Friday, December 5, 2014

Bus Persons

We were packed in tight on our bus trip the other morning.

I couldn't help but notice that the college boys smashed in around me were at the physical peak of their young lives. Giant-sized, carved from single blocks of cologne slathered meat. I came up to about sacrum height on most of them.

There were a few girls wedged into the mix as well. As the bus lurched and threw our bodies around, the one nearest me, a blond in a fur-lined brown coat and black leggings, kept finding herself snugly pressed against the likely rock solid abs of one of the guys. 

She didn't seem to know him, but with every collision, they smiled at each other and she laughingly apologized.

Suddenly, the bus swung wide in the opposite direction, sending the girl directly towards me.

You could see the calculations taking place in the second before impact: her eyes widening when she realized she was about to go all in against the body of the fat, sad looking little man behind her.

The girl went through a most fantastic contortionist act. She arched and strained and pressed her toes away from the fate that physics had intended to hand her. Not even the aura of her coat touched me.

There is no thrill in having the hair and shoulder of a nineteen-year-old girl crash into the side of my face, but to be rejected so thoroughly by an entire smarted a bit.

I felt a kinship with the unkempt mentally ill who set up little camp sites on their bus seats and are shunned by all the other passengers, even when the content of their erratic mumbling is occasionally legitimate and deserving to be heard. Perhaps a request for a particular bus to be held, or a complaint about the cold weather.

So what if the conversation happens in June? There's never a wrong time to bemoan the cold.

An irritating old chestnut spouted around here: don't like the weather in Michigan? Wait a minute and it will change.

The only permissible response to this is a "right, right", or a wry, knowing chuckle.

I mistimed a knowing chuckle several days ago.

The maintenance man was explaining our new door security system, which is essentially a rope you're supposed to tie around the handle if an active shooter comes marching down the hall, blowing holes in everything.

"I'm really bad at tying knots under pressure," I joked.

Except I wasn't joking. I suck at tying things, even given a generous time limit.

When I used to work in a book packing warehouse, the supervisor would show me how to bundle flattened boxes with twine, over and over again.

He made printouts of knot tying tips with step-by-step illustrated instructions and tried to talk me through them.

Eventually he gave up, not just on me, but on recycling that cardboard all together.

"Carry it out and throw it in the dumpster," he said, disgusted.

The warehouse shared space with a little commuter airport, meaning no trees, meaning nothing to dampen the wild winds that ravage southeast Michigan.

On the long walk to the garbage, I would watch little Piper Cubs climb lazily into the sky and think, Man, flight. How'd we do it?

Not really. My thoughts were much more substantive and melancholy, and therefore, quite boring.

The wind would come roaring and blow the boxes from my hands, scattering them across the parking lot and pinning them to nearby chain fences, where they hung in defiance of gravity. Flat, brown prison inmates, yearning to be free.

I felt like Rockbiter in the Neverending Story, unable to clutch his friends tight enough to save them from The Nothing.

Turning back, I could see my supervisor silhouetted in the open loading doors, arms crossed, shaking his head.

"You'd better find every one of those boxes!"

A few had blown by the dumpster of a neighboring business. I knew better then to leave them anywhere near there.

I had once tried to throw a pallet away on their trash pile because I was tired of carrying it and didn't want to walk all the way to ours.

A big guy with long black hair and cantaloupe shoulders stepped into view from the far side of the dumpster.

"What chu doing?" he asked.

He puffed out his body in a way that implied I was not to do whatever it was I had been thinking of doing.

After confrontations like that, I can never stop shaking. Sometimes I cry.

As I threw the pallet into our dumpster, I hoped for a loud, angry impact. Maybe the scary guy would hear it and feel relieved that things had not escalated to punching. Anyone who can make noises with wood and metal is probably pretty tough.

But the pallet landed gracefully on a tall bed of flattened cardboard and let out a delighted sigh.

The maintenance man tied the emergency knot for me, gave the door a yank, and pronounced it secure as Fort Knox.

I meant to time my knowing chuckle to come right after this statement, but I waited too long and let it out as he was already beginning a new sentence.

The overlapping sounds were indecipherable to either of us.

"Pardon?" he said, squinting.

I just shrugged.

It had already been kind of an off-day anyways.

Earlier, I had boarded a near empty bus and inexplicably chosen a seat right next to an elderly Chinese man.

It's always a fun game to watch people get on the bus and survey the seating landscape. You can see them scan the available spots and make snap judgements about each passenger, weighing what a ride next to them might consist of, how it may smell, or terrify.

As a socially anxious person, I prefer to have a buffer of about one bus length between me and any other living being. However, in these stupid commuter friendly times, that is almost never possible.

The desolate bus with its lone Chinese occupant should have been savored. Yet on I came, as if in a daze, and proceeded to skootch in next to him.

Sitting by a stranger on a crowded bus is an unfortunate necessity; sitting by one when the bus is almost empty is just creepy.

He seemed as surprised as I was that I had sat down, and he failed to shift his belongings to his lap in time. I pinned his umbrella to the seat with one of my buttocks.

Thinking it was his hand, I leapt up and apologized. He smiled politely, but as I relaxed back down, he shrunk within himself, as if willing his body to become more diminutive then it already was.

We have a new girl in our classroom, and socially, she is still pretty rough around the edges.

Having noticed that she likes to stare at people on the bus, especially people sitting right next to her, I told her to start bringing a book to read so her eyes would have somewhere appropriate to go.

She took the seat in front of me and my new Chinese friend. After about a minute, she turned her head around and began to stare at us both.

"Did you bring a book in your bag?" I asked.

"Yes, yes." She quickly pulled from her purse a small paperback copy of Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and began to study it upside down. I am not sure why our classroom has that book, or how she managed to find it wedged between Little Critter and Smile! Let's Read Faces, but there it was. The cover depicted Africans screaming and little huts burning in thick bright 70s colors.

I wondered what my seatmate might be thinking, but he appeared to be asleep.

How? I thought. How could he sleep at a time like this? We're sitting so close together. I know what the side of his knee feels like, pressed against the side of my knee. There's so much to think about. Do I stink to him? Does he to me?

I took a subtle whiff.

My student had lifted her eyes from her book and was watching me. 

"It's hard," she said. "It's hard riding the bus."

She says everything is hard. When I told her not to imitate the admittedly hilarious fitness running of a man at the gym, that was hard. When I explained to her that she could not pick her nose in the library, that was hard.

But when it came to the subject of riding the bus, her and I were in complete agreement: it was hard.

Thinking this, I wanted to take the hand of the man next to me and give it a little reassuring squeeze, but I figured he would not appreciate it.


  1. I thought I had veRy little if any bus experience but then I remembered riding a school bus as a child for maybe six years.

    1. Hi esb-sorry I am late on the comment responses. School bus riding had its own perils, but not as many unwell people as on the city bus

  2. Another gem and right on the money. Keep them coming!