Thursday, May 30, 2019

Over the bridge

Last days on a run can be bittersweet. It means being on new roads the next few months, separated from the developments and experiences of a part of town I'd snugly settled into. It also meant informing regulars so they wouldn't think I'd quit the bus when they didn't see me next week.

This last day was a Saturday on the 55, rolling east and west on Commercial Boulevard, making the big loop at the west end from McNab Road down to Oakland Park Boulevard, then back up to Commercial on Nob Hill Road. As an aside, Nob Hill is a lengthy street in its own right, but I have yet to find the hill called Nob.

I reported to the Dispatch window a little before 6 a.m. Supervisor Ironman was there, a welcome surprise since we generally only interacted via radio as he assisted with traffic control and break downs. He gave me the bus number assigned to my run, the same one I'd been driving every weekend. It is one of the older buses in the fleet, the type of old workhorse I describe as a Gillig Time Machine. Its age and mileage are so ingrained into every seat and stanchion that you are immediately transported back a decade and a half to the year it was manufactured. This beast and her rattling panels was in service the last time the Florida Marlins won the World Series. The team has since altered its name and been in their new stadium for several years now, while this bus goes about its appointed rounds. She may be aging, but she's still spry and I knew she'd see us through the day.

"Good morning, Broward County." I whispered my greeting to the dark-seated cabin before bringing it to life and turning on the lights. Many people other than myself were going to spend part of their day in this space, it couldn't hurt to fill it with a simple blessing.

Our pullout and starting point arrival were both timely, making for a relaxed start to the workday. The clock told us it was time to go into service, the brakes were released, and we slid into the suburban darkness. About a mile in, a young suburbanite boarded.
"I'm taking six buses today, is it better to get a day pass or just pay on each bus?" She asked.
I did the quick math aloud and she opted for the pass.

Midway through the trip, we approached Rock Island Road. A young man with short, bleached dreads stepped to the curb.
"I'm just going over the bridge..." He begged without going into lengthy detail, pointing meekly toward the upcoming curve where Commercial flies over the Turnpike. An undeniable strong baked scent followed him like a shadow - and it wasn't a loaf of bread.

We crested the overpass and glided down with the aid of gravity toward 441 on our eastward trek. Waiting at the end was the unintentional regular, who on previous Saturdays informed me that the bus ahead of mine never showed up. After too many weeks of waiting, he didn't even try to catch it anymore. He just adjusted his schedule for my bus.

At this time we were not laying over on A1A, but rather a side street along a shopping center close to Oakland Park Boulevard. The added distance ate into my break time, but I was still able to stretch my legs before heading west.

Leaving this layover, we go north on A1A to Commercial.  That intersection is the heart of Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, a slice of old coastal Broward complete with multipurpose Town Hall, seafood restaurants, family businesses lining the main drag, and Anglin's Pier jutting out into the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.

A young couple waited patiently at the first stop on Commercial. It was the cycling pair from earlier in the week when I was driving a different route. The lady who had been so inquisitive about bus driving back then was reserved today. Presumably I'd answered all her questions.

Another cyclist was waiting on the flip side, after we'd turned around. A self-described "old hippie vet" with a huge bike. It was his first time using a bus bike rack, and he'd perched it on there precariously. A little assistance from the driver, and he was a pro.

Once again we flipped it around, back west. Out at Pine Island, a horrific accident had the eastbound lanes completely closed. A compact car was wrapped around a tree. It didn't look good, and we could only hope for the best.

A call went out over the radio with detour instructions. The driver of the bus ahead called back with a slightly faster route. We'd just turned back on to Commercial after a scenic detour through the sleepy neighborhood to the south. A husky man was running from the other side, waving a closed umbrella to catch my attention. The landscaped median provided sanctuary for the crossing, thankfully since his other hand clasped that of his small son's. In another example of the thin line between win and loss, if we hadn't been delayed by a detour of unfortunate circumstance, they would have missed us and had a lengthy wait for the next bus.

