Friday, January 20, 2023

The end is nigh (or, It's a blessing)

{Continuing the Covid chronicles}

New normals bring newness all over the place. The previous workday had brought us back to Dixie Highway, that old part of town that was finding its way through the changes the pandemic was bringing upon us. Today I was on the Atlantic Boulevard route, with five round trips between the ancient grime of the east side and the swept streets of master-planned suburbia.

April was fresh and gave us the blessings of Spring in South Florida: Bright, warm sun paired with a cool breeze. Some clouds massed to the west as I began a ten hour bid that would last well into the night. For now, it was just after lunch as I arrived at the Pompano station to relieve another driver. Her face mask prevented me from recognizing her as she exited in a blur, mumbling about "the lunatics and drunks".

A few years had passed since last I drove this route, and vivid memories of the brutal afternoon shift remained fresh. Times were different now, so I reserved judgment and would take it as it came.
Half an hour and one left turn later I was taking a break by the new fire station on Coral Ridge Drive. Further south, this street is known as Nob Hill Road. Once it enters Coral Springs city limits, it gets a new name. And just as there is no actual hill named Nob, there is certainly no ridge of coral in this place ten miles from the sea.

People trickled on soon after beginning the journey back east. Masks were still optional, but steadily became more common. A handful boarded at University Drive, our first timepoint on the schedule.
Between Riverside and Ramblewood, purple orchid trees lined the street with their gentle glory before  a small bridge leading into the sleepy bedroom town of Margate. Here, the buildings are older than the city we'd just left. Or perhaps the fading paint and jalousie windows just make them look older.

The intersection with Lyons Road is especially close to the Turnpike ramp, making for unusually spread out bus stops. A young man still a block from the bus stop kicked it into high gear when he saw us bearing down on him, knowing the next bus wouldn't be through for another hour on this reduced schedule. His spirited effort was impressive as we passed him, and I pulled over at the stop giving him a chance to join us.

Twenty minutes along the road a familiar bristly gray head came into view. It was my old friend Steve, a legend on other routes but never seen before at a stop on this route. Normally at this time of day he'd be enjoying a nap on some beach beside a lifeguard stand. With the necessary reduction in bus service he couldn't risk getting stranded for the night, so here he was at a busy stop, taking in the action with anxiously wide eyes. A dozen people passed in front of him to board, including a woman hauling a wire cart loaded with her weight in food. No time to say Hi or Bye to Steve, we had to keep it moving.

We took five minutes to stretch at the Walgreens on the east end, then spun it back westbound. The Atlantic Boulevard bridge over the Intracoastal is a dicey activity, with narrow lanes designed before the advent of modern transit buses. Shifting gears from the singular focus required by that aging span must have been the reason the gentleman who boarded at the next stop didn't register as someone familiar. The white beard and thinning hairline were an effective disguise. The khaki cargo pants should have given him away, but that was overwhelmed by the mouthwatering goodness in his Pasquale's take away bag. He discussed the tasty meal with another passenger, and the voice started triggering some long-forgotten memory. It wasn't until he exited that it all came together. My pal Al, formerly a regular on Route 50, walked over to the front door and tapped on the glass. His appearance had changed since we last crossed paths several years before, but the same friendly guy from east Pompano shone through as we smiled and pointed in long overdue recognition, followed by a thumbs up before pulling back into traffic.

Western suburbs pulled us onward to the layover, when I took note of a couple remaining passengers out cold with exhaustion. With more and more places closing for the lockdowns, our buses had become mobile motels. One of them slept through the entire trip back east, where I woke him to make sure he was ok. He wanted to ride back the other way again, so off we rolled.

Five minutes in, we reached US 1 with its notorious bus stop situated like a risk manager's nightmare. This stop is unlike any other in the county: posted right on the corner at the traffic signal, in the turn lane. This would be fine if the bus was turning like the traffic stacking up behind it; instead it must wait for the light to change, then nose its way back into the westbound flow. Popular with panhandlers, the bench there has supported many a hangover recovery. On this visit, four cold cases of Heineken boarded, clamped in the swinging hands of two gentlemen. Time was ticking if they were to make it back to the halfway house for curfew. Unable to slay all that brew on their own, they offered up the green lizards at two bucks a pop. This was now the heat of rush hour, with a bus full of folks heading home after the work day, so naturally this impromptu happy hour found some thirsty customers.

