Monday, August 24, 2020

So slow, so fast


Less than an hour into a late night on 441. The evening was young, yet late enough that rush hour was over. We'd made the first of several trips north, just a few stops left before crossing the county line into Palm Beach. An older woman boarded at Johnson Road with no greeting or mention of the fare, only a judgmental comment about the blank headsign on the front of the bus. This was followed by general disgust about poor bus service, and somehow related to a quote she recalled from an 80s business book:
"There's no shortage of money; there's a shortage of ideas."
Clearly she believed there was a lack of focus in the way services are rendered.
"People are distracted today, and don't spend time thinking," she went on, as she loosely connected a short-sighted approach with the fact there would be no bus for her to catch in a couple hours when she needed it most.

We made the Sandalfoot loop in Boca Raton and slid into the layover slot. A 20-something guy wearing a backpack to accessorize his colorful hipster outfit wandered on board before I could leave the seat.
"I lost my backpack on a 19 bus," he started with a soft-spoken manner, looking at me through smart glasses and impressive thick shoulder-length braids framing his face. I might have begun to point at the backpack he already had, but that was too obvious.
"It has a firearm inside," he explained, whispering the confession.
I advised him to call Customer Service and offered him a ride south, but he was going north.
"It's like life went to shit so fast..." he thought aloud as he stepped back on to the sidewalk and drifted away.

That disturbing encounter was left behind when I got back down to Lauderhill Mall and bumped into a regular. The shift was about half over and we were into the 10 o'clock hour. My friend caught my bus to hit a bar uptown.. We took the good times on the road as we left the bus terminal and turned on to State Road 7. A couple stops in, an obviously inebriated gentleman boarded with a vacant smile. He stood up front, presumably not to miss his stop. His vision must have been blurry, since he stood too close to my friend and stepped on the toes of his new boots. That flipped a switch in this man who had been joking only a moment before. He got dark fast, reaching in his pocket and threatening to pull out his pistol. He was disrespected and demanded an apology. I worked to calm him down, pointing out the offender was drunk and didn't do it on purpose. He calmed down till we got to Oakland Park Boulevard, where he exited and stood just outside the door, taunting the hot-stepper to get off too. The other guy was still oblivious of his wrongdoing, so I offered up the apology the situation demanded, and thanked him for his patience to boot. Sometimes the best way to de-escalate a tense moment is to just close the door, so that's what I did.

The toe-cruncher remained aboard and needed assistance locating his stop. I was happy to remind him when we got there, he gave me thanks and a fist bump. It was as if the trouble he'd initiated never even happened. It's like life went so fast...

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Allowed to cry


After a rough start to our new selection of routes, it was a blessed relief to have a day or two of slow shifts behind the wheel. I may have even been hoping for a little boredom when I hopped in the seat for an afternoon/evening run on Route 11. This route covers different parts of the County than my previous day on the 62, but the general route structure was similar: Long from end to end with lots of turns and no true dedication to a particular street. However, a considerable length of it services A1A, the beach road, so drivers can be forgiven for an occasional glimpse at the natural beauty of our subtropical paradise.

We started at the west end, heading east. Las Olas was bustling on a crisp January afternoon. Leggy beauties displayed the seasonal fashion of thigh-high hemlines, floral prints, and stockings. Countless yachts filled the tight canals around the finger isles, aquatic yard ornaments showcased by their mansions. Atop the Intracoastal bridge, a couple cops were taking their report for a bad fender bender; no tall ships would be passing through anytime soon.

The lazy nature of a Sunday afternoon and too much time on the schedule meant we got to the beach a bit early. It was the halfway point so we had to wait, and while we sat burning off those minutes a young lady came up wondering why. She was going to be late for work and the Uber app wasn't working. I sympathized with her and reminded her there were earlier buses. It wouldn't help her now, but I hoped it didn't ruin her day.

