Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Can you believe


Wise ones have said that what's old eventually becomes new again, and we'd see if that was true this sunny warm Sunday in March. As long as I've been doing this, we've always started new Picks on that day. This normally happens three or four times a year, and it's a chance to start afresh, a welcome reprieve if the previous months took a toll on you. That's the 'new' part of this equation. The 'old' part is that we are again on the 72, the same route we just did yesterday to finish out the old Pick.

The bus itself was a bit long in the tooth as well. A 700 Series just a tad past its expected service life, but not about to retire. Getting it ready for a day on the road, the only glitch that came up was a card misfeed on the farebox, preventing it from printing passes. If this was to be our biggest problem today, we were off to a good start. After grabbing a handful of extra passes from another bus in the yard, I pulled through the gates for a bit of Sunday driving.

Halfway into the first trip, the familiar towering silhouette of a man with a walker became clearer. A regular on BCT since long before I began driving, he was wearing a mask for the first time on my bus, though it was hanging on his neck.
"Can you believe, Driver, what's goin' on?"
   'Hard to believe,' I replied. 'But I guess we better believe it.'
Lockdowns and mandates were being issued by the hour, and many food and sanitary staples were becoming scarce as fear led to stockpiling. He was on his way to the grocer, to score some ground beef the butcher was reserving for him.

Along the way, the farebox fixed itself and decided to start printing passes, so we were now glitch-free. The only other quirky feature of this bus became obvious once I'd left the garage: the air compressor was extra hissy, which gave the impression it was razzing every other vehicle passing by.

A fresh bridge delay at the Intracoastal ate in to my recovery time at the end of the line. there was still plenty enough to get out of the seat for a few minutes before turning it around. These Sunday runs are generally laid back anyway and can be peaceful enough to negate the need for a break.

The next trip held to that pattern, since we were smooth and on time all the way across the county. The first round trip in the books, we started our secondtrip east from Sawgrass Mills mall. About ten minutes down the road, another familiar face in those parts boarded. He wears a rotating collection of various t-shirt designs that all read TENNIS, an appropriate selection as he plays it every chance he gets, and frequently boards with a racquet. The physical activity is paying off well into middle age with an energy level younger guys should be envious of. Today he was concerned because his usual court was locked up for the foreseeable future in order to discourage group gathering during a pandemic. It's good to have connections however, and there was another court where his friend knew the gate guy.

That interaction was the highlight of the trip until just past the halfway mark, when thunder rolled in from the rear flank. Four Bike Life scouts leading the way for more to come were going east like us, but doing it in the westbound lanes. A dozen more showed up a few blocks later, shaking brainwaves within a hundred yards. They were followed by another six a bit further, till the convoy fizzled out with a few stragglers on dirtbikes and ATVs.

Oakland Park Boulevard had quieted back to a lull by the time we reached Andrews, when the Music Man blessed us with a rare visit. Toting a bongo and tambourine, he's considerate enough not to play them on the bus.

Another decent little break on the beach end, during which a man showed up with his own bed. It was actually a sleeping bag, and he was trying to get somewhere on west Atlantic Boulevard. Right here he was closer to the Atlantic Ocean, so I informed him where to get off my bus for a connection to his destination.

Due to the loop at that end of the 72, there's only one stop on Galt Ocean Drive so out of courtesy I waited for a runner to reach us before continuing. We made the turn back on to Oakland Park proper and as it was now the 5 o'clock hour, the setting sun resumed its task from the previous day of broiling my lap and belly.

At a stop before Andrews Avenue, a young man of about thirty boarded with a trim hipster beard. He flashed a ten dollar bill, but like every transit company out there we don't make change on the bus. He was apologetic about it, but I don't leave anyone behind so this ride was a freebie. A few minutes later he could be heard talking aloud, as if on a phone call. The catch was, no phone was visible. Not a smartphone to the ear, no headphones, or even earbuds to be see, yet there was definitely a conversation taking place. It was an external display of internal stream of consciousness flowing into song lyrics, preaching, and a colorful word salad.

Even easy Sunday shifts must come to an end, but first we needed to cover our final trip back east across town. Three people boarded at Sawgrass with their bags of afternoon goodies, several more joined on the way to University Drive. This was rapidly becoming the busiest trip of the day.

A little more than halfway through the trip, our tall friend from earlier reappeared, finished with his errands. He wasn't going far, but limited mobility made the bus a necessity. Plus, he's the son of a bus driver so he's a lifelong fan of public transit.

This longtime regular has a default vocal volume close to booming to begin with, but when we arrived at his stop and he let loose with a loud defensive tone, it was still out of character for him. Apparently another passenger directed an offensive comment at him, not a wise act toward someone twice your size while in a confined space. Yet it was happening before our eyes and ears as this man who I've only known as thoughtful and helpful was instigated into raising his voice, then his fists, then a bottle of soda. This was my cue to park the bus and open the doors. As I tried to get his attention and redirect the fiery energy, another complication stepped into the picture. A homeless woman who camps at the bus stop shuffled over to the front door, asking with the sweetest voice and tooth-free smile if anyone left a pass on a seat. She's advanced in years and unwittingly endangered herself by blocking the doorway at a most inopportune time. For her protection, I got out of the seat and coaxed her to the bus shelter, fishing a spare pass from my shirt pocket. This opened the way for my upset friend to exit with dignity, after which I didn't hesitate to hop back in the seat and shut the doors. The sources of friction were now separated, no physical harm had occurred, and we were back in service.

