Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Cashing in our chips


Life is a gamble and the house always wins. We play our best hand, bluff our way to an occasional jackpot, till we eventually end up with the same amount when we came in the door.

Sample Road in the north part of the county is pretty much like every other major thoroughfare around town: an endless line of commercial and residential properties interspersed with requisite amenities like hospitals and parks. Also like every other road, its flow of humanity gives it a flavor of its own.

Going west from US 1 on this morning shift, the sun was preparing to peek over the Atlantic. The bus glided under I-95 to service the stop at 5th Terrace. Across the street, day laborers awaited vans to deliver them to work sites. A regular loaded his yellow bike, the first color of the new day. Long, thin dreads and a dignified graying goatee. Always a formal greeting. Yes, Sir.

The world comes in the doors on its own time, to remind us that the magic space within is not isolated from the brutal machinations without. We passed the Coconut Creek casino and pulled to a stop at Turtle Creek.
"You been on this route long?" The middle-aged man asked as we resumed rolling.
   'Every Thursday.'
"Did you know Jay?"
   'Younger guy or older guy?' I prodded for a clue.
"Older guy. He was killed last night at the casino. Got run over in the parking lot."
Simple as that, everyone aboard was starting their day with the unthought of knowledge that Jay is dead. Yet the city was still waking up, steadily increasing its living vibrations, despite one member missing.

Many people look at each day as a chance to start fresh, to move beyond what came before. Bus drivers experience this multiple times per shift, just by changing the direction of travel. With a constant stream of sensory input coming at us, it helps to break it up into manageable pieces.

Heading back east toward the risen sun, we were in the middle of the trip when an older man boarded. Mature in years, he carried permanent marks of younger days on his arms: total coverage of green fish scales inked on.
   'How's it goin' today?' I asked, admiring the extensive body art.
"Pain. My back." He replied plainly, not expecting sympathy.
   'C'mon, man! Ya gotta take care of yourself. No fun.'
"I know..."
When he exited farther east, I wished him to feel better.
"It's been like this for 15 years." He commented with stark resignation.
   'That's depressing. It's gotta get better sometime!'
"Yeah, maybe when I'm six under!" He smiled over his shoulder as he gingerly stepped onto the sidewalk. Morose humor has its benefits too.

Traffic had calmed and the street had settled into a quiet lull. We caught the red light at Holiday Springs and watched the side streets take their turn. Through my open window a series of melodic metallic tones tickled my ears. A most unlikely spot to hear live music, on this stretch of road between McDonald's and a golf course. But music it undeniably was, and being played at an uptempo clip with great ability and versatility. I say ability because of the rapid pace of the notes without faltering, and versatility because while my ears told me I was hearing steel pans, my eyes discovered this virtuosic display emanated from a harmonica being played by the driver of a white Audi in the next lane. This was the complete rejoicing opposite of a dirge, as might be appropriate in memoriam of Jay. This was Life, making the most of a momentary pause, singing its song with every breath.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Thanks for the floor show

Some days rate above average in a given friction cycle. Friction happens when things don't run smoothly. There is always friction to some degree, only the amount varies from moment to moment. No one said it would be easy, and by now we should know what we signed up for.

Morning pullouts from the bus yard are a flurry of activity until you pass through the gates, then it's a calm affair until you reach the starting point for the day. I was almost to the highway to head downtown when the telltale clanging bells and flashing red lights of the railroad crossing flared up. Fortunately it was the CSX RR and would most likely be a Tri-Rail commuter gone in a couple minutes. Something was amiss when a long, slow freighter appeared out of the windbreak, somewhat unusual for this time of day. The impenetrable moving obstacle was an early reminder to expect the unexpected and take each confrontation on its own terms.

Over the radio, another driver was reporting a man stalking a woman on the bus. It was happening in the north part of the county, but was eerily similar to a recent incident down south. Drivers are always looking out for the safety of our passengers, and request assistance as needed.

It was time to put this bus in service at Central Terminal. I'd already pushed the seats up to make room for my regular rider in the wheelchair, who prides himself in getting aboard as quickly as possible.

Only a few minutes into the trip northbound on Federal Highway, a quiet voice with an endearing Kreyol accent spoke up anxiously:
"I too short! I can't reach it!" It was as if her inner thought forced itself into an outer sound unexpectedly. She may have wanted the previous stop, but only realized in time to request the next stop.

A glitch in the bus tech caused the onboard announcer to go mute after Oakland Park Boulevard, except for occasional techno jabber: "Bootloader... Offset Zero... Formatics..." The headsign was blank all the way to Boca Raton. These technical issues are mildly irritating, but also provide an opportunity to interact more with passengers as the quirky announcements elicit curious responses and the blacked out headsign compels intending customers to get the driver's confirmation that this is indeed their bus.

