Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A certain slant of light

"Route 36 to Galt Mile," the on board annunciator chimes out each time the doors are opened. The curbside destination sign also reads Galt Mile. This all creates a little confusion for passengers since the 36 no longer goes to Galt Mile during heavy road construction on that stretch of A1A. Now we turn around at the beach end of Sunrise Blvd, and those heading north can transfer to route 11. There was a little confusion when the service change began and regulars soon caught on, though the technology hasn't.

This pick I drive the 36 on Saturday mornings. Since Daylight Saving Time ended last month, I still deadhead to my starting point at Sawgrass Mills in darkness, but head east with the rising sun. It is a stunning spectacle showcasing the power of light bringing the world to life. As we head over the 95 overpass, downtown is spread before us, illuminated by the sun peeking through a variety of clouds.

This is my easy piece of the week. The schedule has enough extra time built in that I actually hope for various time-eaters along the way to keep us from running hot. Wheelchair passengers are always welcome any day of the week, though the slower pace of a Saturday morning means I get to roll out the royal treatment by being precise about where the ramp will come down, kneeling low to the curb, and making sure they're secured if so requested. Then there's the FEC RR. The lights start flashing, the arms start dropping and we're stuck at the tracks. Four engines crawl by and we know this is gonna be a looong one. No problem, we got time. As a child, I used to count the cars for fun, often there'd be over 100. In those days, I vaguely recall there being a caboose at the end, not necessarily a red one, but still one nonetheless. I don't see cabooses on trains anymore. More often than not, people complain about the long train. I give the same answer as when they complain about cockroaches: It was here first. Like the natural rivers many confuse with man-made canals, the railroad is a vein of thriving life through the hearts of our eastern cities, an immovable highway connecting past and present.

Today we're on the 36, where we can see the great dichotomies of our community, the razor-thin margins separating luxury from poverty. On the east end is the Galleria, a gilt elephant for wealthy locals & visitors. At the west end is Sawgrass Mills, which seeks to wow patrons with its sheer size. In between we have the Swap Shop, with its endless dark alleys of hidden treasures.

A1A> Intracoastal> Galleria> Holiday Park> Searstown> Andrews> Powerline> Sunland Park> Dillard High> Swap Shop> Lauderhill Mall> Deepside> Sunset Strip> Plantation High> University> Sawgrass Mills

"Good morning, Boss Man! How are you this morning?" This is a regular, a young man dressed quite dapper in beige suit and tie. Always a beaming smile, a quick yet steady movement from entry to seat. His enthusiasm rubs off and I return the greeting and call him "Mister" even though he looks about 20. Any young person who takes the time to look like a future professor deserves a respectable greeting. And is he from the eastside, or the posh western suburbs? Nope, from the heart of Deepside, in clear contrast to the influences around him. Thank you, Mister.

"Do you meditate?" an older woman exiting at the Hill asks me. Maybe I present an introspective figure on these slow morns. She's an older woman with ink in fonts and locations typical of the neighborhood.
"I do sometimes" I respond, explaining how it's good for keeping stress at bay.
"God bless you" she whispers in a grateful tone, eyes piercing to the core. Her children are causing her grief and she's drained. Her hand rests gently on mine and I cover it with my other, encourage her to hang in there and stay strong.

While at the Hill, a man in work clothes and ski cap approaches. He's seems familiar with me, but with the headwear it takes me a minute to recognize him as a familiar face from earlier this year. He used to board with a fishing pole and try as I might, he'd never reveal his best fishing spots to me. Now he's set aside the fishing and is focusing on golf. Gives me some basic golf tips for beginners, and says he's recently returned from being out of town for work. He's generally reserved, but today he's open and has some thoughtful insights. Perhaps fatigue has loosened him up, since he seems tired and later on he appears to be dozing on the bus.

Near the transfer station, a young man with a megaphone is calling all listeners to repentance and to love one another.

After leaving the Hill, a group of ladies with folding carts boards. This is not unusual when we service the Swap Shop, but this is the stop near Lauderhill High and the carts are loaded with frozen turkeys and other Thanksgiving fixins being given out at the school. The line wraps around the building.

On another eastbound trip, I see a long lost friend. She just got off another bus and is rushing to mine as I pull into the stop. She's dragging two large garbage bags (clothes?) and she looks exhausted. As she boards, she's sure to swipe her pass, but doesn't look up at the driver. Still in her security guard uniform, her hair slightly mussed, and dazed stare all let me know that this lady's been working all night and is in a rush to get home. When I drove the 36 nights back in the spring, I'd pick her up and hear about her plans to work hard and make a good life for her baby. Now it's winter and it's clear she's kept her vow, finding the will to keep moving through the exhaustion. When she exited, the light inside her shone again, as she wished us a good day. These are the strong ones, spending of themselves to the last, the strength of character outlasting the frailty of body.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Work of art

Twice a week I drive a split shift, which means I drive one route in the morning, get a break for a couple hours and return to do another route into the early evening. I start with a 595 Express run from the BB&T Center to Brickell in downtown Miami. Yes, Broward Transit also services Miami. One good thing about this route is it gives me a chance to see all the changes which never cease in the Magic City without actually having to live there. It's a dynamic place constantly reinventing itself while struggling to respect its ancient history. So in a way the bus becomes a time machine as we roll down Brickell Ave.

Which brings up one bad thing about the route: Miami traffic. I jokingly say there is nothing 'express' about these runs since the designated express lanes on the highway are usually a parking lot by the time I make the drive down there. They're certainly better than the paralyzed gridlock on the local lanes for the most part, but only slightly. One recent rainy morning the traffic was more horrific than usual, and the express lanes were posted as closed to traffic. It is county policy that buses do not enter these lanes when posted as closed, and in fact drivers can be ticketed by FHP for failing to observe this. Nevertheless, we carry on through the grueling 20 mile parking lot and deliver everyone safely to their destination - 40 minutes late. One passenger, upset about the lateness, asks why I didn't use the express lanes. I explain the policy, but it seems he wants to use the express lanes no matter what - even though we would've been later had we used them. Fortunately the majority of the other passengers, mostly regulars, understand the nature of the commute and thank me as they exit. One woman needed help with an address, I was able to direct her, and received voluminous thanks and a radiant smile to ease the stress of the trip. Always a good way to end a trip before switching the headsign to Not In Service.

