Monday, September 20, 2021

Dixie hustle


Daily we slid into new territory as the first global pandemic of our lifetimes took hold and could no longer be ignored. It crept into all corners of our routines and forced us to confront a common enemy. This was a war against the unseen, which made for an unsure response.

Our new selection of routes had begun only the day before, cutting short a selection that should have lasted months down to a single week. Reduced demand due to lockdowns and social distancing required bus service to be adjusted accordingly. Society was slowly buying into the concept of "flattening the curve" which was being promoted by national public health experts. My own responsibilities weren't nearly as crucial, at least not obviously so. The County expected us to provide essential service to our passengers, and it was an honor to continue serving them admirably.

Today was also a homecoming of sorts, as I returned to the Dixie Highway route after a lengthy absence driving around other parts of town. Based out of the Copans Road garage, Route 50 services the area north of Central Terminal from downtown Fort Lauderdale to Deerfield Beach and all points between.

This springtime was developing into one quite unlike all the others we'd known before. Even South Florida, with a climate fostering year-round growth, takes a breather during the winter months. The abundant rainfall of summer becomes a distant memory as our sandy land dries out and almost everything with roots goes dormant until the moisture returns. The human inhabitants also take a break, enjoying the lack of humidity after months of swelter. Eventually the planet makes a certain number of rotations and like clockwork the seasonal processes continue. Nature wasn't altering its routine, bringing us the blessings of a sunny day, blue skies, and a few clouds on the horizon. The community however, was increasingly entering a season of discomfort. Now I would see firsthand how Dixie Highway was adapting.

Just past noon I took over the bus at Northeast Transit Center, the bus station in Pompano Beach perfectly situated at Dixie and Martin Luther King. Across the street is the legendary Florida East Coast Railroad, which had recently seen the return of passengers with the introduction of Brightline express service between West Palm Beach and Miami after a fifty year hiatus.

Mr. Clitus handed over the bus on time for me to continue the northbound trip he'd begun way south of here. Also boarding at that time was my friend who used to work at Poverello thrift in Wilton Manors. He was no longer working there after a falling out with management, so I'd have to find another inside source for upcoming sales.

With the transmission shifted into Drive, we rolled out of the cozy little terminal and onto the baked-in grease of Dixie Highway. Almost from the jump, the onboard smoke detector began to pierce my skull with a high-pitched tone that couldn't be ignored. It can temporarily be silenced, which I did after not seeing any smoke. The process is a bit inconvenient and often requires standing up. Still, it was less inconvenient than an actual fire on the premises.

Five minutes later an unusual shape in the bike lane shuffled in our direction. It wasn't a runner but rather a walker, an older man propelling himself forward with a cane. It's my policy to brake when people enter my path of travel, especially senior persons putting out full effort. We weren't in a hurry at this time, so I pulled over and we waited.

Meanwhile, he wasn't the only shuffler in the street, or even the most eye-catching. On the other side by Sunkiss plant nursery, a young lady in black knee-high stockings sashayed in the middle of a lane. Her revealing look was balanced with respectable glasses to give a studious impression. Love for sale is a common sight on this stretch, though generally not so creative this early in the week. The underground economy was adapting to the times.

Occasionally the term 'concrete' is used to describe something solid and stable, but the old concrete plant up by the crooked palms was testing that claim. The silos and diagonal conveyors had been there for decades, but were now being unceremoniously dismantled to make way for an enormous warehouse complex. The hulking shell of the new construction with its tilt-up walls spanned in stark contrast behind the decaying ruins of the plant. Large-scale redevelopment along this route is historically sparse, so the freshness of it was hard to miss. The forlorn right-of-way along the FEC RR up in Deerfield was also getting a face lift with the addition of a black-slatted metal fence fitted between masonry columns. The trains have been running through there for over a hundred years, but in recent times that sad stretch of track has had a significant number of fatalities. Whether suicide or accident, the new barrier would help improve safety and appearance.

The recovery time at the end of the line was lengthier than I remembered from the past, though the guy yelling at me felt familiar.

"Hey! Can I get on, man?" he wondered with his head poking through the back door.

Of course the answer was yes so I rolled with it and offered a couple squirts of hand sanitizer after he loaded his bike on the rack.

The layover there is on Martin Luther King and Hillsboro Boulevard, so after the few stops on that street I made a lazy left on 4th Street by Pineview Cemetery and cut back over to Dixie. Neighboring the cemetery are a handful of modest houses, as weathered and worn as the grave markers next door but still vital machines for living. Speed humps were added since my last stint on this route, presumably safety measures for the nearby school.

