Monday, February 27, 2017

Did it myself

Greatness can be found everywhere around us. It can be found in the unlikeliest of places, wherever human hearts beat. Like that soft, quiet beat of life, it doesn't always announce itself with loud volume. It doesn't require a lofty platform or a gold setting; sometimes a gem of great value is hiding in the dust.

The dusty, pulsing vein of State Road 7 was our setting this day. Muhammad Ali, the World's Greatest, had died the day before in the unrelenting Purge of Giants 2016. At Commercial Blvd, a young man in his 20s boarded, immediately distinctive by a designed splash of red dye in his short beard. Although it is something I'd be unlikely to do on myself these days, I can still appreciate those who get creative with their hair, a temporary expression of that individual.
"Does someone do that for you?" I inquired, complimenting by way of curiosity.
"I did it myself. I'm a stylist." His matter of fact response carried a hint of indignation at the suggestion of anyone else having created this work of art.

Just a couple miles down the road, a semi-familiar older face appeared. Using a guide stick to compensate for his partial blindness, he was heading out to start his day with a cup of coffee.
"I'm walking out on faith today." He spoke the words with intrepid humility, as if to proclaim his defiance against taking the easy way out and giving in to ennui. A person's manner makes an impression on those they meet, and his manner eliminated the vague familiarity upon first seeing him and now I remembered him from some time before. Part of the disconnect was due to the empty space at his side previously occupied by his loyal guide dog, a well-trained golden retriever.
"Where's your furry friend?" I asked.
"Oh, I'm retiring him. A state marshal is adopting him." As he explained lifestyle differences between himself and the dog's new master, it was clear that he wanted the animal to have the best life possible.
"So what's goin' on today, you got an exciting day planned?" I probed, both to change the subject and wondering about happenings in the neighborhood.
"Nothing exciting, I lead a boring life, I don't go to bars... You like coffee?" We'd arrived at his stop and he was going to get me a cup on his way back.
"Nah, I'm not a coffee guy, but thanks for the offer!"
"I'll drink one to you!"

It was now mid-morning, at that certain time when the sun casts its first intense beams across the earth. The light itself broils anything in its path with a golden ferocity, until that hour passes and the sun rises higher above the horizon. Another young man with short hair who'd boarded at Turtle Creek made his way up to the front the way folks do to see where they are.
"Hot as shit out there." His weather report was bleak and resigned.
"Cookin', that's how we do it in Broward County." We know what we're dealing with at this latitude, and things go a lot smoother when we don't fight Mother Nature.
"I don't wanna get off, but I need the next stop."
"Prepare yourself."
"Prepare for the heat." The pep talk had helped as evidenced by his growing smile and energetic exit.

Two Haitian ladies are conversing near the front, dulcet feminine voices, a duet of soft syllables in kreyòl.

We serviced the stop at Our Lady Queen of Heaven church, where an animated older woman waited near the curb. She'd been interacting with the other passengers there, and included me in her protestations as she boarded.
"They're having a funeral over there," she informed me, pointing in the direction of the neighboring cemetery (which happens to be the resting place for the remains of our own World's Greatest). "Chickens and cows die every day of their lives."
"Muhammad Ali just died." I injected the current event that coincided with her morbid theme.
"They're slaughtered every..." she continued her mission to raise awareness about the unpleasant side of our food sources.
Our next trip by there on the flip side brought with it yet another funeral procession fronted by a police escort, a flashing-light reminder in the middle of the route that there is an end of the road. In between we'll express, explore, expect, and do what we can while we're here.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Greener over there

Another week on the 34, and the bus with the nonfunctional wheelchair ramp returns. It was fixed the last time I had it, but this morning it won't cooperate. Like the last time, we'll go into service and get it fixed on the road.

The mornings have been rainy lately, and it continues this day. When the weather's clear, flocks of vultures perch atop the median light poles along the Coral Springs segment. Today a lone vulture is all I can see.

Our first eastbound a man with a bandage on his nose boards after loading his bike on the rack. Slides a dollar in the box and just before exiting asks for an emergency pass for the next bus. (Amazingly, I would pick him up again on the next eastbound at exactly the same spot he got on the first time. Déjà vu.)

Approaching Riverside Drive, there was a man in a tie dye shirt dancing at the bus stop. He didn't want the bus, as the young lady who boarded there explained.
"He's admiring asses, so he's excited." Apparently she'd gotten to know this man with the shaved head and toothless smile while waiting for the bus.
"Wonder what he's on." She pondered aloud.