While deadheading back to the garage, I could see numerous tents set up in Wynwood for Art Basel events, and wondered what new masterpieces were being sprayed up this year. The reach of the festival is long, and would touch me again before the day was out.

The second piece of the split shift is the 441 Breeze, an exciting journey from Turtle Creek in Coral Springs to the Golden Glades Park & Ride in north Miami. This route is all about sheer volume and speed. It's the only route where I need an artic (bendy) bus. The whole spectrum of society rides this route and it never gets boring. One woman coming up from Dade and unfamiliar with Broward needs help with an address for the wake of a friend. She commented on how built up Broward is, and I joked that maybe she expected flowery meadows. With the sun down and the bus's lights turned low to reduce windshield glare, she nervously noted how dark the rear of the 60-foot bus looked and how "I gotta stop watching horror movies."

Earlier on a previous trip a young Jamaican man with a particular pungent herbal aroma boarded in a yellow Lion of Judah jersey wearing headphones and reciting random reggae lines. He's looking for a certain department store, but the Breeze doesn't stop there since it's a limited stop route. When he realizes he's on the Breeze and not the 19 which makes local stops, he mutters a calm "Bumbaclot" to himself, then a "Give thanks" when I told him we stop just across the street. As he exited, we fist-bumped and he offered up another "Give thanks."

Finally, my last trip of the day. Northbound and there is no longer the rush of previous trips. We don't want to miss anyone since the Breeze doesn't run very late and I relish counting down the stops:
Oakland Park>41st St>Commercial>Kimberly>Southgate>Atlantic>Coconut Creek>Copans> and as we approached Sample, the stop before the end of the line, I wondered who might be left on the bus. In the reflection of the windshield, I could see a pair of women's feet in slippers. Not wanting to turn around while moving, I figured I'd assess the cabin when we came to a stop. At the stop, anyone left on the bus exited, including the owner of the feet - a beautiful young blonde woman. In what I took to be a Russian accent, she approached and said she had a gift for me, while reaching into a tote bag. Secretly hoping it was her phone number, instead she pulled out a small brown paper container. She said it was a meat sandwich* she got at Arby's. That's what I thought I heard through the cute accent, and repeated it to her. She spoke again: "Artbase, the festival in Miami". For some reason it still didn't register in my mind what she was saying. Maybe I was distracted by other things. Later on, while heading back to the garage I realized she was saying Art Basel in her own inflection, I just didn't make the connection. Still, it was nice to end the second shift the way the first one ended: with a pleasant face smiling back.


*Curiously, the week before on the same route, a Vietnamese man carrying a pail full of spicy-smelling sandwiches also gave me one.

And while we're on art, some time ago I purchased this colorful piece directly from the artist, at Central Terminal:

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Good things will grow

The 40 seems to be the route that keeps on giving. Perhaps because it traverses such a broad section of the county, unlike the other routes I'm driving this pick. It seems like a lot of my recent posts are about experiences on the 40. Yes, I do other routes each week too, but they tend to be straight-shot routes that generally adhere to a single major thoroughfare.

10 - Miles and miles along a single street (US 1) until we turn at the north and south ends.
36 - A steady trek along Sunrise from one side of the county to the other; from the waves to the glades with a side trip through Deepside.
441 Breeze - A hectic, fast-paced bullet ride from north Broward to north Dade 99.9% on US 441/SR 7.

Like I've mentioned before, the 40 has many faces so I hesitate to label it. It's not strictly a neighborhood route since it also spends half the trip on 17th St and A1A. And any ideas that it might be catering to cruise ship visitors or beachgoers are quickly dispelled once we head west of Central Terminal. The best part is that no matter which segment you're on, passengers are very likely to be be sociable, inquisitive, and surprising.

This pick I drive the first 40 eastbound from Lauderhill Mall. I make the turn onto 12th Street with the empty bus and can see a few people milling about on the boarding platform. As I get closer, more people emerge from the bus shelters and from various spots further down the platform. By the time I pull into the bay, the pad is covered and everyone's anxious to board. We're scheduled to pull out of the mall at 7:40 am on Sunday mornings. By that time, the other connecting routes have already arrived multiple times. People need to get to work and church, so of course the first 40 is going to see heavy usage. If the route didn't have to enter the mall or Central Terminal, an artic bus would be the way to go since we'll have a standing load within 10 minutes of pullout, and we still haven't serviced Sistrunk, which is when it gets really tight. Fortunately that initial intensity is relieved once we reach Central Terminal and most regulars know this so they're patient during the momentary discomfort. Also while everyone naturally wants to claim one of the limited seats available, they're also routinely accommodating when a wheelchair passenger boards or an elderly person needs a seat. This is the route where people drop their pretensions and do their good deed for the day.

We're eastbound on Sistrunk, crossing 9th Ave. I can see a young man, maybe 30, on the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street. He's looking around curiously, sees the bus, and rushes across to the bus stop. As he boards, he's visibly sweating and flustered as he struggles to find his fare and slide a crumpled bill in the box. There's a vibe of anxiety here, and he hurriedly finds a seat. The bus is quiet this trip, maybe as folks anticipate the connections they'll make at Central Terminal.
The young man speaks up: "I love my kids, man. Broward County will f*** you up. Every time I get high...," apparently to another passenger, another young man. The worry and wondering is palpable. Whatever life issue he is going through has affected him deeply and he's reaching out for some direction.
"You need to stay focused on what you tryin' to do, and good things will grow," the other replied in a calm and measured way that bore the weight of hard-won wisdom. Direction discovered.