Good time was being made, and it looked like I'd get a few minutes out of the seat at the Galt layover. Then the gates came down and crushed that hope.The long, thin white and red poles of the Intracoastal bridge gates made their horizontal descent to the piercing chimes of clanging bells. The delay added ten minutes to our schedule deficit, too much for the recovery time at the end to compensate for. I still took a few minutes to jump on to solid ground and shake the legs.

Our final westbound, only about five minutes down and every confidence of making that up once we got rolling. It was not to be. The same bridge that denied us on the way to the barrier island was now denying our exit. Something must have been going on in the Intracoastal below, since openings are timed to avoid such inconvenience. But there it was, an upright bridge, our immovable object. We were soon down by double digits on the clock. That, coupled with a train delay at the FEC RR, put us into a hole with no chance of recovery.

Still, sometimes it doesn't matter how late we are or what caused it, so long as we get where we're going. A woman with a scrutinizing look was happy to see us when she got on at 441.
"Pale kreyol?" She probed. Perhaps I'd greeted her with some limited vocabulary before.
   'Ki jan ou ye?' I responded. She laughed.

The simple moments override the frustrations of uncontrollable delays and obstacles that are part of life in general, and multiplied endlessly for those of us spending our workdays on the street. There had still been time through the course of the day to reminisce over landmarks of younger days (Sunrise Musical Theater), to commune with the ghosts of Broward bus drivers of yesteryear (and their goats), and to otherwise enjoy this day with people I would probably not be seeing on my new routes. I'd be shifting gears from mornings to nights, but I wouldn't be far. Just over the bridge.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Nuthin's gonna take my smile

Friday the 13th on University Drive. This would be my last eleven hour shift for the foreseeable future. As a bonus there was no school today, which generally promises lighter traffic. The streets were slicked by an intermittent drizzle, nothing heavy. The temperature was a welcome neutral, neither cold nor hot. The ridership going north out of West Terminal was a bit on the cold side, if only because it was lighter than usual.

Going south on the next trip was a continuation of the first, with light traffic and no delays to make us late. At Sunset Strip, an older woman who's a regular on this run boarded with a motherly smile and focused on the fare box.
   "Good morning," we both said simultaneously. She must not have heard my greeting or seen my lips move as she was looking at the box, since she repeated herself in a slightly sour tone. I gave her a few extra Good Mornings for good measure. She liked that and the smile returned.

In Davie, a man handed me some paper as he exited. It was a paycheck, uncashed and forgotten. It would be deposited with Lost & Found at the end of the day.

We got down to the layover in Miami Gardens with ample time to stretch the legs. A woman boarding there held up a French coin in my face, claiming it was worth $2 and asking if she could use it as bus fare. At that time we only accepted U.S. legal tender, so I politely declined her offer. After that, she found the proper currency.

We pulled out of the bus line heading west on 207th St. Vultures clustered in the middle, pecking at an unidentifiable red spot.

Traffic picked up around I-595, though it wasn't quite lunchtime. We rolled in to West Terminal with a few minutes to recover. Everyone could exit or board at their leisure, including a familiar regular.

An older gentleman with a Redd Foxx walk and a friend to everyone he met, for years he had been inseparable from an enormous flashy beach cruiser which was conspicuously missing today. To see him without it was like seeing an amputee.
   'No more bike?' I asked out of curiosity.
"No more bike. I fell down too much." He seemed wistful over his sporty wheels, contentedly resigned to keeping himself free from injury.

He settled into a seat near the front and struck up a conversation with a woman around his age. They immediately began comparing emotional battle wounds inflicted upon them by loved ones.
"My kids and grandkids went bad! My daughter hates my guts." He stated with the same resignation he showed for his beloved bike.
"My addict brother took advantage of my kindness." She responded. "Nuthin's gonna take my smile, not me, ha ha!"
The back and forth continued, all at loud volume so nothing would have to be repeated. When he exited up the road, I thanked him for bringing good vibes on the bus - and to stay safe out there.

