You've gotta take care of the people. I feel they like being acknowledged. When the bus is crammed full, I go over the top with announcements, because it keeps them updated. When you're back there stuck in between a bunch of strange hulking men with John Deere bandannas and attitudes, you want to know what's going on. I'll tell them that the back doors are about to close, or that this is a hard right turn coming up. Green light, hang on. Explaining about transfer points, reminding what route they're on, or just letting them know I'll give them the time they need to get off the bus. "Just holler of you need more time," I said once on a packed 4. "Hollaa," a girl sitting up front said, being funny in a soft voice. The 7 route is long, and if we're hilariously late I'll periodically thank them for their patience ("you guys are awesome") or remind them all to have a good weekend (very important!).
It was one such day on the 7, outbound, packed to the gills on a steamy summer afternoon. "You look hot," a passenger told me as she stepped off. It wasn't a compliment. Both of us were covered in sweat. There is so much glass and retained heat on a Breda; driving the 7 in a summer can be a calorie burning experience. Oh, how I love it. I don't know why, but I love it.
Pulling into Martin Luther King, I remind myself not to sigh as I see a wheelchair about the size of four grown men. Big guy, older with glasses and a low baseball cap, with clothing so soiled it seemed made more from dirt than any other material. Bags containing who knows what were strapped to every nook of his wheelchair. Bottles in black plastic. Litter falls off of him as he rolls around on the sidewalk, and a beer can in a small bag clatters off his form and onto the bus floor as he rides the lift up; I place it in the trash can but he wants it back. Maybe it has emotional significance.
We're packed, and he's taking some time getting situated- there's another wheelchair on the coach, who's leaning into the aisle, making it harder for him to rotate his massive, many-splendored form. People everywhere, sitting standing, with grocery bags, purse bags, paper bags, cloth bags, school bags, you name it bags. I have a regular- a smilin' buddy- who's onboard, and he watches me standing there, waiting for the wheelchair to get situated. He cracks a joke. I forget the exact comment, but it was teasingly directed at me and the amount of time we'd already spent sitting at this stop. "Oh, we're waitin cuz a you!" His white teeth shining. He knows it's not true, but knows I'm always in good spirits. Just wants to mess around a little. "Oh, I just like hangin out at this stop," I say, arms spread out. The bus laughs, and it's a warm laugh.
"We gotta get movin," a lady says. "Can't spend all day here." I can't tell if she's serious or not. I smile at her. "Are you givin me a hard time," I ask in a singsong voice. She laughs and says yes. "Alright," I say, finished with buckling him in, "ready to rock and roll." I swiftly dive back in my seat; the motions are automatic now, taking tenths of seconds- lift power off, gear in foward, four ways off, left turn signal, steering column down, hill holder on, left mirror check: go. Into the mic: "Let's get outta here! Back on the road, everyone. Thank you for waiting!" I put the mic down and yell out, with mock gravity, "lunch break is over!" My smiling friend smiles wider.
This wheelchair is a singer. "You can't hit that till you know to sing like that," he observes in a staccato baritone. "No joke," he says to no one in particular, reacting as if someone had offended him. "I can sing."
"I can see that," I say. "Not bad. Say it again, man."
"You listen. Don't you be laughin'."
"Him, right there." He gestures to a silent passenger.
"Oh he's not laughin'," I say, "he's smilin 'cause he likes it."
"No," a Latina woman says with a thick accent. "He likes it." She understands the need to work with this guy, meet him at his level, to keep things civil: "Keep singing," she says.
Me: "Yeah, don't stop now. Oh, yeah. Gimme more!"
With that he once again informs us that you can't hit that 'til you can sing like that. Thankfully he's not too loud. Passengers seem to understand the need, for safety reasons, to create a non-hostile environment for such fellows. I wonder if the average 7 passenger is by experience more "holistically savvy," as it were, and perhaps better prepared mentally for incidents or strange people. For example, in the fight described in a post below, none of the passengers seemed particularly surprised with what was happening. Had that been on the 238, I feel the bus would've had a collective heart attack.
I also want to get a quick word in about packed buses. Firstly, it's helpful to remember that there aren't any packed buses in Seattle. In a manner of speaking. Even if you have 120 people on a bus that only has 58 seats, which happens here frequently, that does not approach the sheer ludicrousness of full buses in certain Asian countries, whereupon boarding the bus, you relinquish the need to attempt to stay balanced in an upright position, because the people around you are squished so tightly against you that there is no way you could possibly fall. That's a packed bus, my friends.
Secondly, we all know that being in the back of a packed bus can be unpleasant and claustrophobic. Except when it's something else: fantastic. Bear with me. I remember being nestled somewhere in the back of a 72, where the group in the back was making music together, with guitar and human beatbox. Rastafarian lyrics wafted into the air, mixing in with cell phones and conversation and the world-weary tinge of weekday twilight.
Or yesterday, when you (okay, I) are on the back of the 41, standing by the back doors, riding the northbound express lanes home. As we cross the lower level of the ship canal bridge, you look out at the impossibly clear sky, admiring the receding gradient of yellow and blue; you note the beauty of figures silhouetted against that sky, and marvel at the cornucopia of lives on this bus. This could be the whole world, right here. So many wishes and memories and generations and promises, a bunch of unlike minds sharing a world together, united in the common need to get to Northgate and, uh, miss a bunch of connections (Okay, that last part was a joke. One day the Council will let Metro fix the 41 schedule).
You smile at the thought that in this room, for this moment, all classes, genders, and other status markers take a back seat to the equivalent plane; is there a more democratic space in society? Your mind wanders, seduced by politics, but returns to the easy present, the sky getting darker, people reading, people waiting for their girlfriends, people haggard, sad, frustrated, lonely, absorbed, neutral, happy, drifting, laughing. There is something about the totality of it all that you revel in, the all-inclusiveness of it all, the notion that things are perfect by virtue of the fact that they exist. It's out there, far away, and it's inside here too, in the collective core of our beings. Everybody wants to touch something.