They grey morning bus ride is like most have been over the past months: starting later than they should, getting me to work later than I should. No one says anything at work; certainly no one says anything on the bus. The biggest difference is my fellow waiters change from pass-showing business casual to artist grunge Goodwill special paying cash. Today the bus is even later, stuck waiting for a train. When the bus reaches the long south downtown slot that heads us under the city, the driver pulls over for no apparent reason, and everyone groans.
Neglectful though I have been with meditation, I do not rise to anger, or worry about being late. The bus is here and so am I, so the best course is to be here with it, now together. Cellphones keep most other citizens from noticing, though there is an unformed rumbling in the back. A minute goes by and the driver turns the engine off, and there is a moment of evacuated silence.
The driver is on the bus radio, lifting a grey plastic handset like a classic Bell telephone to his ear. He asks somebody where is relief is, that he’s now five minutes behind. Another bus passes and does not stop; somebody groans.
A fat Asian kid waddles up front, head sunken and hands flailing on arms rigid as a marionette’s wires. “What? Is? Going? On?” His mouth is open, exasperated, his need for movement clear.
The driver is a white man, of low stature, stiff but not uncomfortable, rigid like a man from a small town gone to teach high school in the deep country. “I’m supposed to get relief,” he says, pushing up his Eighties wireframe glasses, the lenses nestling on his cheeks. “She’s not here. Don’t know what it is.”
“Man!” the kid says, raising his frozen arms, flopping them down again.
“Haveta wait,” the driver says. The kid turns with an adolescent exhalation, head collapsed to his chest, and storms back down the bus. Everyone else stays on their phone or stares out the window. The driver goes back to the handset. “Yeah. Yeah. Can you pick up eggs and milk too?” He laughs, but at something else. “Sorry, was laughing at somebody,” he tells the handset.
Had the bus continued, it would have driven past what I have guessed is an outpatient methadone clinic. The stop is always a small drama of hard-worn people in beaten clothes, kind-faced but a little too loud, the women with clean but stringy hair, the men with bad teeth, all with packs of cigarettes in breast pockets or their hands. Now stopped, a pair that must be headed there comes forward, but not all the way, hanging back near me. The man is no thicker than a needle, the sail of his grey hoodie billowing around him, pulling at his thin beard while the woman, pale and with peeling red nail polish, takes up the center space with stretch polyester lumpiness. “Hey,” she says, voice all tobacco gravel, “what’s the deal?”
“They’re about to rise up against me,” the driver tells the handset. I feel for the guy. He is not teaching high school, but middle school, and those kids never get jokes. He repeats the situation, and the couple retreat, satisfied. If they cannot be late they will probably be excused. This is one more thing they have no control over.
Another bus comes and the driver opens the door, most of the passengers filing out to jump ships. The other bus doesn’t stop and we are left in the cool but not cold drizzle. Faces are loose with distraction, disappointed more than annoyed. I go back in.
A few minutes go by, then a white subcompact roars around the corner and stops in front of the bus. A giant black woman emerges, wild-haired, legs pointed outward at opposing 45-degree angles. “Hey,” the white driver says as she huffs in determined lurches to the door.
“I-5 was shit,” she says, angry, breathless, pushing past him onboard.
“Well, glad you got here, people gettin’ late.” She doesn’t acknowledge this, lunch bag and a large white Target bag bumping the metal rails, the metal lids of the storage hatches. The man is gone as she grabs the farebox and a rail and launches herself up into the driver’s vestibule like a whale starting to swing. Dropping sounds, thrusting sounds, small slams come out, along with glimpses of her flank hemispheres.
A kid ambles up. He has no gait or inner structure: he is a slouch lifted upright and moving. Also Asian, he is not pudgy like the first kid, but he does not exude health either. His clothing meets some high bar of some school of adolescent taste: wraparound sunglasses out of proportion to his head; high-top athletic shoes in red, white and blue suede, brushed uniform and clean; a white zip-up skin-tight sweatshirt with azure pinstripes lengthwise down the sleeves; and jeans, neither tight nor loose, all fabric intact, all seams neat, all pockets plain, the color a uniform, soft blue.
“Uh,” the kid says, lost behind his shades.
The woman, her face puffed up like an allergic penguin’s, struggles out of the vestibule and slams the Target bag in a locked box opposite the front door. She refuses to see the kid.
“Uh,” the kid repeats. “Uh. Can I have a transfer?”
The woman stomps back up without leaping. “You didn’t get one from him?”
A pause that lets me realize she means the previous driver. “Naw.”
“Did you pay?”
The woman wrestles into the driver’s seat like a submarine pilot. “Well, you ain’t gonna get no transfer from me.”
The kid stands, hands at his sides, mouth open, sunglassed expression not confused or put out but inert. “But, hey, can I have a transfer?”
“Can I have a transfer?”
“Get back of the line.”
The kid retreats in slow motion to in the closest seat, head lolling like an anesthetized animal’s, legs splayed in the aisle. The shoes are ridiculous, twice as big as the feet, all plastic, made by barefoot kids that look like him.
“Hey, pretty lady, can I have a transfer?”
“Don’t bother me!” She snaps, loudly, the goddamnit assumed. The bus rumbles alive and the fans blow. A blast of air and we are moving again.
The kid lolls there, mouth open. I look at him and wonder what goes through his mind like I did inert, useless kids I remember from school, gum chomping, blank-eyed, unstirrable. From the clothes it’s clear he can afford the two dollar fare, but then, from the clothes he can have no understanding of money beyond a thing that produces toys.
Lights make the bus grumble on diesel, then whisper on hybrid batteries down the busway. The kid sits without speaking, aiming an idle, blank look from behind his sunglasses at the driver. It’s cloudy and raining, and the sunglass arms are a tarnished yellow. After a few minutes the kid saunters to the back.
The bus crosses Royal Brougham, leaves the overhead maze of overpasses for the gates and barricades that bar entrance to the tunnel. We pause before the security gate, signals red while a subway train approaches. It is quiet, urban, feeling of a mid-morning when I should be somewhere else. The tunnel’s mouth looms without looming, just another piece of the city.
The big driver’s penguin hand extends out over the farebox, holding a torn orange slip.
Big shoes clomp down the aisle. “Oh, for me?” He holds his hand out like someone holy in a painting. I don’t see him take it, but see him holding it close to his face as he walks back, staring open-mouthed, as if he is starving and it is a thing to eat.
He stops. “Hey, whyzit all wrinkled?”
“They all that way. They’s all wrinkled if you looked.” The driver does not turn back, pumping the brakes. The train is passing and the gate will lower. “I didn’t do it.”
I see the kid look up at her, blank and dull, then down at the slip of orange-bordered newsprint that will get him on all the buses he wants for the next two hours. He beams. The bus rolls into the hive of concrete piers and lights.
People are stopped and then go again. Little dramas are all around us all the time.