Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Asphalt life

There seems to be a certain comfort level for passengers on the 50 that other routes take longer to reach. Over here on the poor side of town we have plenty of spirit and life in us yet. The daily grind doesn't have to grind us into the asphalt.

I try to get the 50 every pick. This time around I drive it twice a week as the second piece of a split shift, the first piece being an express run to the Civic Center/Health District in Miami. By the time most folks in Broward are just getting started, I've already been to Miami and back. That run takes us by the second largest concentration of medical facilities in the country, a clear contrast to the 50, where the only hospital on the route was closed years ago. Instead, there are about a dozen churches.

When I relieved the previous driver at the Northeast Transit Center one day, the bus was already loaded full, kind of unusual for lunch time. What wasn't unusual was one of the patient people waiting to board needed a courtesy ride.

On my next northbound trip, we picked up a man carrying an acoustic guitar. It's not everyday someone boards with a large musical instrument, and usually when they do it's a high school student still new to music. Whenever anyone boards with a guitar, I perk up and ask them to play for us. The younger ones are generally too shy to try, but their smiles tell me the request wasn't wasted. Occasionally the more confident musicians take me up on the proposal, and this gentleman decided to go for it once he got situated. Standing near the front since the bus was full, and leaning against the luggage storage area, he treated us to some solo twoubadou as we rolled up Dixie. When a seat opened up a few minutes later, he took his show further inside the cabin. Bravo, sir.

Long after the good vibes had dissipated, the darkness came in to balance things out as two men had a lengthy conversation about drugs, hookers, and murder. They had this discussion at a volume the whole bus could hear, no attempt at discretion.

On one trip in the middle of the shift, a familiar face on the 10 but never seen on the 50 made an appearance. It was Patty. When I pulled up to the stop, the front door was past her, but her sharp eyes spied me and in an ebullient display she waved and called out to me.
"How's my cute driver boyfriend?"
I waved back, but didn't respond.
"I'm not riding with you this time" she informed me, settled comfortably on the bench.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

New faces, old places

Sometimes I feel a little guilty for not posting a story every day, even if it's a just a short one. This would be very easy to do, since there is no shortage of excitement, action, and observable interests to share. The breadth of humanity knows no bounds and it truly does take every kind of people to make the world go round. Can I just take a moment to say Thank You Broward County for keeping me from getting bored.

The 50 is one of my favorites. My coworkers think I'm joking when I tell them this, maybe my enthusiastic smile comes across as facetious. Or it could be that no other driver I know of likes the 50. I'll usually get sighs and head drops when I ask other drivers how the route is treating them. On the surface, much of the route appears to be stuck in a time long past, with the dreariness of industrial zoning always nearby. That's no doubt tied to the FEC RR which mostly runs adjacent. But where practicality threatens to keep a place stuck in stasis, fresh faces from other places keep it dynamic.

Speaking of faces, one trip to Central Terminal a 20-something male tattooed one approached and in low voice told me the terminal supervisor said he could ride free. He flashed his hospital band, a common practice among the homeless to skip the fare. Often they'll wear them till they're faded. Maybe it was his nonchalant presentation, but I wasn't buying it - and told him so. Everyone boarded, I peeled myself out of the seat to stretch before another long trip when who should come over but the terminal supervisor. He confirmed the patient's claim and I had to accept that for every rule there's an exception. It was a reminder that every person entering our doors has their own story.
"Told ya so" he slipped in the jab as he slipped out the door. Then he asked for a free pass. Can't blame him for asking.

A regular I call Mr. Mercedes since he tricks out his bike with hood ornaments and custom paint jobs boards. I compliment him on having the coolest bike on the route and we talk about paint colors. I recall he used to have a Cadillac-themed bike and ask what happened to it.
"Oh that was stolen" he states matter-of-factly, and I instantly relate.

Have I introduced you to Charles? He talks my ear off with a ceaseless stream-of-consciousness torrent of fascinating experiences and life-learned wisdom. A 'senile citizen' (his words) he loves to talk of family including his twin brother ('womb mate'). No conversation with him is complete without him telling you about his faith, but he's also the lowest-key converter you'll meet. I admire him for living fearlessly and relentlessly, always active and on his way to some exciting event or errand at an age most just retire.

We pick up an older Haitian woman who speaks zero English, and hands me an FPL bill. I assume she's looking for an office to pay the bill, but when she exits it all makes sense: she was showing me her address so I'd know where to let her off.

One trip we pick up a gentleman in unbuttoned dress shirt and jacket. It quickly becomes obvious he's been drinking as he struggles to slip his money into the fare box. I patiently wait for him to finish and find something to hold onto, as he doesn't seem too steady on his feet, and finally we pull away. At the very next stop he exits.