Incidents like this remind me of what's important in our interactions with each other, and I can't be reminded too often.

On my last trip to Central Terminal, where I'm due to be relieved by another driver, I'm extra attentive to the time points so I can make the relief on time while not missing any passengers. There's no leisurely driving on this trip, it's a full-focus effort to keep to the schedule. It's at those times the outside world intrudes into our little worlds. All of a sudden more people than usual need extra attention, or we hit every red light, or the train is crossing, or any number of things that conspire to throw us off schedule. If we're not careful, we may become resentful of these intrusions and behave less than our best. Or we can recognize the moment, not resist it, and see where it leads. Despite the possibility that I might be a couple minutes late to the relief after a long time at the wheel, I gave those who boarded the respect they deserved and attention they required.

As we approached Andrews, an older man I picked up at the west end of Sistrunk took a moment to speak to me as he exited.
"You're a good driver, man. Don't get jaded. Don't get jaundiced or jaded." Another moment of perfect timing and remindful encouragement. I thanked him.

On the 40 we learn we're all connected, and strength is shared for the hard road ahead.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

World's Greatest

His hair was dirty and his teeth were broken. Dirt was embedded in the grooves of his fingers, the fingers that made music out of nature and trains. He spent his last days roughing it at Holiday Park. Yes, the world's greatest bass player was homeless. I try to keep this in mind with our homeless community; you never know who that person once was or what they've done. Any one of them could easily be him. He who was the strongest taught us even in his weakness.

To me, he is a hometown hero. By realizing his vision, virtue, and vice he forever changed the world of music. He traveled the globe and touched countless lives, but still he always came home. The man and the place had become inseparable. Its influences shaped his sensibilities, then his abilities painted pictures in people's hearts. He released himself into the world, and part of him will always be here, walking the streets we all use, climbing the trees that once lined Andrews Ave, learning lessons of great value in the hidden places. But he is not hidden, the beat goes on all around us if we have ears to listen.

Much has been written about him, he continues to be honored, and his legend continues to grow as the years pass since his demise at the hands of another. Today there is nothing to add, only for us to enjoy the music he left us, music that will never die.

Happy birthday, Jaco.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Warm 40

In a previous post I chronicled some of the relentless grind of the 40. Those experiences were in the afternoon, unlike my current pick when I drive the 40 on Sunday mornings. This route of many faces continues to surprise. As you might expect, at that time we don't have to contend with school zones, commuter gridlock, and other things that go along with a weekday afternoon. Instead we transport a large number of worshipers and workers.

Houses of worship come in all shapes and architectures. The faithful gather in their Sunday best whether they're at a fancy coastal sanctuary, or under the vaulted ceiling of a steeple on MLK, or the utilitarian space of a warehouse in Shallowside. Some meet under a cross, others a menorah, others under the crescent. Some are sweaty after attending the church of the body, their gym.

As the morning progresses, many riders west of Central Terminal head to the Swap Shop, folding carts in tow. Young mothers board smoothly while deftly folding a stroller with one hand, holding their little one in the other, and their bus pass between their lips. Old men slip their bill in the farebox as they head out to have coffee with their buddies. At a certain hour, Sistrunk becomes the most mouth-watering aromatic place in town as the BBQ pits fire up.

East of the terminal, cruise ship tourists ride back to the Port ready to set sail. A Chinese couple with workable English who recently landed at the airport with oversize luggage show me a Google maps print out with Bahia Mar as the destination. The curious daily shuffle the homeless guys do between downtown and the beach gets underway, in both directions. A service animal named Gracie rides without making a peep.

Most of our trips are kept on time, except for the times when a bridge tender in his observation room stops street traffic to let yachts cruise down the New River or the Intracoastal. These interruptions on our journey are inescapable delays.

The only trip that might resemble the chaotic 40 is the very first eastbound out of the Hill. Before I arrive for pullout there is a large crowd waiting to board, so that before we've even gotten to the Swap Shop we are at standing room only. Fortunately we have a lot of good people on the bus this morning, willing to give up their seats so a man in a wheelchair can board. I praise them for their generosity, which helps keep everything rolling. Our Sistrunk passengers squeeze in and find something secure to hold on to while standing. Perfumed women in impeccable outfits don't complain despite the cramped quarters adding a few wrinkles to their skirt lines. I am concerned for everyone's comfort and safety as the cabin gets tighter and tighter, but the best thing is to keep it moving safely and get to Central Terminal. Keeping it safe means lurching to a stop at each railroad, first the Tri-Rail/CSX RR with the bumpiest pavement that demands slow passage just to keep everyone intact. Down the road, the gate arms are blocking the FEC RR, countless empty quarry cars heading south to be filled with Dade County limestone. The cars are empty but the bus is full to the brim and the sooner we get to the Terminal the better, where the bus will empty out and everyone can breathe again.

Or maybe we'll get that breath early. Before the tracks we have a special visitor, the last person to board before turning on Andrews and arriving at the Terminal. Sporting a white cowgirl hat bedazzled with rhinestones and carrying a thick plastic Broward Health bag, he gets on with a flamboyant entrance, excited and energetic. Immediately he kicks into his little routine, like someone accustomed to being the center of attention.
"BCT. Our best. Nothing less" he chimes out loud while buying a day pass. "All haters please refer to your timetables." His shtick is imitating the bus's announcer messages, putting his own spin on them.
We roll over the tracks while he occupies the last available standing space up front and continues his performance.
"Now approaching Andrews Boulevard, connecting with 60." Never mind that it's actually avenue, not boulevard, his one man show has lightened the compact tenseness on the bus, and laughing can be heard throughout, even from those who probably can't see him from their seats.
Thankful for his perfectly timed arrival, I let him know he's awesome - but he already knows he is.
We finally pull into our slot at the Terminal and everyone spills out. Our entertainer soon returns though - he's lost the pass he just bought. Fumbling in his bag, digging in his pockets he pulls out the now crumpled pass, looks into the cabin at the remaining passengers waiting to continue eastward, and blurts out "Route finished. Thank you."

