They have a familiar ease with each other, these two, getting on now at the Courthouse. I've seen this couple before. He's upper fifties, still with a few teeth left, tanned skin Native, with a fishing hat and bundles in both hands. She's upper forties, blue-eyed with a ready smile, clad in a formless black sweatshirt and pants. In one hand is a backpack/suitcase of sorts; in the other she carries a swelling industrial-sized black garbage bag.
"We're lookin' for 125th," he says as they take a seat by the front of my 358.
"I'm goin' there myself." Often I'm struck by how completely at ease I feel being myself around such souls.
"Well, that works out."
After a pause, while they talk amongst each other, I hear the man say, "hey. This bus driver's my friend. He's gonna kick you out if you don't watch it. Hey, bus driver? Can you kick her out?"
There is no malice or real feeling in his voice. It's obvious he's joking.
"Naw, we don't wanna do a thing like that!"
"But I thought you were my friend!"
"I'm too nice, is what my problem is. I'm just too nice!"
"Oh, you can kick her out! Look, driver, she's harassing me!"
She laughs. No harassment is taking place; he looks at her with affection before repeating his plea.
I respond with, "but it's the holidays, I can't kick anyone out during the holidays!"
"Oh, sure you can!"
"But would it be part of the giving spirit?"
Later on, as we pass through the Linden deviation, I hear him ask her, "where are we? Are we-?"
"This is 72nd," I say.
She says to him, "we're not even at 7-11 yet, sweetheart."
"I love you more than anything," he responds, looking at her. He says it again, and the woman smiles bashfully in response, looking at him with warm eyes. In his tone I hear truth, time, memory... they spread a light around them, a confidence of self both vivacious and gentle, in no way hindered by their sordid, ramshackle appearance. I'm reminded of Patience Escalier by Van Gogh, or Millet's Fiadeira.
I can hear her talking about me: "...drive all night."
"Oh no, not him," says the man. "He's got a date. He's goin' on a date later tonight."
Now, on this evening that happened to be true, but I hadn't said word one about it. I was flabbergasted. "How did you know that?"
"Oh, I know!" He says. Naturally everyone's listening now.
"That is amazing! I don't know how you did that. You know all about me!"
"Hey, I know these things. It's all out there, on the computers,"
"Figured out all my secret history?"
"Oh, yeah. Well, kids your age these days, everything on Facebook-"
"No way, maaaann!" The sentence is a gesture of supplication on my part, an attempt to let him know that in fact not all of us youngsters are so glued to the bright screens.
"No way. In fact, my date doesn't even have a Facebook account."
"She doesn't?!" It's his turn to be flabbergasted.
"Yeah, she doesn't go there. There's still some of us,"
"Well, you better watch out then, don't know what she's hiding on that secret Facebook account."
"Oh, dear! Is that how it is."
"Hey listen, can we open a window and throw my friend out?"
"Can we throw her out the window?" Of course he's joking, in his gravelly slur.
"Well you know, generally that type of thing is frowned upon."
"No, it's not. Lemme tell ya one time. I threw her backpack in the river, and the cops came over and asked me why. I said it was between the backpack or her, and I threw the backpack. Cops asked why, and I said go talk to her about it. When they came back they said, 'why didn't you throw her in?'"
"Nooo! They didn't say that!"
"That's what they said! They said that, said, 'why didn't you throw her in instead?'"
His ladyfriend is rolling her eyes under all this, saying, "are we there yet?"
"Hey, even the cops said it," he repeats to me.
"Well, the thing is, throwing people in rivers is usually bad manners." I love conversations like this.
"Well, I still threw the backpack."
"We'll ignore that. That's the lesser of two evils."
"How much time till, where are we?"
"This one's 90th, so we have,"
The woman finishes my sentence, saying, "we have just about thirty blocks, thirty-five blocks, yeah."
"But he's going to start doing increments of five." Referring to the stop pattern.
"You know everything about this route!" I say to him. "I should let you drive! I'll just come back and sit with you guys, take a break."
This is a sentence I say often in jest, and most every time passengers understand it as such. But our friend tonight is different. He's actually taking me seriously. In a tone of complete incredulity and excitement he hollers, "REALLY?"
"Well, I love my job too much, or else I'd totally let you."
"Oh, we'd be ALL over the road. I GUARANTEE we'd be all over the road. Oh, YEAH."
As long as I get to some backseat driving, I think to myself. "Let's do that next time."
Eventually we arrive at 125th, and I ask if they're sure they really want to leave. "I mean, we got some good stuff comin' up ahead, some real fun stuff lined up for ya..."
In a whisper he says, "oh, I'm 'bout to have some real fun!" Somehow I get the sense that he's talking about those strip motels on the left, and not Mekong Village or Leows Home Improvement.
"Oh, dear! Well, don't let me interfere!"
"It was good chattin' with ya!"
"Merry Christmas," I say to him. I make eye contact with the lady and wish her a good holiday as well. I want her to know that she is appreciated, and that there will be no forcible kicking of bodies out of windows or doors tonight. She returns my beaming smile with one of her own, no less joyous, lighting up the night.
Happy New Year, my wonderful readers. Thanks for your unwavering enthusiasm and support. Look for me on the road! Say hi!