Sunday, October 29, 2006

BUS STORY # 8, Part 2 (Second Verse/Same As The First)

I don’t always take the bus to work. When my wife works, we carpool. This turns out to be mostly once a week. We alternate cars, but the routine is always the same: I drop her at her work place, go to mine, work until she calls me at the end of her 12-hour shift, and go pick her up. I get a lot of extra work done on those evenings.

The day after the young woman claiming to be from Stanley hit me up for gas money, we carpooled. Somewhere around 7:30 p.m. my wife called to come pick her up. I was walking along the street that runs parallel to Yale and takes me to the employee parking lot, when at the end of the block I saw an old silver car come puttering around the corner and head my way. Gosh, I thought to myself, that sure looks and sounds like the car that woman was driving yesterday. And as it got closer, I saw the turquoise T-shirt, then the blonde hair. She slowed down and coasted to a stop, leaned over the passenger seat, and called out “Excuse me, I’m wondering if you could help me out.” She gave the same spiel – except this time there was nothing about my looking like her husband. Yesterday afternoon, but not this evening, I was wearing a hat and sunglasses. (Note to self: hat + sunglasses = you look 40 years younger.) I listened to her story from the sidewalk, hands on knees and leaning toward the open passenger window.

When she finished, I said, “You know, you told me the same story yesterday afternoon up at the bus stop.” After a long pause, she replied, “I thought you looked familiar.” She started to explain, then paused, then said, “It’s complicated.” Then she said, “I’m sorry,” and just drove off.

My wife agreed this didn’t sound like some hardened con artist. Our imaginations ran the gamut, including that she was good enough to have suckered me again, this time into thinking maybe she wasn’t really what she was doing.

I still keep an occasional eye out for the old Toyota, but it’s been lying low. Sometimes I see it in my mind’s eye, pulled off on the side of I-40 East, just a few miles short of the Stanley exit. She’s out there by the left fender, with her thumb out . . .

Sunday, October 22, 2006

BUS STORY # 8, Part 1 (When She Was Good)

Here’s the story: One afternoon, waiting for the Yale bus after work, I was pulled away from my reading by a woman calling me from a car parked in the apartment entrance right by the bus stop where she had pulled in from the street. I looked and saw a young woman, 20s, short blond hair, turquoise T-shirt, motioning me to come over to her car. The car was a sun-blasted silver Toyota, one of the old square ones. I checked for the bus, then walked over to the open window on the passenger side.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “but you just gave me the shock of my life. You look just like my husband. Same build, same clothes, even the hat. It’s amazing! I just dropped him off at the airport and was on my way home when I saw him down here at the bus stop!”

I could relate to that. I have this theory about a cookie-cutter mold and the twelve of us who are . . . oh, never mind. I’d also noted by now that she wasn’t unpretty and she had a nice smile.

She told me she lived out in Stanley which is about 35 miles east of Albuquerque. And it seems she left her purse on the kitchen table and now she wasn’t sure she had enough gas to get all the way back.

Somewhere deep down in my brainstem, a red light began glowing. And that first bit of red was trying to make its way to the surface of my cerebral cortex even as I found myself reaching for my wallet. But: my wallet wasn’t in my pocket.

“I’m sorry,” I told her, “but I don’t have any money on me. When I ride the bus, I don’t carry my wallet. Because I don’t need it,” I explained. This was true. Still is.

She kept right on smiling and told me not to worry about it, she’d get home fine. And she turned the old Toyota around and sputtered it back out onto Yale and headed north. She was still in sight when the red light finally reached the surface. “Oh, she’s good, señor. Really good.”

The next morning I told my co-workers the whole story. The guys in my office caught on as soon as the left-purse-on-kitchen-table part of the story emerged. The women, however, had a fine time with the fact that this 60-something old man didn’t catch on when this 20-something cutie told him how much he looked like her husband.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

BUS STORY # 7 (The Yale Regulars)

The morning Yale bus also has its regulars. There’s a young woman who always wears brown jeans and either a blue jeans jacket or black sweater, and sunglasses. When he’s there, she gives one of the men a hug when she gets to the bus stop. The man is an older man, 50s maybe, and something about their interaction suggests they are family.

The young woman usually sits by one of the blind riders, a young man in a coat and tie. They talk. He holds a device that looks like a black box with an accordion keyboard. I figure it’s a Braille typewriter. He works the buttons when the young woman isn’t riding.