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Comfort food

Some routes carry an extra measure of favoritism for me due to nostalgia and sentiment; the 60 is one of these. Long before I became a driver, the 60 was my go-to route for getting downtown. Once there, I could spend hours in the Main Library with its multiple floors of discovery, education, and fascination behind coral-and-glass clad walls. Or to the New River for some brackish fishing - the ghosts of Seminole legends, Major Lauderdale, and Frank Stranahan whispering in the ripples. Or to Broward Community College for some higher education. Or to Government Center (former Burdines building) for numerous reasons.

Most of this past summer I drove the 60 once a week in the afternoon as the second half of a split shift with the 40. For the most part, it was a smooth and uneventful run, servicing the majority of the Andrews Ave corridor, up into Collier City and Broward College North. As a rider, I never traveled the route from end to end and so had little idea of the large area it covers north of Cypress Creek Rd. Even now as a driver, it will always have that connection to my own stomping grounds, and I find myself perking up a bit when we're passing through my neighborhood.

Now I no longer drive the 60 as one of my regular routes, though I occasionally return to it when I'm filling in on one of my days off. I was already accustomed to heavy ridership previously during a couple late afternoon trips when folks were getting off work or school and heading home, but a morning slot I was assigned blew that experience away. I had received the assignment a little later than it was supposed to start, which meant we would have a late start. But it was the first 60 northbound from Central Terminal, so better to run it late and get everyone where they need to go. Even at 5:30 a.m. there was a crowd at the Terminal ready to fill the bus. One problem with running late is that the later you get, the more passengers you get who would normally ride on your follower's bus. So by the time we got to Sunrise Blvd less than 10 minutes after pullout, we had standing room only. Fortunately a few people exited there which made room for the bunch waiting to board.

At the head of the pack was an old regular from my Sundays on the 50, the anxious man with the rolling suitcase.
"You better drive fast man," he said without looking at me, swiping his pass and finding a spot for his luggage.
With his seat reserved, he came back up front a bit mellower and let me know he missed me on Sunday. I returned the sentiment and let him know my new Sunday route. Soon he was laughing with the other passengers, everyone keeping it light as the bus got heavier. Complaints about the lateness mounted, but they were generally about having to wait; it was still early enough that most could make their connections and get where they needed to be.

We passed my neighborhood and one of the streets was closed off with police cruisers, their flashing lights glaring in the dark. A tv news van was set up nearby, telescoping antenna extended.

Finally, near the end of the first trip my follower caught up and passed me. He had called on the radio about mechanical problems and was instructed to return the bus to the garage for a replacement. This meant I now had no follower and no recovery time at the end of the trip. Only choice was to keep it moving lest I fall further behind. So I serviced the last stop and headed back south for our return trip to Central Terminal.

We passed by the closed off street again. I later learned a man's body had been found, stabbed to death. On the same street a young woman was also murdered last year.

Our next northbound trip was truly a grind due to running late. By now I'd been in the seat for several hours and was definitely picking up my missing follower's people. One of these people was a regular of mine from the 40, an older gentleman who works at a restaurant in my neighborhood.
"Hey man, how you doin' this mornin'?" he greeted me.
"Oh, not so good, it's been a rough morning." I responded honestly.
"Aw man, it's not as bad as all that, you'll be alright" he encouraged me.
Suddenly any built up stress was gone. I was doing my best and had to be content with that for the moment. My friend caught me up on dinner specials and shared his ideas to improve the restaurant's offerings for the holidays. Block by block I capitulated to his hospitality, reminded that Life is in the present journey, not the end of the route. A few blocks short of his destination, my follower in a replacement bus caught up to us and all the passengers transferred to his bus so I could get set back on time.

We work to put food on the table and satisfy stomach pangs; occasionally we find we cannot supply our every need - but that together we can find comfort for deeper hungers.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Morning night

There is no place darker than the Sunshine State at night.

The last few months have been all about the a.m. runs for me. It's a definite shift for a self-confessed night owl to ditch any kind of night life for 3 a.m. alarm clocks. Now our new picks have begun, and I'll be doing morning runs for the rest of 2015. So I bid farewell to the 50, 20, and 60 -  and return to the 10 and 36. It'd be nice to see familiar faces from those routes, but I'm not counting on it since those were night runs when I last drove them.

When the sun rises, I say good night. -Villon

The pre-dawn hours in the city are a thing unto themselves. The people of the night are wrapping up their activities, and the people of the day are trickling into the streets. Heading from home to the garage, I sit at a red light with the windows down, playing a song from a favorite female singer. Among the sweet refrains come some foreign words.
'Hey, if I... will you give me 60 bucks' in similar dulcet tones to that of the singer.
The light turns green and the shadowy figure of a woman in long shorts and baggy t-shirt spins away. There had been no greeting to announce her presence, and I'm still unsure what the proposition entailed from this creature of desperation.
Later on the highway, I pass a stranded vehicle on the shoulder, its owner sitting patiently in the dark, the reflective stripes of his mechanic's tunic glowing with irony.

Heading to our starting point for the 20, there is the slightest sliver of moon hovering in the east, like a smile in the sky.
"You're late!" are the first words to start my day, coming from a grizzled, gaunt, and wizened homeless rider I haven't seen in awhile. I show him a schedule, he realizes he got his days mixed and that we're actually on time, and apologizes.
With the bus now in service, we're rolling down narrow 2-lane neighborhood streets. A car going the opposite direction drifts into our lane. I brake, lay on the horn, they drift back into their lane. Shaken but steady due to the averted disaster, I whisper a quiet Sorry for waking the neighborhood, and make a mental note to be extra aware of late-night partiers heading home.