We'd crossed the 14th Street Causeway in Pompano when we pulled up to a forlorn figure. A man in a hoodie, age indeterminate, with a loaded duffel.
"I'm sorry to ask, but... I was jumped last night and I've been walking..." Even the request was forlorn.
Tattoo ink spilled out onto his hands from under the hoodie sleeves, one holding up a cracked cell phone to verify the rough night. He didn't need EMS, just a chance to rest his weary feet on the way to Sample Road.

"Happy New Year, Boss!"A regular greeted me first up in Deerfield.
   'Bonn ane!' I well-wished him in return.
"Oh, pale Kreyol?" He grinned with delight.
'Piti piti. Et bon sante!' Why stop at one blessing?

The streets gleamed slick in Boca, but nothing was coming down.
Soon we were heading back down on the flip side of our orbit. The onboard announcer rediscovered its voice, but it was still intermittent, choosing to speak up when it felt like it. The morning rush was over, and all was quietly humming along at the north end. Apparently everyone was where they needed to be so it was just me and the temperamental announcer for a bit.

At times like this the bus may be moving slowly, but still running fast by the schedule. We had to burn off a few minutes at the Copans Road timepoint, where operators from connecting lines also waited.
   'Hej då!' I greeted one of them with bad Swedish, hoping it would process in his Norwegian vocabulary. It did, though we instantly went to English.

The friction cycle continued halfway through the shift when the farebox decided to join in. An error came up and it just stopped functioning. All attempts to resolve the issue were unsuccessful.

Maybe we were on Sunrise Boulevard, approaching Wagner Tire before easing north on the Gateway Curve. A man with old dreads was on the sidewalk, facing us. He held up his right hand, middle finger extended. It was paired with the biggest, sweetest smile of the day, an ecstatic display that may have captured the flavor of our journey through the city.

In Pompano again, a woman who may not live on the street but competently acts the part made her entrance onto our moving stage. Routinely spotted at various stops, but more or less along the same stretch, I welcomed her aboard. The familiar bleary smile found a seat and I returned my focus to the road ahead. The calm wore off with each passing block until her hidden fury had to erupt. She began cursing and yelling for no obvious reason. The trip was soon over and tempers abated, but it was an unexpected outburst and concerned me.
   'Why so angry?' I gently probed.
"Cuz I feel like it!" She blurted as she exited. It was as good a reason as any, and not to be argued with.
Another passenger who waited for her to exit stage left put the episode in a lighter perspective.
"Thanks for the floor show!" He commented as he made his way past my seat.

Friction cycles are always in play, some more severe than others. External forces pull at our inner tides, roiling otherwise placid waters. The grease that lubricates the chain also attracts the dirt that makes it squeak. A clam accepts whatever is irritating it and transforms it into a pearl.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Licking our wounds

The beautiful mess that is Broward County will leave a mark on you. It's a hungry town so unless you become an urban hermit, be prepared to leave some blood on its streets - or at least some sweat. Bus drivers thread their vehicles through the fabric of the city, passengers contribute their own energetic lines in the tapestry, creating improvised works of art daily. Like any fabric, it can leave a burn when you stumble.

We got a reprieve from the northern cold fronts that drifted too far south, the thermometer had risen back to the 70s, a nice warmth all over. I got to roll on the 10 this morning, one of my Top 5 routes. North and south on Federal Highway amidst all that it contains - and no train tracks to cross.

The bus was full from the start heading north out of Central Terminal. Looking at the standing load behind me, it was a welcome return to normal after the holiday lull. No traffic of consequence, so if anything was going to slow us down it was going to be the constant stopping. But that's what buses do: Go slow and stop a lot. I was thinking the route could use an earlier bus, but where's the fun in that? Perhaps an earlier bus would have prevented me from picking up the nice lady in Deerfield, hair both wild and straight.

A senior gentleman got on at Palmetto Park in Boca, his plastic bag bulging like an overgrown cantaloupe.
   "It's a ball from the Heat's winning season, maybe 1989," He explained when he saw my interest in the unusual package. At least that's what it sounded like he said. Considering how new the Heat as a team were three decades ago, maybe the number he told me was actually the collectible's value.
"LeBron spends $300 to $400 on coffee," he continued with curious trivia. "Cheer up, in 15 years you can retire. I did my 30." His encouragement as he exited was welcome after the busy trip.

Fortunately it would be the only busy trip of the day, which I couldn't have known so early in the shift as I pulled in to the north layover. Trying to predict such things is tricky, however I already knew that what we may have lacked in quantity would be made up for in quality.

Who should be waiting on Camino Real but our friend with the distinctive shuffle and omnipresent cooler, wandering over to my front door.
   "You're a saint and a half. Happy New Year!" He cheerily greeted me. A fresh injury on his elbow had exposed some blood. He was surprised to see it when I brought it to his attention and told him we couldn't move the bus unless he covered it up. He rubbed it with a finger, deftly applied a bandage to it, and tossed the wrapper on the sidewalk.
Our wounds now nursed, we were good to go. He pulled the cord once we crossed the Hillsboro Inlet, an unnecessary move since he always requested this stop and he was the only one aboard. Sometimes there's a comfort in going through the motions.
   "Stoooop requeeeested." He mimicked the bus announcer in slow motion and with a higher pitch. "That's what it should say. Did you see me put on that bandage so quick and clean? I missed my calling. I should have been a paramedic!"

