Sunday, December 13, 2020

Beach blur


COVID Chronicles
All the stories on the blog up to now have been about the time before 'pandemic' entered our daily vocabulary. Although those stories and others deserve to be told, I am skipping ahead in the timeline to share stories from this unique moment in our collective history. These new chapters will document the early days of life under lockdown and the ways we've been adjusting since. Stay strong. Bless you all.


A bus driver's schedule often doesn't resemble your standard Monday-to-Friday the normal world uses. My "Monday" was actually Thursday and involved a ten-hour stint on Route 11. I've written about this multi-faceted route before, how it's a long one that primarily covers the beach road before heading downtown and the northwest section of Fort Lauderdale proper. The main difference this Pick is that it was early March and Spring Break was underway. The beaches were still open and no mask mandates were in effect.

Miss Sheila drove several of us bus operators in the crew van to our relief point at Federal Highway. I was not the first one scheduled to leave, so I waited it out in the van. When the relief time cam and went, I started getting concerned. It usually arrived early and it's never fun to start a shift in the hole. The driver finally showed up and I hopped in the seat, not needing to ask why the delay. I was familiar with the A1A parking lot created by 100,000 college kids. The other driver mentioned the bus stalled out a couple times, so that only added to the lateness. The bright, sunny, clear day and the crowds such a combination attracts would be the biggest factors until night fell.

Starting out about twenty minutes down, the best I could do was just keep it moving. We rolled down 14th Street Causeway over the Intracoastal, and made the tightest of turns onto A1A. A regular who's a chef (and part-time DJ) waited at one of the first stops. With beach towel in hand along with a five o'clock shadow, he clearly wasn't heading into work. Big sunglasses hid his eyes, but a big lazy smile said he was feelin' good.

We finally reached The Strip south of Sunrise Boulevard, the most popular stretch of beachfront. A couple teen boys who boarded uptown didn't dare blink now, lest they miss the scenery of collegiate thongs.
"Check out those water-malones!" one announced without shame.

Red-blooded young men may never change, but the times were stirring others out of their comfort zones. As soon as we turned on to Las Olas, an unmistakable downtown denizen was waiting to board. In so many years, I've never seen him stray from his home turf, yet here he was where the road ran into the ocean. Some mumbling and a handful of change would suffice as his greeting, I invited him to have a seat, shocked at his presence as a passenger. It may have been regrettable for the other passengers as he felt compelled to blurt a four-letter expletive loudly and repeatedly.

Three other #11 buses passed us on Las Olas going the opposite direction. Two would have been a sight, but three within a 10-minute span were proof the route was broken today and the schedule could be thrown out the window.

Soon after leaving Central Terminal, the bus decided to stall out on Sistrunk Boulevard just before Bass Bros. Market, as the previous driver had warned. It restarted a minute later to the relief of everyone aboard.

Rolling our way up 21st Ave we came to a young regular who seemed a bit anxious.
"Bro! What happened!? I've been waiting two hours!" He had to share his upset.
I'd been in the seat about that length already, and rather than recount the reasons for our delay, I chose to sympathize with the young man.

More congestion at the end of the line was the perfect capper to a trying journey, and ensured that the deficit I started with was now doubled. No breaks for this driver, we serviced the last stop and kept it moving.

Every new trip is a chance to be reborn, and hopes were high that things would stabilize after the first one. Like clockwork, the bike rack filled up at Oakland Park Boulevard which meant the next bike would be out of luck. Making our way through Roosevelt Gardens, sure enough a bike tire came into focus. An older man held on to it, and fortunately the rest of the bike wasn't with him.

Back over beachside on A1A, the road flowed nicely once we cleared the Strip. Big Jim leaned on his walker by the curb, anticipating the bus door pulling up to him. I complimented his floral shirt, the man was stylin'.

Where the public beach gives way to condo towers, I picked up my regular under the sea grapes. A sweet little older woman, whoever has her as their grandmother is lucky as can be. She wasn't upset, but genuinely wondered why we were late. This stop is out of sight of the chaos we left behind, so I said simply: "Spring Break" and she understood.

Again, there would be no break at the end as we kept it in motion, whittling away at the schedule. The sweet lady hadn't wasted any time doing her errand and waited for us on the return trip.
"Robert, thank you for coming back." She greeted me the second time.
   'That's what I do.' I reminded her.
"They don't always come back..." she replied with an air of sadness.
   'Well, let's not jinx it,' I implored her, well-acquainted with all possible reasons a bus may discontinue service.

There's nothing sadder than an empty bus in service, but to be empty from Sistrunk to the western end of the line was surreal. My leader soon revealed himself a short distance ahead, doing all the picking up. Our next trip would see a return to normalcy. The evening hours were upon us and the earlier heat had subsided.

On State Road 7, a young man made a funny gesture as I pulled up to him, his mischievous grin gleaming in the night. After he exited, an old woman using a wheelchair boarded, making a timid complaint about a bus passing her as I pulled her chair on board and set the brakes, while she made her way to the upper deck.

Wake-up calls come our way frequently, and I got a jolt as an errant taxi drifted into our lane on A1A. A tap on the horn alerted it to back off and from there it was smooth sailing. 

After seven straight hours in the seat without a break, I finally had time to catch my breath at the end of the trip. There were still a couple hours left on this lengthy shift, but the party people were off the street and in the clubs so there would be no more surprises tonight. We could cruise peacefully into tomorrow, when we'd do it all over again. For now, young men and women could enjoy each other's company, blissfully unaware of how their frivolity would soon be coming to an abrupt halt.