The cabin emptied and refilled in cycles as we tracked westward, and at the end it was just me and the sleeper yet again.
    "We're getting to be best friends, since you're spending the day with me," I joked, though it wasn't far from the truth.
"It's a blessing," he replied with a sheepish smile, and I knew that was the truth.
When he exited after our next trip, it appeared we might be parting ways, but he was just making a pit stop at Walgreens and soon returned.
"This is gonna be my last trip," he announced. Profuse thanks came my way when he finally said farewell at the transit center. "We may be able to do this again, as long as the buses are free!"
The temporary lifting of the fare had brought him a new found liberty.
    "See ya later!" I bid him before taking off.

Slogging through the University Drive intersection, the remnants of afternoon congestion gave us a closing finale before the bedroom community tucked in for the night. Before the light could turn red, we rolled through in slow motion, bringing into focus a young man standing on the corner. He held a home made sign of scrap cardboard, with a message in bold block letters:
A month earlier, it would have been easy to write off the dire predictions of a teenager in the suburbs. However, things had lately veered off into the decidedly unknown, so perhaps it was best not to discount even the smallest signs of the times.

That stop emptied the cabin, and remained so till the end of the line. Out here the traffic load had subsided and I could catch my breath again. The next trip east was a breeze and we neared the western end when a young man on board asked if we were going to the beach. Unfortunately he was going the wrong direction, and there were n more buses on this route going that far. When he grasped the situation, he changed his mind and wanted to go downtown. His agitation grew as we continued deeper into the sleeping neighborhoods, and further from where he wanted to be. I calmly reassured him there would be one more chance to connect with a bus heading to Central Terminal. That connection would happen on our final trip, also the final 42 eastbound for the night. We got to Powerline Road with just enough time for him to catch the last 14 heading south.

One other passenger had joined us on this trip, back at University, another young man rapping lightning-quick verses to himself in the upper deck.

After ten hours and ten trips across the county, I pulled in to the Pompano station and made sure the headsign read NOT IN SERVICE before returning to the garage. Off with the sign and off with the rest, that was enough for one day.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Dixie hustle


Daily we slid into new territory as the first global pandemic of our lifetimes took hold and could no longer be ignored. It crept into all corners of our routines and forced us to confront a common enemy. This was a war against the unseen, which made for an unsure response.

Our new selection of routes had begun only the day before, cutting short a selection that should have lasted months down to a single week. Reduced demand due to lockdowns and social distancing required bus service to be adjusted accordingly. Society was slowly buying into the concept of "flattening the curve" which was being promoted by national public health experts. My own responsibilities weren't nearly as crucial, at least not obviously so. The County expected us to provide essential service to our passengers, and it was an honor to continue serving them admirably.

Today was also a homecoming of sorts, as I returned to the Dixie Highway route after a lengthy absence driving around other parts of town. Based out of the Copans Road garage, Route 50 services the area north of Central Terminal from downtown Fort Lauderdale to Deerfield Beach and all points between.

This springtime was developing into one quite unlike all the others we'd known before. Even South Florida, with a climate fostering year-round growth, takes a breather during the winter months. The abundant rainfall of summer becomes a distant memory as our sandy land dries out and almost everything with roots goes dormant until the moisture returns. The human inhabitants also take a break, enjoying the lack of humidity after months of swelter. Eventually the planet makes a certain number of rotations and like clockwork the seasonal processes continue. Nature wasn't altering its routine, bringing us the blessings of a sunny day, blue skies, and a few clouds on the horizon. The community however, was increasingly entering a season of discomfort. Now I would see firsthand how Dixie Highway was adapting.

Just past noon I took over the bus at Northeast Transit Center, the bus station in Pompano Beach perfectly situated at Dixie and Martin Luther King. Across the street is the legendary Florida East Coast Railroad, which had recently seen the return of passengers with the introduction of Brightline express service between West Palm Beach and Miami after a fifty year hiatus.

