Saturday, August 14, 2021

The view down here


Sunday. The first day of the week and the first day of our new COVID-19 Pick. Our previous selection had lasted only a week until prematurely curtailed by a global pandemic. We'd have to adjust on the move in order to meet the conditions now thrust upon us. Mother Nature didn't bat an eye however, and this new day brought sunny brightness and warmth, along with a few signature clouds of a South Florida sky.

This would be an afternoon shift on Route 11, a twisted alignment from an earlier Broward County when routes attempted to cover as much ground as possible. To that end, we would be rolling along the posh coastal skyline, then veer inland where the regular folks lived.

During my continuing research into the history of local transit, I've discovered this route is virtually prehistoric, with early versions going back over fifty years. The bus itself was also a bit long in the tooth, a fifteen year old beast determined not to give up the ghost. Before rolling into service, I readjust the mirrors and seat to my requirements. The driver's seat uses air pressure to rise, so I tapped the toggle switch to bring it up. Instead of my knees straightening out, they went into a V-shape as the seat hissed at me and dropped to the floor. This wasn't my usual position, but the mirrors were good so I put in a request for road service to keep folks from waiting unnecessarily.

Soon after departure we rolled east over the Intracoastal, the legendary inland waterway that flows parallel to much of the the Atlantic coastline. Its storied history involves military exercises and rum-running, but today it was teeming with pleasure craft. My concerns about delaying service were allayed as we continued and didn't encounter the traffic or regular ridership of a normal Sunday. This meant we arrived at time points early and had to wait for the scheduled time to leave.

The sweet old lady who had been a regular on this route during previous months made an appearance on Galt Mile before Oakland Park Boulevard. Now that passengers were boarding through the rear door, she didn't notice that her favorite driver was at the wheel. Well, she noticed when I passed her stop, which was a safety hazard of dust and debris thanks to the construction site next door. She relaxed and smiled when she saw me in the driver's seat, and shouted up thanks for stopping in front of her apartment building.  

A minute later, the wall of condo towers that hid the ocean for the previous five miles gave way to public beachfront. The scene was postcard perfect: Sailboats cruising the calm blue-green expanse, gentle ripples lapping an empty beach. That's right, not a solitary barefoot upon the sandy strip famous the world over. It was now off limits, and police were strategically positioned to ensure it remained so. Orange cones and yellow tape cordoned off the curbside parking that would otherwise be in heavy use on a day like this. Motorcycle officers perched on their bikes, blocking beach access while shaded under royal blue FLPD canopies.

While mesmerized by the surreal scene, I encountered more cyclists than ever for a Sunday. It was nothing organized, no Tour de France, just folks out for a ride swarming the entire length of A1A and spilling over on to Las Olas Boulevard. Since no one could enjoy the direct beach experience, the mere sight of it would suffice. They were the only real hindrance to contend with, and weren't enough to delay our arrival at Central Terminal.

We enjoyed a rare lengthy layover at the terminal before heading into those less-glamorous sections of the city which will never make it on a postcard. Neighborhoods like Washington Park and Roosevelt Gardens are off the beaten path, but the bus gave a direct link from the outside world to the house parties underway before the return of work week drudgery. 

Rolling up 21st Avenue by the open expanse of Osswald Park soothed my heart, then broke it a block later. The daycare was closed for the weekend, so fortunately there were no children present as we passed the vacant lot next door. A young man in his late 20s wearing odd sport glasses emerged from the bushes, adjusting his pants upward. That was innocent enough, until he was followed by a sad shadow with shabby blonde hair. Some five years earlier that golden crown had been shiny, framing a fresh, clean face. The woman I picked up back then was brimming with vitality that beamed out behind sporty sunglasses. Now this fallen daughter's complexion was blotched and puffy from rough living. Sunken eyes averted any direct gaze as she made her shameful exit from the overgrowth. Addiction can be a hell of a life, and I hoped she'd be one of those who escaped its grasp to find rebirth on the other side. Out here on the street there are no closed doors to hide the wayward paths of our neighbors. Just outside our window, humanity is a pulsing sea of need - and our feet get wet walking its shore.

No storm can darken the skies forever, and the ache of promise lost was more than replaced with a blessing at the end of the line. My friend Ron sauntered out of the shade of a yellow tab, with a smile as warm as the Jamaican sun and the island accent to match. Ron was a regular on the Dixie Highway route, friend and saint to any bus driver willing to accept his invitation. This time he was waiting for another route, driven by another driver friend, but we used the layover time to talk transit and for him to share stories out of Miami.