Not all partiers are driving, though. I pick up one inebriated fellow who is obviously out of it, but seems harmless. He pays his fare and I wait a moment for him to seat himself since he is unsteady on his feet. Way up the line it becomes apparent he's not sure where he is or where he's going. He wants to get off at Goodwill, but there isn't one on this route. He wants to go back to where he got on, but doesn't remember where that is. I do; how can I forget.

We have our first layover at Central Terminal. One man, a 30-something with 6 inch dreads wanders in from behind a column anxious and fidgety.
"I'm high as a canopy right now" he declares wide-eyed, seemingly to himself.
He puts a crumpled bill in the farebox, which is promptly spat back out. But he has already seated himself and doesn't notice. Instead, another man has appeared behind him and proceeds to push the bill back in the slot successfully. This second man isn't waiting to board the bus, he wants to test the validity of a worn out old pass for a shy lady he points out to me about 50 feet away. It's no good.
I inform the rider as I exit that we'll be here for a few minutes and the rear door is open if he needs to get off. When I return, he is gone.

Heading east on Sunrise before heading north, an enormous formation of cottony clouds sits over the ocean, glowing pink from the rising sun behind. Florida's mountains are in the sky.
The morning progresses and all my regulars make appearances, everyone seems to be doing well.

There are also a couple irregular regulars on this run.
A fixture on the streets for many years, a homeless woman formerly known as Peppermint Patty boards. She was a regular when I drove the 10 during last pick, when she informed me in no uncertain terms she doesn't want to be called Patty anymore but didn't tell me her new name. She generally has a sharp memory, especially if she's been slighted, and regularly accuses our drivers of ignoring her. But she also remembers small kindnesses like the spare change I gave her awhile ago. At first she can come across as a belligerent personality, but shown a little basic respect she turns on a dime and becomes a sweet-talker. This morning she boards in a huff, tosses some coins in the box, and carries on about all the buses passing her up, and how she's overheating in the morning sun. She is stout in body so her physical well-being is a concern and I make sure she doesn't require medical attention. She's happy to be in the bus's a/c and starts to cool down. She has good news this day: She's planning to get an efficiency soon and get off the streets. I emphatically congratulate her at hearing this. She says she'll have to change her name again, maybe to Brooke Shields. The bluster and fire have taken a break, now she's comfortable and wants to talk.
"You married, Driver? I like you."

Another regular from my nights on the 10, a Jamaican woman with beautiful dreadlocks, shows up at Central Terminal near the end of my day.
"My favorite! I tracked you down!" She has a million-watt smile that immediately lights up the bus and banishes any dark clouds. However, the universe has a balance to maintain and we can't have too much of a good thing, so among the crowd boarding this time is a crude talking man apparently under the influence. He alternately sweet-talks a couple ladies, then curses them with vulgarity. This intrusion of ugly behavior has dampened the brightness Miss Sunshine has blessed us with - or not. She exits with a light touch on my arm, a brief pause of commiseration, and "God go with you."

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Timeliness is next to godliness

There are a million reasons to be late;
there's no excuse for leaving early.
-bus operator proverb

It's tempting to think of buses and other forms of transit the way we think of the planets in our solar system: objects on a fixed trajectory orbiting the same fixed path. Or, to continue the cosmic theme, like Halley's Comet: an object with a reliable return time. We may put far fewer miles on our buses than those celestial bodies, but those miles put a heavy toll on heavy machinery which invariably leads to unreliability. In other words, a late bus. A late start is just as frustrating to the driver as it is to the passenger. We want to get where we have to go, too. As a.m. bus operators, it is our responsibility to ensure a timely pullout from the garage and avoid the dreaded 'delay of service'. This means more than putting time table schedules in the rack; it involves a detailed pre-trip inspection to make sure the bus is safe to operate. So, long before the sun rises and birds start chirping, your friendly neighborhood bus driver is preparing the bus for a day of service.

One Sunday morning I pulled out of the garage 20 minutes down and headed to my starting point, Central Terminal downtown. In spite of the tardiness, those waiting were pleasant and forgiving. Wished good morning to the regulars and welcomed the rest. One young man unfamiliar with the routes had arrived a few minutes before on another route. He was grateful for our late start since he was able to make the connection earlier than if we'd been on time.

Continuing onward, I became a bit concerned to see an empty stop where I normally pick up a regular rider, an Irish waitress with irrepressible positivity. Whew, a few blocks further and there she is.
"Good morning, I see you gave up on us!" I kidded, hoping to lighten the mood.
She was thankful we showed up and on we went.

A few stops up at a major intersection and there's a growing group waiting to board. Among them is another regular, one of our homeless customers. He always has his monthly pass in his mouth, his bag in one hand and thermal mug in the other, ready to go. He's anxious to get to his destination and lets me know this. I inform him why we're late and assure him we'll do our best to get him to his destination on time.

Across the intersection, there's my regular who works at a garden center. I apologize for the wait and she's amazingly understanding. I'm not expecting to get a pass for the lateness, and it's comforting to know not everyone's day is off to a bad start.

As we roll on, the anxious customer's anxiety grows and he feels the need to verbally express it. By this time, every service stop is making him more concerned. Finally, we approach his stop. To accommodate him, I go a little beyond the sign and pull up to the curb to save him a few steps. He books it out of there.

No recovery time for a break at the end of the trip, we need to keep it moving so the final stop is treated as a regular stop and away we go on our return trip.

Up ahead is a customer waiting in a wheelchair. Operating the wheelchair ramp can be time-consuming, but safety comes first so we give every customer the time they need to board safely. This particular customer is another regular, always sweet and kind, and wishing me a happy Sunday though she had to wait longer than expected for our arrival. She's a pro in the mobility device and before the ramp is stowed she's letting me know she's all set.

