Riding the Bus

Lance Larsen

Two or three times a week I save the planet. That is, I leave my Corolla garaged and board the Utah County 820—a nine-mile, twenty-one minute commute that sweeps me past an aging industrial park, a gravel pit, First Wok Café, tired subdivisions, a gas station that went belly up, and a cemetery green with the dead. It’s thankless work, saving the planet: so far no banquets or special citations in my honor and no one entering me in a sweepstakes drawing for a hybrid car. Besides, I have to share the glory with other commuters, most of them strangers. And on mornings when I catch the 7:10, standing room only, bodies packed together, the world sleepy and frenetic at the same time, the volume of commuters climbing on and stepping off makes me tired . . .

one dressed up for a job interview; one solving differential equations; one who waits tables; one cussing his SOB of a parole officer

Truth be told, I ride the bus mostly out of selfishness, not altruism: originally because we only had one car and lately because my university bus pass is free, gas is through the roof, and I can convert down time into items checked off my to-do list. But there are benefits if you look for them: the bus is a constantly fluctuating experiment in diversity and proxemics and who knows what loco thing will happen next. Still it isn’t an easy decision, leaving my car behind. Who wants to give up this chariot, this extension of the body, this two-ton bubble of engineering, this climatized home away from home that lets me eat my cream cheese bagel, sing along with Janis Joplin, and shave my bristly mug, all on the way to work?

one wearing a T-shirt over her swimsuit; one holding a hard hat; one with three sniffly kids on her way to a clinic

I would make a terrible Buddhist, always multitasking, always loading up each spare minute like a beast of burden, more labor, more efficiency—help me St. Jude of Lost Causes to get a few things done. On the bus, if I’m not napping or getting ready for class or reading Neruda, I’m catching up on independent study lessons, whatever it takes to avoid being trapped in a long and nondescript chapter called Old State Highway 89. I get paid $8.55 per lesson, and on a good one-way bus ride, I can dole out praise to Student J for her intuitive grasp of sprung rhythm in Hopkins, chide Student Q for missing Millay’s humor, and encourage student Z to lighten up a bit and read Frost with irony. Or to put it more bluntly, I get on, I get off, and an invisible Sugar Daddy slaps $25.65 in my palm. Of course, this never happens when I drive myself.

a very old one who stands up and says, I’ve never been bussed on the bus, then lays a kiss on the mouth of some other octogenarian to whom he is legally and lawfully and wrinkly etc. married

When a certain blind commuter climbs on—I’ll call her Naomi—I feel a stab of envy. Not because she attracts small kindnesses from strangers, but because she has a dog on the bus and I don’t—an even-tempered yellow Lab begging to be rumpled. Beautiful pooch, I want to say, come home with me and together we will leashless leap and unfettered run. Do I have an undiagnosed case of PTSD which fills me with a need for a therapy dog? Can one grow shell-shocked from reading too many mindless lessons? If I were driving to work, simmering for twenty minutes in my usual broth of NPR, I would never ask these questions or register a dog deficit of any sort.

one who points to the foothills, lifts his binoculars, and says, There, right there, above snow line a herd of eleven elk heading for the ridge

I’ve always loved the closing stanza of Yehuda Amichai’s “Statistics”: “Once I was waiting with my little son at the station / As an empty bus went by. My son said: / ‘Look, a bus full of empty people.’” Aren’t we all full of empty at least some of the time? For me, riding the bus brings this sensation closer to the surface, which is both off-putting and sobering. To what degree am I full of empty, and is there an antidote? More often than not, I’m the opposite of safety in numbers. I’m the rogue elk going it alone. Isolated in my car, imperious and uncompromising, my I cowtows to no one. On a bus, my hard edges soften, and my I starts breathing like a he or she, sometimes like a forbidden you.

one who hums; one who drums on the seat; one who plays ukelele like a wounded Tiny Tim

Luckily not everyone is tone deaf on the 820. We have David Sargeant, a jovial, laugh-at-himself composer and musical prodigy who regularly debuts his orchestral pieces internationally. He and I became fast friends after just a few bus rides. When he was in graduate school at University of Illinois, he used to drive a Torino or Oldsmobile, a giant boat of a car, in excellent shape except for a busted speedometer. David was too poor to fix it, but he was ingenius. By gauging the flow of traffic and listening to the whine of his engine, he figured out how fast he could go without breaking the law. He was once pulled over for doing 65 in a 55 zone. “Nope,” he said to the cop, “I was only doing 55. Better check your radar gun.” When the cop asked if he was in the habit of insulting officers or if this was a one-time infraction, David confessed the truth: his speedometer was broken but he never drove faster than a high G. “A high G?” the cop asked. “At 55 the hum of my engine hits a high G,” David explained, “and I have perfect pitch.” I don’t know whether it was the weirdness of David’s response or his chutzpah, but he got out of the ticket. In my fantasy version of the exchange, David nods at the cop, then breaks into an exaggerated rendition of “To dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe . . .” and the cop drops his jaw, listens for a few bars, then joins in.