Mr. Clitus handed over the bus on time for me to continue the northbound trip he'd begun way south of here. Also boarding at that time was my friend who used to work at Poverello thrift in Wilton Manors. He was no longer working there after a falling out with management, so I'd have to find another inside source for upcoming sales.

With the transmission shifted into Drive, we rolled out of the cozy little terminal and onto the baked-in grease of Dixie Highway. Almost from the jump, the onboard smoke detector began to pierce my skull with a high-pitched tone that couldn't be ignored. It can temporarily be silenced, which I did after not seeing any smoke. The process is a bit inconvenient and often requires standing up. Still, it was less inconvenient than an actual fire on the premises.

Five minutes later an unusual shape in the bike lane shuffled in our direction. It wasn't a runner but rather a walker, an older man propelling himself forward with a cane. It's my policy to brake when people enter my path of travel, especially senior persons putting out full effort. We weren't in a hurry at this time, so I pulled over and we waited.

Meanwhile, he wasn't the only shuffler in the street, or even the most eye-catching. On the other side by Sunkiss plant nursery, a young lady in black knee-high stockings sashayed in the middle of a lane. Her revealing look was balanced with respectable glasses to give a studious impression. Love for sale is a common sight on this stretch, though generally not so creative this early in the week. The underground economy was adapting to the times.

Occasionally the term 'concrete' is used to describe something solid and stable, but the old concrete plant up by the crooked palms was testing that claim. The silos and diagonal conveyors had been there for decades, but were now being unceremoniously dismantled to make way for an enormous warehouse complex. The hulking shell of the new construction with its tilt-up walls spanned in stark contrast behind the decaying ruins of the plant. Large-scale redevelopment along this route is historically sparse, so the freshness of it was hard to miss. The forlorn right-of-way along the FEC RR up in Deerfield was also getting a face lift with the addition of a black-slatted metal fence fitted between masonry columns. The trains have been running through there for over a hundred years, but in recent times that sad stretch of track has had a significant number of fatalities. Whether suicide or accident, the new barrier would help improve safety and appearance.

The recovery time at the end of the line was lengthier than I remembered from the past, though the guy yelling at me felt familiar.

"Hey! Can I get on, man?" he wondered with his head poking through the back door.

Of course the answer was yes so I rolled with it and offered a couple squirts of hand sanitizer after he loaded his bike on the rack.

The layover there is on Martin Luther King and Hillsboro Boulevard, so after the few stops on that street I made a lazy left on 4th Street by Pineview Cemetery and cut back over to Dixie. Neighboring the cemetery are a handful of modest houses, as weathered and worn as the grave markers next door but still vital machines for living. Speed humps were added since my last stint on this route, presumably safety measures for the nearby school.

Two other bicycles had joined the one belonging to the head-poker so all the slots were full from the jump. Naturally, a fourth bike awaited us soon after banging a right on Dixie. I sympathized with the cyclist and let him know when the next bus was due.

An old friend waited for us at Sample Road. Only the day before, Steve the bus fan greeted me with a clenched fist at Central Terminal. Now, way uptown in Pompano he was my friend again, ready to ride around town with me. Any previous friction was ancient history.

Just after the freight rail spur near the blimp hangar, we entered the edge of Pompano's red light district where ancient vices are alive and well. Rolling on our way to the transit center, women in racy outfits displayed their wares at each side street for several blocks. This show of desperation made it obvious the health department's guidance on social distancing had put a pinch on the oldest profession.

Not having driven the full length of the route in awhile, it was good to settle in to the old highway. Each city this street passes through has its own character, and the whole thing fits like a shoe you've worn for years. From Deerfield and Pompano, then to Oakland Park and Wilton Manors before ending the trip in downtown Fort Lauderdale, the texture and detail accumulated over generations is both comforting and mesmerizing.

