Monday, June 21, 2021

They need you


The only new normal we were settling into was constant change. Each day seemed to bring new policies, behaviors, and adaptations. This was the first week of new runs, picked at a time when we thought we'd be doing them for several months. Instead, it was not only the first week, but also the last. Today was my day to make a selection for the COVID-19 Pick, slated to begin in a couple days. The length was yet to be determined - it could be a month or it could be the rest of the year. This was still March, when nature would resume its annual growth cycle, while transit service would be reverting to a time of shorter operating hours.

Even so, the day was bright and warm with a few scattered clouds. At the road relief spot Miss Carla passed me control of the bus, like a slow-motion relay race with a sixty-foot baton. She also relayed the news that bus operators filled the radio waves all morning with reports of their buses being full. Fares had been lifted, and it seemed the whole town heard the buses were free. This would not be conducive to social distancing - a term new to our daily vocabulary, yet intuitively familiar.

Like the previous day, I again caught my leader at the eastbound relief point after we'd changed direction out west. Normally this is where drivers change shifts, just as I'd done across the street. His dozen-plus people again boarded my bus, and the addition nearly had us at capacity. The cabin would thin out in a few miles once we passed Powerline Road, making more than enough room for the slight-statured man I'd been picking up all over town for years. A former commercial fisherman who gained his sea legs trolling the icy blasts off Alaska, he'd long since thawed out in our subtropical paradise and no longer wished to relive those days. He beat me to the punch and yelled out "YO!" in recognition. Face masks were rapidly becoming commonplace, making it difficult to recognize people you were otherwise familiar with. I called back and we were good.

We flipped it around for a mid-day westbound, leaving the salty air of Galt Mile in the rear-view. Normally, this trip starts out light until we reach Andrews Avenue about fifteen minutes in. This time there was a crowd waiting to board at Blessed Sacrament, between US 1 and Dixie Highway less than ten minutes from starting. Even more were milling outside the church, arms laden with boxes from a food give away. many of those boxes now boarded my bus. A few enterprising folks took maximum advantage of this generosity and heaved up their wire carts piled high for the pantry.

The bus was filling up, but there's always room for one of my regulars. Especially when that regular is Jay, who is joined at the hip to his bicycle but disconnects just long enough to put it on the rack when catching the bus. We made room for him up front as he boarded at Powerline. He thanked me for the watchband I'd given him as a belated Christmas gift, the same kind I use and which he'd admired in the past. The watch discussion soon changed gears to the news of the day and the growing impacts of the spreading virus. He was not only upset at the government's response, but the public's nonchalant attitude.

"Americans won't take it serious till there's blood and dead people in the streets." He morosely prophesied. "The whole country should've been shut down for two to three weeks till the thing passed, then care for the sick."

This dark mood was out of character, and I tried to steer him back to his normal positive demeanor by commending him for cycling and staying active. He downplayed the compliment with a comment about diminished lung capacity before switching to a good report on the generosity of motorists as he 'waved sign,' slang for panhandling. After exiting, he cut across traffic on his bike, then waited out the light cycle in the median. While out there in the middle of the torrent, he twisted his torso to look back my way, yelled out "Hey!" while holding up his watch hand with the new band and flashing a bright smile.

Halfway into the ten hour shift, we were making yet another westbound trip, now in late afternoon. The Allied Kitchen & Bath marquee has a different message on each side, so it's best to pay attention as you pass.





A solid reminder that we can support each other on this journey. Immediately past that we arrived at Powerline and I immediately recognized Sebastian, a former co-worker who'd worked his way up from maintenance at Central Terminal to join the ranks of bus operators in the driver's seat. He had since left the driving corps and was now on a different path. Though I gestured to him through the windshield, he didn't notice and boarded without acknowledgment. For now I could support him by getting this bus down the road.

One stop later, after cruising under the ever-expanding I-95 overpass, a familiar cyclist from a previous trip awaited. It wasn't Jay, but this gentleman was no less resourceful with three heavy boxes of power tools in tow. Though we now used the rear doors to board, this called for an exception and I invited him to load everything up front. Between putting the bike on the rack, then lugging in a weed whacker, leaf blower, and pressure washer it took several trips to get everything on board. The effort had taken its toll as he appeared beside me half an hour later, sleepy-eyed and wondering if we'd passed his stop. Yes, we had - but he wasn't in a hurry and decided to ride back around on our rolling motel.