It's the morning rush and we're getting slammed this trip: heavy ridership, heavy traffic, too many red lights. Road service for the wheelchair ramp came to the rescue as well, and got that glitch resolved. By now we were a good 12 minutes down and not likely to make it up with the Military Trail/Tri-Rail choke point still ahead. Not sure if we had a leader that trip, but by the end I was nearly on my follower's time.

We left the east layover a couple minutes down but soon got back on track. Out by the Turnpike we passed a kelly green Rolls Royce, a real eye catcher in the shadows of Mt. Trashmore.

Our next trip the regulars appear. One panhandles at Powerline until his retirement kicks in. He's got the best bike on the rack and is paranoid about it getting scratched by other bikes put on too hastily. Today he thinks bus drivers have it easy.
"When that sun is cookin' I'd rather drive the bus 10 hours a day than spend 2 to 5 hours outside."
   'Be careful what you wish for.'
"You're in the a/c."
   'It's a different kind of stress.'
"You're out there next to those hot engines..."
I had to capitulate after that nugget, being familiar with the heat sink of the street, only intensified by the furnace of a hot engine. He did get lucky in the sun sometimes, like the day before when someone handed him a winning scratch-off.

The other regular is our friend with the book about getting lost. Today he informs me he's going through the process to be a substitute teacher for the county. Did his fingerprints, going through a background check, etc. Wants to teach high school though he graduated only a few years before. Then dejection set in when he remembered another passenger telling him not to do it because the students wouldn't take him seriously. I encouraged him to go for it anyway, and nevermind the naysayers.

We don't need to have everything working perfectly before we get started. We can stop as we go and fix things along the way. The journey has many destinations along the way, but we won't get there without starting in the first place.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Open door policy

Showing how fickle the weather can be, while a previous week on the 19 had been bright sun all morning, this one started out with gray skies and heavy overcast. Certainly too cloudy for sunglasses, which is a good thing since sunglasses create a barrier between the driver and those boarding. Some drivers say sunglasses are an indispensable part of the uniform, a safety feature for one's sanity. Our subtropical sun makes them necessary most of the year, though days like this are a welcome change.

The gloomy weather also has another effect: it tends to keep people indoors, which means the bus is lighter than usual and we weren't going to be running late today. The first couple trips were smooth as can be, highlighted by one young lady's shirt with the design: I Don't Sweat, I Sparkle. Yes, you do, and thank you for getting creative with the unavoidable perspiration.

On Saturdays only every other bus on the 19 goes to Sandalfoot in Boca Raton. The run I had was the short one, just between Lauderhill Mall and Turtle Creek. Before the next trip south, I made a pit stop at the gas station at the north end, across from the Coconut Creek Casino. Pulling in, I noticed a man standing under a nearby oak tree, fidgeting anxiously, a duffel bag at his feet. After taking care of business, I returned and found him still there, with a sort of conflicted pacing.
'Are you riding with us today?' I called over to him, to indicate we'd pull out soon. He stayed where he was while I got in the seat and released the parking brake which released the familiar squeal of air brakes.
He slowly made his way over, as if forcing himself by sheer will power.
"You know you a blessing today?" His first words were quiet and unclear.
'I am a blessing, or I'm getting a blessing?' I asked to be clear on what I heard.
"Well, I was gonna go in that casino, then I heard those air brakes and it was a sign to go."
Now this was a new one for me. BCT regularly delivers a steady stream of gamers to that casino and others, but now there was at least one customer who we delivered from spending his money unwisely.

At that point in the route, the sky had cleared. Underway on our southbound trip, it got darkly ominous again, lightning flashes illuminating the clouds. A squirrel ran across the expanse of State Road 7, taking a chance with its life, and outran the traffic.

Back down at the Hill, the weather was soupy. An older man boarded complaining about it. It's no fun trying to dodge the raindrops when out doing errands.
'Keeps everything green.' My go-to return line at these times. Sometimes I'll throw in the added trivia that South Florida is on the same latitude as the Sahara Desert. If we didn't get such voluminous rainfall we'd be a sandy, barren landscape like that part of Africa.
"That's the good thing about it." He had to agree.

Montgomery, one of our popular senior drivers was doing the 36 and we did the bus driver wave when leaving the Hill.

Approaching Oakland Park Blvd, we kept pace with a funeral caravan using the other lanes.

Up at Coconut Creek Parkway (the road, not the casino), an older woman boarded lamenting about just missing my leader "by 10 feet". A previous resident of Texas, she raved about the stellar bus system in San Antonio, making a point to praise their clean-cut drivers. She was shocked to come here and see ponytails and dreadlocks on our bus operators.

