This is a Public Bus

 

Nancy Massand 

 

© Copyright 2013 by Nancy Massand

2013 General Nonfiction Winner


Photo of the Q66 bus.

I used to think buses were for the Long Island types, and I used the term with disdain even though I didn’t technically live in what we called the City. I lived in Queens, right across the river. Twenty minutes from the City at half the rent, with the distinction of at least being in the boroughs. Buses were for those who considered themselves too good for the grit. Real New Yorkers took the subway.

My favorite ride was the 7 train, the one I took to work every day. It was an elevated train rattling one story above the little shops on Roosevelt Avenue, snaking through western Queens before plunging into the tunnel under the river and bulleting into Times Square. I always stood in the front of the first car, even when there were plenty of seats, pressed my face against the front window and watched the city opening up before me, a panorama of possibilities. I walked a mile and a half every morning to hop the subway rather than take the bus that stopped a block from my apartment.

On the way home from work I would body slam into the train with my fellow New Yorkers, held up on every side by strangers. It was a point of honor not to hold on to the hand rails, but to plant my feet firmly with knees soft, rocking with the motion of the train like a surfer on a big wave. In those times, the closest you got to anyone was probably the people on the trains. They fascinated me, those people on the trains—every face told a story. It was a writer’s paradise. Bus people, by contrast, were stolid and impassive, or so I thought until one wild ride on a Wednesday afternoon on the Q66 into Flushing.

I was running late after a long day and had a heavy backpack. As a teacher, I generally ended my day before rush hour and had a smooth commute with a seat. That day, though, an extended department meeting lasted until five o’clock and I had what felt like twenty pounds of English papers to grade. Faced with the choice of hauling my load to the corner and boarding a boring bus or sprinting eight blocks to the subway and standing up all the way home, I condescended to take the bus. Dipping my Metrocard, I faced a dreary populace with saggy faces and closed eyes. There were still a few empty seats on the aisle, and I swung into one as the bus rumbled down Northern Boulevard with its cargo of the dead. Two blocks later a crowd of kids from an after-school program piled in, and suddenly the atmosphere electrified. Passengers tensed visibly, eyes flew open, and knuckles whitened as they clutched their bags. The kids were ten or eleven years old, full of the excitement of the day, bursting with suppressed energy. Within a few minutes I knew all about who had a boyfriend, who was too ugly to ever get a boyfriend, and who wanted to dump her boyfriend.

“Did you see her with him? Ain’t gonna last, nuh-uh. That boy’s a player!

“He’s cute, though!”

“Yeah, cute like a pit bull…”

“What you got against pit bulls? I got a pit bull!”

“For a pet, yeah, but you don’t have to go out with them! They ugly!”

“Nuh-uh!”

“Uh-HUH!”

I learned who got in trouble and who should have gotten in trouble but didn’t get caught. The stories involved the usual pranks that I remembered from my own middle school days that were being perpetuated by the current generation, usually involving the bathrooms: drains stuffed with toilet paper and overflowing sinks, backpacks stuffed into trash bins, kids hiding in the stalls with feet raised to avoid detection, listening to all the juicy gossip. And of course, after a few minutes the topic turned to the gross personal habits of their teachers. A more despicable pack of tormenters and inquisitors could not be imagined. All the ghouls and bogeymen of countless generations had descended on this hapless institution to terrorize the children, much to their endless delight.

“And Miss Morgan, she think she so bad…she try to dress all nice like she something, you know, but that lady SMELLS! Don’t she ever take showers?”

“Nah, she just wash her face and she done. She don’t even brush her teeth! Like you know what she had for breakfast when she smile.”

“Ewwww!”

“And she got a thing for Mr. Roberts. Now that man is scary. He got that big mole with the hairs growing out of it, and he’s so mean.”

“Not as mean as Mr. McGarret! He caught me passing a note to Frankie and he read it to the whole class. I was like crying but he didn’t care. And now Frankie won’t talk to me. I hate him.”

“I thought you were like in love with him.”

