Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Miracle on wheels


Calendars are great tools, but their usefulness only goes so far. Example: The calendar told us it was Thursday, but since I was off duty the previous two days, this was in effect my Monday. We had just begun a new set of routes and schedules, and I was mentally settled in for several months of doing the Oakland Park Boulevard route five days a week. Each new day seemed to bring more unexpected behavior through my doors, and that's saying something in this line of work. I took it all in stride and sought to adapt along with everyone else, but it was still a blessing to take off a couple days to recharge my batteries.

When I returned to the garage energized for a new work week, I found my coworkers studying new run selections. The schedule I thought we'd have for months had been reduced to a week, another casualty of the coronavirus. A COVID-19 pick was slated to begin starting next week and we'd have to make our choices immediately. No one saw this coming, but with all the lockdowns of businesses, offices, churches, and other gathering places ridership had plummeted accordingly and we would be operating on a reduced level of service. We stood ready to provide essential travel as we entered a new normal.

Upon arriving at the relief point to begin my shift in the seat, I learned of some new policies on the bus. Passengers were now required to both enter and exit through the rear door only, so as to limit exposure for the bus operator. Since the farebox is located by the driver, all fares were temporarily suspended. The onboard announcer also had a new message encouraging social distancing.

Passing folks at the bus stop just enough to line up the back door for them to board would take some getting used to. A driver already sits in an area isolated from the passengers, now it was almost impossible to even say hi.

The novelty of it all distracted us from this loss of sociability, and we reasoned we could tough it out a couple weeks until things leveled off. We'd flatten the curve and return to more familiar turf. Heading west on the hazy, warm boulevard with no traffic kindled feelings of nostalgia for an earlier, quieter Broward County. The world was growing colder, but we'd always have the Sun and good memories to warm us.

Out at Sawgrass Mills mall, we wouldn't be needing all sixty feet of the bus for the handful of passengers boarding there. One of these was a talky fellow, instantly familiar with everyone he encountered. New in town, his stuff was stolen and he was looking for a soup kitchen. The first one that came to mind was All Saints Mission on Powerline, a long trip from way out here. This could be a good pairing for him in other ways, as he was a muralist by trade and the soup kitchen walls featured distinctive art that might need a touch up. Even his pen had been stolen so I gave him a spare to take notes.

There was plenty of elbow room on the bus until just before State Road 7. There sat my leader, broken down and awaiting road service. All of his passengers waited with him outside, ready to board as we pulled up parallel. About a dozen climbed on and I wished the driver luck as we continued in service.

Without that bus ahead of us, the cabin filled steadily as we headed east, with no less than two mobile scooters aboard simultaneously. A man in one of them was sociably chatty much like the muralist, discussing various topics with anyone nearby. He looked to be middle-aged, yet that didn't stop him from striking up a conversation with a young man half his age, and his girlfriend. The couple had a rolling cooler in tow, entrepreneurs of the street hustling cold drinks. Theirs was the original clear beverage: water. Only it was self-bottled and touted as high alkaline. The older man was eager to support the younger's business venture and bought a bottle on the spot. He expressed satisfaction with each sip, which made the young man's day and led to more sales. The scene had an air of orchestrated promotion, until the duo exited with a lightened cooler. Once the doors closed the man in the scooter wondered aloud if it was toilet water, a bit suspicious of the DIY packaging.
"My throat is dry," he complained, thirstier now than before.

As we grew accustomed to the new boarding procedure, it was kind of nice only having to monitor a single point of entry. Most people caught on quickly and seemed to know the drill. It was a bit more lonely for me, not being able to easily greet everyone who boarded. I consoled myself with the reminder that this would only be temporary, and in the meantime I could look at it like operating a train.

A few hours into the shift and we headed west again. Par for the course, we got caught at the Federal Highway red light. This placed us right next to the Coral Ridge Mall parking lot, where a few people were hanging out. A woman with a baby stroller cut a familiar profile and as she turned into focus, I recognized her immediately. It was Catherine, a regular on a different route for many years. The pink stroller was an accessory I didn't expect.
"I got a new puppy! Her name is Miracle." She shouted over, showcasing her fur baby in the buggy.
"I was just in Houston," she continued. "We had two and a half good days before we had to hole up in the hotel." Yes, the entire country was shutting down, and she returned to a less than ideal situation.
"I'm not working, but my boss is still paying me." She told me before the light turned green and we waved good bye.

Thanks to Daylight Saving Time, golden hour now took place about 7 PM, a surreal sight at our backs as we cruised eastward. No blinding yellow light piercing in this day. Just a red hot glowing disk floating behind low clouds on the coral horizon. A thick atmosphere muted the sunset so that I could look directly at it via the mirror, a mesmerizing sign of cosmic shifts underway.

The Sun said good night as we began our final trip of the shift. It had been a day of changes both at the garage and on the road. A woman boarded at the east end layover, anxious to get to Target. Soon after we got going, the fiery fumes of an adult beverage wafted up to my nostrils. She hurried to the rack displaying schedules, then spread a few a few on the floor to cover her spilled contraband.

She exited and my regular the tennis devotee entered. He was a bit on edge as he explained the virus was making everyone overreact out of fear.
"My friend wouldn't fist bump me," he exclaimed, perhaps taking it as an insult.

While he brooded about the lapse in etiquette, we sat at Dixie Highway, delayed by one of those mile-long freights the FEC RR is famous for. The endless line of rusting cargo containers had travelled around the world to head south adorned with fresh Florida graffiti.

The Sun had long set when I reached the end of the line, switched the sign to NOT IN SERVICE, and headed back towards the garage after nine hours in the seat. The new moon cast no light on our path as the thin sliver resembled a giant eyelash.

Along the way, on the darkest stretch of Flamingo Road made darker by the trees, stood two figures. One was considerably taller than the other, and as my headlight beams washed over them it appeared to be a man with his young son. They waved their arms for attention, fearing their bus would miss them in the darkness. Unfortunately this wasn't their bus and when the father realized I wasn't stopping, all but one of his extended fingers went down. His shirt read #1 DAD, and hopefully the low visibility and height difference would keep that label intact for his son.

An eventful day came to a close, with imminent service changes and immediate policy revisions. Yet some things refused to yield their old ways: the trains would keep running, the moon would continue its celestial cycles, and people would drink from the well of Life till their thirst was satisfied. Everyday miracles would still occur, regardless what the calendar had to say.