving the garage.

Our first stop on US 1 brought us both darkness and light. An older homeless man who had become a regular on these Sunday mornings boarded with dejection. He had been beaten and robbed the night before, by an assailant who relieved him of two monthly bus passes and his cellphone. Now he had no way to stay in touch with others or report the theft. But he had a ride to church on our bus. His gloom was balanced by the boarding of our Island Sunshine. Her smile illuminates even the dimmest of bus cabins; her heart lightens our load.

We glided along the Searstown Curve, driving over tree shadows cast by the rising sun.

Up in Pompano, congregating around a pond along the edge of massive Community Park, were all manner of birds. Egyptian geese, white ibis, cormorants drying out their wings, and other species collected in abundance.

The Mizner Boulevard loop in Boca Raton took us around and directed us back south, though there are still a handful of stops before the layover on Camino Real. In that handful of stops waited another Sunday regular. A couple of obvious handicaps give him the appearance of being half-paralyzed, but it doesn't keep him down.
"Are you on a Sunday schedule since it's Christmas?" He asked as he carefully climbed on.
   'Yes.' My answer was simple, perhaps hesitant as I considered the coincidence of the holiday on a Sunday.
"Can you tell I'm awake? I know today is Sunday."
   'Oh, you're a joker!'
"Yeah I'm a joker, a toker, and a midnight smoker!" He squeaked out in a voice that pierced the silent street. Hunch-necked vultures peered at us from their streetlamp perches.

Other visitors joined us going south. A long time regular more commonly seen on 441 visited. A young lady was going to County Jail to visit her boyfriend. A young father had his hands full with two daughters and a son; they just missed the 36 and decided to take my bus downtown to catch the 40.

The nominal morning busy-ness dwindled as the day transitioned to afternoon. When we got to 62nd Street a few minutes early, we had to sit and burn off the time.
"How long? How long you gonna wait here?" An impatient man came up to ask.
   'Two minutes.' I answered, always giving the actual number.
"Can I take a puff of my cigarette? I'm kinda fiendin' right now," he admitted. He had time to get a few puffs in.

This scene could have repeated itself right up the line, thanks to the light traffic. I was in danger of running hot unless I crawled it up the street at 25 mph. It began to pick up again around Copans.

A regular who got on the previous trip and stayed on since he had nowhere special to be in a hurry decided to exit in Boca. Another man who'd boarded at Sample wanted to go to the 'Boca Mall'. There was a language barrier, so I assumed he meant Boca Town Center. Unfortunately that bus wasn't running today. I attempted to explain that to him, so he could find another way to get there. He got a nervous look, but I couldn't be sure if it was because of what I just told him, or because he couldn't understand what I was saying. Either way, he got off at the next stop, apparently familiar enough with the lay of land.

Shortly after beginning our final southbound, I helped a first-timer load his bike on the rack. He was visiting from Paris. They may not have bike racks on their buses, but they sure have great tattoo artists judging by the ink on his arms.

Down on Sunrise Boulevard one of Santa's elves played hooky and hopped on our bus. Flighty and animated - but harmless - he fed a handful of pennies and nickels into the fare box. He gave his remaining change to an old man just before exiting a few stops later.
"Don't spend it at the casino! Hee hee!" He cackled as he bounded off.

One of Broward Transit's biggest fans was waiting at Central Terminal for a different route. Francois is an instant friend to all of our drivers. We wished each other a Joyeux Noel.

Time for my final trip, when I would be relieved by another driver and spend the rest of Christmas Day with my family. First I had to help others get to their own families. At Central Terminal a man of about thirty boarded with a fresh haircut, trimmed beard, and full sleeves of colorful ink. A large, festively-designed tote bag was loaded with gifts for his kids, who he was going to visit in Pompano. He'd already been on a lengthy bus ride to connect to my bus, now he had a long trip to get north. About halfway there, he was on the phone and getting hot with whoever he was talking to. Mostly complaints and curses about how long the trip was taking. My hands were tied sticking to the schedule, and I sympathized with him. As we neared his stop he came up front, close by.
"My dad wrapped my car around a tree last night. It's Christmas and it's my first time on the city bus."
Another round of sympathy for the guy, and concern for his father. It looked like Dad would be ok, so that was a blessing. This young man was going to impressive lengths to deliver a memorable Christmas to his children. We reached his stop and I popped the doors, delivering in my own way a gift to his awaiting family.

