White guy, sitting in the back, maybe 50 years old, scruffy. We're outbound at 5th and Jackson, 4:31pm. He's got a salt-n-pepper mullet and a bad attitude to boot, soiled skin, dead eyes and a quiet but ugly demeanor. Doesn't quite have a full deck of cards.
We're on the 7, and he's sitting in the back by himself, surrounded by brothers, and boy, is it ever the wrong route for him to start dropping the N-bomb. The guys sitting around him, dark-skinned Americans aged between 20 and 40, do not know each other, but together react with verbal disgust at his hateful taunts.
There's a storm brewing.
The bus is full; a hot, sweaty Friday afternoon with a lot of ons and offs at Jackson. I sense unpleasantness from the back, so I say "take it easy everyone, have a good day now." The nice thing about the Breda is you, the driver, can see everything going on inside the coach. The small seats, large mirrors, and spacious layout allow me to have a better understanding of what the vibe in my house is like at any given moment; but even so, it's difficult today. A chaotic bag of sitting and standing passengers, people chatting, getting on and off the bus– it's hard to ascertain what's going on in the back. Is anything going on?
The white mullet doesn't know when to stop his slander, and two brothers who didn't even know each other five minutes ago join in shoving him back in the his seat and firmly "lecturing–" that's a polite word for it– him on his manners, where he can go, and what's wrong with him.
"My friends in the back of the bus," I yell into the mic, saying something or other about taking it easy, taking it outside– but my voice has no traction now. You feel the ramping up of the moment, slow-burn anger accelerating, unable to stop or turn, inexorably raising in volume. Mullet tries to stand, incoherently talking, but now it's two, now three, no– five, five men pummeling him, repeatedly reducing his struggling form into the back corner of the bus.
People wondering what's going on in here.
The black men are not yelling, and nor does he– it is simply an animalistic ritual, a commotion of movement and bone, flexed knuckles and groans. A punch to the midsection is loud to us because we know what it means, how it must hurt; but in actuality it makes very little real noise. The soundscape is cluttered more with profanities, the rustle of clothing, other passengers talking, me talking to the coordinator.
Two brothers step off, angry, walking away from the situation. I assume everything's back to normal, and my concentration is focused on clearing the three deadspots on Jackson crossing Fifth avenue, splitting the lanes so I can get around the construction cones, looking for oncoming turning traffic, watching the guys on the sidewalk so they don't step in the roadway, negotiating the bumps in the road, remembering where the deadspots are so I can coast through them with enough momentum, keeping everything smooth for the passengers, listening to what the person at the front is saying, intermittently keeping the schedule in mind, keeping an eye on the passengers inside–
No, everything's not back to normal. Our Mullet Man– gentleman just isn't the right word here– is still on the bus, talking like he never got punched out in his life, let alone thirty seconds ago. The remaining brothers, surprised and disgusted, go to town on the fellow, and can I really blame them? Guy's practically begging for it, and doesn't change his tune. I clear the third and last deadspot there (it's parallel to the neon "open" sign with the picture of a boiling cup) and stop the coach, doors open. People stand up and mill around, some getting off, some not. No one's shocked or very afraid– there's an attitude of "oh hell, another fight on the 7." Somebody rolls his eyes. A woman pulls her groceries closer. A young mother steps outside, rocking her baby, waiting for it to blow over. An atmosphere of concern but not shock. I tell a very confused coordinator on the radio what's happening. "Are you eastbound or westbound?" he asks, as Mullet smashes into a grab bar.
They spend a little more time punching the guy, and then bodily remove him from the bus, in a profane but disciplined manner. Just some guys removing a rabblerouser, not unlike a bunch of upstanding King County Sherriffs. In fact, it's less a fight than an overly severe form of discipline being visited on Mullet.
Mullet, indefatigable and now outside the bus, smashes one of the bus windows, splintering it into a mosaic of shards in a half-second; he raises his hands and middle fingers in a defiant "fuck you" to me, my passengers, and my brothers in the back. "Alright, time to get outta here," I say, to everyone's agreement. Get back on the bus. Time to close those doors before the unsinkable slandering mullet slinks back on.
Several blocks later at 12th, I walk to the back not just to check out the broken window, but also to talk to the one remaining African-American man involved in the pummeling. He's a bigger guy, oldest of the bunch, with cornrows and an oversized sports jersey. He and a few people sitting around him watch me, evidently curious to my reaction. Am I going to ask him for details, tell him to get off the bus, lecture him on punching passengers, ask him to be nice, or what?
"Hey, man," I say. "I just want to say thank you for taking care of that dude. I couldn't have done that myself."
Fistpound, as the tension in the air immediately and completely evaporates.
"Man, I need a transfer for all that, bro." He looks slightly exhausted.
"Oh, you don't even have to ask, man! We got you covered. That's the least I could give you."
I inspect the damaged window and we chat some more. I thank him again; there may have been way, way too much apathetic enthusiasm involved, but he and the others performed essentially the same task a supervisor or police officer would have done, albeit far more quickly.
"And say thank you to your buddies for me."
"They not my buddies, that's just how we do it."
"That's a beautiful thing."
"We gotta help each other out," he smiles.
"Sometimes it takes a village!"
The laughter following is a smile of relief, shared by him, me, and the others watching. Teenage-looking bus driver with a tucked-in shirt and glasses, and a 250-pound hard-staring bouncer of a man, meeting at a shared and special place, building and arriving at an equal plane. The Future.
A new passenger gets on at Dearborn. "How are you?" he asks.
"Great," I say.
I mean it.