one who paints her eyes blue; one with a woman’s body but the mind of a petulant eight-year-old; one who washes tables at McDonald’s; one possessing the talky confidence of Oprah; one whose solicitous father watches her from his Mercedes SUV until she safely boards

All of the above housed in one girl named Hannah. I know her name but she has asked and forgotten mine at least seven times. I trade pleasantries with her at the bus stop, then face a dilemma once I climb on: settle into the back of the bus with movie reviews in the New Yorker, or sit up front and get sucked into another Hannah harangue: What’s your favorite color? Is your wife pretty? Did you go swimming yesterday? I did. Do you have any My Little Ponies? Rainbow Dash is the best, but I lost her. My friend Tony he says I’m a big fat liar. Poo on him. He’s the liar. Sometimes I choose life and generosity and My Little Ponies and this big-hearted girl named Hannah, sometimes the David Denby movie reviews in the back of the bus.

one saying, Did you hear about the shooting spree at Trolley Square?; one asking, Do you think it could happen to us?; one saying, Was anyone hurt?

Someone is always hurt. So many stories on the bus, so many narratives about criss-crossed lives and trying to carry on after. First it was one woman in front of me, then two, then the second opening up to the first. I’ve written out what she said, as if it were a lineated poem, to help capture the way we sometimes unspool ourselves to a stranger: When I was a teenager in Georgia, break. A visiting church man said to me, break. He said, you will suffer your whole life at the hands of men, break. Will I be murdered? break. No, he said but you will suffer, break. He’s right about that, I have suffered, break. Men always trying to kill me, break. This one who got in the car he had a gun, break. A boyfriend that time not a husband, break. When I pulled into McDonald’s I jumped out of the car and ran, break. I climbed up this slope, grabbing at weeds and branches, break. He was behind me, break. With the door still open, break. Just as I reached the top of that hill, break. That’s when the bullet, break. Was supposed to reach me . . . I scribbled down her words the first place I could, in the final pages of a writing textbook, which pages instantly became the book’s most compelling chapter.

one who cries into her coat; one who guffaws like a laugh track

On a crowded bus, women almost always ask permission before taking the empty seat beside you. Men simply take, assuming that seat and the larger world belong to them.

one talking to interior angels

The girl waiting for the bus could have been twenty-two, she could have been eighteen, not that it matters. She was about to board when her goon boyfriend / stalker / lover ran up and barred her way. The bus driver knelt the bus for her and said, Hey, is there a problem here? Still the goon boyfriend wouldn’t budge—this he and she sizing each other up. Then the girl darted off, and goon turned to the bus and stared at us all, as if his eyes were gatling guns, then ambled off, smiling now, in the same sinister direction.

one in waders with a fishing pole who has spent all afternoon catching nothing

“Would you rather eat steel shavings of the Statue of Liberty or your enemy’s children?” “Would you prefer to kiss a Komodo dragon or live forever in the mantle of the earth?” These are questions my fourteen-year-old son has asked me. When I get a moment or two on the bus, I jot them down. “Would you rather be the president’s bodyguard or a rare Chinese custard eaten by your one true love?” Questions no one can answer but the sphinx of Giza or an incarnation of William Blake, questions symptomatic of the paradoxes that structure my hours each week as a commuter. Would I rather travel on a flying carpet alone or ride unbroken horses with strangers who tell a good story?

one speaking Slavic who reprimands the driver, the road, the rain streaking the windows, and the transfer ticket clutched in her hand.

My sympathies go out to anyone on a bus who is tangled up in a language not her own. I know something about this. What happens if you’re nineteen and you’ve just boarded a battered blue and white micro in San Bernardo, Chile, which is picking up speed, and you left your pack under the bench, and you can’t remember how to say Stop in Spanish? I hustled to the bus door, still open, and leaped. Surprising what a mere fifteen miles an hour will do to a 175-pound projectile. I landed on my feet, but immediately rolled twice like a halfback whose legs get cut from under him. The driver screeched to a halt, everyone screaming Le tiró, Le tiró (the bus threw him), I came up running, scooped up my pack, and jogged back to the bus, dirty and bruised and out of breath, everyone staring as if I were naked or had just slain a dragon.

one who makes friends with the driver; one who curls into a ball; one carrying everything she owns on her back