Our last service visit to Central Terminal a familiar smile boards: my Jamaican sunshine, who I don't think I've ever picked up on the 50. She's got perfect dreads, a glowing smile, and calls me her favorite - so it's easy to instantly cheer up when she shows up. It's been an overcast day, and when she exits I thank her for bringing the sunshine.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

10 views of a route

Old-timer bus operators have tons of stories to tell of what they've seen over their careers on the road. They'll tell you they've literally seen birth, death, and everything in between. My inclination is to suggest they write a book, to which they invariably answer, "All bus drivers say they'll do that, but never do." The reasons are probably numerous as to why they don't share their stories with the world, but I can assure you it's not because they are incapable. Even a short conversation with your average bus operator will show you a decent communicator is at the wheel. My current theory is that since a bus driver's day is made up of a million minor interactions and observations, the bus space itself is the story; the whole world comes through the revolving doors of the bus. Although the countless anecdotes and incidents are both entertaining and enlightening, they don't necessarily lend themselves to long form prose. This is where blogs come in handy.

10 glimpses on the 10 route:

-A passenger with a bike boards and asks if I like beer. Not sure where this is leading, I tell him occasionally (although limited lately to keep the dreaded 'bus belly' in check). That's when he drops the bomb: beer turns men into women. He goes on to explain that hops are female flowers and turn into estrogen when consumed. The skeptic in me asks for his sources, but nothing specific was forthcoming. I laugh and tell him he has now ruined beer for me.

-The cabin sounds like an apiary, with crystal-clear sweet birdsong drifting up to the front. It's enough to make me physically turn around, rather than simply use the cabin mirror. Totally expecting to see a canary flying loose, it turns out to be the soundtrack on a video game.

-At the Main Library, a woman boards with a tiny dog, maybe a mini pin or chi. Service animals are always welcome on the bus, and this one even has her certification card. The little cutie is dressed in some frilly pink outfit and her owner tells me her name is Minnie Rose and you can find her on Instagram. Kids on the bus love her and she obviously loves the attention.

-At Oakland Park Blvd a woman in a wheelchair is waiting to board, so I kneel the bus and lower the ramp. Although our customers with wheelchairs are not required to have their chairs secured with restraining straps, we are required to ask if they would like them. So as she rolls her chair on board, I ask if she would like to be secured.
"Oh, I don't believe in S&M" she answers with a sly smile.
It took a nanosecond for me to get it, and it made my day.

-"What does a baby corn kernel call its father? Popcorn." Yes, a 'corny' joke from a regular I call The Weatherman because he has a weather one-liner. He tells me a couple jokes about turkeys and judges. "Is he really the weatherman?" a girl asks me after he exits.

-The birds are out in force this day: As I pull up to a stop, I see a grackle flailing in the middle lane, narrowly avoiding being crushed at any moment. Cars are zooming right over it, and it's struggling to stand up. Traffic eases for a moment, and off he flies. Later, another operator calls dispatch over the radio: a pigeon has boarded his bus at Central Terminal and he's trying to shoo it off. Other drivers chime in with their witticisms: "Let him ride!" "He has an employee pass!"

-"Bom dia!" I greet the two older Brazilian ladies I used to pick up mornings last pick. This time it's evening and they're going the opposite direction than they did back then. They speak no English, so I try out a little Portuguese. "Tudo bem!"

-Here's Maria, the elderly Italian lady who's a regular on the 10. I affectionately call her Grandma. She's nearly blind and lugs a heavy wheeled suitcase she uses to steady herself, so I lower the bus and tell her to take her time. She loves BCT drivers and is always looking out for us, calling me Sweetie and asking if I'm eating right and hoping I don't work too many hours. She actually has to go the other way, but it's dark now and she can't see well enough to risk crossing the width of US 1 at her slow pace. So she's gonna ride all the way to Central Terminal even though we're way up in Pompano. A young guy on the bus sees her and helps with her bag. She's always quite talky but not pushy, filling in those quiet moments with questions about the bus announcement system, other drivers, and places to eat. This bus goes out of service after this trip, so when we get to the terminal, she needs to disembark and switch to another 10 already there and waiting in a different aisle. As I guide her off and assist her over there, this grandmotherly figure suggests that I go to a strip club to relax.

-At a certain stop popular with foreign exchange students, four lovely German girls board with brand new passes. As I instruct them how to activate the passes, they say they're going to the beach and wonder how to get there. I assure them I'll let them know, but they end up going with Google maps. Danke, they say.

-A man boards with a fresh meal in carry out container, delicious aromas making my mouth water. He sets it on the dashboard to swipe his pass and I rub my hands together and loudly say "Alright! You brought us dinner! You're the best!"