There is a blind young woman and another older one. There is something shared in their facial expressions – a collective expression - that engages my curiosity, and I find myself staring in a way a sighted person would probably find rude and intrusive. Does their not being able to see me make my staring less so? “Behave yourself as if God were watching.” That would be Sister Ave Maria Gratia Plena (OK, not her real name. I don’t remember her real name, or her face, or what grade I was in. But I remember the habit and the severity and the fact that, even though my mother and grandmother never said such a thing, they would have approved.). By this time I’ve drifted back to staring and trying to parse that expression. Not guilelessness, exactly; more an attentiveness (Well, of course!), but more than that: an openness, a slight expectancy that connotes interest and optimism. It’s not just the two women, either. It’s also the young man in the coat and tie and that old guy with the white flattop. How do they negotiate this inconvenient world and end up with that expression?

There is a young black guy, open untucked sports shirt with colored T-shirt beneath, slacks, red and black bowling shoes, rucksack, skateboard and an Afro-Mohawk. He gets off where I do and I always watch fascinated as he rockets down the street and on past my office, weaving back and forth across the lanes, and sometimes, when there’s too much traffic, up on the sidewalk where he dismounts and starts walking like a mere pedestrian.

There is the round short guy always in a black baseball cap, sunglasses, variously patterned blue shirts, black pants, white athletic shoes, black backpack, and, sometimes, white gloves. He’s often on the bus I catch back to Central at the end of the day. Knitted-looking white gloves . . .

There is a young lady in a ServiceMaster uniform – this is the company our office contracts with for housekeeping services. But she works further down the road from my office building. She’s very quiet and keeps her eyes to herself. No makeup. Her hair is always pulled back – I’m tempted to say “severely,” but her hair is much too luxuriant – into a ponytail. There isn’t a hair out of place. Her uniform shirt always looks not just ironed, but starched. She wears jeans – neat, form-fitting – but they don’t contradict the uncommon modesty she projects. She wears a wedding band. I’m thinking she’s a recent immigrant from a small town in Mexico or perhaps Central America; there’s simply nothing about her that suggests she was raised in los Estados Unidos.

In the back of the bus, up on the raised platform, are “the guys.” They are an unlikely trio. The age range must be twenty years; the clothing styles range from button-down shirt and tie (tucked inside the shirt) to faded, ragged T-shirts with goofy stuff printed on them. Orthodonture ranges from well maintained to beyond help. The guy in the shirt and tie always has the sports pages of the Journal open, but he doesn’t do any reading from the time I board until I get off. He’s engaged with the other two guys in discussions ranging from sports, city goings-on, and politics. Part of what makes these conversations noteworthy is that I would not have guessed from appearances that all three of these guys were as well informed on current events as they are. But what makes these discussions even more noteworthy is that, while they rarely agree with one another, there is absolutely no trace of rancor in their disagreements. In fact, the discussions are laced with laughter.

Here’s the story: For those who believe we’ve lost the art of good-natured disagreements in our we’re-right-they’re-wrong society, good news: it’s alive and well in the back of the 7:15 a.m. Yale bus.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

BUS STORY # 6, Part 4 (The Rest Of The Story)

Turns out Dan* has a daughter. She’s 11. They “do the father-daughter thing” on weekends. This past weekend it was a trip to the zoo. Dan’s worried she’ll want to go to the State Fair so she can see all the animals up close. “I told her she can look them up online. That’s what computers are for.” I’m pretty sure he’s being facetious. Not one hundred percent sure, just pretty sure. I’m greatly amused in either case.

She has a new dog. Somehow, the neighborhood kids have learned if they find a stray, they can bring it to Dan’s daughter’s house and her parents will take it in. Dan describes the screening process starting with the trip to the vet. They have six dogs now. His daughter has taken to the new one.

It’s been raining this summer and the dogs have been tracking in a lot of mud. So Dan bought some carpet remnants to lay down over the house carpet along the dogs’ pathway from the back door through the house. He measured the distance the dogs’ tracks started to fade out and bought and laid out accordingly.

She seems interested in animals, I observe, steering him back to his daughter. He tells me she wants to be a vet. So he and his wife have been showing her where to look online at veterinary college programs and at what her academic prerequisites would be. Getting into veterinary school is highly competitive, they’ve explained. She needs to know her stuff, and she needs to know what stuff she needs to know. Apparently, this has taken a lot of the fun out of thinking about being a vet when she grows up. She bets her dad’s parents didn’t make him go through all this when he was eleven. They didn’t have to, he tells her. He already knew what he wanted to be when he was five. He was on it by her age. Again, I’m not sure if I’m picking up on or just imagining facetiousness. Again, I’m greatly amused in either case.