We glided up the world famous Fort Lauderdale Strip, a slow roll through abundance, comfort, and tranquility. Sometimes Life is about timing, and the time was right north of Oakland Park Boulevard. I crossed paths with two classmates from our days of training as new hires with the County. Suresh on the 72 and Steve on the 55, all of us doing the bus driver wave. Our schedules and routes take us on different paths, but at least part of the journey would be ours to share.

A couple blocks of reminiscing was enough, as I picked up a mother with her teenage son and daughter. They waited patiently at one of the distinctive colorful bus stops you only find in Lauderdale-by-the-sea. And that patience would come in handy. Near the end of the trip, Mom came up and told me in broken English where they needed to go. It was the other end of the route. So if they were in a hurry, they got on the wrong bus. They seemed fine with the situation, judging by the girlish giggles as the son told jokes on the long journey back. Laughter transcends any language gap.

The trio took the grand tour of a wide swath of Broward County by the time we got to the last stop, passing through multiple cities and visiting places usually unseen by tourists. I had about 20 minutes to stretch, and drifted over to the homeless woman camping in the bus shelter. She was familiar to me from other parts of town, but we hadn't had a chance to chat before. It was impossible to have a two-sided conversation with her, so I just listened. She wasn't explicitly asking for anything I could give her, so I lent her my ear. In a calm, flat way she wished aloud someone would give her a key to a house, so she wouldn't have to experience homelessness for one night. Her makeshift headwrap was a halo on her silver hair as she told me how everyone is owned by Satanists, so she doesn't trust their intentions when they assist her. By then it was nearly time to go.
   'You're welcome to ride with us, if you want.' I offered her the only assistance I had at hand.
"I have nowhere to go," she replied with sublime resignation.
   'Good night to you.' I wished her well as I readied to depart, torn no small amount at leaving someone's drifting mother to fend for herself out here.

Our last trip of the day, even though on a Sunday, is no time to lower your alert. Especially if previous trips went smoothly; it can't stay quiet forever.

On 21st Avenue, I picked up the legend of that street. Alternating between vicious verbal cruelty and fervent street talk, she's a classic Earth mother and just as volatile. Fortunately today the gentle version boarded our bus. Perhaps the $20 she just made while panhandling cheered her up. the bus filled with the fumes she was running on, now she was off to the corner store to refuel.
"Let me off at the store, Bus Driver," she requested. It wasn't a designated stop, and not exactly ideal for a courtesy stop, so I was hesitant to oblige. Luckily an angel on her shoulder changed her mind.
"No! Let me off across from the church, so I can pray on my way to the store."
Now we were at an actual bus stop, a couple houses away. The church is across the street.
"I love to pray, but church people look at me weird," she went on, smarting my nostrils with high-test vapors.
   'Don't worry about them,' I encouraged her.
"Tell your mama she raised you right!"
   'Thanks for that,' I returned with sincere acknowledgment as I closed the doors.
Another woman on the bus commented snidely about mixing god and alcohol. Still, you have to be thankful for the good spirits when they visit.

Five minutes later we were in The Greens, a low-income housing community nicknamed for its paint color. A woman was hassling three boys playing by the bus stop, giving them an earful like a mother hen. The ceaseless chatter continued on the bus as we slid down Sistrunk Boulevard. She settled for a pass to make her next connection when she learned a pass for the next day was impossible. That released a torrent of thanks and gratitude the rest of her trip, though it had the same vibe as the meandering jabber we'd heard up till then. It was an impressive performance of observation, insight, and even confession.
"I wasn't allowed to cry at my house," she chose to admit as she exited. This was the dry season for our region, and a season in her life. The rainclouds disappear during those months, and talking would substitute for tears here in the heart of broken promises and unrealized dreams.

Back on Las Olas, the horn of plenty overflowed as three clean and classy women speaking German boarded. They would ride way uptown, where the air is fresh and the street is clean.

