Sunday, May 22, 2016

BUS STORY # 498 (Jeffrey, Part Four)

Photo by Busboy

You can read Parts One, Two and Three here, here and here.

Friday morning, I sent Jeffrey* an email: “Testing...”

Sunday, having heard nothing back, I resent the email.

I saw him the following Wednesday. Our greeting was unusually subdued. I told him I had emailed. He said he had not gotten it. I verified the address. He said he would look again and send me an email if he found nothing.

And then he apologized and said he was distracted. His prostate cancer had taken a new direction: he was now being worked up for bladder cancer.

He was frustrated by his experience with the UNMH health care system. Whether it was an appointment or a referral or a diagnostic test, nothing could be scheduled for less than a month out.

He was seeing clinicians who were burnt out by an unending procession of patients who never seemed to understand their diseases and their processes, or who were non-compliant, or who simply failed to keep their appointments with any regularity, but did expect to be cured when they did show up, or who were drug-seekers.

Surely they recognized you are not in any of those discouraging categories, I replied.

Yes, he acknowledged, but whatever good intentions they may have had during his visit were quickly buried under the deadening routine of the futile practice of medicine.

He spoke of not being ready to give up this life, of not having a family of his own, just his mother and a few close friends. Very few. “I am a solitary.” I wondered if his “neglected girlfriend” was still in the picture. I remembered how, when we had briefly discussed getting together and had exchanged emails, he had said he preferred the “epistolary form” himself.

I told him I understood his distraction, and that I was sorry for all he was going through.

He rallied himself, grasped my hand with both of his, and said, “It’s a good life. It’s a beautiful life. Take care.” And so we went on our ways.

I missed my regular bus that evening.

Between that autumn afternoon and Christmas, we exchanged a few emails. His were somewhat cryptic, and I sensed his attention was elsewhere. I repeated my desire to meet for coffee whenever he wished, and left the invitation at that.

I did not hear from him again.

It is possible he’s died by now. I think about that, and I think about whether I should have been more persistent. I tell myself it was better not to intrude, that he had made it clear he was, in his words, “a solitary,” that this was serious business he was dealing with, that I was an email away. I tell myself I had no business putting my curiosity or a good story into this mix. And all of that is as true as how good it sounds.

But I also know the relief I felt... feel... at not having to be involved any deeper in the dying of this stranger.

Somehow, that relief is no relief at all.


*Real name changed.



All this happened over four years ago. Last summer, I was riding the Montgomery bus when I saw Jeffrey board. He looked just the way I remembered him, clothes and all. He sat down in a seat across the aisle and one row behind me. I turned and looked. He sensed someone staring, looked at me, broke into a big grin, then got up and sat down beside me.

I think he was genuinely happy to see me. I asked him how he was doing, and he said he was doing very well, “one day at a time.” He didn’t offer any particulars, and I didn’t ask. He was now involved in a men’s cancer support group, and happy to be so. I asked him how he came to be on the Montgomery bus (I didn’t know he was a rider until now), and he explained he was returning home from a dental appointment.

He asked how I was doing, and I told him I was now retired and thoroughly enjoying myself. That pleased him.

My stop came before his. I wished him well, and asked if he still had my email address. He did, he did. I told him retirement made me much more available these days. I don’t remember exactly how he handled this, just that he was gracefully noncommittal. And that was that.

Whenever I think of him now, I think of him as alive. It feels much better.

This remarkable photo was taken by former ABQ RIDE driver Peter Reynolds. It is downloaded from the photos section of the Facebook page for ABQ RIDE.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

BUS STORY # 497 (Jeffrey, Part Three)

The UNM Duck Pond. Downloaded from The Pack.

You can read Parts One and Two here and here.

I trust you already understand from my telling this story that I had decided to look for some way to meet with Jeffrey* off-campus.

I imagined an exchange of email addresses at our next encounter, with a commitment to work out a meeting some weekend at a coffee shop convenient to both of us.

And you probably suspect what I already knew not all that deeply in my heart: it was curiosity as much as concern that drove my decision.