Despite an inconvenient schedule, many routes had connected today. Though we eventually return to our own orbits, for these brief moments we share the same flight paths.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Catching whales

Saturdays found me driving the 55, serving the Commercial Boulevard corridor from Galt Mile by the beach to Hiatus Road in close proximity of the Everglades. Thanks to a sizable loop at the west end of the route, the actual starting point is at NW 94th Avenue, east of Hiatus. It was no longer raining, but the streets were slick and I had to use the wipers as cars sprayed mist on the windshield.

The sun rose on a quiet weekend morning. Ridership and traffic were lighter than usual. The first round trip came and went without event. It is days like this when the ghosts of Broward County past come out. The light slants low, the pace of Life is slow, and you get a glimpse of the laid back days when people had time to breathe. And time to care.

We were heading east, but still way out west at University Drive when a 30ish man boarded with a fishing pole. I'm a Florida boy so fishing is in my blood, and I asked if he had a good spot. He was going to Anglin's Pier in Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, forty minutes down the road. His expectations were kept in check.
"I'm not trying to catch a whale."

The pier came into sight not long after we crossed the Intracoastal, which meant it was time for us to turn south on Bougainvilla Drive and make our turn around at Galt Mile. This brought us back on to A1A going north, and to a rest at our layover in front of the Starbucks at 36th St. The wall of condo skyscrapers are all you can see to the east here, but the occasional whiff of salty air reminds you that the Atlantic is beyond them.

Time to go west again, and a couple of stops in we pulled up to a man with both hands cupping beside his eyes, as if to shield for sun glare while squinting at the headsign.
"Are you the 55? I can't see the sign."
The headsign had been blank all day so there was nothing to see there. We shared this stop with Route 11 so I assured him it was the 55. He told me a workplace accident had lodged a sharp object in his eye. He was on his way to the hospital to have it examined.

The next few hours slipped by in a hazy daydream of kids on playgrounds, people walking their dogs, shoppers tending to errands, and all the other activities that sprout on a sleepy Saturday.

My last trip was a short one, eastbound ending at 441 and passing the bus on to my relief. Last trips have a reputation for delaying the bus from a timely arrival. So naturally I wasn't surprised when I spotted an old man in a wheelchair giving it his level best to get to the bus stop. I was already there at University and saw him in the mirror when I was ready to pull away. Since it was the weekend and would be awhile till the next bus came, there was no way I was gonna leave him behind - especially after his valiant effort. He was so excited to catch the bus that he rushed the boarding process, catching his wheel on the edge of the ramp. Now he decided to watch the wheel, sticking his head past the side of the wheelchair perilously close to the door jamb.
   'Watch your head!' I advised him, as he was so focused downward.
"You ever try to watch your own head?!" His response was quick, as if he'd used it more than once before.

Our delay was minimal and I still got to the relief point on time. The bus would continue on with a new driver and new riders, picking up where we left off. They'd make their own shadows in the slanting light, hopefully taking time to breathe - and just a little time to care.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Two of a kind

Long routes can mean long shifts, so when you've got eleven hours on the clock ahead of you, it's best to just settle in and let the good times roll. The long route today was the 2, dedicated to nearly the full length of University Drive, a broad artery running through the swollen western suburbs. Generally straightforward and sedate, like any route it has its hairy moments.

The day's schedule called for a northbound start out of West Terminal a little before 6 that morning. On those dark weekdays when the city is still dreaming, most of those on the bus are the first sign of its awakening. There are exceptions, and one boarded at Oakland Park Boulevard.
"Is it possible I could get a ride to Commercial? I cannot find him," she asked with pursed lips. She held her hand out with rubbing fingertips. If there were coins there, I couldn't see them. Jail ink on thin forearms and dirty blonde hair were signs of more than one rough night. A light rain appeared soon after, growing heavier as we drove into it. She exited at Commercial, but not before spreading some cheer in the gloom.
"Happy holidays, everyone," she called out to the rest of us. "Shitruffenuff. Thank you friendbro." Her words were light, trailing her as she disappeared into the drizzly dark.

While she looked for 'him', we found our way to the north layover. A Breeze bus showed up and the driver shut it down. It was running slow and he'd be waiting for road service to check it out. Our 2 bus was going strong though, so off we went, picking up a waitress, talking about bus routes and long hours.

The Breeze is a limited stop route, and at every shared stop at least one person asked if it was coming. For those needing to go far down the line, the Breeze is the most direct way, with fewer stops and bypassing West Terminal. I could only tell them it was delayed, but would be coming.

The sun pushed the night out of the way and set to work drying the damp earth. Rain-weighted branches spread low on the poincianas, jacarandas, and mahoganies surrounding West Terminal. Flocks of white ibis pecked in the lawns around Westfield Broward Mall, grabbing fat grubs brought up by the saturated ground.