Over time, we'd been up to the north layover at Westview Drive, and found ourselves all the way down in Davie on the last southbound of this shift. Still, I was only about two-thirds through the endless hours.

At Griffin Road, a red light caught us and held us. A Honda SUV glided to a long stop in the lane next to us. The driver's window almost lined up with mine, which is always open regardless of the temperature. The woman driving gave me a kind, knowing smile which caught me a little off guard. Did she need to cut in front of the bus? No motions in that direction. Then the rear windows, tinted black as a limo, rolled down. Inside were a couple children very excited to see the bus.
"Hi, Mr. Bus Driver!" They called out in squeaky unison.
   'Hi guys!' I called back, with an added wave before the light turned green and the moment was gone.

There were still hours to go before I clocked out, and unexpected encounters were sure to meet us on the way. But the cheers from our youngest bus fans would help me keep my smile for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Making our case

My days of working the morning shift were coming to a close. Very soon my schedule would be flipping upside down and I'd be back on nights, where I hadn't been for a couple years. The people would be different, and the familiar old streets would become new terrain when the sun set. For now I was still a morning driver, and my focus was not on the future.

A chill Monday on the 10, cruising Federal Highway from Central Terminal to Boca Raton. The temp was 51°, so at least we were out of the arctic 40s from the day before. This was getting old and we needed the warmth to return or it would be time to head south.

The glitch-prone onboard announcer was again mute when it came to announcing stops. Instead it would randomly interject our journey with an especially maniacal Max Headroom cackle
"Formatics bootloader AHAHAHAH..."
No microphone available either, only a stump where it had once been, before years of stress had separated the connection. We'd be announcing stops old school style today. Hopefully with enough volume to reach the back seats.

The day of the week and the unpleasant freeze seemed to have paralyzed our tropical activity. We'd nearly completed a full round trip without incident. The load was light and the traffic was easy.

On Broward Boulevard, half a dozen news crews camped in front of First Baptist. A hundred SUVs covered the little lawn, the sidewalks, the courtyard. It was the airport shooter's first day in federal court across the street, and made for a natural media story of the day.

We did our time at Central Terminal and were back on our way. The previously wide open road was now blocked at 5th Street by a construction crew. Located a safe spot nearby to accommodate passengers.

The next stop brought us the two Greek Spice Grill waitresses, one with striking angular facial features on par with any catwalk model. Both were preparing to work for the lunch crowd.

More construction underway in Boca, this time at the Tower 155 site just past Palmetto Park Road. A backhoe was excavating an enormous pit in the sugar sand. A truck waited nearby with a load of steel piles to hold that sand back.

Heading back south after a ten minute layover, I picked up another bus operator. He was on light duty and was on his way to an afternoon shift at Central to work the information table.

A couple loaded their bikes on the rack, she commenting that it should hold more as they boarded. I agreed and could certainly sympathize with missing the bus myself when there wasn't an open slot. They were both sociable, but he remained quiet whereas she was immediately inquisitive. She wanted to become a bus operator and grilled me with a pleasant Trini accent. When she said there were no openings listed online, I could only recount to her the process I went through and encourage her to be patient. These inquiries come at me regularly, and I wonder how many see it through.

A beloved regular awaited south of Atlantic: the Penny Lady. An older woman who could be both curt and kind by turns, I asked her to wait so I could lower the bus just for her. She had been poised to grab the door handles and climb on, apparently forgetful of previous times when she all but demanded that I kneel the low floor. Her outsize smile was all the thanks I needed.

Down to Commercial Boulevard, where an older gentleman took his time loading his bike. He wasn't struggling with it, and didn't seem unfamiliar with the process; in those cases I am quick to jump out of the seat and offer assistance. No, he was just on his own time and in no particular hurry. Just as the green light was also on its own time and decided to turn red to teach us patience. With my internal patience knob turned up to maximum peace and calm, the man finally boarded, hands in prayer and supplication.
"Hey brother, can I just get a ride to Sunrise? Thanks, man!"