“I am! I don’t hate Frankie; I hate McGarret, jerk! He looks like one of the Undead.” Their spine tingling and macabre accounts of the night-time exploits of Mr. McGarret rivaled those of Edgar Allen Poe. Pleasantly surprised, I stared straight ahead and feigned disinterest while I memorized every word and inflection. It’s a writers’ thing; good dialogue is rarely created. It’s more often transcribed.

I was so intent on sorting out the varied threads of their conversation that I almost missed the mumbled monologue of the lady in the seat beside me. I hadn’t looked at her when I first took my seat; it was kind of an unwritten code. If a person isn’t talking to you, you don’t look at her. She was talking now, though, although technically not to me, and I tried to eye her sideways without being too intrusive. The red lipstick was her most salient quality, but there was so much more. The teased, brassy hair, cleverly styled to almost hide her shiny head. Aqua blue shadow caked over thickly lined eyelids, scarlet rouge creating the illusion of cheekbones, a jiggling wattle of flesh that quivered from her chin to her neck. “Why can’t you keep your voices down? Who wants to listen to you? I have the right to enjoy my ride in peace and quiet! This is a public bus.”

They ignored her, of course, but she kept punctuating their exuberant exchanges with exasperated sighs and admonishments. Finally one of the boys cursed at her. He was a chubby little guy, with spiky hair and a face that screamed attitude even before he opened his mouth. The word roiled around in his gut, gaining venom and speed as his face churned with pent-up rage, then torpedoed out of his mouth and found its mark, stunning the lady momentarily. I watched her reaction in slow motion: her eyebrows arched to an impossible height, taking the rest of her face with them. Her eyes widened to the size of golf balls, her nostrils flared like a stallion’s and her mouth formed a capital O as she gasped in shock. In a fluid motion that belied her impressive girth, she rose from her seat. She was on a righteous mission. Head high, lips pursed, she sailed in queenly indignity toward the driver and leaned over his shoulder.

“Did you hear what that boy said to me? You can’t let him talk to me like that! I’m a grandmother! I have a right to peace and quiet! This is a public bus!”

The driver didn’t miss a beat. Without addressing her or even turning his head, he pulled over and braked to a full stop. It was a scheduled stop anyway, but the timing was perfect and achieved the desired effect. Tight, silent apprehension replaced the hilarity that had reigned only moments before. The driver turned in his seat and eyeballed the kids, singling out the offender. He wasn’t hard to spot, standing in the center aisle with clenched fists and glaring eyes. He could have been the bus driver forty years ago. The kid tried to stare him down, but years of driving punks and old ladies through the bowels of Queens had given the older man a mantle of authority that trumped the bravado in the back of the bus. “You, kid, come up here.”

The kid took his time, his eyes narrowed into mean little slits, his fists jammed into his pockets. He was scared to death, but he was not going to show it. He held his head high, chin jutting out in defiance, silently daring the man to start with him.

“You think you can curse out an old lady? What’s the matter with you?”

No answer.

The driver stood up and put his hands on his hips, towering over the boy. “How would you like it if I cursed out your mother? How about if I come up to your door and ring your bell and when your mother answers I just curse her out? You want me to do that, kid? Huh? Answer me!” He paused for a reply, but the kid remained speechless. “Oh, you’re real quiet all of a sudden without all your friends backing you up, aren’t you? Speak up, kid! Would you like it if I cursed out your mother?”

“No.” The kid was manfully holding back tears. The dam was about to burst, and his face was turning purple.

“You’re nothing but a little punk. Get off my bus!” The kid started back down the aisle, shoulders hunched, eyes down. “Where you going, kid? I said get off my bus!”

He stopped, suddenly finding his voice. “I’m getting my stuff!” His friends held their breaths as he shouldered his school bag and made his way back to the front. I could see the old lady’s self-satisfied smirk. One step down from the driver’s seat, the kid turned to deliver his parting shot. “I’m telling my mother!” His index finger jabbed each word as it was formed, a chubby exclamation point. “This is a public bus!”

Every preadolescent heart soared as he made his triumphant exit. He was a New Yorker, like the old lady, like the bus driver, like me. All so different, yet all riding the same bus. Some of us instigate, some irritate, some take the hits and remain standing, and some of us just take notes and enjoy the ride.


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