No sooner did we turn on to A1A for this last beachside trip than a kicking leg caught my eye. A young woman with rolling suitcase had her hands full so she found a creative way to flag us.
   'You know how to stop a bus.' I commended her amusing signal.
"Some drivers don't see you when you wave your arm." She explained, not wanting to get passed by a bus that comes every hour. She was a leisure traveller, simply riding the bus till it didn't go any further, then dragging her baggage along with her into the calm quiet night. The shift had been quiet too, making all the scheduled turns, along with some new stops you won't see on the route map - yet deserving not to be passed by.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

One good Saturday

The first week of the new pick was coming to a close, and after an epic shift on the 40, it would be nice to have a peaceful Saturday afternoon on a far quieter route. Route 62 fits the bill. It's a more or less east-west route in northern Broward County, but also has a considerable stretch of north-south coverage in the northwest part of the county. In many ways, it's a holdover from earlier years in Broward Transit's history, when routes were designed to cover as much ground as possible and weren't necessarily dedicated to a single main street. It promised to be a quiet day in a quiet part of town, a welcome reprieve from the brutal previous day.

The first hour rolled by smooth as you like, setting the pace for trips to come. Out where Kimberly Boulevard ends at 81st Avenue, I spotted my friend Francois on the opposite sidewalk, pointing my way. His beaming smile may have come from spotting me first, not exactly fair since I was in the most obvious vehicle on the road. But it always makes my day to see a familiar face when driving a route, so I pointed back and called his name out the window.

The next trip brought a little more excitement when the quirky older woman who I only run into in Coral Springs showed up. Slight in stature, and thus easily overlooked, I could only smile when her trademark barrage of nervous questions began coming my way. The majority of the questions don't require an answer, but my acknowledging them seems to put her at ease.

Almost halfway into the trip, I picked up a long lost regular from previous runs on the 60 in a much different part of town. He was my Jamaican friend who pushes train cars loaded with rock at Matco Industries in Pompano. Those days he tended to seem weary after the day's work was done, but today he was revitalized telling me about his newborn son turning two months old. He was out apartment hunting to find more room for his growing family. He used to have a car, but let the bank take it when they jacked up interest rates. When his boss heard about it, he gave his hardest working employee a scooter. Just needed to transfer the title.

The day was winding down, just a couple hours left in the seat when we got to State Road 7. An elderly man waited in a wheelchair, a medical boot on his left foot. The advanced years had given him wisdom on life, war, soldiers, and drug addiction. Oh, and a philosophy on love: "You just need one good woman." He talked and I listened the entire way to his destination on this one good Saturday.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Small blessings (or, Open heart surgery)

[Intro note: It's been almost as long as it takes a baby to be born since I last posted a story here. I could make excuses about how I took a break during the holidays, then the world stopped during the COVID-19 quarantine, and subsequent social unrest. But I'm not one for excuses so I'll simply pick up where we left off. Sure, our world has changed dramatically in the intervening months, but our shared histories are still of great worth. So long as that's the case, the story must be told.
Hopefully any memory of the hiatus will be obliterated by this epic saga of a day on the 40, back when it was the stuff of legend. Take your time, don't rush it. There's no hurry. Enjoy and bless up, Broward County.]

Even though I drive the bus for work, I also ride it to work. This allows me to begin fresh-faced, relaxed, and prepared for the challenges that await. I chatted with my coworker Jacqui as she drove us uptown, confident it would be a straightforward afternoon on the 40. This was the first day of the new pick, when all that is old becomes new, and the route was familiar to me as it covered so much of my lifetime stomping grounds.

Checked into Dispatch, located the two other drivers I was sharing a taxi with, and headed down to Central Terminal. We arrived a little late, but still on time since this was the notoriously late 40 - and it would not disappoint today. It showed up about 15 minutes in the hole, I hopped in the seat, rolled up Andrews Avenue, cut a left onto Sistrunk Boulevard and was ceremoniously greeted by clanging bells and flashing lights. A travelling art gallery of graffiti chugged by on the rusty cars of a FEC freight train. With two engines leading the way, it looked to be a long one so I popped the parking brake to wait it out. The first hundred cars were piled high with their white mounds of Miami limestone, the second hundred were standard shipping containers with logos faded from sailing the world. I lost count after that.
"Oh my god. I could been there by now." A young lady in the back vented her frustration with the delay. Her boyfriend joined her by attempting to insult me with a personalized slur. It's not my job to infringe their freedom of speech, so I focused on the task of operating the bus, which was delayed even longer since the crossing arms remained down five minutes after the train had passed. We detoured to another crossing and got back on route. The girl apologized as she exited, and even wished me a good day. I told her to take care.

