The first person got on long before the ride would become unpleasant, well before they knew they'd be the locus point around which it would all revolve.
She was tired already, even before starting the shift she was on her way to– graveyard night-owl at a hotel downtown. She was too young to be called old and just barely too aged to still be young; call it youthful middle age, the time when you learn that personality, not looks, will be your defining attribute from here on out. She had on a purple T-shirt and sweatpants, casual, dressing down on her way to work, the way you need to on the 7. She'd gotten on way back at the bottom of the Valley: long commute.
Thirty minutes later the door opens on an entirely unrelated life. Another denizen of the Valley steps in, a face I've seen more than a few times over the years. He's holding a thin bamboo pole about my height.
"Operator of the year!" he exclaims, upon seeing me.
"Aw, I'm not that good!"
He says something about the bamboo. Maybe it's a fishing rod. He's got the outfit for it– salt-n-pepper beard, overalls and sturdy boots. He's middle aged as well, and like the purple-clad commuter also African-American. He walks past her without incident, sitting down by himself in the middle of the bus.
So far, so great. But we're missing the crucial ingredient.
Here comes Melanie, staggering on for the first time in months. She's an unfailing sweetheart, whose cheery and generous attitude, incredibly, remains precisely the same no matter how drunk she gets.
"Long time!!" I say. She grins in return.
Melanie's not the crucial ingredient, though. The crucial ingredient is the man boarding behind her, a companion of hers similarly inebriated nature– but not so similar in temperament.
Roland, as Melanie calls him, is an unhappy drunk. Not mean; just unhappy. My bigger concern is if he has the motor skills to stand and sit. He ignores my hello and stumbles over to Purple Shirt. He staggers slightly too close to her for comfort, and starts slurring.
"Can I sit next to you," he garbles. Purple Shirt glares up at his disheveled, maladorous form, his face beaten scarlet red from decades of hard drinking. She doesn't want to be bothered. She says, "no." Roland starts yelling about it. "Why're you such a bitch? I just wanna sit!"
Bamboo Fishing Rod, observing from the middle, reacts with righteous indignation. He expects better from Roland, and accosts him with an authoritative southern accent. "Ay! Come on, stop that now. It's women and children up in here, you cain't talk like that."
Roland and Melanie are Native American. The racial dichotomy goes unspoken, but noticed; Bamboo, perhaps feeling an unspoken need to stick up for his compatriots, and Roland, feeling outnumbered, a hint of two against one, lines drawn in the sand and not in his favor. Melanie's staying out of this. Roland puffs his chest and says simply, "I'm from Alaska."
"What that got to do with bein' polite? I would beat your ass but I got God on my side. I don't do that."
Mumbling: "I punk your sister."
"What choo say?" Bamboo's stepping forward, and fast. "You piss on my sister?"
"What? Yeah, that's right."
"You just say one mo' word and I put the holy spirit on the bookshelf and ask fuh forgiveness later!"
I'm letting it play. I don't want to escalate things. It's not a safety issue yet. It's just hot air. I know Bamboo guy. I can talk to him if I need to. And I know Melanie, so I figure I can get to Roland if it becomes necessary. Soon I'll ask them to keep it down. Even if they start fighting, this isn't going to involve me. I feel safe.
Mr. Bamboo, meanwhile, is letting himself get more and more worked up. No turning the other cheek for this fellow. He's less Prince of Peace and more Moses with the tablets. "I ain't no violent man," he growls, in the tone only violent men use. "But you ain't right in the head right now. You should be kicked off, bruh. This bus driver need to do his job."
At which point I say into the mic, almost yell into the mic, with confidence: "Guys, I've already called the cops. They're gonna meet us downtown. Meanwhile let's try to stay one big happy family in here. Let's keep it together for ten minutes, I'm askin' you guys please, as a special favor to all these other nice people. Thank you."
All street fights seem to be about inane trivialities, but they're actually always about the same thing. On the sidewalk and the roadway, the platform and bus aisle, it isn't money that makes the world go around.
Which means you need to respect people, especially the ones whom you think deserve it the least. Because they're not getting it, and they feel that, and it makes them behave poorly.
Roland keeps yelling, and I can't get him to hear me. The lady in purple is long forgotten; she's retreated to another seat in the back, as the boys continue puffing their chests.
"Melanie," I say.
"Melanie, can I ask you a favor?"
"Sure, honey. What is it?" Her sweet, fatigued demeanor is hilariously out of place right now.
"Can you get your friend to stop yelling at people?"
"Roland, hey," she says. "Come on, let's siddown."
"Roland," I call out, finally able to grab his attention.
"Listen man, we gotta keep it low key in here, okay? I know that other guy's bothering you but we just got to leave it where it is and forget about all that, alright? We're just gonna leave it in the past and– nope, nope, nope– we ain't even gonna look back there, we're gonna look forward. He just trying to tempt you, we're moving past all that right now. It ain't no big thing. We can't be– Roland, hey! Not like that, bro, we're gonna, we can't be cussin' people out on the bus, that's not cool. No matter what he's saying to you, we're just gonna look forward. Moving past all that. I know it's not easy. I appreciate you workin' with me. Thank you, for makin' the effort."
Ah, silence. How lovely. We never ended up needing the police after all. If you treat people like they have the capacity to be better, like you have faith in their qualities, rather than coming down hard... you can make magic happen.