Who was this guy? Inquiring minds want to know...

It wasn’t until the end of October that I had another option to take the UNM campus route to Lomas.  I was feeling some urgency because I was being transferred to another office in another part of town in a couple of weeks.  My days of crossing the UNM campus to catch the 50 were numbered.

The 50 was late.  We had a new driver, and he was learning the route.  By the time we got to UNM, I was already close to 10 minutes later than normal.

 Sure enough, we did not cross paths that day.

Tuesday, the bus and I were back on schedule. But Jeffrey was not.

I began to wonder if there were only certain days he took this walk. Maybe it was only on Mondays and Wednesdays and Fridays, and that’s why I didn’t see him Tuesday.

Which made me realize how unobservant I’d been the last five months.

Now I began to think. I had been seeing him at the same time on a somewhat regular basis from roughly May through October. From a teacher’s or student’s perspective, that would cover the end of a spring semester, two summer semesters, and much of the fall semester. How likely was it either would have the same schedule all four semesters?

I thought about the time I’d seen him crossing Lomas, coming from -- I assumed -- the University Hospital. Maybe he was an outpatient coming from regularly scheduled treatments. Maybe he was a health care worker or some other type of hospital employee. Maybe he was both.

Wednesday I drove -- the demands of my work schedule for the day. That left me twice-disappointed. I have come to feel no joy whenever I have to use the car for work. And now, I was missing an opportunity to run into Jeffrey.

Thursday was looking like another strikeout until I was close to the Duck Pond. I caught site of him coming from the left -- a different direction -- and felt the combined emotions of elation and apprehension. I wanted to know more and I didn’t know what I might be getting myself into by finding out.

This time, he was wearing light khaki pants, a white collarless shirt buttoned to the neck, and a sports coat of some gray-blue weave. It made him look clerical. The courier pouch was gone. He was carrying instead a black, zippered planner.

“Jeffrey,” I called, and stopped.

He called out my name, and walked over to me. We shook hands.

I told him our last encounter had made me want to know more of his story, and that wasn’t going to happen on these chance encounters, especially since I was not going to be coming this way after next week.

He agreed the campus encounters were not the place to do this. He was on his way home himself and had a hungry cat and a neglected girlfriend to take care of.

I asked if we could exchange emails, and said I hoped we could get together for coffee sometime and exchange our stories. He seemed delighted, and gave me his email address along with this provocative comment: “I prefer the epistolary form myself. I’m rather old-fashioned in that way.” The exchange made, we shook hands again, and went our separate ways.


*Real name changed.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

BUS STORY # 496 (Jeffrey, Part Two)

Downloaded from Loner Wolf.

You can read Part One here.

I think it was in September, some three or four months after our first encounter on the campus, before we exchanged words again. He reached out as if to shake hands. I reciprocated. He took my hand in both of his and, looking me in the eyes, said, “Safe travel, my friend.” And released my hand.

I was taken by surprise, but managed something like “Thank you, same to you.”

And off we went on our separate ways.

He had always been pleasant on our encounters, but now I got to wondering if an outwardly-projected inner happiness was something more than conventional manners. I saw something in his eyes, but I also heard something -- a warmness, a gentleness -- in his voice.

I also heard in his voice a foreign accent. Despite the earlier “namaste” gesture, I had already ruled out India because his complexion did not match any of the skin tones I’d come to identify as “Indian.” Now, his accent did the same. Other than that he was not Indian, however, I was clueless. My best guess was “the movies.” All I needed was the title, actor, and role...

After this particular encounter, he would sometimes say something in passing -- “Safe travel” or “Take care” -- or we would simply smile at one another.

One afternoon in late October, when neither of us was wearing our hats, he pulled up in front of me, wished me good health, and hoped I was “taking good care of [my] prostate.”

What does one say to a greeting like this?

After recovering my senses, I said I was doing my best, then added it sounded like he was having trouble with his.

He was. Cancer. He’d gone through treatments, but had been told there was probably metastasis. He was going through periodic tests to see if it had migrated, and to where.

This last explanation is my summary of what he said.

