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