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.