BCT's joking Weatherman waited for us at Sample. In a cheery mood as usual, jovial under a silvery crown when I asked about the forecast.

We flew by Pompano Citi Centre, an enormous flock of starlings peering at us from the powerlines above, their hollow bones unable to make the massive cable sag.

A few minutes later we were idling at Atlantic, directly behind a silver Prius with the most relaxed beagle in east Broward reclining in the rear window.

We made our trip downtown, flipped it around, and came back up this way. The ball collector from the first trip boarded again.
   "You must be getting tired by now," he opined, though it had only been a couple hours.
'I'm just getting started!' I replied with joyful rebellion. He was a treasure trove of BCT history, telling me about old route alignments. Also of a time before Central Terminal when County buses parked on the east side of Stranahan Park, city buses on the west - before the Main Library was built there.

Ben, a regular on the 50, was down at Central Terminal for our next visit. With his trademark scarecrow hat and skateboard, I blurted out a couple taps on the horn for him.

Pulling out of safe harbor at Central Terminal to service my appointed rounds, I had to share a couple more love taps when we crossed paths with a ghost crossing Andrews Avenue. It was Ciccio, the prodigal son returned to town and active in the local art scene after a prolonged absence. Wearing blue shirt and shorts, his salt and pepper beard trimmed neatly like the last time I saw him on the 72. The beeps interrupted his distracted jaywalking as he looked up, a little preoccupied going the opposite way toward FAT Village.

The day was calm and we paid our fares. The shuttle pushed through the loom and the threads pulled snug, making way for the next line.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Good afteryear

A cold morning on a New Year's Eve in Broward County. The weather app said it was in the mid-50s. The sun wasn't up yet so there was no need to run the a/c, but it worked if we needed it. The horn, on the other hand, wasn't uttering a squeak. This is an indispensable feature on a bus, so we'd have to trade in this unit for another.

Everything looked and sounded good on the replacement bus, but the delay meant pulling out of the yard nearly half an hour behind schedule. It was probably my latest pull out of the year - not bad considering it was also the last day of the year. A pretty good run, I thought on the deadhead to the starting point. Flocks of ibis headed eastbound for breakfast, higher than usual. Maybe it was warmer up there.

The first trip filled the bus nicely, many passengers understandably upset when this bus didn't show up anywhere near on time. That's usually not a good way to start the day.

A familiar man who is a regular on the route was frustrated when I met him at the other end. He'd been waiting for an hour for the previous bus, and reported that it never showed. I had no reason to doubt him, and this news made the concerns of prior passengers even more poignant. If true, then I had no leader bus that first trip. My sympathy meter switched to MAX when I thought of the excessive wait they endured due to two consecutive delayed buses at a crucial time of the work day.

Fortunately, the next trip brought reassurance when I spotted my leader for the first time, essentially where he was scheduled to be. I was still late, however the deficit was now cut in half since I hadn't taken a break at the end of the first trip. Our schedules have varying amounts of "recovery time" built in between trips.That recovery is for the schedule, not the driver.

A long line of people waited outside Fish Peddler East for the doors to open, ready to supply their holiday parties. When we got to 441 a woman boarded and pressed the back of her phone against the fare box. Her move stuck out as unusual on this route but is quite common on routes that service Miami-Dade, where they use tap technology. Often folks will keep their passes tucked into their phone cases. I just remind them we're in Broward County, and they pull it out and swipe.

By the time we got to Galt Mile for the third visit, it was just past noon and the morning coolness was gone. With the a/c now running, a young lady in her Pieology uniform boarded, dreads on her shoulders. The restaurant at 18th Ave was brand new, so we talked about it.

The sun had shifted along with our direction change, and was cooking the driver's area despite the blowing fan. My back was sweaty so I peeled it off the seat to do the bus driver lean over the wheel and let it breathe.

"Good afteryear!" The slight, sprightly senior greeted me as she hiked the big step up on McNab Road, way out west. Her graying braids did nothing to slow her energetic entrance. The excitement was contagious, but was soon tempered by a radio alert to be on the lookout for a missing twelve year old boy. We never crossed paths, so I prayed for his safety and trusted that search would end well.

With the Hiatus loop behind us, we headed back east for the final time. The sun was receding the other way and took the greenhouse steam with it. Our cabin cooled on the way to the relief point, where my shift ended. I passed the bus on to the next driver, saying goodbye to him and the old year.

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Thanks for your support, Broward County! It's always an honor and a pleasure to pick up neighbors and visitors as we get around town.
My routes this Pick are: 14, 36, 60, 62, & 441 Breeze. Sooo good to return to my beloved 14 & 60. See ya out there!