-Bonus view on a different route, but heard on radio while driving the 10: An operator called in to say a passenger was boarding with an iguana. Dispatch replied if it's a service iguana and secured, to let him ride. Reminds me of the passenger I had awhile back (on the 10 no less) with an "emotional support bunny" - which was safely secured in carry bag.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Death and detours

This one will be a challenge. How to write about death and suffering without getting morbid and morose? Should I assume we are all so familiar with these things there is no need to go into detail? Let us revisit a day in time and you can come to your own conclusion.

The day started with the news of David Bowie's death in early January. A dynamic creative to the end, this was a reminder that a musical era was nearing its end and came as a surprise. The timing was the surprise, not the reminder that no one gets out alive.

This day was my weekly run on the 10, an early morning piece that ended around lunch time. It was the middle of winter and a cold front had settled in. Picking up regulars heading to work downtown on the pre-dawn southbound, we made a stop at Imperial Point hospital and I noticed that the shelter stop had a pile of blankets beside the bench - with a wide-eyed head poking out. It was Patty, in a wheelchair, which caught me a little off guard since she normally would be using the bench. She was perfectly still except for the alert eyes, their glowing whites more visible in the darkness, and probably not wanting to move lest a frigid draft sneak under her linen cocoon.

After visiting Central Terminal, we headed back north. For some reason almost every time I do this trip I hit all three red lights before we make the turn onto US 1. It could easily take six minutes to go four blocks, then only three minutes to cover the next mile. But try explaining this to the dour gentleman waiting for your bus on time like he's supposed to, with an unpleasant chill biting without mercy, and while he's letting you know all the other drivers get there on time.
"Leave the terminal a couple minutes early" he suggests.
Of course this is a non-starter since it violates County policy, and I let him know this.
"Then give it more gas" he instructs me.
Perhaps in a more ideal world, the bus would be everyone's personal taxi. Having spent decades riding Broward Transit, when service wasn't nearly as frequent as it is now, I learned to have patience and factor in extra time for any trip. Riding taught me that people wait for the bus, the bus doesn't wait for people.
For a change we're on time this day, and he actually wishes me a good morning. He's even more sociable when he exits way up the line since we made good time and he'd be able to grab coffee and a doughnut before transferring to his connection.

Up at Hillsboro I picked up the Orange Couple. A personal nickname due to their wearing bright orange sweatshirts every time I see them. It's a middle age son and his elderly mother. I've never heard her make a peep, and he always handles the fare for her, but it's clear they're homeless and occasionally the fare is an issue on their way to any given soup kitchen. That's quite rare and he's always contrite about it, exhibiting humility at their plight and gratitude for any generosity.

The next southbound started regular enough, aside from the fact Patty had somehow shifted about a mile south to the Commercial Boulevard stop, now with feet also sticking out from under the blanket pile.

Then we crossed Oakland Park Boulevard, and traffic was backing up around the curve leading to 26th St. This was not a good sign. As we approached 26th St a horrific crash scene spread before us. I could see a dark van laying on its side, and a small white car nearby still upright but with its entire front peeled up. Rescue personnel had the intersection closed off so we had to detour onto 26th St like the 20 route, then back over to US 1 along 13th St. It meant missing a few stops, and since it was a fluid situation, the bus ahead of us had taken a larger detour and missed even more stops. On top of this the bus that was supposed to be ahead of us had broken down. So when we resumed the regular route and riders were wondering why they were waiting an hour, I explained why. A few weeks later a passenger brought that morning back to memory as he recounted watching it happen, then dragging the injured from the wreckage. The up-close scene he described was far messier than the overview I observed. A woman lost her life that day, in what seems to be a daily occurrence on our streets. Are we merely playing the odds every time we go out? The longer I drive professionally, the clearer I see that safety doesn't happen by accident, it needs to be a conscious effort at all times. Otherwise it is indeed 100% chance, rather than skewing the odds in your favor.

Later that night I got some extra work on the 31 route to fill in for another operator. In an instance of surprise connections, along the way I picked up a familiar face from the 10 a few picks back. He became extremely excited when he saw me and when I told him I was only filling in he took it as a sign that I'd help him win the Powerball (at that time over $1 billion), like a bus-driving good luck charm. He was carrying ten pounds of chicken and awed that he would bump into me at that particular moment.
Some time ago on the 10 he asked if I would hold the bus for him while he ran across the street to retrieve the bike he'd left locked up that morning since the bus bike rack was full. We ended up making that happen, thanks to a fresh red light and his nimble moves.
"You're the only guy that let me do that!" he thankfully exclaimed.
Sometimes it's the little things that have true value, more lasting than any Powerball.