Our next trip the wet streets were taking their toll: at least two incidents of disabled vehicles blocking the right lane.

Midway through the shift, an older man with a white-haired ponytail requiring three rubber bands to keep under control boarded talking on his phone.
"You can't have Afraid to Open Doors Syndrome," he was saying to someone on the other end, loudly. They hung up and he came up to me and shared his frustration with an ineffective coworker. They were making decent money to apply PUSH/PULL decals to storefront entry doors, and his coworker was screwing around, ruining it for everyone.

The weather had stifled the typical bustle of the weekend, but the earth came alive in the diminished activity despite the dampness. An anhinga flew low in front of us just before Prospect. Near Copans Rd, thousands of tiny butterflies in the lawn in front of a U-Haul, making the ground itself flutter with life.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Loss of function

After our previous day on the 34, with an extremely slow bus (which for drivers is a major handicap and general bummer), it was with hope the next morning when I walked out into the bus yard to pre-trip a different one. It was from the same series and every bus reveals its own character in its own time. This one proved to be a little faster from a dead stop, but still had the single large slooow door like its sibling. The biggest glitch I could spot on this unit was a nonfunctional wheelchair ramp, which I reported. A mechanic would service it on the road, so I pulled out to head to my starting point as instructed.

The first trip was notable for its light ridership; there was no school today, and normally there'd be a standing load of students heading to Coral Springs HS. It's easy to see the differences between kids that go to school there and ones that go to Fort Lauderdale High on the 50. The former are polite, quiet, and wear designer labels. The latter are louder, rougher, and laugh a lot more. People are people and kids are young people so I don't play favorites. They all have their place, and people let you know what place you're in.

Our next trip we settled in for the morning, until we got to Turtle Creek where the mechanic was waiting to service the wheelchair ramp. He worked his magic and got it operating, but now we were running late at a crucial time when folks are trying to make the train. With a chorus of grumbling and requests to go faster behind behind me, we went as quickly as safely possible. I don't recall the status of the train.

Settled in earnest now, the trips are flying by, blending into one another. A woman named Kim took the time to come up and compliment me: "You're very pleasant, an asset to BCT."
Probably thanking her in my typical self-deprecating way, the real reason she came up became clear. She was staying in a hotel and was unfamiliar with the lay of the land. Her house had burned down the previous month. The troubles she shared got progressively worse until they reached a crescendo: she lost her husband in the house fire. The talkative sociability that started out so light got heavy fast - until it collapsed with two simple words: "I'm broken."

The woman who lost her past was replaced with a young man looking at his future, the book worm trying to get lost. Arising from his customary cross-legged pose on the sidewalk, he calmly talked about going to FAU, its social clubs, and ultimately wanting to study English so he too could write a book about getting lost. In fact, he had gotten lost a couple years before when he boarded the wrong bus at a stop shared by two routes. I said that sounded like an adventure, he said it was terrifying.

Later, a regular who works at the Panthers IceDen and boards in Pompano came up as we neared the Sportsplex at the west end. By this point we were the only ones on the bus, and I had nearly forgotten I wasn't alone. Sporting shorts and flip flops, he sneezed and I suggested he bundle up before going into the ice rink.
He paused for a moment then shared a stoic admission: "My whole day is either in uncomfortable heat or uncomfortable cold. No middle."

Just in time for the final trip from the west layover, my follower pulled in behind and parked her bus. I would give her a ride across the light to save her a few steps. She repaid me by letting me know of another glitch on this bus: a rear turn signal wasn't working.

Every machine eventually wears down. Parts stop functioning as designed, access points are inaccessible, life gets uncomfortable, or we can't signal which way we're going. Sometimes there are unseen mechanical issues that require skilled hands to be repaired. Sometimes it's just a burned out bulb.

Friday, February 10, 2017

This is the day

A low-key morning on the 34, doing a few round trips on Sample Rd. Taking less than an hour from end to end, it could be considered one of the duller routes for that reason and also the fact there are no turns but for the ends and the Tri-Rail station. For such a short run it has impressively frequent service most of the day, creating an anomaly on a mostly suburban route compared to some of our workhorse routes which could use similar service.

This morning run started out a bit disconcerting when I was assigned a notoriously slow bus to pull out. There would be no zipping around today. Designed as a commuter bus for highway travel, it featured a single large door which was also slow to operate. I had used it before on the 50 route, an epic mismatch. It would be fine on the 34, just requiring more time to emerge from pull-ins. This would be a good chance to hone some safe driving skills, plus the reactions from passengers unfamiliar with the single door are priceless.

