Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Epic day off

The White Cliffs of Dover at night. Ferry swaying. Please, Rob, don't barf.

Figures I'd come to Brussels on a holiday. The streets are empty, but what does that matter to me since I've hardly left the bus station.

The attack in Brussels earlier this year brought to mind an ill-advised journey from England to Belgium via bus. A bus trip across the English Channel may sound illogical, yet travel notes from the Gypsy Years only confirm a quest well-intentioned though ultimately fruitless. I was there to trace my grandfather's wartime footsteps across farmlands once hosting airfields and left my own aborted trail in the process. Weeks of trudging British highways bearing a backpack which seemed to be growing a library at each drizzly high street had taken its toll.

Even when I sit still and don't move, the pain simmers & shoots its claws where it will. If I move my head, that is asking for punishment. How to move my bag?

On that day of terror in Brussels I was scheduled to be off, but had signed up for extra work. Working on regular days off can be a refreshing change of pace, though the pace may also be exhausting. The previous driver delivered the bus extremely late and in no time my follower had caught us. We shuffled some passengers to get the buses back on time, and I settled in with my remaining passengers.

"I made a tragic error moving here." The Brooklyn accent and eccentric combo of large sunglasses and colorful prints marked the return of an infrequent though distinctive passenger. Entering old age rather ungracefully, she exuded an air of personal pride and cultivation, a sort of East Coast Norma Desmond.
"You don't like palm trees?" I inquired, hoping to steer her toward something to smile about.
"Oh, it's gorgeous here. It's just that Florida has jinxed me." Her radiating bitterness was certainly not a great way to start my shift, and I wasn't buying that relocation was the sole source of her discontent. She continued with great detail about family health issues that have brought her stress while indicating an endearing motherly affection for a particular nephew. Eventually her ruminations led her to the source of many health problems: aging. A former beauty queen, she regaled me with her competitive exploits in that arena, before lamenting her lost youth.
"I was spoiled. Better to be born ugly."
When she requested the next stop without pulling the cord, I gave this dejected woman the closest thing to the red carpet a bus driver can: pulled in close to the curb, lowered the bus, and asked her to watch her step. That simple kindness - and perhaps the earlier confessions - paid off with her gracious gratitude and the hint of a smile.

And it's all the more painful because there's this perfect & lovely creature in the bus station. But all I can think or worry about is my damn back.

"Have a nice day, no more mutilation. Guess you could get mutilated on the way back." This from a familiar bag lady who never took a seat during her trip though there were plenty of seats. She'd held onto an overhead stanchion with both hands the whole time, before exiting with the unfortunate comment which may have been meant to show compassion for the victims overseas but which I took as a reminder that things can turn very quickly. Sometimes intent is lost in translation.

Here I am in Brussels in extreme discomfort & half the people speak French (the other half speak Dutch).

As the evening progressed, the traffic subsided and the earlier chaos was replaced with something I assume was routine for that run. Many new faces I normally wouldn't cross paths with on my regular runs were peppered with regulars that go way back.

An extra-super-hyper rider from Boca gave me health tips: brown rice cakes, Gatorade protein bars, stay hydrated. It was the end of the day and this guy was still going strong. Sometimes after hours in the driver's seat we can start dragging, so I had to know his secret for such vigor. Aside from water and protein, he shared a cautionary tale about what happened when a certain energy drink leaked onto the concrete floor of the warehouse he managed as a distributor; it had eaten into the rock hard surface.

In Boca the infamous Patty stormed aboard with a Palm Tran transfer but kept the change she had in her hand, irate about three buses passing her by. Smelling especially ripe, once ensconced in her customary spot she mellowed and begged others for money and soda.

At Central Terminal I picked up Grandma Maria. At once both a heartbreaking yet inspirational figure, she's impossible not to love. The smallest mercies extended to her come back tenfold. She always calls me Sweetie and though normally I would recoil at such cuteness, coming from her it makes my day. It is a regular sight for strangers to leap to assist her with her luggage. Unfortunately the woman who is an angel was forced to show a tougher side when an inebriated gentleman poked fun at her characteristic raspy voice with an exaggerated imitation. She became very upset and fought back with a verbal defense.

A few hours later at Central a mature woman boarded, talky with a nervous excitement. The sun had long since set and the a/c on the bus was nippy. A number of passengers waited outside until pullout time, but she didn't hesitate to board.
"I'm premenopausal so I'm always having hot flashes. My dogs love it."

The trip is nearly over and I've squandered my opportunity in such a horrid fashion that even I'm repulsed when I think of it.