Miles down the road, there's the anxious customer. Only now he's no longer anxious. He's like a new man, easy going and content.
"Did you make it in time?" I ask.
"Yeah! With two minutes to spare. Had to stow my bag in a bush so it wouldn't slow me down."
"That's quick thinkin', travelin' light!"
Whereas before he was dreading each service stop, now he suggests I slow down in case an elderly woman on the sidewalk needs the bus.

Now we're approaching downtown again, and there's my leader bus just ahead. Not sure what happened to make him so late, but I can empathize. When we get to Central Terminal, he's in the bus bay for our route so I pull into the one behind. There's a puddle from last night's rain in that slot and pigeons are bathing in it. A woman on a bench jumps up waving her arms to shoo them away in front of the bus. She's waiting to board with about 30 others. I comment on her looking out for the pigeons, and she giggles about their ruffled feathers.

I'm back on time and my leader gets instructions from dispatch to get himself on time, so he heads out empty and I welcome the extremely patient passengers onto my bus. No leader bus means we'll be nearly full most of the next trip.

At one stop a young Jamaican man with a bike is waiting. All the slots on the bus's bike rack are full.
"Boss man, can I bring it in the back?" he asks with a languid island accent.
Since there's room by the rear exit door, I let him bring it in there and hold on to it. He's already been waiting for my leader who didn't make this trip, and it's gonna be awhile for the next bus after mine since it's Sunday service. I also take the bus, sometimes with my bike, and appreciate it when the driver gives me a break. A little flexibility goes a long way in life. Let's see Halley's Comet try that.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Little birds

I have seen wings that were surging
From beautiful women's shoulders,
And seen butterflies emerging
From the refuse heap that moulders.


She was waiting at the Galleria stop one morning, the east terminus for the 40. She shuffled with difficulty onto the bus and started mumbling quietly and incoherently. Her face was downcast and her eyes were nearly shut, perhaps from the rising sun - or weariness. If the soiled shirt and dirty sandaled feet weren't obvious indicators, the fingernails thick and yellowed from fungus unchecked and eye-watering pungency of stale urine were telltale signs this woman was not a typical Galleria shopper. I asked her to speak up so I could determine what she needed, and she responded with a low sweet feminine voice that she was looking for a certain bank on Bird Road. Yes, that Bird Road. In Miami. I'm not a doctor so I can't scientifically diagnose mental illness, but there are certainly symptoms and when they present that's when my patience level increases. She eventually saw a familiar landmark and requested to stop.

Our homeless community are some of our most frequent passengers. They're also some of the most colorful, individual, and sociable people I know. The causes that bring some of them to live on the street are myriad and the journey that led them there is not always a straight line. The more time I spend with this segment of the population, the more I see the true face of our society at large. We will always have the less fortunate, the strugglers, those overwhelmed by trying to keep up. But these are not unique characteristics, and actually affect us no matter where we are on the social ladder. How we treat the homeless is probably one of the best reflections of a society's overall health. It's easy to kick someone when they're down, but far more rewarding and enriching to help each other out.

Another woman, one who I see occasionally on different routes, approached me at Central Terminal and asked for a day pass, though she wasn't riding my bus. She's an older woman, could be someone's grandmother, always kind and inquisitive. Every time I've driven her before, she's had a pass. This time she didn't and she admitted it was embarrassing to ask for help. It is rare when a fare skipper admits to being embarrassed, but it only seems to be the homeless who are ashamed of it. There's a lesson there.

Too often I hear derogatory comments about the homeless, deriding them for being lazy, or drug addicts, or parasites on society. Of course those things may be true in many cases. But it is also true that if we want a glimpse of the true human condition - an extreme glimpse - we have only to look upon the mirror they provide us. Sometimes we fool ourselves and others that we are stronger and more capable than we really are.

Some years ago, an apartment I lived in had starlings nesting in the roof. Every spring, they would return and raise their brood. Each year one or two of the hatchlings would drop from the nest early, before they even had pinfeathers. Helpless and exposed, they cried for food and safety. I learned of a woman who cared for abandoned wildlife, put them in a box, and cycled to her home to deliver them to her. Along the way, it seemed people were interested in what I was doing. It was late afternoon, and I could see people half-hidden in doorway shadows, dejected people waiting on benches, workaday laborers heading home, the incessant stream of vehicles passing by, and children playing with each other. And at that moment, it dawned on me that we all are like the little birds.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Snowy South Florida

The life of a bus operator revolves around schedules, and this creates a constant contrast with the unpredictable nature of human movement. All routes have regulars who tend to ride at certain times, and when I do a certain route only one day a week that may be the only time I see those regulars. After awhile, the route is missing something if some regulars don't appear that day. Maybe they took a different bus, maybe they changed their plans, maybe something prevented them from going out that day. In any case, for those individuals who make an impression on the driver their absence is felt. But this post isn't about going missing; it's about showing up.

One of these regulars is a reserved gentleman I privately nicknamed The Reader from my days driving the 10. Back then I passed him each night at the same stop where he'd be parked on a bench, hidden behind a newspaper held out with both arms and reading under a streetlamp. Apparently so engrossed in current events that he didn't bother waving by the bus, I'd slow down anyway in case one time he wanted to ride. Now that I work mornings, he's a regular each week on another route I drive. Each time I approach the stop with no sign of him. And each time, before the bus comes to a stop there he is, hurrying out of the shadows of a grocery store. He climbs aboard with his bag and umbrella, always wearing a ball cap of his hometown team. Earlier I said he was reserved: about half the time he'll respond to my Good Morning greeting. But hey, he's on the bus to get up the street, not socialize.