My second passenger of the day was also a connection to the 50, where he'd boarded one day to tell me about the latest "spiritual banana peels" meant to trip him up. It was Tom, carrying his laptop and a coffee. When he saw it was me, the story picked up where it left off. Before travelling by bus, police had been harassing him for driving a nice car. Convinced that the Devil was out to get him since "everything's spiritual," he described being "touched 2 or 3 times" by blackbirds.

Our first eastbound who should board but a legend on the 34. Every route has regulars synonymous with that route. They know all the drivers on the route, and probably spend more time on it than those drivers. This eccentric gentleman is immediately recognizable by his unchanging wardrobe: straw lifeguard hat, safety vest, multiple shirt layers, and bushy mustache. He stays active with his bicycle, which he's returning since it's new and just broke. After that errand he's off to the hospital "to get all my skin burned off."
"That's exciting," I sardonically replied to the unpleasant claim.
"She's a pretty 23 year old doctor and she's gonna zap my head - no pun intended!" I suppose the risqué humor took his mind off what lay ahead, which he followed up by showing me the results of previous treatments. His persistence and enthusiasm are contagious, and his freely shared ailments are a visible reminder of the sun's power; it both gives and takes life. This morning it is intense, unhindered by the jagged white-capped thin clouds on the eastern horizon.

Once he exited, a woman boarded and proceeded to start a praise and worship session in the back.
"Holy Spirit, Holy Spirit, Holy Spirit... This is the day that the Lord has made..."
The world could always use more singing, regardless of timbre or genre.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

See you soon

Another afternoon on the 50, truckin' up and down Dixie. Come ride with us...

Still early, just after lunch, so things are peaceful before school lets out and rush hour begins. At the Northeast Transit Center a familiar face from my shift on the 34 the day before looks in.
"You're going north right? Oh, hey kid!" An older woman lamenting the aging process and wondering when her nest would be empty, she'd given me a tip on a good fishing spot to try out.

We're in Pompano north of Atlantic Blvd. now, where the FEC RR breaks free from the backsides of warehouses and other industrial buildings to dominate the east side of the street. The opposite side of Dixie is one dilapidated strip plaza after another, broken up by weedy fields with no hope of being developed any time soon. Up at 41st St a little old Haitian woman boards carefully with two plastic bags loaded with produce and groceries, one hanging from each hand. Even among the warehouses there's a popular farmers market. She puts one bag down to slip a dollar into the slot. That moment of interaction is my chance to ask an innocent question.
"Ooh, what are we having for dinner?! Griot? Soup joumou?" My jesting when folks board with food always has a hint of wistfulness, hoping for an invitation to join (I'll bring the bread).
"Griot!" She replied without hesitation, presumably mulling that night's menu under her white lace hair net.

A different grocery-laden elderly Haitian lady got on near the north end. My leader bus was at the layover, and I let her know he'd be leaving soon. Either she didn't understand me, or she had no melting ice cream in her bags so she didn't mind sitting 20 minutes till we pulled out. While waiting, she cobbled together a few words of English to ask for a day pass for tomorrow. Her forlorn and needy expression grew as I tactfully explained we can only issue passes for the same day.

In keeping with the pattern so far, yet another older woman at the north layover is waiting with orange rolling suitcase in tow. A familiar face, she's getting ready for a trip and wanted some distinctive luggage. Perusing a 50 schedule, she was unaware of the recent service improvements and seemed a bit confused. After getting clear about the new times, she made sure to invite me to the 2 Georges in The Cove on a Friday when it's packed with single women. Matchmakers may be getting rare these days, but they still try to hook up bus drivers.

We pulled out, and when the forlorn Haitian lady exited a couple miles later she still thanked me.
"Ok mama, à bientôt."
She repeated my farewell with a toothless smile.

At 10th St, a young man in white pants covered with emoticons walked on, slipped a fiver in the box, and walked back to a seat in one fluid motion.
"Hey buddy!" I called out, holding the day pass his fare had just bought.
"Naw, I don't need it," Mr. Emoticon nonchalantly called back.

At Prospect Rd, an irregular regular. This is still another older lady with short gray hair and an umbrella. I say irregular because she only boards my bus when something is going on with my leader; by taking my bus there's a 50/50 chance she'll make it to Central Terminal in time to make her connecting bus. A few minutes out from the terminal, and the railroad crossing arms come down at the most inopportune time. She made her connection anyway, and I was her hero.

Our next trip north and here's my friend who works at the animal hospital. News about their multi-million dollar equipment upgrade follows fascinating descriptions of radiating a hawk's wing, and a cat flown in from the Bahamas by charter jet.