It also turns out Dan does indeed have an appreciation of music. He was a double major in college: chemical engineering and classical guitar. His mother played violin in the Baltimore Symphony, and he grew up listening to classical music. He laughingly related how, when he was four or five, an older cousin remarked on the music coming out of the radio, “Hey, that’s the Lone Ranger theme song.” “No it isn’t,” Dan replied with the snottiness of a know-it-all five-year-old. “It’s Rossini’s William Tell Overture.”

Dan explained the “Golden Triad.” If someone has a mind for math, they probably have an active musical appreciation and play chess. This works with any of the three reference points you start with. Further, he’s observed the more theoretical branches of engineering prefer classical and jazz, the applied branches rock. “Which are you?” I asked. He laughed because we both knew the answer.

Last but not least: why the bus? Here’s the story: Dan’s been riding the bus since he was a student, and although they have a car and truck now, he’s “used to the bus.” Plus (no surprise) he’s “done the math.” He described how he calculated the mpg to work and back, then factored in the annual maintenance costs plus insurance (divided by the average number of daily round trips). He figures a workday drive costs him eight dollars and I don’t remember how many cents vs. two dollars for the bus. I can tell he’s not being facetious about the numbers. I’m still greatly amused, but I’m also impressed.

I said I’d been similarly driven by economics, but I also felt some need to do my part in reducing greenhouse emissions. He kind of smiled, the way a father might smile at something his eleven-year-old daughter might have said, a smile that was simultaneously amused by an eleven-year-old’s grasp of a complex issue but which didn’t want in any way to discourage either the process of gathering and analyzing data or the process of defining and choosing appropriate responses. In short, a smile that said this was good enough for an eleven-year-old. Which made me speculate that in Dan’s grasp of the issue, I was probably doing the equivalent of removing a teaspoon of water from a tsunami – never mind the new damage I was unwittingly and with the best of intentions inflicting on the planet in place of the old. But I couldn’t help concluding if enough of us kept repeatedly dipping into that tsunami with our teaspoons . . .


*Real name changed.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

BUS STORY # 6, Part 3 (More Dan)

A couple of weeks went by before I ran into Dan* at the bus stop again. He was still perched on top of the bench when I rounded the corner. Because monsoon season had really cooled off this time of the morning, he was still wearing jeans. We picked up right where we’d left off: wine and winemaking. It sounded to me like he knew his stuff. Turns out he does: he won a New Mexico State Fair silver medal for his blackberry wine in the homemade class. He was currently experimenting with a fortified wine and had plans for the surplus of a neighbor’s peach tree.

I asked him if he’d tried any of our local wines. Yes, he had. He was a fan of a couple of local wineries: Milagro Vineyards and Corrales Winery. After tasting wines from both, he sought out the vintners. "They’re artists," he explained. He elaborated: they understand how to make a good wine, but they also understand chemistry well enough to know how to play. They have the potential to make really interesting, great wines.

Because he was working with fruit other than grapes, I asked if he was familiar with Anasazi Vineyard wines. He smiled, took a measured silence, then replied, "They do their fermentation too fast." He explained that when you taste such a wine, it has an indescribable but unmistakable "whang" to it, and Anasazi wines he’d tasted had that "whang." Bummer, I thought. I’m a fan of their plum and their cranberry. I guessed I wouldn’t know a whang if it whanged me upside the head. Yes I would, he countered. It’s all a matter of educating one’s taste buds. In the course of his explanation, he said women have a more sensitive palette when it comes to wine tasting, and that one of the vintners he talked to depended on his wife – who knew little about the winemaking process – to pass ultimate judgment on his progress.

A few more rides together and I confirmed my initial impression that Dan’s impressively wide-ranging command of subject matter was a consequence of purposeful DIY study. Classical literature, philosophy, psychology, German, movies, wines and winemaking – this latter was an ongoing three-year-old program. He and his wife were also systematically (how else?) going through the films of Alfred Hitchcock. "The guy was brilliant," he told me, admiration in his voice, in the way he understood and portrayed human psychology and behavior.

Still, there is more to the story. When he was explaining why he’d given up beer making to concentrate on wine, I alluded to Wynton Marsalis giving up classical music to concentrate on jazz. I sensed I’d drawn a complete blank. Was it possible I’d found a math and science person who didn’t have an appreciation of music?

And does he have any children?

And, of course, why is he riding the bus?


*Real name changed.