I'm sitting at a red, at Cedar and 4th, eastbound. A sports car convertible flies across the intersection and slams to a halt just opposite me, blocking traffic. The driver, a man in his 40s, leans out of his open top and says to me:
"What day is it?"
"It's the 20th."
"That's right. Thanks."
And then he roars off, slamming to another stop when he reaches the end stop sign at of the block.
Not all of my 7 passengers are people I would invite over for dinner. We'll put it that way. I love the guys, don't get me wrong, but I only have enough groceries to go around. My place isn't that big. The transitory nature of the bus can be a virtue- you do have to learn how to hang out with everybody, but you only have to hang out with everybody for a set amount of time. On routes like the 12, if you've got someone being bothersome, it's not a huge issue, because they'll be gone in 10 minutes. Big deal. On the 7, however, they might be there for an hour. It's a long ride to Rainier Beach.
One such lady shows up periodically. Like many problem passengers, she's cordial to me and rude to the riders. American, dark-skinned, 50s, not too many teeth, perennially drunk, hair covered with a wrap-around shawl. Today she responded to my greeting in kind ("I'm doing excellent!"), and reminded me that she loved me, and that she "got me covered, anytime you need anythinganytimeyouneedfivethousanddollars I be there for you." I thank her and tell her that I might be calling her up for that five thousand. Beer, spilling out her jacket pocket, soiling her pants and dripping onto the floor. It flows back and forth, forming rivulets in those non-slip grooves on the Breda floor. Fleetingly, it crosses my mind that a biologist would have a field day with the floor of one of these beasts. The tactile residue of a million stories, evidence of happiness, sadness, anger, greed, love, sympathy, loss and all the rest.
She slurs, "I got it for you 'cause I love you bus driver, I got five thousand ten thousand whatever you need just call me twenty thousand. Don' gotta worry 'bout nothin.'"
"Now that's really generous of you."
"I got, I got,"
"I might have to take you up on that. Might have to give you a call."
"You need something twenty thousand," she yells bodily, getting excited. "I take care a you!"
Later she sits down near the front and argues with a few passengers. She's larger than life, a beast in the cage of unhappiness, or an embryo pushing out, clawing at the walls of its shell. Manic energy and no place to go. When the passenger next to her gets up to sit further away, she says, "yeah, walk away. Act like you scared a me. Retardo." She adds the label at the end as if it's a devastating and terrible revelation. You know, like revealing someone to be a communist sympathizer in the 50s.
I can't help but smile, and glancing in the mirror I see two young African girls watching me, watching the situation, with rapt attention. These are the days memories are made of. Our friend continues to badger the people around her, and they're skilled at this sort of thing- you get the impression they've been on the 7 before. They ease her away from conflict as many times as she steers back into it. Her open beer can somehow shifts, turning upside down in her jacket and guzzling out, recoloring her groin and shoes.
When she finally gets up to deboard ("lemme off the bus here, driver," she says to my relief), clear down at Orcas, I can feel the entirety of the bus paying attention. I remember the whites of the eyes of the two girls, watching and wondering what the driver will do, and what she'll do. But there is no explosive confrontation. She simply yells, "I got no bus transfer today baby," and I say "hey, I appreciate you telling me. Thanks for bein' honest."
"Oh Ah always be real wit' you, bus driver, you don't gotta worry 'bow me."
"Well thank you for stoppin' by."
"I always like your bus. I got no money," she adds, forgetting her prior offer of twenty thousand dollars. You wonder if she's trying to goad you, by bringing up her lack of fare again. I'm not falling for it.
"Hey, I appreciate you bein' honest. Le's put it on the tab, how's that sound."
"Aw thank you bus driver," she says, in a way that somehow just doesn't endear. Maybe it's the beer on her pants.
"Yeah, we'll put it on the tab." As she stands there listlessly, I 'tell her to leave-' that is, I say- "I see you next time!"
After she leaves, the tightrope slackens off, and you can feel a collective sigh of relief. I look in the mirror and then straight ahead, smiling to myself. That sort of releases the crowd. Laughter. I say, "hey, it's better than TV!"
"I know that's right," someone chimes in.
"Daytime TV, oh yeah."
Will I let her on in the future? I will. I have already, in fact. Why, one might ask. I have no set answer. It is simply my nature, to give them the benefit of the doubt. She has been civil on the bus before, and there's a chance she just might be again. It's not a very big chance, but it exists nonetheless. Looking through her eyes you remember: she used to be a little girl once. There's still a little bit of that somewhere inside her.
The two African girls step off at Graham, wearing New Balance tennis shoes under their traditional garb, both beaming out smiles of warmth and acceptance and what else, a gladness at the sight of positivity in the face of negative energy. Practically lighting up the whole neighborhood.