Steve was quiet during the miles of hand-painted store signs, auto garages, warehouses, and old city centers. That made for one talky man by the time we reached Central Terminal, mostly complaints about the president extending lockdowns till the end of April. While he gave me an earful on why that was an inconvenience, my co-worker Kevin wandered over to interrupt at an opportune time. A skilled guitarist when he's not driving the bus, K-Man had to sideline his rocking out while recovering from something that required a medical brace to immobilize his arm. Whatever the reason, he was stationed for the moment at the terminal on light duty. He'd been a semi-permanent fixture on the route I was driving today, so maybe it was habit that brought him over to our bus bay for a bit of camaraderie. Of course I had to tease him about when he wanted to go bowling.

With nothing better to do, Steve decided to ride back up with me, mumbling his final complaints about everything being closed. 

Getting back into Pompano shortly before the transit center, a young man came up front with a confused stare as he looked out the windshield.

"How far into Palm Beach County do you go?" He asked flatly.

   'We don't.' I replied with matched flatness.

"Good thing." He continued, obviously relieved by my terse answer. "I'm not tryna go there, and I'm not allowed to go past it."

Apparently the judge put a limit on his travels, and he wasn't familiar enough with our municipal borders to know where one county ended and the next began. The bus was nowhere near defying the court, so he could breathe easy.

The Goodyear blimp hangar is the dominating landmark north of the Pompano terminal, a behemoth of sheet metal that dares you to look away. Yet my interest was focused on a more temporal feature just past that, but before Copans Road. There, beside the double-tracked Florida East Coast Railroad, is a lengthy side track where unused rolling stock is staged until put back into service. It's so close to the street that it seems close enough to touch, unlike the overwhelming hangar isolated behind barbed wire. Freight cars parked on this side line for more than a few hours have a tendency to acquire colorful art on their fading skins. Today we didn't have the large canvas that a standard shipping container provides, only the long, thin edges of several flat beds. Some local tagger accepted the challenge and applied his spray paint signature to each one - yellow gold on black rust.

Back at the top of the route we got another decent break, not that we needed it on this sleepy Monday. Steve got a few more concerns off his chest and signed up for one more trip back south with us. Again he was considerate and didn't attempt any distracting conversation. Instead, I was greeted with the curious chirps of a warbler that perched on my curbside mirror at Oakland Park Boulevard. That was the highlight of this sleeper southbound, and I fully expected a five-star review from Steve upon our arrival at Central Terminal. Instead, it was his final opportunity to pour me the fresh ire he'd been brewing. Somewhere along the way, he came across an updated headline that the governor had extended state-issued lockdowns till the middle of May, one-upping the president by a couple weeks. This pandemic was getting to be a major inconvenience. We wished each other well as our paths separated in Bay A-6.

There was still another round trip on this shift and things had gone so smoothly I couldn't rightly call it work. I finessed the gas pedal and left downtown in the rear view. Make that side-view, as buses don't have a back window. Mirrors are a bus driver's eyes, and in my right eye a man was answering nature's call as we sat a minute at the Pompano station. Using the open rear door for cover, he left a trickle on the tire.

My final trip of the day was just as unremarkable as the others. Another courtesy stop for an elderly woman who just wasn't gonna make it to the stop; a mutual wave to road supervisor Laurie in Pompano; and picked up Joe at Commercial Boulevard, a regular on other routes who followed me over here.

As I wrapped it up at Central Terminal and headed back to the garage with NOT IN SERVICE on my headsign, I thought back on this return to the old part of town and how it was adapting to a new normal. On this once-humming thoroughfare during a time of constant change, nothing was happening.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

The view down here


Sunday. The first day of the week and the first day of our new COVID-19 Pick. Our previous selection had lasted only a week until prematurely curtailed by a global pandemic. We'd have to adjust on the move in order to meet the conditions now thrust upon us. Mother Nature didn't bat an eye however, and this new day brought sunny brightness and warmth, along with a few signature clouds of a South Florida sky.

This would be an afternoon shift on Route 11, a twisted alignment from an earlier Broward County when routes attempted to cover as much ground as possible. To that end, we would be rolling along the posh coastal skyline, then veer inland where the regular folks lived.

