Friday, January 20, 2023

The end is nigh (or, It's a blessing)

{Continuing the Covid chronicles}

New normals bring newness all over the place. The previous workday had brought us back to Dixie Highway, that old part of town that was finding its way through the changes the pandemic was bringing upon us. Today I was on the Atlantic Boulevard route, with five round trips between the ancient grime of the east side and the swept streets of master-planned suburbia.

April was fresh and gave us the blessings of Spring in South Florida: Bright, warm sun paired with a cool breeze. Some clouds massed to the west as I began a ten hour bid that would last well into the night. For now, it was just after lunch as I arrived at the Pompano station to relieve another driver. Her face mask prevented me from recognizing her as she exited in a blur, mumbling about "the lunatics and drunks".

A few years had passed since last I drove this route, and vivid memories of the brutal afternoon shift remained fresh. Times were different now, so I reserved judgment and would take it as it came.
Half an hour and one left turn later I was taking a break by the new fire station on Coral Ridge Drive. Further south, this street is known as Nob Hill Road. Once it enters Coral Springs city limits, it gets a new name. And just as there is no actual hill named Nob, there is certainly no ridge of coral in this place ten miles from the sea.

People trickled on soon after beginning the journey back east. Masks were still optional, but steadily became more common. A handful boarded at University Drive, our first timepoint on the schedule.
Between Riverside and Ramblewood, purple orchid trees lined the street with their gentle glory before  a small bridge leading into the sleepy bedroom town of Margate. Here, the buildings are older than the city we'd just left. Or perhaps the fading paint and jalousie windows just make them look older.

The intersection with Lyons Road is especially close to the Turnpike ramp, making for unusually spread out bus stops. A young man still a block from the bus stop kicked it into high gear when he saw us bearing down on him, knowing the next bus wouldn't be through for another hour on this reduced schedule. His spirited effort was impressive as we passed him, and I pulled over at the stop giving him a chance to join us.

Twenty minutes along the road a familiar bristly gray head came into view. It was my old friend Steve, a legend on other routes but never seen before at a stop on this route. Normally at this time of day he'd be enjoying a nap on some beach beside a lifeguard stand. With the necessary reduction in bus service he couldn't risk getting stranded for the night, so here he was at a busy stop, taking in the action with anxiously wide eyes. A dozen people passed in front of him to board, including a woman hauling a wire cart loaded with her weight in food. No time to say Hi or Bye to Steve, we had to keep it moving.

We took five minutes to stretch at the Walgreens on the east end, then spun it back westbound. The Atlantic Boulevard bridge over the Intracoastal is a dicey activity, with narrow lanes designed before the advent of modern transit buses. Shifting gears from the singular focus required by that aging span must have been the reason the gentleman who boarded at the next stop didn't register as someone familiar. The white beard and thinning hairline were an effective disguise. The khaki cargo pants should have given him away, but that was overwhelmed by the mouthwatering goodness in his Pasquale's take away bag. He discussed the tasty meal with another passenger, and the voice started triggering some long-forgotten memory. It wasn't until he exited that it all came together. My pal Al, formerly a regular on Route 50, walked over to the front door and tapped on the glass. His appearance had changed since we last crossed paths several years before, but the same friendly guy from east Pompano shone through as we smiled and pointed in long overdue recognition, followed by a thumbs up before pulling back into traffic.

Western suburbs pulled us onward to the layover, when I took note of a couple remaining passengers out cold with exhaustion. With more and more places closing for the lockdowns, our buses had become mobile motels. One of them slept through the entire trip back east, where I woke him to make sure he was ok. He wanted to ride back the other way again, so off we rolled.

Five minutes in, we reached US 1 with its notorious bus stop situated like a risk manager's nightmare. This stop is unlike any other in the county: posted right on the corner at the traffic signal, in the turn lane. This would be fine if the bus was turning like the traffic stacking up behind it; instead it must wait for the light to change, then nose its way back into the westbound flow. Popular with panhandlers, the bench there has supported many a hangover recovery. On this visit, four cold cases of Heineken boarded, clamped in the swinging hands of two gentlemen. Time was ticking if they were to make it back to the halfway house for curfew. Unable to slay all that brew on their own, they offered up the green lizards at two bucks a pop. This was now the heat of rush hour, with a bus full of folks heading home after the work day, so naturally this impromptu happy hour found some thirsty customers.

The cabin emptied and refilled in cycles as we tracked westward, and at the end it was just me and the sleeper yet again.
    "We're getting to be best friends, since you're spending the day with me," I joked, though it wasn't far from the truth.
"It's a blessing," he replied with a sheepish smile, and I knew that was the truth.
When he exited after our next trip, it appeared we might be parting ways, but he was just making a pit stop at Walgreens and soon returned.
"This is gonna be my last trip," he announced. Profuse thanks came my way when he finally said farewell at the transit center. "We may be able to do this again, as long as the buses are free!"
The temporary lifting of the fare had brought him a new found liberty.
    "See ya later!" I bid him before taking off.

Slogging through the University Drive intersection, the remnants of afternoon congestion gave us a closing finale before the bedroom community tucked in for the night. Before the light could turn red, we rolled through in slow motion, bringing into focus a young man standing on the corner. He held a home made sign of scrap cardboard, with a message in bold block letters:
A month earlier, it would have been easy to write off the dire predictions of a teenager in the suburbs. However, things had lately veered off into the decidedly unknown, so perhaps it was best not to discount even the smallest signs of the times.

That stop emptied the cabin, and remained so till the end of the line. Out here the traffic load had subsided and I could catch my breath again. The next trip east was a breeze and we neared the western end when a young man on board asked if we were going to the beach. Unfortunately he was going the wrong direction, and there were n more buses on this route going that far. When he grasped the situation, he changed his mind and wanted to go downtown. His agitation grew as we continued deeper into the sleeping neighborhoods, and further from where he wanted to be. I calmly reassured him there would be one more chance to connect with a bus heading to Central Terminal. That connection would happen on our final trip, also the final 42 eastbound for the night. We got to Powerline Road with just enough time for him to catch the last 14 heading south.

One other passenger had joined us on this trip, back at University, another young man rapping lightning-quick verses to himself in the upper deck.

After ten hours and ten trips across the county, I pulled in to the Pompano station and made sure the headsign read NOT IN SERVICE before returning to the garage. Off with the sign and off with the rest, that was enough for one day.