Times were certainly changing, but at least one Sunday tradition hadn't been snuffed out. The smoke pits at Big Boyz BBQ, on the point of the triangle before Sistrunk Boulevard, blanketed the neighborhood in the mouth-watering aroma of smoldering wood and slow-cooked baby backs.

Downtown traffic was nonexistent about now, and a desperate panhandler at Andrews Avenue had scribbled a facetious message on his cardboard sign:

2 - UGLY - 2


The pale blue sky over the Galt was also devoid of activity, no clouds around. Signs of life resumed north of Commercial Boulevard, with countless dog walkers and their micro-pooches designed for condo life.

We'd be back this way in about twenty minutes, after our recovery time at the end of the line. That break isn't for the driver's recovery, but to get back on schedule if delays put us down. With the light traffic and ridership, running late wasn't an issue. As sleepy a Sunday as it gets, we started up our final trip west to cruise the beach and Las Olas one last time.

Barely a few stops in, and a familiar passenger from the Federal Highway route waited expectantly. He had two accessories I'd never seen him with before: a bicycle and a face mask, though the bike certainly fit the mood of the day. The trademark style of loose linen tunic with dangling tzitzit was a spiritual balance to his earthy observations about human behavior.

On we glided, again beside the strollers and their fur babies, a smooth and silent phantom. The westward-marching sun hopped over the wall of towering cubicles and penthouses, and made us a shadow on the asphalt.

Las Olas Boulevard told us our day at the beach was over, so we cut a right to chase the sun. First we made sure to pick up a man on the corner who boarded with a fishy pungence that activated every scent receptor. His distinctive aroma led me to believe he earned the day's catch the hard way, most likely from the side of a day tripper berthed nearby.

My crying nostrils passed on their revolt to my eyes as we crested the Intracoastal bridge and the ever-pacing sun leveled out to blind me for the next mile. Blessed relief arrived at 13th Avenue when the shade trees rescued my corneas.

Central Terminal sheltered us for a modest break as I tucked the bus into the designated bay. Seizing the opportunity to make a pit stop, I was met with a fist directed toward me by a grimacing older man. It was my old friend Steve the bus fan, acting displeased. Between gritted teeth he complained about my number blocking his texts. We figured out the problem and made a good connection.

Most any other time of the week a train delay would not be welcomed as an obstacle in my path. This day was different, and the squealing beast on rails saved us from running hot with several minutes of moving art as the blur of fading graffiti slid past us.

Our tires dampened the humming tracks as we rolled over their elevated right of way and onto Sistrunk Boulevard. About halfway down, the 11 angles onto a side avenue into the hidden heart of the northwest quarter of the city. Just past Betty's Soul Food, there was the makings of a block party as cars jammed the shoulders of the road. It was unlikely to get too massive this time, but still made for a tight fit with the bus.

Folks steadily emptied from the cabin and headed home for the evening, leaving me with an empty bus before I reached the end. To me, there's nothing sadder than a bus with no passengers, and this old girl took the melancholy up a notch with a growing list of defects. Besides the floor-level seat, we could now add a mute announcer, streaky windshield, and a back door that buzzed like a hornet's nest whenever it popped open.

The bus and I continued our mutual social distancing for the final trip, a partial journey that finished at Central Terminal. A young man boarded soon enough, ending the drought. He was my only passenger for the next twenty minutes, then it was just me again. A few sharp turns through the neighborhood and a lazy left on to Sistrunk in my empty bus which was timely since the once-living city had reverted to a surreal ghost town under the sodium street lamps.

Half a dozen blocks later, Venus rose to the rescue under those dim beams, materializing beside a bench as I neared 15th Avenue. That isn't a designated bus stop, so I assumed she was waiting to jaywalk once the bus passed. Using the consideration of a seasoned bus operator, I slowed lest she make a move it would be impossible to recover from. She did indeed make an unexpected move: she flagged the bus. I don't recall ever making a courtesy stop there before, so this may have been the first and last time. It wasn't the time to leave someone stranded simply because they were unfamiliar with the system. She boarded with questions about bus connections to the south part of the county, options which were sparingly few at this point. She thanked me for the information she needed to make a decision going forward. I was also thankful: to her for not finishing the day with empty seats, but also to those who filled them earlier, along with all the sights and smells as I rolled around town. Our future was increasingly uncertain, but there were certain to be more moments reminding us how important the little things are. It was only the first day of the week, and we'd get the hang of living one day at a time before the weekend.