Two other bicycles had joined the one belonging to the head-poker so all the slots were full from the jump. Naturally, a fourth bike awaited us soon after banging a right on Dixie. I sympathized with the cyclist and let him know when the next bus was due.

An old friend waited for us at Sample Road. Only the day before, Steve the bus fan greeted me with a clenched fist at Central Terminal. Now, way uptown in Pompano he was my friend again, ready to ride around town with me. Any previous friction was ancient history.

Just after the freight rail spur near the blimp hangar, we entered the edge of Pompano's red light district where ancient vices are alive and well. Rolling on our way to the transit center, women in racy outfits displayed their wares at each side street for several blocks. This show of desperation made it obvious the health department's guidance on social distancing had put a pinch on the oldest profession.

Not having driven the full length of the route in awhile, it was good to settle in to the old highway. Each city this street passes through has its own character, and the whole thing fits like a shoe you've worn for years. From Deerfield and Pompano, then to Oakland Park and Wilton Manors before ending the trip in downtown Fort Lauderdale, the texture and detail accumulated over generations is both comforting and mesmerizing.

Steve was quiet during the miles of hand-painted store signs, auto garages, warehouses, and old city centers. That made for one talky man by the time we reached Central Terminal, mostly complaints about the president extending lockdowns till the end of April. While he gave me an earful on why that was an inconvenience, my co-worker Kevin wandered over to interrupt at an opportune time. A skilled guitarist when he's not driving the bus, K-Man had to sideline his rocking out while recovering from something that required a medical brace to immobilize his arm. Whatever the reason, he was stationed for the moment at the terminal on light duty. He'd been a semi-permanent fixture on the route I was driving today, so maybe it was habit that brought him over to our bus bay for a bit of camaraderie. Of course I had to tease him about when he wanted to go bowling.

With nothing better to do, Steve decided to ride back up with me, mumbling his final complaints about everything being closed. 

Getting back into Pompano shortly before the transit center, a young man came up front with a confused stare as he looked out the windshield.

"How far into Palm Beach County do you go?" He asked flatly.

   'We don't.' I replied with matched flatness.

"Good thing." He continued, obviously relieved by my terse answer. "I'm not tryna go there, and I'm not allowed to go past it."

Apparently the judge put a limit on his travels, and he wasn't familiar enough with our municipal borders to know where one county ended and the next began. The bus was nowhere near defying the court, so he could breathe easy.

The Goodyear blimp hangar is the dominating landmark north of the Pompano terminal, a behemoth of sheet metal that dares you to look away. Yet my interest was focused on a more temporal feature just past that, but before Copans Road. There, beside the double-tracked Florida East Coast Railroad, is a lengthy side track where unused rolling stock is staged until put back into service. It's so close to the street that it seems close enough to touch, unlike the overwhelming hangar isolated behind barbed wire. Freight cars parked on this side line for more than a few hours have a tendency to acquire colorful art on their fading skins. Today we didn't have the large canvas that a standard shipping container provides, only the long, thin edges of several flat beds. Some local tagger accepted the challenge and applied his spray paint signature to each one - yellow gold on black rust.

Back at the top of the route we got another decent break, not that we needed it on this sleepy Monday. Steve got a few more concerns off his chest and signed up for one more trip back south with us. Again he was considerate and didn't attempt any distracting conversation. Instead, I was greeted with the curious chirps of a warbler that perched on my curbside mirror at Oakland Park Boulevard. That was the highlight of this sleeper southbound, and I fully expected a five-star review from Steve upon our arrival at Central Terminal. Instead, it was his final opportunity to pour me the fresh ire he'd been brewing. Somewhere along the way, he came across an updated headline that the governor had extended state-issued lockdowns till the middle of May, one-upping the president by a couple weeks. This pandemic was getting to be a major inconvenience. We wished each other well as our paths separated in Bay A-6.

There was still another round trip on this shift and things had gone so smoothly I couldn't rightly call it work. I finessed the gas pedal and left downtown in the rear view. Make that side-view, as buses don't have a back window. Mirrors are a bus driver's eyes, and in my right eye a man was answering nature's call as we sat a minute at the Pompano station. Using the open rear door for cover, he left a trickle on the tire.

My final trip of the day was just as unremarkable as the others. Another courtesy stop for an elderly woman who just wasn't gonna make it to the stop; a mutual wave to road supervisor Laurie in Pompano; and picked up Joe at Commercial Boulevard, a regular on other routes who followed me over here.

As I wrapped it up at Central Terminal and headed back to the garage with NOT IN SERVICE on my headsign, I thought back on this return to the old part of town and how it was adapting to a new normal. On this once-humming thoroughfare during a time of constant change, nothing was happening.