Before Commercial Blvd., I heard a series of sharp whistles clear and loud. A bald man in sunglasses had made the alert and I just had to wait for anyone who could make such an impressive sound.
"Nice whistles, they paid off." I complimented him as he boarded.
"Especially when you got kids! A couple whistles, they stop in their tracks and know Dad caught 'em."

Uncharacteristic for the 50, every northbound trip has heavy ridership all the way to the Northeast Transit Center. The southbound trips are notable for unusual obstacles: a broken-down bulldozer being worked on, a disabled school bus with its triangles out, and two cars blocking the right lane (with a guy holding a red gas can up to the rear car).

Back up in Pompano, approaching Copans, a brunette in strapless blouse is hustling her area. The fashion choice of this wayward daughter exposes a chest covered with scabby sores.

On the flip side of Copans going the other way another brunette boards, not much younger than her streetwise sister but fresh-faced and business casual in a red polo embroidered with a daycare logo.
"How were the kiddies today?" She looks tired after a long day, so it probably wasn't the best question to ask at that moment. (My apologies for the untimely reminder.)
"Super! That's why I can't wait to get home." The facetious tone said one thing, though the subconscious smile belied an affection for her little ones.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The pinnacle

Last summer, one sunny Saturday morning on the 19. The first trip was always the busiest, filling the extra-long artic with folks heading off to work. There is a certain delight in being there as the city wakes, and the machine of human movement gears up. This was still the weekend however, and the mad rush would level off for the rest of my shift once we got to Lauderhill Mall. That is, on a regular Saturday. This day my leader was still in the 19 slot at The Hill when we arrived; his bus had broken down, it's back skirt flung up, and a mechanic already tinkering on the engine. My first standing load was replaced with another and the casual observer would be forgiven for thinking this was a regular week day on the ever-popular 19. Shortly after pull-out, I heard him get radio instructions to start way up the road. The bus was gonna be busy on this trip.

We finished the trip behind schedule but just in time for the next trip south, and things got back to normal. That meant a steady pace of 30 mph lest we run hot. It was now mid-morning and Saturday service is more frequent than weekdays since the Breeze isn't running to share the passengers, but I still take pride in keeping to the schedule. With so many connections along the route, I try to do my part in the system.

On this trip one of my fellow bus operators boarded with his young son, out doing errands. Other than passing each other at the garage, bus time is one of the best times for drivers to socialize. He stood up front and we talked shop. I'd been calling out stops all morning since the automatic announcer wasn't working, and saw no reason to stop just because he was there. The laughter this provoked was a reminder that not all drivers like to call out stops. For me, it is yet another delight to call out familiar streets and let everyone know where we are.

At Oakland Park, I helped a middle-age man put his bike on the rack. He had a mountain of totes and bags to load, so it was more to speed up the process and get moving again. At the end of the line, he remembered to take all his stuff off the bus, but forgot to take his bike; it would stay on the rack the rest of this shift.

In Margate, a young lady with contagious smile boarded, her soft and bright yellow blouse complementing the sunny day. Always with a cheery disposition, catchy tunes play low on her device.

Back at Lauderhill, a woman in her Sunday best came up to me as I exited the bus to stretch. She and some others were taking a break from church service to pass out reading material and invite folks to their Seventh Day Adventist meeting nearby.
"See the pinnacle over there?" she invited by way of a question, pointing to the modest steeple.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Hearts in transit

One rainy morning on the 34, a pre-dawn trip into the still-dark heart of Coral Springs. The day was young but the hunched couple silhouetted at the bus stop were not. She was my regular on this trip, always there on time though the bus might be late. The earlier outline became real when the bus doors opened upon them, revealing a pair well-rounded by life and love. He would see her off, concerned for the safety of his woman even after so many years - or perhaps enhanced by the passage of time. One form split into two as they separated and she boarded. He disappeared into the dark sidewalk, she lit up in the low glow of the bus cabin light. We greeted each other as so many times before, her gentle eye contact exceeded only by her Mona Lisa smile. After these immediate pleasantries, I would generally be distracted by her fresh bindi, a third eye seeing only what she could see - no doubt the abundance of Life so apparent in her person.

This morning I was surprised by something new to my own vision. A glance beyond the light of her eyes exposed some skin paled by an ailment resembling vitiligo, with random patches of pigment along her arms. Had she simply been wearing long sleeves on previous days, or had I been oblivious to something obvious? What might be considered a blemish did nothing to diminish the beauty she radiated from within. In fact, it defiantly did the opposite; one particular patch on her left cheek presented a curious yet familiar gift to anyone who looked upon her: the shape of a heart.