During my continuing research into the history of local transit, I've discovered this route is virtually prehistoric, with early versions going back over fifty years. The bus itself was also a bit long in the tooth, a fifteen year old beast determined not to give up the ghost. Before rolling into service, I readjust the mirrors and seat to my requirements. The driver's seat uses air pressure to rise, so I tapped the toggle switch to bring it up. Instead of my knees straightening out, they went into a V-shape as the seat hissed at me and dropped to the floor. This wasn't my usual position, but the mirrors were good so I put in a request for road service to keep folks from waiting unnecessarily.

Soon after departure we rolled east over the Intracoastal, the legendary inland waterway that flows parallel to much of the the Atlantic coastline. Its storied history involves military exercises and rum-running, but today it was teeming with pleasure craft. My concerns about delaying service were allayed as we continued and didn't encounter the traffic or regular ridership of a normal Sunday. This meant we arrived at time points early and had to wait for the scheduled time to leave.

The sweet old lady who had been a regular on this route during previous months made an appearance on Galt Mile before Oakland Park Boulevard. Now that passengers were boarding through the rear door, she didn't notice that her favorite driver was at the wheel. Well, she noticed when I passed her stop, which was a safety hazard of dust and debris thanks to the construction site next door. She relaxed and smiled when she saw me in the driver's seat, and shouted up thanks for stopping in front of her apartment building.  

A minute later, the wall of condo towers that hid the ocean for the previous five miles gave way to public beachfront. The scene was postcard perfect: Sailboats cruising the calm blue-green expanse, gentle ripples lapping an empty beach. That's right, not a solitary barefoot upon the sandy strip famous the world over. It was now off limits, and police were strategically positioned to ensure it remained so. Orange cones and yellow tape cordoned off the curbside parking that would otherwise be in heavy use on a day like this. Motorcycle officers perched on their bikes, blocking beach access while shaded under royal blue FLPD canopies.

While mesmerized by the surreal scene, I encountered more cyclists than ever for a Sunday. It was nothing organized, no Tour de France, just folks out for a ride swarming the entire length of A1A and spilling over on to Las Olas Boulevard. Since no one could enjoy the direct beach experience, the mere sight of it would suffice. They were the only real hindrance to contend with, and weren't enough to delay our arrival at Central Terminal.

We enjoyed a rare lengthy layover at the terminal before heading into those less-glamorous sections of the city which will never make it on a postcard. Neighborhoods like Washington Park and Roosevelt Gardens are off the beaten path, but the bus gave a direct link from the outside world to the house parties underway before the return of work week drudgery. 

Rolling up 21st Avenue by the open expanse of Osswald Park soothed my heart, then broke it a block later. The daycare was closed for the weekend, so fortunately there were no children present as we passed the vacant lot next door. A young man in his late 20s wearing odd sport glasses emerged from the bushes, adjusting his pants upward. That was innocent enough, until he was followed by a sad shadow with shabby blonde hair. Some five years earlier that golden crown had been shiny, framing a fresh, clean face. The woman I picked up back then was brimming with vitality that beamed out behind sporty sunglasses. Now this fallen daughter's complexion was blotched and puffy from rough living. Sunken eyes averted any direct gaze as she made her shameful exit from the overgrowth. Addiction can be a hell of a life, and I hoped she'd be one of those who escaped its grasp to find rebirth on the other side. Out here on the street there are no closed doors to hide the wayward paths of our neighbors. Just outside our window, humanity is a pulsing sea of need - and our feet get wet walking its shore.

No storm can darken the skies forever, and the ache of promise lost was more than replaced with a blessing at the end of the line. My friend Ron sauntered out of the shade of a yellow tab, with a smile as warm as the Jamaican sun and the island accent to match. Ron was a regular on the Dixie Highway route, friend and saint to any bus driver willing to accept his invitation. This time he was waiting for another route, driven by another driver friend, but we used the layover time to talk transit and for him to share stories out of Miami.

Times were certainly changing, but at least one Sunday tradition hadn't been snuffed out. The smoke pits at Big Boyz BBQ, on the point of the triangle before Sistrunk Boulevard, blanketed the neighborhood in the mouth-watering aroma of smoldering wood and slow-cooked baby backs.