That fifteen minute deficit at the start of the shift had more than doubled by the time we got to the end of the line at Lauderhill Mall. That meant no break, just time to service the stop and begin the next trip east.

We were at the pull-in bus stop on 38th Avenue, barely into this new trip, when I heard the sirens. Looking all directions, but seeing no sign of a patrol car, I spotted a minivan in my side mirror. It was racing our way, swerving between other cars, the front banged up, and mirrors dangling uselessly. The van's windows were down, giving a wide open view of several teenage boys inside. They whipped a screeching turn onto 19th Street, and we stayed put. Hot on their tails, an unrelenting stream of police cars were in full on pursuit. Their department insignia said they came from Lauderhill, Fort Lauderdale, Broward Sheriff's Office and anyone else in the vicinity. When the caravan reached 50 units, it seemed like a good round number to stop counting.

The coast was clear, so we made the same turn and followed the action. At least for a few blocks. All the players in the drama we'd just witnessed had disappeared, but now a red car was parked in our lane just short of the next turn. Another car to our left prevented us from going around.The driver of the red car jumped out to taunt the occupants of the other car, and a heated argument ensued in the middle of the street, giving all of us on the bus a front row seat. An older woman on board lamented how dangerous it was "out there".

By some miracle we'd made up a few minutes on the way to Central Terminal. Not enough to give me hope of catching up, but at least it was the right direction. The route would soon regain those minutes, and many more besides. Any inkling of momentum was snuffed out by the chaotic congestion downtown.

This trip called for a side shot into Point of Americas off 17th Street, a cluster of condo towers at the inlet to the port. Not every bus goes in there, and this confused an older gentleman who wondered if the route had changed. I reassured him it hadn't.

The street transitioned into A1A, opening up to the beach, and the busy yet peaceful activity on this side of town was in sharp contrast to the frenetic madness we'd already encountered. Daylight was beginning to wane, the ocean was calm and gentle, freighters floated a mile offshore.

A young lady waited at Las Olas, speaking clear English with a vaguely European accent. The peace and comfort outside the bus followed her aboard as she walked through my door. She was going to South Beach, down Miami way. This was not a good place to start such a trip by bus, so I let her out at the next stop with instructions for catching a bus the other way.

Sometimes in our hurry we need to be reminded to slow down. The easy pace of beach life would have been sufficient, but our reminder came in the form of a bridge delay on Sunrise Boulevard, within sight of the end of the line at the Galleria. When we finally cleared the bridge, the bus was 40 minutes late.

Again, no time for a break at the layover. I stayed in the seat and picked up an older couple originally from Tacoma, Washington, on the other side of the country They were fond of ecotours, excitedly describing whale sightings in Alaska and alligators in the Everglades.

About 10 minutes down the road we caught up with the bus ahead of us. I passed her to help service stops. At Holiday Drive across from the former Yankee Clipper (now B Ocean hotel), a lively bunch of construction workers waited. Their weary clothes and trusty hard hats were coated with the dust of the day yet didn't diminish the excitement to be on their way home.

That other bus caught me a few minutes later in front of Pier 66. It turned out I was actually her leader and she'd somehow passed without my notice. I was still more than half an hour late and we needed to separate our buses, so I went into drop off mode. We started picking up passengers again about 20 minutes later, but the fact I was still half an hour down confirmed any attempt to get back on schedule was an effort in futility.

So again we got no break at the end of the line, just time to pick up everyone at Lauderhill Mall and head back east. At Central Terminal, a wide-eyed young woman boarded and we got out of there, trying to get some momentum going. Naturally, the Andrews Avenue bridge would choose that moment to go up and delay us a few more minutes. Once we finally got over the bridge, the woman asked another passenger if we were going to Lauderhill. It's a common mistake for people boarding the 40 at the terminal to board the one going the wrong way. Please ask the driver when you board, regardless of what the headsign reads. We finished the trip, and by skipping yet another chance for a break, were now only 20 minutes late to begin our next west bound.

