"You are just so happy," says a woman who's just come up from sitting in the back.
"You can tell?"
"Yes! I love how you singled out Recovery Cafe in your announcements."
"Oh, its a great place. Gotta get the word out." There's a small part of me that announces locations like that on the 70 so the street folk don't feel out of place on such a commuter-heavy route.
"I work there," she says.
"You're doing a great thing."
Here's Backwards Hat Guy, getting on downtown. He's intriguing; one of those people who's very quiet, but whom you sense as being very alive. For two months he got on without saying a word, with his dark slick shades and earbuds. Slightly shorter, thirties, and built. He'd sit in the front, curious; watching the proceedings, watching me.
I couldn't help but be curious about the man. One day I break the silence, asking him what he's listening to.
"Wow. Not what I was expecting."
"I was on it the other night."
He pulls down his shades for a moment. One blue eye has puffy black skin surrounding it, and a deep cut on the cheekbone. He'd been jumped by four men at the Century Square entrance to Westlake, and had fended them off on his own, with little difficulty. His secret: mixed martial arts, which he'd practiced for years. It had paid off handsomely in those heightened seconds.
"Wow," I said. "That is amazing. When somebody says four guys, I'm thinkin' no contest. Makin' me wanna go sign up for lessons!"
He spoke matter-of-factly, taking no pride in the matter, mentioning only that he had taken it up eons ago, as a child. I'm reminded of "The Great Todd," a night operator whose mellow, calm attitude completely hides the fact that he's an expert in Brazilian Jujitsu, and that he would have no trouble completely destroying anyone on his bus in seconds flat...but no, no need for such action. Todd simply presents himself as another courteous, quiet face. He's a gentleman.
Backwards Hat Guy and I would continue chatting intermittently in the weeks following that conversation. When quieter people speak, I hang onto every word; an oft-closed window is opening, and I feel privileged at the chance to peek through. Even if it's very far from his own style, he appreciates my strategy of being "loudly polite" with everyone. Both of us come from much tougher environments, and we thus share an affinity in the mellow realm of the 70, feeling out of place together. We talk about how late the 70 runs.
"One day, one of the first times I was waiting for you, and I was getting all pissed, bus was like twenty minutes late, twenty-five, and I was gonna cuss you out when you got here... but then you showed up and was so friendly with everyone, 'good afternoon,' 'how are you,' that I couldn't say nothin'!"
On today, the last day, as if by magic, the 70 route ran on time for the whole afternoon. This rarity had taken place only one other time in the entire four-month shake-up. As I pull up to Columbia, Backwards Hat is not here on this last day... but at the last minute, yes, there he is. An apparition, appearing instantly from around the corner.
"Hey!!" I'm excited. The last day of any route takes on shades not present in the other days; the passing seconds carry more value. You know you'll soon be leaving this crowd, and you savor the drifting time all the more. Where does it go? I become aware of the present as I wish I always was: outside the past, up against the pulsing now, doing my best to be, to live in this breathing second which I know will never take place again, this moment, already slipping irrevocably away... let me feel whole, during this lucky chance of getting to be here.
"Hey," he responds. "I saw you there at the bus stop and said, 'holy shit!'"
"I know! We're actually on time, for th' first time in my life!"
"You deserve a raise," a man says from further back.
We find ourselves discussing a recent story whereupon a man, very hard up for cash, finally had a check for $1600, cashed it, and set it down on a table at a hardware store to count it. He turned away from it for a moment, and when he returned the money was gone.
"Well, shoot. Can't turn away, man. I feel bad for the guy, but, uh,"
"I don't know, if I had $1600 I'd definitely wouldnt let it outta my sight."
"Exactly," I say. "Put that in the bank."
"'Cause that money's gonna go."
Backwards Hat lets loose a rare smile: "if my girlfriend found $1600 she'd come home with a buncha jewelry and handbags!"
"Those handbags cost money!"
"Oh, yeah. Coach?"
"Blow three hundred on on a those. I'm all about JANsport!"
We collapse. "Or those ten cent plastic grocery bags!"
"Yeah, man. Gets the job done!"
Intersections and lives pass us by, lines and lights winding down. It's evening.
"I still can't believe we're on time. Guys, what am I doing wrong here?"
He laughs and says after a pause, "well, when it was a diesel, it was always on time,"
"Yeah, cause you could get around stuff."
"But I remember back when I first started doing the route in 2008, it was a trolley, but it also ran on time. My question is, how do we get back to those glory days?"
"Dude. One time I was waiting for you after work, one a those days when all the 70s were super late, and you weren't coming for like thirty minutes, so I just started walking home-"
"And I got all the way from Columbia to Eighth and Stewart when I saw you going toward downtown!"
"What?! Wow. Wow! I'm glad you walked. Shoot. D'you often see me on the other side?"
"Yeah, this 70 is hilarious. It's something else."
"Are you excited for the 358?"
"Oh my goodness yes. I can't wait. I'm gonna miss this though," I add, feeling the need to be diplomatic.
"No you're not!" he laughs, seeing right through me. "This' the most boring route I've ever seen!"
"Haha! You read my mind!"
He got off where he always does. It was the most conversation we'd ever had in one sitting. He must've felt the fading time of the last day as I did. I waved big as I drove away, and he waved back as usual, smaller and smaller in my periphery, a shape in the mirror now. Maybe we'd see each other again, and maybe we wouldn't, but we were of a common condition, both alive on this same Earth, beings who had made contact and who would continue, shaped in some small way by our interaction.
I will miss the 70 after all.