24 October 2006

Public Transportation Autumn

The bus driver waited for me today, at my regular stop. I was across the way counting change and rearranging my scarf. If you come every morning they start to expect you, and I do. I pay my fare, say good morning, and walk to the very back of the empty bus. I sit in the same corner, sideways beneath the heating vent and read or write all the way into the city.

I never rode school buses growing up and I was afraid of them. One morning when I was walking to the Post Office early, the bus stopped and the doors opened and the driver tried to make me get in. I was about eight, and a very diligent pen pal, and it was never too early to walk the hundred yards up to the town square and mail a letter. I froze on the side of the road as the exasperated driver looked at me like I was very stupid. “Get in!” He shouted, at last, clearly frustrated. From the back I heard my neighbor, Eli, calling, “Hey—hey—leave her alone!—that's the home-schooled kid!”

“Our driver is such an idiot,” he told me later, when we were playing in the woods.

For a little while though, no—for years actually—I planned when I would walk to the post office watching for the bus out of our front bay window, and if I forgot and saw the bus coming I would hide in the woods. Even when I was driving places during school hours with my mother, I would always duck out of sight in our station wagon when we passed a school bus—always, that moment on the curb would flash through my mind.

My first school bus ride was two spring breaks ago when Jules and Amy and Sarah and I were in Charleston, South Carolina to run The Cooper River Bridge Run 10k. The driver had pinned up diagrams of where all the kids sat and if the driver that morning was the same woman who usually drove the bus, she had a sweet and soothing disposition. It was about 50 degrees that morning, outside the rain was coming down in ice-cold spears and it was only 5:00 and still dark. We'd gotten hardly any sleep the night before the race because we'd stayed up making a lot of pancakes for ourselves while watching the news—since that was the night the Pope was dying. While we stood in the rain at the starting line wearing trash bags like ponchos, our friend Eva was over in Italy, in St. Peter's square, attending memorial vigils.

But that was my first school bus ride and we were in the South and it was too cold for April so our driver had the heat all the way up and some soft gospel music playing as we drove between crumbling stucco houses through neighborhoods with fenced in churches and irate billboards about hell.

The bus was nice. The seats were soft. At last I was warm and drying a little bit after the hurricane conditions of race registration. When we pulled up to the starting line I didn't want to get out and run the race.

When Johnny and I were little and my dad was still an engineering student, we would save all our bread heels and stale Kix or Cherrios from the bottom of the box and the burnt waffles that came out last and things we'd dropped on the floor during the week. And some weekdays we would go wait at the bus stop by our apartment complex, with the little blue stroller all folded up like an umbrella and mommy would take each of our hands and we'd climb up between the hissing doors when the bus stopped and go feed the ducks at the small green college pond.

The seats inside were blue and it was usually cold, even in the summer. I sat close to mommy and there were lots of strangers. We would feed the ducks and surprise daddy at the engineering building or at the library, and then mom would take us to the art section in the University store. I would follow her as she bought sea sponges and kneaded erasers and new paintbrushes or specific shades of water color...

When I was six we moved out of the apartments and there were no bus rides for years—only the threatened one that morning on the way to the Post Office, until this summer when I graduated and couldn't get a car. I work in the city now, most days of the week, and take the bus to get there. At first all the bus-people made me uncomfortable, but they don't anymore.

The people who ride the bus with me today are the students and the poor and the independent elderly—like the man with the little felt cap and a brown and gold houndstooth jacket who sits a few rows up with a polished cane and pleated wool trousers who is probably somebody's grandfather. And there are great-aunties on the bus, like the woman across from him, with curled white hair and funny old purses, carrying an umbrella when its not cloudy.

The heat blows and I keep to myself, reading or writing, speculating or praying, all the way to work.

I am always a little disappointed when we pull into the plaza and I have to walk to my office. If I haven't gotten all written out during the drive up, it is inevitable that I'll have to catch up with myself by hiding in the bathroom with my notebook when I first get to work.

In a little while, maybe, I'll have a car and this hour-long space will be lost for a season, in the name of saving time.

But even if I get a car soon and its a while before ride the bus again, I think someday I'll have an outrageous purse and some hideous shoes and wear marvelously audacious lipstick, when I am old.

No one will be able to stop me from getting to the city—umbrella in hand—ready for any unexpected weather.