One morning I noticed an apple, shiny and redly round, seven rows in front of me, wedged between the wall and a woman’s boot heel. What kind of idiot can’t control her apples? A delectable-looking thing, streaked with gold, maybe a Fuji, but probably a Gala like the one in my lunch at my feet. I looked down: wait a minute, where was my apple? Does a thing cease to be yours when it falls from your sack and rolls down the aisle of a bus and lodges itself between the wall and a woman’s boot? I wanted my apple back. Then, after imagining the tiny pilgrimage and verbal contortions I’d have to take myself through before reaching awkwardly under a stranger’s seat while looking away from her skirt: well, I gave up and went back to my book. Soon enough, the bus pulled in and I reached down to secure what was left of my lunch—luckily turkey and cheese sandwiches don’t roll—when I noticed, a few inches away, an apple. Almost certainly a Gala. The Gala. My Gala. It had returned. Sure, it needed washing. And yes, its provenance was iffy now, but who was I to refuse a gift unbidden, rolled to me by the gods at the front of the bus? I picked it up.

one who makes fare in nickels and dimes

Remember Hannah—the girl who washes tables at McDonald’s and talks to everyone as if they are life-long friends? One very crowded day I opted to sit in the back and leave Hannah up front to buttonhole a stranger. And buttonhole him she did, her confessor a young guy she’d never met, her tale of woe involving a mean aunt and an iPod that went through the wash, disappointments that gripped her like a personality disorder. A few sentences in and she was hysterical in front of forty people. I stood up to worm my way through the throngs to comfort Hannah when I heard this young man’s voice, patient and soothing, like someone on a suicide help-line. “It’s OK, Hannah, really,” he said. “Things will turn out, they always do, and look what I have here.” He lifted his hand. “Peaches, Hannah, freshly picked, an entire bag. You can have them, Hannah.” She took them and ceased crying. What miraculous transformations: from stranger to sobbing intimate, from sobbing intimate to a woman with a bag of golden peaches. Like children to her. Every few minutes she looked down at her lap to make sure they were still there and still hers.

one reading Isaac Asimov; one thumbing Cosmopolitan and dreaming of the perfect body

The perfect body: oh, what demands we make on the world—and our own fantasies, for that matter. Meanwhile the woman in a wheel chair would be perfectly happy if only her legs worked. She’s Pakistani—Khalida, let’s call her—a pleasant but harried student in her early thirties whose hair is so lustrously black it glows blue. She has an uncanny ability to catch the bus a nanosecond before it pulls out. Some days, after collapsing on the bus, frazzled and feckless, I find myself thinking, “Please oh please let Khalida take the later bus . . .” I have nothing against her, friendly as she is, but the thought of taking an extra five minutes to settle her in is almost too much to bear. Loading is quite an ordeal, the regular stairs lifting and folding, then flipping down into a ramp, her wheel chair gliding on, then rising, as if by levitation, till she’s safely aboard and maneuvering her way up the aisle. This is when most people look away or greet her quickly, survivor’s guilt, embarrassed by their ruddy health and hidden deformities of spirit. Usually I let one of her friends play good Samaritan, but once in a while, I’ll tear myself away from Sudoku at the back of the bus and volunteer my services, flipping up one of the bus seats to accommodate her wheel chair, setting the wheels, belting her in so she can’t roll. She says thank you, and I pass as almost human, but feel like a selfish bastard for having to think my way towards generosity rather than instinctively doing.

one rearranging clouds; one drawing unicorns; one with a balloon tied to her wrist

If having to wait for the bus to pull out irritates me, not having someone to pick me up at the other end crazies me. With four drivers at our house but only two cars, with buses that run erratically, with piano lessons compounded by soccer practices and my son’s new part-time job, I attain crazy every few days. And all my misgivings about taking the bus in the first place multiply, Hydra-like, till I’m muttering at the sky: If she really loved me, she’d . . . Clearly I know where I stand in this household . . . You’re not even man enough to have your own car. . . And so on. To compound problems, it seems that the days when I find myself stranded correspond exactly to the days I’ve forgotten my cell. On such afternoons, I have three choices: wait, walk, or brave the insipid good cheer and floral waft of the corner beauty salon to borrow the phone. And if no one answers, I end up walking anyway, rarely by the main road because a neighbor might notice me, and I’d have to watch him make an illegal U-turn in his late-model Audi, roll down the window, and ask me, poor schmuck of an English professor, if I need a lift. What I say: “You bet, thank you.” What I want to say: “Of course I could use a lift, which is why you can stuff your kindness and solicitude and heated leather seats and just keep driving.”

one who knits like a Fate—or a hypnotist

Public transportation has a way of bringing out the narcoleptic in me. Not a major problem in the morning, because I’m perkier, but traveling home, at 6:15 pm, on a balmy day, in a special luxury touring bus, all plush and purring smoothness, I’m prone to drop into a delicious coma. But how to surface in time? I once woke to a stranger shaking my shoulder, “Hey, Lance, hey, isn’t this your stop?” I groggily gathered myself up and stumbled off—what kindness, what timing, what a flat character I am, what roundness in a stranger—but how, how did he know my name?