Somehow the golden girl going to South Beach was waiting for us again after all that time. At least now she was going the right direction. She stood up front behind me, sightseeing. That's when the glorious chaos arrived. At Bahia Mar, that docking site of the infamous fictional Busted Flush, a crowd waited to board. Their bellies full and spirits high after a feast provided by the charitable chef Arnold Abbott and his Love Thy Neighbor crew, this salty sea of humanity swept in through the door. A wheelchair, a walker, rolling luggage all flowed in relentlessly. The blonde had no choice but to ride the wave into the cabin as the tide rose up front. An especially sociable gentleman brought up the rear, shook my hand, and made his way to the back row, talking to everyone along the way. The noise subsided and we got rolling again. A gentle voice whispered nearby, "I am here." It was the blonde again, laughing about the funny man.
"All these crazy people!" She marvelled.
   'Crazy people? Wait till you get to South Beach!' I tried to play down the rush of excitement, knowing full well this madness was a force of nature.

In short order we had a standing load, before A1A turned into 17th St. We got to US 1, the blonde exited for the next leg of her journey south, and the old Brit limped aboard. Still trim with groomed gray beard, he struggled more than usual thanks to some fresh wounds. He'd been assaulted recently and had several broken ribs. While he needed to talk about it, we needed to go, so I asked him to stand close and tell me what happened. There were no available seats anyway, so his options were limited. His shaky voice expressed disappointment and betrayal as he recounted the vile incident, adding that his phone was stolen the night before.

We followed the S-curve by Broward General, turned onto Andrews Avenue, and serviced the stop in front of the hospital. A middle-aged man wearing a patient wristband tentatively approached the open door, wanting to go somewhere uptown. He would have to take our bus to Central Terminal and switch to another. When I encounter folks released from the hospital, and they happen to be disoriented or unstable on their feet, I dial up the concern.
   'How ya feelin'? Did the nurses treat ya alright?' I inquired to ease his anxiety.
"Yeah." He finally answered, flatly. "I had open heart surgery."

The bus emptied out a bit at Central Terminal, workers making connections to the flurry of other routes passing through. In no time we were back in motion, now almost 40 minutes late. My follower caught me at the end of Sistrunk Boulevard, told her I'd stay in service till the end of the line at Lauderhill Mall and phone Dispatch from there. She booked it to get herself back on time while I continued picking up passengers.

On 38th Avenue, site of the earlier police chase and just blocks from the Hill, a young man about 20 with a puffball snowcap was waiting. He was on the phone, but was kind enough to pause the conversation to greet me.
"No fare. My girl left me on Uber." He tried to explain. We only had a few more stops so I told him to have a seat. Another passenger noticed and commended me for blessing the kid.
"Small blessings become big blessings, Drivah." He philosophized with a squeaky Jamaican accent.
   'I hope so.' I heartily stood in agreement.
The kid stayed up front, continually begging for a courtesy pass. Persistent, but not nasty about it. I asked if he was in sales with that persistence. He chuckled.

We finally arrived at Luaderhill Mall, the end of the line, but not the end of the shift. There was still a full round trip left on my schedule, but I'd been in the seat for more than six hours non-stop and needed to make a pit stop. After taking care of business I called Dispatch for a reset since I was nearly an hour late. I was instructed to deadhead to the Galleria, cutting out an entire eastbound trip. It didn't put me back on time, but it was close enough and the final trip was a breeze now that the frenzy of the day had subsided. The ocean lapped gently at the coast and the city settled down for the night.

When I got back to Lauderhill Mall, the kid with the puffball cap was still there hanging out. He asked if I could take him around the corner since I was going that way anyhow. Told him I couldn't, the bus was now out of service. There would be plenty more buses to take him where he needed to go, it was time to share the small blessings with them. This bus was heading home.