Down south at Pembroke Commons, an older woman boarded, her arms laden with bags and cleaning supplies.
"I'm going to put my things down," she informed as she walked by the fare box. Some people will put their things on the floor to swipe their pass, but for her "the bus is so wet, and sometimes they don't clean them. If I was cleaning the buses, they would be sooo clean."

We finished the trip a few minutes down, but still had ten minutes to stretch. Our next trip, going back north, was nearly two hours of driving bliss. It was that magic window between the morning rush and the lunchtime crowds. The road was a conveyor belt gliding us along unimpeded. It was the type of trip that becomes forgettable by its very smoothness. It was also the calm before a storm no one had forecast.

A middle-aged man was waiting at Wiles, barely into our brand new trip southbound.
"I need to get to University Hospital." A request like that prompts me to make sure EMS isn't required. Nope, he just wants to go to the hospital in Tamarac. Travis McGee fans will remember this hospital as the scene of Gretel Howard's untimely demise in The Green Ripper.

At Royal Palm Boulevard a young woman patiently waited with her toddler son and mother. They had a stroller which I helped stow as they had their hands full with the boy and accessories. Grandma was very appreciative: "You're the first one to be so generous and help!" Of course I'm not the only one, but it was a nice thing to say.

The day degenerated after that. A horrific two-car crash at 50th St created a serious delay which knocked us down by seven minutes.

At West Terminal, another bus operator spotted me and had to have some fun.
"Thank God the month is almost over and I won't have to look at your face anymore at the office!" My 'Operator of the Month' poster was still posted in the Dispatch lobby.

Massive congestion around the Broward Mall leading to the I-595 interchange soon proved to be an epic traffic jam crawling south of Broward Boulevard. This stretch is notorious for that, although today it had started way earlier than usual. There is no way out of it, so the only option is to inch along at glacial speed until it eventually thinned out. By the time we got to 30th St about a mile later, we were more than thirty minutes late. A student from NSU across the street must have been waiting for awhile when she boarded and asked, "Do you know what time the last bus came?" 'No, I don't. We're all backed up from the traffic,"I answered while pointing my thumb back. Here traffic was heavy but moving nicely south of 595, so from her vantage point she had no idea what we'd just endured the previous half hour. I spared her the details.

The clock said we were more than 40 minutes down when we finally turned on to 207th St in Miami Gardens. No time to stretch or even get out of the seat after that 2 1/2 hour grind. So I picked up, dropped off, and spun it back north for my final trip of the day.

On Miramar Parkway, I picked up the vet in the wheelchair, service dog on his lap. Customers impatient after the long wait skipped by him rather than let him board first. Inconsiderate perhaps, but we would take all the time we needed to lower the ramp and let him board safely. Along with the faithful pet he calls a brother to his daughters.

We were back on University moving nicely but not making up any time. After Sheridan St, another #2 going the other way passed us. It was the third one in the last ten minutes, an indicator that the morass we'd been caught in was still wreaking havoc. More surprising were the four #2 buses within a mile span after we left West Terminal. The accident at 50th St we'd gotten through earlier was still not cleared, and had grown out of proportion as early weekend traffic flooded the streets.

Long routes and long shifts can be exhausting, taking their toll on you even when you're letting the good times roll. You give it your all and leave a piece of yourself on the road. Sometimes that piece tugs on your heart a little bit, not wanting the good times to end.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Ringing true

Midweek fill-in on the 19, rolling on 441 from Lauderhill Mall to Sandalfoot Boulevard in Boca. The relief point was at Turtle Creek and it was a pleasant surprise to take over from a driver who was a recent graduate of the operator training program. Like a relay race, she passed me the baton - only this one was sixty feet long. The transition was smooth and I continued the course down to the Hill on time.

An old co-worker from a previous life was there, waiting for the 40. We fist-bumped, then he spotted his bus and ditched me. A heavy overcast had settled over the south end of the route, but it was cool and dry. No sooner did we turn back on to 441 than we came to a halt at the rear end of a back-up. A disabled car at 16th St was delaying us at a critical point in the route, setting us back before we really got started. We finally got through about seven minutes later, and that deficit would stick with us for the next hour.

A teen girl got on at 24th St with a shy look about her. "Just got out of school, I don't have no dollah," she explained as she boarded. Her boyfriend jumped in behind her, pointing and mumbling. I didn't catch what he said and called him back. "I'm with her," he clearly said this time.