In fact, his description was a masterpiece of elocution that managed to convey the facts without saying “cancer” or “metastasis” or even “tests.” Even the way he described metastasis conjured up the image of a malignant entity boarding a bus and riding around the city until it found a stop to its liking.

I asked him how he was dealing with the uncertainty. I remember he prefaced his answer with “Given my Church of England upbringing and my Augustinian framework...”

He explained he had moved beyond those moral and philosophical underpinnings without abandoning them. And now, listening again to his declamation, I was thinking “British education... The King James and Book of Common Prayer... Shakespeare... Dickens... All those Victorian essayists...” All this was in his vocabulary and his cadence, intermingled with what I was now guessing might be a black South African accent.

When he was finished, he had basically come to where most of us do in circumstances like his: he was taking it one day at a time. More, he was optimistic, whatever the outcome.

I confess I was also thinking I would probably miss my bus because of this conversation.

It turned out that I did not -- by about two minutes is all. But I found myself wondering why in the world would I worry about this when I was in the middle of an interesting story -- two interesting stories, his and him -- and when I knew perfectly well the next bus would be there in 20 minutes.

And I think the answer is: fear of getting involved.

In the maybe five minutes this discussion took place, I had already begun working out how we might get together for coffee, and when, and not just to hear all his story, but to find out what kind of support system he had here, which included the possibility that he had no family here, and who knew about friends... Which left me thinking about the way my own Roman Catholic upbringing and Thomistic framework would be driving me far beyond telling the story.

Before we went our separate ways, when we were shaking hands goodbye, he told me his name: Jeffrey.* And I told him mine.

It would be a few days before I would be taking the bus home from work again, and it gave me time to think about the next step.


*Real name changed.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

BUS STORY # 495 (Jeffrey, Part One)

Downloaded from Dick's Sporting Goods.

It was early on, when all we were doing was acknowledging one another with a grin when we passed each other crossing the UNM campus, that I got the sense there would be a story here.

I wasn’t sure it could be called a bus story. For one thing, he is not (to the best of my knowledge) a rider. For another, the encounters were not on the bus or at a bus stop. Whenever I opted to catch the 11 by walking across campus to Lomas (as opposed to walking over to The Frontier to catch the Rapid), we would, more often than not, it seems, cross paths.

I decided it is a bus story. For one thing, I was still between buses and on my way home. For another, there would have been no encounters if I hadn’t been taking the bus. But mostly, it’s a story I’d like to tell.

The first time we crossed paths was probably in late spring or early summer. I remember he was wearing white pants and a white shirt – or rather, off-white, and in a style that registered as “equatorial colonial.” I’d like to tell you he was wearing sandals or some kind of woven shoe, and he may well have been, but I don’t recall.

Brown-skinned, with a close-cropped, curly, black and gray beard. Rimless eyeglasses. Later, I would note the brown leather courier bag which made me think he might be a graduate student or a professor, and the silver cuff bracelet he wore on his right wrist.

But what made the first encounter memorable was this: We were both wearing the same make and style and color hat, and we both recognized our hat on the head of the other.

We grinned at each other as we passed by.

I remember this happening somewhere between the fountain and the Duck Pond. In any case, I took it for one of those random, one-time, what-are-the-odds encounters in which we momentarily shared in the fellowship of the hat.

When I saw him a few days later, in almost the same place, we were already grinning at each other from afar. I began to look for him from that point on whenever I walked across the campus.

Over time, our encounters ranged across the campus so that it was obvious we were walking the same exact path through the campus, in opposite directions. This route is neither a straight line nor a line without a number of options that would still get each of us to where we were going. Like the hat, it was yet another what-are-the-odds coincidence. Then one afternoon, I was early enough to catch him crossing Lomas from University Hospital. Possibilities other than UNM professor or graduate student now loomed.

I was the first to speak.

It was during monsoon season. The sky had darkened, the wind was up, and rain had begun to spatter the walkway. The hat, meant to protect me from the sun, now kept the rain off my glasses.

When I saw him coming my way, I saw he was bare-headed.