one with a Santa Claus beard; one nursing an infant

I love taking the bus in midmorning, especially in summer. There’s a sleepiness to the drive, no one harried, plenty of room to spread out in, sunny outside, each person a country no one has visited in a long time. On such a day when a young man starts talking up whoever is in the vicinity, you take notice. He was maybe twenty-four, dark haired, with a fireman’s mustache, and a gregariousness that made me wonder whether maybe he had overdone it with the cough syrup. He slowly worked his way towards the front of the bus, sometimes sitting, sometimes standing, then at a red light, when he was opposite the door, he started waving his hands and yelling. “Hey, look over here,” he said. Then to us: “Hey, everyone, that’s my dad.” He was pointing to the grizzled guy in the cab, who looked like he survived on truck stop pastries and crankcase oil. “Hey, can you open the door?” the boy asked the bus driver. “Can’t do it,” said the driver. “It’s against the law at an intersection.” Finally he got his dad’s attention, and the two of them waved back and forth between glass, then dad gave son a thumb’s up. “Yup, that’s my old man,” the boy she said. “Been driving a cement truck for thirty years.” And he looked back to see if any of us were listening. We were, both awkwardly and jealously. And the light turned, and father and son continued to wave like lunatics, like they would never see each other again in this life, and I tried to remember when in the last decade I had waved like a lunatic at anyone, let alone my dad.

one clipping her fingernails; one playing Minesweeper; one carrying all the ill smells of a lifetime in one set of clothes

Not long ago I saw an earthy but spirited performance of Waiting for Godot in the West End, starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. As much as I liked it, I wondered what would it be like staged on a city bus bestrewn with trash, Estragon and Vladimir wandering the aisles, playing off sorry commuters like me. Maybe you give the audience bit parts, maybe you change buses for each act, maybe you spill into a Dunkin’ Donuts at intermission, then climb back on the bus. Maybe I’m Estragon now, maybe the guy in the hard hat is Vladimir, maybe everyone else is Godot, who shows up by not showing up. Maybe you stage these performances with no warning or schedule, a happening of sorts, and blur the line further between the absurdity of plays and the absurdity of riding a bus.

one with notes in green ink written on her arm; one you swear you saw on Wheel of Fortune

Bus stories beget bus stories, we rehearse ourselves till we can’t tell if we’re performing or watching, private turns public, and so on. I’m commuting to work but remembering a couple of winters ago when my wife and I directed a study abroad program in Madrid. At the tail end of a four-day coach tour of Andalusia, perhaps twenty minutes from home, our students began to sing, quietly at first, then louder, a kind of spontaneous combustion in melody, followed by ripples of laughter, then gossipy whispers, which finally reached us up front: Alyssa, who needed to pee something fierce, didn’t know if she could wait for an emergency run to a café, so she took matters into her own hands. She commandeered the back bank of seats, crouched on the floor, and said, “Sing girls, sing.” And when they did, she wrapped herself in that communal white noise and scree of privacy and urinated into a Ziploc bag. When she tells tales on herself, is this story part of her regular repertoire? Or does she first have to be outed? And in the various tellings, does Alyssa wear the story in shame or in bravery?

one something like me; one (you hope) not remotely like you

A few days before Christmas after a long day of reading final exams and semester portfolios, I nodded off on my way home. How soothing it was: work behind me, a special family dinner with my family and in-laws. I woke twenty minutes past my stop on a piece of road I didn’t recognize, and I didn’t have my cell. After signaling for the bus to pull over, I stumbled off into the cold and made my way to the only lit building in the area. A school, a corporate office of some sort? I drew closer, no, a hospital, with the emergency room as the closest entrance. At the front desk, a receptionist looked me over. “Insurance card,” she said, more of a demand than a request. What was I to her—another stroke, a case of food poisoning, someone with a foreign object imbedded in the soft flesh of his earthly tabernacle? For a moment longer I could be almost any mishap, a gunshot victim, blood pooling in my shoes. “May I use your phone?” I said. She stared. The only thing wrong with me was nothing was wrong.

one who forgot his gloves; one who walks back and forth to make the bus come faster; one happy to be free of the snapped bones and stopped hearts of ER; one who rubs his ears and recites Emily Dickinson into the great Nada; one who will be an hour late to dinner but a week more grateful; one who looks around at others to know who he is; one ready to confess his life to the next driver; one ready to wave off the world then slip into a warm bed with his beloved; one who says, Bring on the damned snow; one who would give twenty dollars to warm his hands.


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