Sunday, August 26, 2007

BUS STORY # 47 (Babushka)

At the inbound Rapid Ride station at Louisiana, I see an old woman board, put her money in the till, and head down the aisle. I’m in the back, and my first impression is “Babushka.” My next impression is a pair of big Doc Martens disappearing under the hem of a long dress. I lay my magazine down in my lap.

She comes all the way to the back, sits one seat ahead of me and across the aisle. She could be in her 80s. It’s a pleasantly cool morning for August, but it’s still August and she’s looking like late November. She’s wearing a black cap pulled down tight over her ears. It’s opaque, and looks like a cross between a watch cap and a hairnet. The sides pooch out, and I’m imagining miniature Princess Leia hair buns.

She mops her face with a black muffler with little fuzzy pom-poms. No wonder: under the muffler is a black jacket, worn like a cape, with the sleeves coming over her shoulders and knotted in front. The jacket is over a brown, long-sleeved pullover. The pullover is over something whose frilly border can be seen ringing the bottom of the shirt. It is a wonderful, slightly gauzy pattern of small, softly irregular rectangles of black and gray and white.

Besides her layers, she has a brown leather messenger bag strapped across her left shoulder, a purse strapped crosswise and hanging by her left side, and a dark blue fabric fanny pack hanging from a strap around her neck and nestled in her lap under a substantial bosom. She has a pocketbook in her hands which she’d pulled from the purse after sitting down and getting herself arranged and mopping her face with her muffler. She’s methodically going through the pocketbook, I assume to confirm that everything is where it should be and to remind herself where everything is.

Her skirt is gray, with delicate pink flowers. I think “Little House On The Prairie.” And, up close, her Doc Martens turn out to be thick black socks and black shoes. Very thick black socks. I’m thinking there are more socks underneath – or maybe she’s wearing soccer shin guards.

Around her left wrist are tied two kerchief-sized cloths, one dull blue, one hot pink. I quickly dismiss the thought “street person.” Her clothes and hands are clean, her eyes sensible, and she exhibits none of the telltale tics and fidgets.

My eyes wander from wrist ties to the cap to the frilly, lovely pattern poking out from beneath her pullover to the side of her face . . . and, as if she sensed I was watching, she stops suddenly and turns and looks at me looking at her. She quickly looks away. I’m dealing with two reactions: the fear I’ve made her feel uncomfortable or frightened, and the shock of the impression that her eyes are the eyes of my decades-gone-now grandmother.

There is something about taking the bus that allows one’s thoughts to go places they don’t normally go. Part of it is what you see there, of course, and the other part is you really aren’t doing anything else. So besides wishing I could know her story and realizing there is no way to strike up a conversation without making it painfully obvious I am curious because she is a curiosity, I also indulge the development of a fantasy that my grandmother has made a return visit to this world and for some reason doesn’t want anyone in the family to know about it, and what could this possibly mean.

She stays put when I get off near downtown.

Later that day, I tell a co-worker about her. “From your description, I’d say she has somewhat of an obsessive-compulsive disorder. The way she was carefully going through her pocketbook, how she was dressed like she was prepared for anything --”

“She was prepared for anything!” I interrupt with a laugh.

“And the – what’s the word I want?” She pauses. “‘Flamboyance.’ I mean, think of those wrist scarves. I’ll bet she was a very creative person when she was young. Maybe a writer, or maybe someone who moved in artistic circles.” My co-worker isn’t in the bus, but her mind is on a journey now. She tells me the life story of the old woman on the bus.

I didn’t tell her the part about my grandmother. I figured from the reaction of the Babushka reincarnation on the bus, she didn’t want anybody to know she was back. I could at least do that for her.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

BUS STORY # 46 (Whole Lotta Kickin’ Goin’ On)

Rosanne Cash was playing for free. More accurately, the city was treating us to a free concert. This was part of an ongoing summer celebration called Albuquerque Summerfest, a city-sponsored giant block party down on Civic Plaza. The price was right, and my friend Paul and I made plans to go.

