It's 5:16 in the morning, and I'm in heaven. I have found an oasis. This 358 trip, which I've been doing all week, is unique. As people get on at Aurora Village, I realize that not only are they all stunningly, widely awake, but they all know each other's names, stories and lives. There are some commuter routes that resemble this- you've got the same set of ten, thirty, sixty people, who all take the same bus every morning of every day, year after year. They get to know each other. They smile at each other and ask after each other's well-being. It's a small-town village within the big city. I don't run into this very much because I try to avoid commuter routes. I like routes that have a different crowd each day- like the 358. And most of those commuter runs are very quiet and serve a limited range of people.
This particular 358, however, is different. It's the 358. These are commuters, and they all know each other, but not in the staid and perfunctory way that they do on the 250 or the 76; no, here they take on the zany spirit of the route.
They're happy in a heightened way, because of course it's this early, and here we all are hanging out together on Aurora Avenue, and it's kind of absurd, but we can laugh and smile about everything, as we have for the X years we've been here every morning. In other words, they're a group after my own heart. I pull in early to Aurora Village Transit Center, and then hop out of the driver's seat and go back and sit with them in the regular seats, and new passengers look at us somewhat confusedly as we joke around at full volume and bray with laughter at 5am. The atmosphere continues as we head down the street, building as more friends get on-
"Is that Bruce?" asks Nancy. "It's Bruce! Let's say hi to Bruce really loud! Hooray, Bruce is here!" He is welcomed on board as a conquering hero.
A man leans in at 130th to say hi to everyone, and then apologize that he can't ride today because he forgot his wallet for work. "Awww," they all say in unison. "Ned forgot his wallet!" explains a lady to friends further back who didn't hear. "Awww, Ned!"
Fred gets off the bus. Nancy says, "Look, Fred's getting off! Everyone, let's wave at Fred!" They make exaggerated smiling waves in unison at Fred as he walks into the night.
"Here we go," I say as I often do, warning people that the bus is moving. "Yaayyy! Here we gooo!" They say in response. The lights inside the bus are all on- both rows of overhead fluorescent lights, plus my dome light- and we're a bright bulb of uncontrollable happiness in the dark and twisted night of Aurora. A streetwalker passes by outside, peering in at this strange celebration.
"Now, you enjoy this ride," a motherly passenger says in a mock-stern voice to the person next to her. "Or else!"
"Is Jim coming today? I think that's Jim. That's his dark shadow against the dark wall up there."
"That sounds ominous," I say.
"Yeah. You know you've been riding the bus a long time when you can recognize people by their shadows in the middle of the night."
Some new passengers who aren't regularly in on all this get on, and they're welcomed in as if old friends. Different conversations grow and mingle. A middle-aged woman and her elderly mother are all smiles, reacting with baffled joy as they look around them, clearly enjoying the only place that's this loud at this time. My regular announcements are in just the right key for such an environment- "How about a stop at 130th," I say, announcing 130th. "I think that's a terrible idea," someone says. I burst out laughing. "We're getting close to 125th." "Noooo, don't dooo it!"
A woman my mother's age gets on and says in a fake serious voice that absolutely kills me: "I'm glad you were able to get up early two days in a row."
"I might even show up tomorrow!"
"Hey, I remember you from the 13!" Says a man with a bicycle to me. He stays somewhere toward the front. We yell at each other about cod fishing in Alaska.
I first had this group a month or so ago, for one day only. After that I discover that they begged their regular driver to get me back on the route. They love her, but they loved me as well, and are overjoyed when I show up for this entire week- their regular driver took a vacation- and many of them board already knowing my name. "It's Nathan!!!" "Nathan, we're SOO happy that you came to hang out with us!"
"I'll be here till Friday!"
"I know. We campaigned hard for that. We're not letting you go just yet!"
It's a dream, is what it is. They are the great walking contradiction of so many things- of the idea that going to work is sullen, that getting up that early is no fun, that taking the 358 is a drag, that commuters need to be silent... they handily defy the stereotype of the commuter as entitled or apathetic. They smile the smiles they have worn for years. Age makes a happy person beautiful. You see the lines around their eyes, the twinkle of their soul winking out at you, physical evidence of a life lived vivaciously, proof that their brand of mirth has a deep-seated quality to it, a staying power that's lasted across the turning years.
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