When we got to Oakland Park Boulevard there was a minor glitch in the matrix when two unrelated people, a man and a woman several spots apart, both asked with similar curiosity: "This isn't the Breeze is it?" The question itself wasn't unusual, just a bit uncommon since the headsign was working and clearly didn't read Breeze. Their identical phrasing and delivery were uncanny.

A teenage boy looked confused at Kimberly while trying to operate the bicycle rack. Apparently a first-timer, I hopped out to assist him. It's a simple process and speeds things along if I help, plus he'd know how to do it himself next time.

We finally neared the county line when just before Hillsboro Boulevard a passenger asked with mild humor: "Driver, do you hear ringing in your sleep?" They were referring to the ding of countless stop requests. I may have dreamt of that tinny tone in the early days, now years of conditioning had morphed it into a subconscious command to turn on the blinkers and stop by the side of the road.

The next trip found us in the ever-growing afternoon traffic, and we were getting the worst of it going south. I was stuck in the pull-in stop at 12th St in North Lauderdale, started inching forward in anticipation of a gap coming our way in the endless stream. If we could just slide the bus in there... out of my left hand blind spot a running man triggered my instinct to press the brakes. An older gentleman in an untucked white guayabera had decided to dart from the median and through our gap right in front of the bus. His blind trust that no harm would come to him made me shudder. I let him on as another opportunity to exit the bus trap presented itself. I asked the man to have a seat before we moved, but he remained standing and responded with a smile. His curious mannerisms were reminiscent of Harpo Marx: playful gesticulations with his duffel bag, bowing, and prayer hands. He finally sat down briefly as we got to the end.

During the whole shift a woman's forceful voice made periodic announcements in the back of the bus. It was a jarring contrast to the even-volumed male voice which made announcements in English. She was BCT's Haitian Creole announcer, and it sounded like she was yelling from inside a bathroom. I had named the male voice Izzy after the company that made him; his predecessor was a distinguished woman's voice I called Maggie. The new Haitian woman telling us about bus safety needed a name as well; Marie had a nice ring to it. They may be disembodied voices residing on a microchip, but they speak to us for hours, more often than most people in our lives. Maybe their words even ring in our sleep.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

What's in a name

In reviewing the names I've been called over the last few months, it's clear that we're running out of options. It's only a handful of new ones, and the list is dwindling. Despite the shortness, it's still a mix of sweet nothings and zingers. Browardians have no problem calling their bus drivers by all manner of descriptions. Here are some new ones to add to the archive.

-Leonardo DiCaprio
-My driver
-White Boy


List One

Bus Driver
Young Man
Michael J. Fox
My Favorite
My Friend
Big Dog
My Man


List Two

Good boy
Bus man
My baby
My boy
Boss man
My brotha
Big man
Big fella
Young brotha
My main man
Doogie Howser
Johnny Depp
My son
Mr. Bus Man


List Three

-Billy Bob Thornton
-Dumb Ass Cracka
-My Potna
-Bubble Burster
-Clark Kent
-Big Bo
-Mr. Driver
-The Man

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Open door policy

"You're late, Papa, late!" The middle-aged man chided me with a relaxed Jamaican accent as he paid his fare one clinking quarter at a time. He was right - we were two minutes behind schedule. The predawn darkness at 41st St may have altered his sense of time, or maybe he'd just missed the previous bus twenty minutes earlier. Either way, to him we were late and most likely everyone else on board were equally anxious to get where they needed to be. The cabin of the sixty-foot 441 Breeze filled steadily with the faces of the waking city.

The Miami Subs just south of Griffin Road was a conspicuous beacon on our dim journey. A crew was applying stucco in the harsh wash of flood lights. Traffic is still friendly at this hour so we were never more than five minutes down, even though we had to take it easy on the Swiss cheese stretch of road under construction in Hollywood.

We were on time when we got to County Line Road, with only two more stops between us and the layover at Golden Glades Interchange. I serviced the stop and clicked the door lever closed, but the rear doors remained open. An interlock prevents a bus from moving when these doors are open, so I parked it and got up to investigate. Nervous eyes looking on became nervous voices wondering what the problem was.
"What happened? Are you going to get me to the Glades before 7?" I recognized her as a long time regular from when I drove her home in the evenings on this route. She had to make her connection for her job in downtown Miami. The doors were able to be coaxed shut and we booked it south. When we arrived at Golden Glades with ample time for her to transfer, she made it a point to thank me on her way out.
"You did well. I commend you." These are the commendations that encourage me daily. They come by the busload, each one cherished, knowing they will never collect dust like the paper kind.