This particular morning went along like the others, until we made our last turn before his exit. Rain from the night before had left a large puddle partly in the street. The puddle had enticed a flock of Muscovy ducks in their juvenile plumage to do what ducks do when they find water: have a pool party. I slowed to ensure they were clear of the bus, however one of them startled and began to fly. Ducks are obviously not built for speed in the air and this one kept pace at eye level with the bus for about 50 feet before veering away. Most of us have a bit of nostalgia and that duck triggered The Reader's to well up.
"Many years ago I was in a band and we were on tour up North. It was winter in Maine and there was heavy snow. Not good weather to drive in, but we had to get to the next city for a show. As we drove, a deer ran alongside us, calf-deep in the snow. I can still see it."
Instantly, on a muggy Broward morning one man's wistful memory had transported us to a scene of awestruck serenity.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Equal hearts

These notes are bound to produce an extremely unpleasant impression, because we've all lost touch with life and we're all cripples to some degree.

In a previous career I worked closely with handicapped people who had all types of disabilities both physical and mental. Firsthand I witnessed small victories over their limitations, and also the sadness of resignation to those limitations. In many ways, the experience helped me recognize my own limitations though not so visible as a physical handicap. Just as important, it helped develop an active mindset of patience, understanding, and empathy.

One Sunday morning at the north layover point for the 50, I had a few minutes for a restroom break and to grab a coffee. Usually some of the passengers do the same and we'll rub elbows in an environment away from the bus. This particular morning a regular rider, a young man with an obvious handicap, appeared upset. Something had apparently just happened because a moment before he seemed content enough. I asked if anything was wrong, and he explained that some guys nearby had made some derogatory comments toward him based on his handicap. Although visibly angered, I could see wisdom winning over as he attributed their bullying to ignorance. He was right and I reminded him there will always be ignorant people, and not to take it to heart, their ignorance was their problem not his. However, we all have our limits and and it's never pleasant to start your day with disparagement.

Back at the bus stop, a passenger was waiting patiently on the bench and we used the last couple minutes to get into a brief discussion about time, human nature, and other philosophical matters. As we boarded the bus for pullout, the conversation carried on and he commented about looking out the bus window while riding and having revelations 'about things I should have known before.' He was an older gentleman and as I reflected how his words rang true, it also resonated that we never stop learning through the years. By now the young man had entered the bus also and found an opening to join the conversation, the two of them continuing the interaction as I focused on the business of driving the bus. As we slowly pulled off from the curb, it was still the three of us up front and the young man asked me loud enough for the older man to hear: "We interacted back there, right, in the restaurant?"
"Yeah, of course."
"See," as he gestured an inclusive circle with his arm. "Equal hearts."

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Cold 40

After gushing about my affinity for the 50 in a previous post, perhaps it's time to balance that a little with an ode to another route I drive this pick: the 40. Sometimes drivers have preferred routes for various reasons, just as I do for the 50; likewise sometimes drivers have routes they prefer less than others. More and more, the distinction means less to me - I've come to appreciate each route for what it is. And this pick I have come to appreciate the split personality of the 40, a sort of Jekyll and Hyde route depending on the time of day. Virtually all routes change through the course of a day, but the 40 is like a sea change. On Monday mornings I drive the 40 as the first half of a split shift, and the entire piece is like honey - smooth and sweet. Then the Friday afternoon 40 rolls around; that's when I relieve another operator for the second half of a split shift, and the entire piece is a relentless grind against the laws of time and space. The differences are so stark as to make the same route appear to be two completely different routes, and this happens with predictable regularity. Let's see what happens this day...

The Friday piece starts at Central Terminal eastbound, and immediately the specter of the Andrews Avenue bridge looms ahead, just beginning its time-consuming lift. So now we're down ten minutes at the start; we're supposed to be at US 1 & 17th St, but we're still only a couple blocks from the terminal. No problem, we'll pick up some Nova/FAU/BC students opposite the art museum, glide over New River, then past County jail and service the Courthouse. A girl with a dozen mylar Happy Birthday balloons jaywalks as we approach the light.

A regular rider, an older British gentleman boards; he's in a good mood with a faint scent of wine on the breath. I greet him with a hello.
"Are you my brother?" are his first words to me.
"I suppose so, somewhere down the line."
"Everyone's calling me their brother today."
"Well, it's Friday, maybe everyone got paid and is feeling good."
He then makes some inappropriate comments, hopefully not so loud as to offend the other passengers. I focus on driving.

Three women board, all holding flowers and balloons.
"Oh, happy birthday!" I say, perhaps prompted by the earlier pedestrian (who didn't board).
"No, our Mom's in the hospital."
My levity switch shuts off with the heaviness of their situation, and I respond with well wishes for mom.

At the next stop I pick up a familiar face, an older Haitian man who is also a neighbor. It's always interesting to see the familiar in an unfamiliar context.

A few smooth blocks past Davie Rd and we're at Broward General (yes, it will always be Broward General to me). The hospital is our last stop before turning east on 17th St, and a short S curve before US 1.

The Brit gets off, first sidling up to me and with much ado bids goodbye with "Enjoy the rest of your poets day."
"What kind of day?"
"Piss off early tomorrow's Saturday."
Now I get it, and thank him for the sentiment.

However, there's no early exit when you're in the driver's seat so on we go. Eastbound 17th St means servicing hotels and shops catering to visitors who wonder if this bus goes to the beach. That's where we're going, I inform them. These moments tend to slow us down simply due to educating visitors about the fare, then giving them time to get it together. We work together and keep the bus moving. There's a steel pan band playing at A1A and Las Olas. The Strip is jumping and we're making regular drop-offs and pick-ups. A young man who boarded at Central Terminal wants the stop closest to Covenant House, a nonprofit helping homeless youth. I wondered aloud when they moved over here; I remember them being downtown years ago. It's at Vistamar, the last stop before turning left on Sunrise to end at the Galleria where we loop around and head back west.

