Ah, yes. It's the very start of the route. I love coming around the corner onto Jackson, making that huge turn off of 5th, and there's everybody, people getting off their haunches and walking toward the head of the zone, the ritual of it all, first stop on the route everyone wants. Some street guys pile on, familiar faces, getting out of the rain. Half of them are just going up the street to James. Other folks are in it for the long haul, going way out to the boonies with me. We roll slowly through the vast puddles of water. Fourth and Jackson is a lake. I see people walking to their trains or taxis, I see commuter buses going by with their well-behaved if sullen crowds, I see car drivers sitting in traffic- I could be doing those things, but there's really nowhere I'd rather be right now than at the wheel of this behemoth of a route. Why not go all out? There's a mad appeal, a craziness and warmth about being here, with these people, that gets me going.
"This is a 358," I say, trying to conceal my excitement.
"Oh yeah, baby." It's one of the James Street guys, older guy, sitting behind me.
"It's the beast!"
"That ain't no joke." He looks like B.B. King, fallen on hard times.
"I like it," I say after a pause. He concurs with time-worn enthusiasm. He gets it.
At Marion the Complaining Lady gets on. Her name is Kelsey, and she once called in a complaint on me because I pulled to the head of the zone (as I'm supposed to) and was friendly to passengers. I think she enjoys being unhappy. Sometimes you find people who take unhappy solace in rigidly clinging to rules, almost wilfully making their life difficult, in this world where there's an exception to every one. I know her name because today, there was a fellow hitting on her (politely) the whole time. She looked a little like a female version of Ozzy Osbourne with too much makeup, mixed with Goya's grotesque rendering of Maria Luisa in La Família de Carlos IV, but hey, that's just me. To each his own. I give her a big hello and go about my business, being just as friendly as I always am, and pulling to the head of the zone as I always do.
"You look way too young to be drivin' this bus," someone says at Union. I've never heard anyone say that before.
Once, doing an early morning run on a 13, a guy appeared out of the darkness at Virginia, with a face so harshly craggy you'd think he'd never smiled before. "You way too, you look way too young to be driving this," he said.
"I am," I replied with a serious and worried face.
"That's not funny, man," he said through his mask of hate. Bus drivers get extremely good at telling whether or not someone is mentally stable. This fine fellow wasn't.
"I agree, it's not funny at all." I spoke in a conspiratorial voice, like what I was saying was true and important. "We should probably do something about this. I shouldn't even be out here. Don't know how they let me on this thing."
I didn't break the illusion at all. He was freaking out. If at all possible, his face looked even angrier than it did when he boarded. He's the only fellow who's ever taken issue with my being too young to drive. Everyone else means well.
That guy's not there at Virginia today. Instead is a driver in uniform who runs up to my door- I don't recognize her, so she must be Ryerson Base- and she says, "I just wanna say you, you are the awesomest awesome bus driver ever, the most coolest..." I don't deserve such praise! I'm humbled and invigorated.
"Once again folks, this is a 358, I tell them, making the wide turn onto Battery. "The one and only. We're gonna drive out to Aurora Village tonight. Goin' all the way to Aurora Village."
"Man, you sure you wanna do that?"
"It's gonna be an epic adventure."
"I heard that!"
"We'll have gone through thick and thin by t'time it's over!"
Mercer Street, where we have another passenger with: "What are you, 16? They let you drive this bus?"
We stop at 46th, and most of the commuters clear out. A bright smile replaces them- "Oooh, hey, you're that one cool-ass bus driver!" It's a young guy, mid-20s, dressed in large black clothing, and you sense the excitement of his youthful energy, the sense of unbridled possibilities. He hasn't given up yet. He and his Caucasian girlfriend are staggering under the weight of their groceries. I help them get their cart up the stairs. They have some good-looking stuff in there. "We gotta get you home 'fore this ice cream melts," I say, involuntarily getting hungry. I'm trying to avoid sugar completely, but how do you say no to Dreyer's Slow Churned?
The passenger next to me and I talk about her weekend plans. Her boyfriend works at the Rusty Pelican in Edmonds, and she's spending the weekend over there. She's excited. When she leaves I talk to Jonathan (I think that's his name) and his friend Maggie. There's a warmth in their eyes- two young people, one working long hours, the other looking for a job, standing up front here inside a crammed bus on a rainy night, but possessing of an enthusiasm I deeply admire. Jonathan explains his strategy for keeping your socks dry when it's raining. There is something ineffable we share as we talk, and you see glimpses of it- in them, in the other people around us- an essence, a humanity that mysteriously has the energy to continue and prosper, regardless of the circumstances. This ability to touch the goodness in yourself. Maybe it's too sacred to talk about. Hope I can hang onto that across the years.
Northgate Way: "You got a license to drive this thing?"
"Hell no, just a learner's permit!"