Sundays signal a new week, and this one began a fresh schedule of shifts, a chance to leave the past behind. We use these calendar changes, both as a society and as individuals, to mark times of change. The times ahead would bring more change than we'd been accustomed to, and Life would remind us there's really nothing new at all.

Saturday, March 13, 2021



In training class we were instructed from Day One to 'expect the unexpected'. Those words of wisdom were proven daily as the machine of the city chugged along, grinding all of its moving cogs under the pressure of modern life, greased with the will power of people who never give up.

Up until recent days, that machine was running on all cylinders. A booming economy with a seeming abundance of job opportunities, coupled with the leisure of visiting Spring Breakers, also brought along the frustrations of inconvenience and friction with so many people moving rapidly in close proximity. Societies of the distant past record a history of similar spans of frenetic human endeavor, abruptly halted by natural intrusions into the normalcies we construct around us.

While the previous week had been a lesson in patience and the futility of effort as we contended with crushing congestion, mechanical delays, and encounters with the beautiful chaos of humanity, now we had entered a time of increasing lockdowns and the prospect of mass quarantine.

The day before, the city of Fort Lauderdale took the unprecedented step of closing all access to the beach at the height of Spring Break. The irresistible stretch of sand that swarmed of students from frigid northern towns was now off limits to everyone, including locals who spent millions on their coastal abodes. For the first time in a hundred years, everything east of the sidewalk belonged to the birds and nesting sea turtles.

Into this new normal we rolled on a Saturday. Today would be spent on Oakland Park Boulevard, one of the busiest streets in the county. The eastern segment ends at the Atlantic Ocean but offers only random glimpses of it through the wall of luxury highrises lining the seaboard.

Miss Marcella showed up to the relief point on time - and also for the last time, since we'd be starting new schedules tomorrow. If I didn't give her the best farewell a coworker could give, it may have been because I wasn't really sure it was her behind the movie star sunglasses paired with a new accessory obscuring her face: the now-common N95 mask which at that time was still a novelty.

This shift always started with us going east, and a bridge delay at the Intracoastal pushed back traffic before the span. All these people heading to the beach with thoughts of relaxation were in for a big disappointment.

Soon it was time to head back the other way. A man was waiting at the bus stop on Galt Ocean Drive, prepared to board like a text book transit passenger. There was also a woman about thirty feet away from the stop, standing under a shade tree. Following the gentleman's cue, I made a text book stop at the posted sign. The woman hurried over and brought a teapot tempest with her. She was upset, claiming I passed her on purpose. This triggered a response from the man who'd been waiting diligently, and they proceeded to argue with each other.

Perhaps it was the closed beach and other sudden changes to daily life, that would create such friction on an otherwise beautiful day. More signs of the times awaited at Federal Highway. During election season this corner is a draw for supporters to promote their candidates. Half a dozen TRUMP flags were mounted on cars backed up to the street in the Coral Ridge Mall parking lot.

This westward journey was quieter than usual, and we had no problem keeping the bus on time. That is unusual for this route, and it was an eerie sensation to find ourselves a bit early between time points. The surreal combination of light ridership on a workhorse route and light traffic on a routinely congested thoroughfare reached its nadir when we arrived at the end of the line.

Sawgrass Mills is promoted as the largest outlet mall in the country, and a typical Saturday would create a bustling hive of activity. Today it had become a ghost town. It was completely closed and the parking lot was empty. A sign on the locked doors explained that after discussion with health officials, the mall would be closing for the sake of public safety. This was a shocking development and presented a stark vision of the 'new normal' that had begun. It would be especially difficult for those dependent on steady commerce for their livelihoods.

A single woman boarded there, a far cry from the dozen I would regularly see. We arrived at University Drive in time to catch a red light, a welcome delay on a day such as this. It also gave me a chance to observe my surroundings more thoroughly.




        IS AT HAND

This message was aimed at passing motorists, on an unmanned placard resting on a folding chair. Such enigmatic messages may be common at various corners around town, but this was a new one for this intersection. The absence of a person holding the sign only added to its mysterious nature.


After the light, a familiar man in a wheelchair boarded, quickly positioning himself and declining securement so we could get rolling. He wore his trademark ballcap with hook clip on the bill, and soon hooked my ear with updates on what he'd been doing. Before he left, he was excited to give a music suggestion. "Vitamin S' by Baby Cham, he recommended. "But be careful who you play it around!"

Somehow on my first trip east I'd missed the Allied Kitchen marquee sign after Powerline Road. I'm always curious to see the message on the ever-changing display. This time I'd catch it:



      YOU WILL


Again the good folks there didn't let us down. The world as we knew it was rapidly changing, and those words of encouragement would be necessary in the coming weeks. We finished the trip at the beach with an empty bus, something else I would soon become familiar with.

With a decent break we left on time for the final trip of the day. The late afternoon lowering sun was cooking my lap and lower torso, where the pull shade couldn't protect. Being a Florida boy, I know and appreciate this feeling. Not for any cheap thrills, the simple power of light reaching across 93 million miles and touching us so tangibly.

Now that we'd reversed direction, we could see the flip side of that Allied sign:





A considerably more somber message than its counterpart, but upon reflection perhaps just the other side of the same coin.

As we intentionally crawled across the county to avoid leaving time points early, a couple passengers appeared at stops they normally wouldn't be seen. Everyone was being roused from their comfort zones these days.

Instinct and hunger brought a buzzard swooping down on fresh road kill in the form of an iguana carcass at 94th Avenue. Nature has no worries to surrender. My own would take a bit more effort to release, as I drove an empty bus to the end of the line.