“Where’s your hat?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s right here,” he said, smiling and patting his bag.

Sometime after that, as we were approaching and had already started smiling, he brought his hands up to his chest, placed the palms together with the fingers straight up, and gave me a little bow.

That was when I knew it was just a matter of waiting for the story to unfold.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

BUS STORY # 494 (Portrait # 33: Soap Opera)

Downloaded from soap opera

I watched this story unfold when I was still working and taking the same bus at the same time every work morning. I retired before I saw any resolution. I still think about these two folks, though, and wonder about the story I didn’t get.

I really don’t remember which of them I saw first. Sometimes he’s on the bus, and she’s not. And vice versa. And I know of at least one time they didn’t sit together when they were both on the bus.

They are both good looking, and I remember being aware of them individually before I began thinking of them as a couple.

He has a lean, ascetic look that makes him seem taller than he really is. Salt and pepper hair, just long enough not to be short. His glasses aren’t stylish -- lots of glass, little frame -- but they complement his usually impassively serious face. He wears jeans, sometimes blue, sometimes black, always neatly pressed, which reinforces my sense of an underlying fastidiousness. I can’t get a fix on his age -- he could be anywhere from mid-40s to early 50s. Whatever his age, he looks good.

Where he’s angular and lean, she’s soft and round. And where his face reflects a fine-boned Spanish-Navajo heritage, hers reflects the dominance of the Aztec. Prominent cheeks and jaw, strong nose. Large dark eyes. Lustrous black hair worn straight and falling just short of her shoulders. I’d put her in her mid-40s. She usually dresses in black -- black jackets and coats, black pants or long black skirts, opaque black stockings and black, serious shoes. Sometimes with a splash of color from a silky blue or maroon blouse. She looks good.

She boards farther down the route than he, and when the aisle seat next to him is empty, which it is most of the time, and which by now I’ve concluded is meant as an invitation, she goes to sit by him. That’s the only time I see him smile, and I take it for a giveaway.

They talk very quietly and, I think, gently. They don’t often look at one another when they talk -- she will look directly at him more often than he will at her -- but you can see the attentiveness in the way both incline their heads. They sometimes gesture when they talk, but they keep those gestures economical and tidily confined.

The time I saw them not sit together, she had boarded with a small suitcase on wheels. There wasn’t room in the seat, so she took a bench seat facing the back door and parked the bag in front of her. He stayed in his seat. I remember thinking there was room for him if he wanted to sit next to her, but there was also another guy sitting at the other end of the three-seater. I don’t know if it was our Albuquerque tendency to try and leave an empty seat between strangers, or a reluctance to have a conversation that might be overheard, that caused him to stay put. Or, depending on what story might be concocted from what we have here, some other reason entirely.

But just before her stop -- she gets off before he does -- she stood up and went over to his seat, leaned over a bit, and said something to him. He smiled, as if pleased to have heard what he heard, shook his head yes, got up, and went over to where her suitcase was sitting. At the stop, she exited, and he carried her suitcase out to the sidewalk for her. A thank you and smiles were exchanged, and he got back on the bus and took his seat.

That was a more effusive parting than normal. I never see any long, lingering looks when she gets to her stop. What I do see is a normal, have-a-good-day kind of exchange, and that’s that. She heads north and doesn’t look back, and he doesn’t watch her go.

He gets off at the next stop and heads south.

I really have no idea what the story is here. For all I know, they could be family, or old friends who used to work together, or just a muy simpático pair of co-riders.

Or already married to others. (Yes, of course I’ve looked for a ring on the left ring finger. Nothing on either one. Which, I know, doesn’t prove anything.)

Whatever the story is, it’s a lot like watching a soap opera: the story unfolds very, very slowly.

Just one more reason to keep me riding.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

BUS STORY # 493 (Other Voices, Other Buses)

Downloaded from Dreamstime.

I don’t remember when I first discovered there were other bus bloggers out there. Carla Saulter’s “Bus Chick” was my first discovery, and she’d been at it longer than I.

Then my daughter introduced me to “The Subway Chronicles,” a remarkably literate series of essays by various New Yorkers about their experiences on the subway.