At this time of day, the sun had descended to just the right height to activate the reflective strips on the front of my uniform. A safety feature to make us visible to others in dark conditions, it was now glowing back at me in the windshield, a bar of light obscuring the vehicles ahead. This design oversight was more annoyance than hazard, perhaps intentional to keep us on our toes.

After a lengthy layover at the mall, I awoke the tools guy to let him know we'd be leaving. Exhaustion had reduced him to a fetal position in the front row of seats behind me, and he'd need to sit up for us to get moving. I'd been in the seat myself for seven hours at that point and could sympathize, so I didn't give him a hard time. Back in training, our instructor told us a sleeping passenger is the biggest compliment for a bus driver; it was proof of a smooth ride.

Our final eastbound trip, approaching the busy side of University Drive, everyone boarded as usual. Then one more figure emerged from behind the bus shelter. It was the hipster from the other day, scurrying aboard with wide eyes. He had been quite vocal the last time, but was perfectly silent today.

The tools guy decided almost two hours on the bus was enough and decided to exit when we reached Deepside. The same lengthy process it took to load up was now executed in reverse, as he took several trips to deposit the large boxes on the sidewalk before retrieving his bike from the rack.

   'Got your hands full!' I piped up with an impressed tone.

"Yes. It's gonna make me money and I'll get a car."

   'It's gonna happen.' I agreed with him.

"Yessir." He replied in that way you often hear with those formerly enlisted in the armed forces. His salute after reclaiming the bicycle would be confirmation enough for me as the new entrepreneur fell back into the flow of the boulevard.

We grew as the sun shrank behind us, casting our shadow ever longer. The passing minutes and miles stretched our profile on the road out ten, twenty, fifty, then a hundred feet or more before it all merged into one on the streets of gold.

Since this was the final trip east, it was also my last chance to read the west-facing marquee sign at Allied Kitchen:





More welcome encouragement, especially for those doubtful they were capable of the message on the reverse side. Things we rely on in life may fall apart, and not giving up may mean picking up the pieces and moving forward.

One gentleman was doing just that as I pulled up to him at Dixie Highway before the tracks.He was barefoot, but not for lack of footwear as he held a pair of sandals at his side.

   'Could you put those on, please?' I requested, for his safety.

"They broke. I just gorilla-glued them, so I can't wear them or they'll flip."

   'Interesting.' I pondered his situation. There were no immediate threats he might step on, and the bus was nearly empty at this stage, so I let it go.

After a ten minute break on the east end, it was time to glide west and wrap this up after starting nine hours earlier. The trip began empty, but that only lasted for the Galt Mile loop and the two stops on A1A, as a guy hopped on at the first stop on Oakland Park Boulevard.

The old routine at Dixie played out like clockwork as we sat out another train delay. This one required three engines to haul a thousand cargo containers to their next destination. The load may have been too much as it crawled along in no particular hurry. Six minutes later we rolled over those pounding tracks one more time and resumed our steady crawl across the county. Oakland Park Boulevard is normally one of our busiest streets, but with all the lockdowns the congestion had thinned out nicely, at least in the right lane.

A familiar face on another route appeared after 441. The former boxer via Jamaica, I'd met him on the 88, a suburban route otherwise devoid of boxer-types. His distinctive bass-baritone combined with an extreme islander accent sounds like a punch-drunk Shabba Ranks and requires a full effort to decipher. Fortunately, he's not much interested in a two-way conversation, so a good listener gets by fine. A bit of extra fortune for me this time as another older man from the island boarded at the same time. They proceeded in a tag team spitting match of unintelligible patois. The only word that emerged more than once was "virus" as they clicked on the same frequency. The older man exited first, but the syllables continued as if he were still there. The retired fighter left a few minutes later, and soon after the bus was all mine again.

The day is long but the time is short. We'd all done our part for this day, not disrupting each other's orbits too much as we'd rotated through the cosmos of the bus. A season of ill winds had begun its sweep. We would have to adapt, stay strong, and be rocks of stability. And though we see the shadows grow, never give up.

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