Downtown traffic was nonexistent about now, and a desperate panhandler at Andrews Avenue had scribbled a facetious message on his cardboard sign:

2 - UGLY - 2


The pale blue sky over the Galt was also devoid of activity, no clouds around. Signs of life resumed north of Commercial Boulevard, with countless dog walkers and their micro-pooches designed for condo life.

We'd be back this way in about twenty minutes, after our recovery time at the end of the line. That break isn't for the driver's recovery, but to get back on schedule if delays put us down. With the light traffic and ridership, running late wasn't an issue. As sleepy a Sunday as it gets, we started up our final trip west to cruise the beach and Las Olas one last time.

Barely a few stops in, and a familiar passenger from the Federal Highway route waited expectantly. He had two accessories I'd never seen him with before: a bicycle and a face mask, though the bike certainly fit the mood of the day. The trademark style of loose linen tunic with dangling tzitzit was a spiritual balance to his earthy observations about human behavior.

On we glided, again beside the strollers and their fur babies, a smooth and silent phantom. The westward-marching sun hopped over the wall of towering cubicles and penthouses, and made us a shadow on the asphalt.

Las Olas Boulevard told us our day at the beach was over, so we cut a right to chase the sun. First we made sure to pick up a man on the corner who boarded with a fishy pungence that activated every scent receptor. His distinctive aroma led me to believe he earned the day's catch the hard way, most likely from the side of a day tripper berthed nearby.

My crying nostrils passed on their revolt to my eyes as we crested the Intracoastal bridge and the ever-pacing sun leveled out to blind me for the next mile. Blessed relief arrived at 13th Avenue when the shade trees rescued my corneas.

Central Terminal sheltered us for a modest break as I tucked the bus into the designated bay. Seizing the opportunity to make a pit stop, I was met with a fist directed toward me by a grimacing older man. It was my old friend Steve the bus fan, acting displeased. Between gritted teeth he complained about my number blocking his texts. We figured out the problem and made a good connection.

Most any other time of the week a train delay would not be welcomed as an obstacle in my path. This day was different, and the squealing beast on rails saved us from running hot with several minutes of moving art as the blur of fading graffiti slid past us.

Our tires dampened the humming tracks as we rolled over their elevated right of way and onto Sistrunk Boulevard. About halfway down, the 11 angles onto a side avenue into the hidden heart of the northwest quarter of the city. Just past Betty's Soul Food, there was the makings of a block party as cars jammed the shoulders of the road. It was unlikely to get too massive this time, but still made for a tight fit with the bus.

Folks steadily emptied from the cabin and headed home for the evening, leaving me with an empty bus before I reached the end. To me, there's nothing sadder than a bus with no passengers, and this old girl took the melancholy up a notch with a growing list of defects. Besides the floor-level seat, we could now add a mute announcer, streaky windshield, and a back door that buzzed like a hornet's nest whenever it popped open.

The bus and I continued our mutual social distancing for the final trip, a partial journey that finished at Central Terminal. A young man boarded soon enough, ending the drought. He was my only passenger for the next twenty minutes, then it was just me again. A few sharp turns through the neighborhood and a lazy left on to Sistrunk in my empty bus which was timely since the once-living city had reverted to a surreal ghost town under the sodium street lamps.

Half a dozen blocks later, Venus rose to the rescue under those dim beams, materializing beside a bench as I neared 15th Avenue. That isn't a designated bus stop, so I assumed she was waiting to jaywalk once the bus passed. Using the consideration of a seasoned bus operator, I slowed lest she make a move it would be impossible to recover from. She did indeed make an unexpected move: she flagged the bus. I don't recall ever making a courtesy stop there before, so this may have been the first and last time. It wasn't the time to leave someone stranded simply because they were unfamiliar with the system. She boarded with questions about bus connections to the south part of the county, options which were sparingly few at this point. She thanked me for the information she needed to make a decision going forward. I was also thankful: to her for not finishing the day with empty seats, but also to those who filled them earlier, along with all the sights and smells as I rolled around town. Our future was increasingly uncertain, but there were certain to be more moments reminding us how important the little things are. It was only the first day of the week, and we'd get the hang of living one day at a time before the weekend.

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.