Finally we reached the home stretch, waiting at the Boca layover to make our final trip before heading back to the garage. This was also the last bus of the night so I wasn't surprised to see a man show up moving quickly lest he miss it. Sporting an impressive long braid yet looking sharp in smart glasses and suit, the six pack of beer he toted showed he was ready to unwind. We still had a couple minutes so he took the opportunity to chug a bottle in record time before boarding. He offered me one which I politely declined and away we went.

Pretty soon into the journey, I saw a miracle. A woman who I'd previously picked up several times in a wheelchair was now waiting at the bus stop - standing on her own two feet. She boarded with her usual flair, sociable and smiling. For some reason I don't recall discussing this incredible new development with her as she stood up front to talk with me. She commented how the last bus on week nights like this was quiet, but on Saturdays it could get wild.

While this conversation went on, we pulled over to pick up a middle-aged man who had clearly enjoyed a few drinks already.
"I'm so broke right now..." came his entreaty for a free ride. Mr. Ponytail leapt to the rescue with some change to contribute, but I blocked the box and asked our newest visitor to take a seat. Not too long down the road, the two men were sitting across from each other and began to argue. It started small and kept growing, a little flame stoked into an inferno. Soon the whole bus was focused on these two grown men freely exchanging expletives, insults, and implied threats. At no point did it become physical, and no one requested the police, so we kept it moving.

"I hate plastered people," the miracle woman whispered, her first words since the unruly duo made conversation impossible.
"Welcome to my world.  And you said week nights are boring!"
When the two men exited at the same stop, she burst into laughter.
"This is real entertainment!"

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Return from the void

This past Easter Sunday I returned to my regular run on what I call the Sweet 60, a route near and dear to me for decades now. First it was important to me as vital transportation when I was a rider, now it boggles my mind that I'm an operator on this special run. This is the route that is most familiar to me, it was part of me from the earliest because it goes through the heart of my streets and carries my people. Other drivers are sure I'm joking when we discuss routes and I can't help but smile when the 60 comes up. They don't seem to understand how anyone could claim to 'love' a route where many of the passengers are patrons of the county lock up, frequent the food banks, probation kids, working girls, addicts, day laborers, and garden variety homeless. The route is a study in everyday survival and deserves a comprehensive treatment on its own. It is a journey through visual extremes at the deep end of the societal pool, especially Collier City in Pompano, maintaining balance with its mix of neighborhood churches and strip clubs. Nothing garden variety about it.

On that resurrection morning I pulled into my start point to go into service and was promptly greeted by a man who was probably middle-aged on paper but physically much older after years of sleeping rough. An extended hand came along with the polite greeting on that quiet morn, and seemed to call for an equal show of respect rather than the noncommittal fist bumps we give every day. The latter is probably a more hygienic and preferable way to start the day, especially when one of the palms involved has spent the night laying among the Sunday-shuttered auto repair shops lining 15th Street and there will definitely be dirt shared. He told me where he needed to get to, which wasn't where my bus was going, so I directed him to another stop nearby and he started trudging that way, hunched under the fully-packed bag slung over one shoulder. Then he stopped, and turned.
"Are you getting off in time to have Easter dinner with the family?" he naturally inquired.
I gave him a Yes, with a clear vision of the 'family' he'd be rubbing elbows with later that day at more than one soup kitchen.
"God bless" he closed, apparently satisfied that I'd be ok.

In service now, we were met with heavier than usual traffic and ridership. Then one of the ghosts that inhabit older buses presented itself: every time the rear exit doors were opened I would get a wheelchair stop request, though no wheelchair was aboard and no one was pranking me.

CSL Plasma must have been offering a promotion that day, because the usual trickle of donors was now a flood. There are very few non-intersection stops I call out when the announcer isn't working; CSL is a called stop. On every trip that stop gets serviced - both directions.

As I mentioned at the beginning, this day was a return for me. I had missed the previous two Sundays due to schedule conflicts. Up to now I didn't think anyone had noticed.
"The next time you take off without telling me, you're fired!" came the excited declaration from a regular as soon as I opened the doors. He works at a couple gas stations which means he has some stories to tell about meeting famous pop stars and hanging out with biker clubs. After ratting out my fill-in driver for not using his headlights, he too noticed the poltergeist aboard with its persistent wheelchair stop requests. Suddenly the gruff guy was gone, replaced with a problem-solver and some almost-compassion for my having to continually listen to the repetitive refrain. Riders may be annoyed by such malfunctions only briefly until they reach their destination - drivers are a captive audience.

At Central Terminal, I'd had enough and put the bus to sleep, turning off everything in hopes of rebooting the glitch away. We had a few minutes of layover time so I hung out with the bunch waiting to board. Most times, drivers will secure the bus and disappear, leaving passengers to grumble at not being able to board. When the crowd saw I was staying with them and explained what was going on, they relaxed and were patient. After some time, I revived the bus. From a dark, lifeless rest it roared back and we were on our way.