Our final trip, going north to be relieved at Copans Road. The bike rack was full again, but there were no time delays.

Commercial came up again and my friend the Outlaw got on. That became his name after someone had a dream of him as Jesse James. When the criminal is also a folk hero, the comparison is not an insult. As far as I know, the connection is only as solid as a stranger's dream. This 'outlaw' was on a different path.
"I gave the homeless guy 70¢ to buy beer."
That stop is a popular hangout, and at least one man had no need for the bus.
"Like when my dad gave me $10,000 and sent me over to Israel. I lived in a kibbutz for five months, working the land. Also worked in a banana chip factory."

On the bus we all get our preliminary hearing whether outlaw, server, cyclist, senior - even bus driver. We leave the ghosts of the day there to deliberate among themselves.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Gray world

The weather app told us it was in the high 40s that Sunday morning, perhaps our coldest day of the year and downright freezing. The sort of temperature drop that makes you layer up to keep the shoulders loose.

My assigned bus was a ghost, nowhere to be found in the yard. Got a replacement and pulled out late. This new unit had no announcer, so I'd be calling out stops along the line today. Again, it was Sunday, that notoriously slow day of the week, so other than running late this first trip the day promised to be a breeze. As we rolled ever northward out of Central Terminal, the schedule deficit grew ever larger. At these times, it's tempting to push the machine just a little harder to keep things from getting out of control. Then the world reminds us how very little indeed is in our control, mostly just our response to the situation at hand.

We'd serviced the Via Mizner stop past Camino Real in Boca Raton and approached the Mizner Boulevard curve which would lead us back south. Before we could close the gap between the turn lane and the other lanes continuing straight, dozens of motorcycle roared by, steel thunder to shake the sleepy dew off the overspread poincianas lining the idyllic side street. My response was to yield and let the tempest pass through. When the undeniably impressive mass had cleared, we could then cruise in peace. Around the curve, I slowed again for a lone biker. This one was on the leg-powered type. He was in the bike lane, technically going the wrong direction as he pedaled toward us. He only had one leg, so this may have been his way of keeping a wary eye on nearby vehicles.

My friend with the frozen hand boarded after the loop. He camps out at night and his single thin sheet had been useless in last night's chill. He was going to the thrift store to get a second sheet, since it would be easier to carry than a heavy blanket.

The ever-cheery Weatherman stood by the curb down at Sample. Of course I had to ask about the forecast - and await the clever response.
"It's Mexican weather: Chili today, hot tamale!"

Down a bit further, a familiar bleary face was waiting, already drunk. Originally from upstate New York, she'd been in Florida thirty years and she wore no socks inside those flip flops. She was cold.

The first round trip in the books, it was now late morning and we were settled in to our groove. We may have been a few minutes down, but that's preferable to a few minutes hot. Unless you're a time traveler, then the clock is irrelevant.
"Is today Sunday or Monday?" The older man with white goatee asked with sincerity.
When he discovered it was Sunday, he changed his plans and didn't care to go any further. Time may be irrelevant, but apparently the day of the week is important.

Back in Boca again, a woman near the front was talking to herself in a Jamaican patois. Her body odor was talking to the rest of us. She finally addressed someone outside her own head, asking about Pompano and then verbally upset to learn we'd already been there. Her anger was directed at me and unidentified people bothering her.
"It's not a black world. It's not a white world," she proclaimed. In an effort to calm her, I reminded her we'd be turning and go back south. We got to Atlantic and her vinegar had miraculously turned to honey. She called me Sweetie a couple times as she exited. A simple word like sunshine on a cold day. Just enough to keep the shoulders loose.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

When the fog clears

The latest friction cycle appeared to be winding down and smoothing out. An eleven hour shift began when I reported for duty a little before five on a Friday morning. It looked to be a good day on the 2: end of the week, people heading to work but happy about the impending weekend. Still, it was going to be a long day.