I began putting links to these and other blogs in my sidebar, and the format evolved to the list of current blogs you can see there now, followed by another list of “gone but not forgotten” blogs that have been abandoned but are still accessible. (A couple of fine ones have been dismantled, including “The Subway Chronicles.” “The Blood Bus,” a Glasgow bus driver’s raucous blog, also comes to mind.)

I found most of these blogs during my weekly search for “This Week’s Featured Bus Story,” another sidebar edition which allowed me to share other people’s bus stories.

Near the end of 2008, it occurred to me that I really should have been saving those stories, and so I began doing just that in a blog I titled “Other Bus Stories,” and adding it to the current blog roll.

I have my favorites. When I began saving the weekly stories, I began labeling my favorites as “a Top Ten Bus Stories nominee.” By now, I have almost twice that number so labeled. So I’ve sorted out my top ten favorites and present them here, in chronological order.

December 3, 2007, from Minneapolis: “His teeth were biting my...”  by Jill via “Bus Tales”.
“Bus Tales,” like “The Subway Chronicles,” was a blog made up of the contributions of its many riders. Unlike the Chronicles, the quality of the writing and the stories varied widely. This story still makes me laugh. It’s a wonderful example of that bus weirdness that does happen from time to time, but Jill’s experience is as benign as it is weird. I admire her assessment of what was happening, and her compassionate handling of the situation.

February 25, 2009, from NYC: “Bus Justice,” by Andrew Tavani via New York Press.
A powerful story that evoked mixed feelings of righteous satisfaction and an uneasy conscience over just how compos mentis the old man really was.

March 12, 2012, from Silverwood, Michigan: “An open letter to the weird guy on my bus in 1968,” by Pony via her blog, “PhoenixDown Farm.”
Probably all of us are familiar with this kind of retrospective reflection on a past experience that seemed unimportant or unpleasant at the time, but ended up having a surprising impact on our lives. I’ve seen several bus stories that explore this experience, but this one was especially sweet.

April 14, 2012, from Portland, Oregon: “Scam Artist Rips Off Innocent Citizen,” by Nickareeno via his blog, “Sardines Are Only Packed Once.”
Boy, do I recognize this story and all the feelings that go with it! Nicareeno’s posts have been featured several times on “Other Bus Stories.”

November 14, 2012, from NYC: “Beauty on the Bus,” by Susan Heath for The New York Times.
Sweetness and kindness in the big city! We could do with a lot more of both.

March 2, 2013, from Edinburgh, Scotland: “The last Etruscan,” by “A Late Starter in Edinburgh” via her blog, “Not Reading On the Bus.”
A lovely story and the final post by one of my favorite bloggers. I have assumed from the writing the author is female, but there is another author from Edinburgh famous for his extraordinary ability to write from the female perspective: Alexander McCall Smith. Whoever “Late Starter” might be, the writing here, and throughout the blog, is extraordinary. I still miss it.

June 30, 2013, from Boston: “Strangers on a bus,” by Sarah Kess for The Boston Globe.
Another retrospective, and a startling, “you are there” story told by a woman witnessing another young woman’s public pain and embarrassment, watching that woman rebuff another, older woman trying to help, and, finally, her own personal reflection on what she learned from the experience about the kind of person she wants to be. This one has stayed with me.

July 22, 2014, from Seattle: “Vanishing Reason,” by Richard Isherman via his blog, “Bus Stories: Observations on Life in Transit.”
Richard Isherman is another of my favorite bloggers. His closely observed, very well written stories are often fanciful musings on what he’s observing. They’re literate and witty, usually amusing and always insightful. This one, however, is one powerful heartbreaker.

February 5, 2015, from Seattle: “Different Sides (More Than One Way Through Life),” by Nathan Vass via his blog, “The View From Nathan’s Bus.”
Nathan Vass is a bus driver for Seattle’s King County Metro. He’s a prolific blogger, with a fine ear and extraordinary talent for converting how people actually sound when they talk into comprehensible written dialogue. He’s also attentive and compassionate to a degree I find both astounding and daunting. This story is a remarkable slice of life, and I think we’re fortunate Nathan was there to hear it and pass it on to us.