Now the fun begins. Fortunately we make it over the Sunrise bridge without delay this time, turn south on A1A and start picking up the hotel workers heading home. This goes on all the way to Cordova on 17th St. Before we get to that point we need to service the Points of America. A regular rider notices we're getting in the turn lane and asks if we're going to Central Terminal. I assure him we are, after this side trip which not every 40 makes. We pick up a couple home health aides and exit the enclave. At this time of day the stretch of 17th St from Port Everglades to US 1 is essentially a lurching parking lot. If we had any notion of getting back on time before now, that's now wishful thinking and we just do our best to keep moving and keep everyone safe. Finally we squeeze past US 1 and traffic smooths out. By now we might be 20 minutes down, but our follower is also delayed and hasn't caught us yet. The bus is loaded, standing room only.

We approach the hospital, a couple nurses exit. Among the group waiting to board are a mother and her young daughter. The daughter appears to have a physical disability that requires her to be in a device that resembles an adult-size stroller. They need to get to Central Terminal, mom is unfamiliar with the bus, and everyone has someplace to be. Boarding and securing a wheelchair can be time consuming, especially when the bus is already late and there's no time to spare. Suddenly there was time. Passengers shifted to make room, no one complained, and like the last pieces of a puzzle the two of them just fit. We have 'dynamic duos' like this all around the transit system, parents dedicated to caring for children who will likely never be able to care for themselves. These are the beautiful ones, their silent presence reminding us of a peace we are constantly losing sight of.

Our journey is only half done, we still need to make the late afternoon crawl along Sistrunk, down MLK past the Swap Shop, left on 19th by Driftwood Apts and Sunset Memorial Cemetery, then through the Shallowside warehouses, and ending at The Hill.

The 40 can be an exhausting run, but we're all in this bus together - and together we'll finish strong.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

A rose by any other name

Broward County employees, including Transit Division bus operators, are encouraged to look at our positions from the standpoint of customer service. We practice SUNsational Service on a daily basis to let our customers know we appreciate them and to make an otherwise ordinary experience (like riding the bus) an extraordinary experience. We hold ourselves to a high standard and try to go above and beyond with each customer/passenger. I personally hope this conveys my gratitude for each and every passenger getting on board. There is no room for resentment here. These are good habits for any service company, and one of the reasons I attempt to greet everyone who boards my bus (another being it's just fun to see familiar faces and meet new folks). I'm not necessarily expecting a response to my greeting, but most of the time there is one and it usually includes a name for the driver. So far this summer my fellow Browardians have heaped more names on me than I could ask for. Many are repeats, customary names for the driver. And then there are the one-offs, or a name certain passengers reserve for their favorite drivers, and a number of creative monikers from the active minds all around us. This is by no means an exhaustive list, just names from the last couple months in no particular order:

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

Who knew one person could be so many different people? It's fun to look back on this list now and see all the influences and variety that pass through the bus doors. It's easy to see the Hispanic and Islands flavor we have here, something author Joel Garreau observed places South Florida in a separate region from the rest of the US:  Nine Nations - The Islands. In fact, sometimes I find myself responding in kind with the same tongue, usually out of a desire to expand my linguistics, occasionally out of habit. This is not to say I don't enjoy the garden variety English titles, since any name bestowed with friendliness is appreciated. Rather, those rarities not heard dozens of times a day are the ones that stick out, impossible to ignore. And yes, I was called ma'am once - despite the facial hair.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The right side of the tracks

After spending most of my work week during the last pick on the 10, it's been a sort of homecoming to be on the 50 a couple days a week this pick*. I truly miss my friends on the 10 (you know who you are!) and the pleasantly predictable trek from Central Terminal to Boca, but I can safely say the Dixie Highway corridor from downtown FTL to Deerfield is my comfort zone. The volatile and fertile mix of history and progress are seen along every segment of its length. This is where east-central Broward began, and the list of destinations along the route only confirms this.

Central Terminal>FTL City Hall>Progresso>FTL High>Wilton Drive/WM City Hall/Five Points>OP City Hall>Jaco Pastorius Park>Prospect>Northeast High>Cypress Creek>Dogpatch>Pompano City Hall>Ward's City>NE Transit Center>Goodyear blimp base>Copans>Sample>Tallman Pines>Pineview Cemetery

That last one is a mystery. What other route goes directly through a cemetery? The pines are gone, cleared to make space for a passage of life...

The majority of Dixie runs parallel to the FEC RR, which forever changed South Florida since the first trains rolled through in 1896. Through all the incredible surrounding change in a relatively short timespan, the railroad remains. Soon it will again carry passengers rather than only freight, something it hasn't done since the 1960s. There is a certain thrill especially on the Pompano and Deerfield segments when the train and the bus keep apace of each other for a short while, workhorses fulfilling their daily duties. Occasionally the iron horse delays our northbound journey uptown at the Flagler crossing, but like an old friend makes up for it later when a plodding mile-long multi-engine blocks enough east-west crossings to give the 50 a steady string of green lights.

Another major change for me since last pick is switching from pm to am shifts. Whereas before I was pulling out the last 10 of the night, now I pull out the first 50 in the morning. At that time the sun hasn't even thought about rising yet, so I count on the coach's headlights and the random floating cell phone screen to service customers along those northbound stretches close by the RR where street lights aren't necessary. At some point, gradually enough to be taken for granted, the sun rises on this vehicle full of hardworking day laborers, gentle grandmothers, Haitian housewives, students - and a driver. The builders and makers who get the hard jobs done. The backbones of our families. The future faces learning their way.

*FYI, a 'pick' is the term for a bus operator's regular weekly schedule of runs. This occurs several times per year, when operators 'pick' their runs based on seniority.

Route Map

BusTropical is a blog by a Broward County Transit bus operator. The purpose is really quite simple: to document the beauty of our community. This is not a ranting blog, it is a love song to Broward County. This is my hometown; I love our people, places, and all the things that make it the most dynamic place on Earth. It is an honor to represent the community that raised me and transport neighbors and visitors around our cities. My office is on wheels, and the streets of Broward, Dade, & Palm Beach counties are my live/work place. The best is yet to come in the history of our community's transit system. Let's keep it moving...

-Robert Rutherford