A few things slowed me down on the way to my starting point at West Terminal: yielding to the gate arms at the CSX tracks for a train that never showed, red lights galore, and a cool, heavy fog that softened the sharp edges of the city but meant driving slower through the the reduced visibility.

I ran a little late the entire first trip, which still worked out since it was the less busy northern half of the route. We would be pretty much on time the rest of the day.

Soon into the southbound trip our friend Francois boarded. He's a bus fan and loves to keep up with his favorite drivers. It seemed unusual to bump into him this far west and this early, since up till now I'd picked him up on east side routes later in the day. We greeted each other with a friendly fist bump as usual and the where or when no longer mattered.

At Sunrise Boulevard, my old friend Mister boarded. In actuality he's probably young enough to be my son, however his signature professorial wardrobe of pressed khakis and sweater vest paired with a friendly formality compel me to call him by a respectful title. He was taking advantage of casual Friday by sporting a ballcap and sweatshirt.

These two classy young men are always welcome on the bus I'm driving. They inspire and encourage me as reminders of youthful vitality and timeless manners. Their tireless initiative and industry were a marked contrast to the gentleman who boarded down near the county line. Going extra casual today in slides and socks, he filled the cabin with residual fumes of an intoxicating herbal baking session. When we got to the end of the line, he was found sleeping across the back row. When we were in training, my class was told it's the highest compliment when a passenger falls asleep on your bus. Smooth driving and all that.

The next couple hours heading back north were uneventful, that golden time before lunch when work and business get done all around us.

Not long into the next southbound, a woman felt compelled to inform me that she's a foot model insured by Lloyd's of London.

A young father boarded with his young son and lugging a folded stroller.
   'Hey big guy!' I greeted the little one, nodding at Dad. They both had big grins.
"He's having a blast! It's like his second time on the bus." Dad explained as junior examined the innards of the cabin.
Another young bus fan in the making, who perhaps will drive us around town some day.

Before Atlantic, a man was walking scissor-legged across the street, making good time as the mass of traffic approached. We were the reason for his hastiness.
"It was a brisk walk!" was his description of the quick footwork which helped him catch the bus. He just as quickly disappeared into the back.
Near Nova Southeastern University, a couple female cyclists shared the road with us, their tight spandex uniforms proving the exercise a success. The hot-stepper walked up to the front to observe them.
"Thank you for the smooth ride and witty banter!" I'm not sure if he was talking to me or the ladies.

This day on University had been a textbook case of smoothness for a bus route as we began our final trip, going north. We'd been visited by several young men who gave us hope for the future as they shared part of their days before moving on to make their way in the city.

Over the radio, trouble came in by storm. Bus operators on the other side of town called in to report that Fort Lauderdale International was unexpectedly locked down, preventing them from servicing the airport. During a break in the chatter, as those in the control room scrambled to get information, another driver's single-word repetition rang out: "Shooting. Shooting. Shooting." The thought of his transmission being a cruel joke was short-lived, when soon afterward radio control issued instructions for all buses not to service the airport. My stomach sank as I continued on the route toward West Terminal, joined by heavy cloud overcast. At the terminal, I read reports of multiple people shot, dead, injured. No immediate details beyond that, though we would alter learn of another young man visiting our community and creating another inexplicable scene of chaos and waste. More drivers called over the radio with reports of road closures and major back-ups as that area was contained. The next buses in to the airport would be shuttles to evacuate traumatized and exhausted travelers and workers.

The long day got longer as I wrapped up my shift. The morning's fog had long since burned off and the sharp edges of the city were no longer obscured.


The good folks at WLRN covered the story about our stories. You can hear/read it at their website. There's even an exciting interactive route map so you can ride along with us. Many thanks to Caitie Switalski and Katie Lepri for their patience, enthusiasm, determination, and creativity. And of course thanks to all our riders for everything, you're the best!