August 5, 2015, from Portland, Oregon: “In Heat,” by Bill Reagan via the blog, “Trimet Diaries.”
Bill Reagan is yet another of my favorite bloggers whose stories have frequently been featured in my side panel. It would have been hard to pick a top favorite of his stories had this one not come along. This is a story I haven’t seen on the bus myself, yet I immediately recognized it because, like Bob Seger, I remember, I remember, I remember... Not that I was ever one for making public displays of affection. But I was definitely a boy who had no idea “how little he understood” the young woman of his desires, and how troubling that was to the young woman in question. Reading this story now, at my age, makes me wince for the both of them.


I don’t have a corresponding top ten favorite fictional bus stories. But who doesn’t love Kramer’s bus story from “The Fire,” the nineteenth episode in season five of the NBC sitcom, “Seinfeld”? Besides, as any longtime urban-dwelling bus commuter knows, it’s not all that beyond the realm of possibility.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

BUS STORY 492 (Time Was...)

The simple joys of life can be done alone,” by Steve Baker

I’m meeting someone for lunch. The trip requires one transfer, and I’ve just taken a seat on the bench to wait for it. At the other end of the bench is a little old lady. I nod hello.

“Excuse me, sir, but do you happen to have a cigarette?”

She’s toothless, but she puts a lot of effort into making sure she articulates as clearly as possible.

“No, ma’am, I don’t. Sorry.”

“You’re one of them that don’t smoke.”

She says it more as an observation than an accusation.

“Yes, ma’am,” I confirm.

We sit there quietly for a while.

Then she calls out, “Sister! Sister!”

I look over at her. She’s looking at a car directly in front of us, in the middle lane. Black car, nice car, driven by a young black woman.


She starts waving her right arm.

“Sister! Sister!”

The woman doesn’t look over. I don’t think she can hear -- the windows are up and she probably has the radio on and surely the air conditioner. The light turns green, and off she goes, along with all the other cars and trucks.

“Did you know her?” I ask.

“No,” she says. “She’s black is what it is. I’m just tryin’ to get me a ride.”

While I am still turning that one over in my mind, she tells me she hasn’t had a car in 14 years. She hasn’t had a job in 17 years. She took a leave of absence from her job here in Albuquerque to go to Chicago. She said they told her they’d keep her job for her until she got back. But they didn’t.

“Time was, people looked out for one another, took care of one another.”

I ask her who she worked for. She names a local family business I not only remember but had regularly patronized many years ago. I describe the owner to her.

“Yes, sir,” she says. “That was my father.”

I am genuinely surprised and I tell her so. She quickly explains this wasn’t her father’s doing. When he died, the kids took over the business. Everything changed, she said. It was her siblings who told her she didn’t have a job anymore.

“Time was, you put family ahead of money.”

She said they ended up falling out with one other, all over money, and that’s why the business floundered.

I tell her I’ve seen another place outside the state with the same name, in the same business, and now long abandoned. “Yes, sir,” she says, and she tells me the state and the town. That is when I think she might really be who she says she is.

She continues that the out-of-town place was her aunt and uncle’s business, and that part of why they closed down was because of how the family was managing the business here.

I’m so absorbed by the story I don’t see my bus until it pulls past me toward the intersection.

I jump up, and watch it stop for a red light.

“That’s my bus,” I explain to the woman, then walk quickly to the corner. I stand right by the front door and hold up my bus pass. I know the driver can rightfully decline to let me on since I’m not at the stop. He looks over, opens the door.

I thank him and explain I was deep in a conversation and didn’t realize he’d pulled up at the stop. He laughs and tells me he could see that.

I take a seat, but the wonder of what I’ve just heard is mixed with regret at such an abrupt leave-taking. And sadness, too, for all that I’ve heard, and for her.


The photo at the top of this story is titled “The simple joys of life can be done alone” and is posted with the permission of Steve Baker. You can see all Steve Baker’s photos on Flickr here.