I arrived at his place and he had some parking advice. Hmmm. Parking downtown on a summer weekend event night. I had an idea of my own.

“We could just drive up to the Park and Ride and take the bus in.”

I sensed a little reluctance. It’s not because Paul doesn’t care about his carbon footprint. He’s been walking and biking for some time now. He’s the kind of guy who believes if you think something is a problem, you should do something about it. He thinks global warming is a problem.

“How late does the bus run?”

“Let’s google it.”

Turned out for summer weekends, the Rapid Ride’s last trip out of downtown is 2:36 a.m. We’d be hours asleep in our beds by then.

“Well, I still think I’d rather take the car . . .”

His eye caught the streaming video of one of the many Live Earth concerts being staged this particular Saturday: 07/07/07. Al Gore was beating the drums with the Smashing Pumpkins. “On second thought, considering the day, maybe we should take the bus.”

“Hey, maybe we’ll get a bus story,” I added.

He suggested maybe that was my real motive all along.

“You sound like my wife,” I kidded back.

The bus came about two minutes after we arrived. Ten minutes later, still sitting in the bus at the Park and Ride, we had a bus story.

Outside our window, on the platform, we saw two guys in each other’s faces. They were pretty much the same size. One guy had short, sort of spiky orange-blond hair, an off-white Notre Dame T-shirt, and baggy black pants with more zippers than a backpack. The other guy had longish black hair, a blue short-sleeve sports shirt hanging untucked over dark pants.

We could hear voices but not words. There was a lot of gesturing. It looked serious. One of the passengers asked the driver if he charged extra for the entertainment.

The blond guy came over to the front door of the bus and told the driver to call the cops. Then he whirled around and told the other guy he was gonna get it if he didn’t shut up. A woman on the platform approached the blond guy with her cell phone out. She eventually returned from wherever she came, and the two guys were face to face again.

It looked a little less like it would end in a fight this time, but it was still intense. Then the blond guy came back to the front door. “You tell the cops what happened when they get here. You saw what happened.”

“I wasn’t paying attention to what was going on back there. I’m not getting in the middle of this,” the bus driver replied. The blond guy turned and called out, “The cops are on their way, and you’re gonna be in trouble.”

A squad car pulled in. The blond guy was there to greet it. The other guy backed on down the platform. The cop got out and stood face to face with the blond guy. The blond guy used a lot of gestures, including a kicking gesture. He used that a couple of times.

The cop went over to the other guy. They both returned to the squad car where - whoa! - the cop cuffed the guy.

Paul and I tried to put the story together. A cop wouldn’t cuff one guy on the hearsay testimony of another. He hadn’t checked his computer, so it’s not like he found out the other guy was wanted for something. Maybe the other guy was drunk. We also figured from the earlier exchange between the blond guy and the driver that the fight must have started on the bus and spilled out onto the platform when the bus pulled into the Park and Ride.

A second squad car arrived. A second cop, a woman with a blonde ponytail, got out. The blond guy began telling his story again. He repeated all his gestures, including the kicking one.

“Well, we know one thing for sure,” Paul said. “There was a lot of kicking going on.”

The bus pulled out shortly afterwards. We got downtown without incident and in plenty of time, but the concert got rained out. The storm came in quickly from the north with lots of lightning and a burst of wind. We were standing under the portico at the Alvarado Transportation Center when the rain came down.

We found out later we would have caught an abbreviated show if we’d taken refuge in the underground garage and waited a half-hour or so, but by that time, we were heading home on the Rapid Ride, watching people soaked to the skin boarding the bus. Maybe it was that there was enough rain to soak you to the skin. Or maybe it was that so many were sharing this rare Albuquerque experience. Maybe it was just Saturday night. Whatever it was, it felt kind of like a party there on the Rapid Ride.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

BUS STORY # 45 (Shorts 2)

Waiting for the Yale bus, four of us seated on the bench for four. A woman walks up and stands by the bench. I get up and move to the tree at the other end of the bench. After a while, she says to me, “Don’t you want to sit back down?” “No, ma’am,” I reply. “I’m fine.” “You must be new to Albuquerque,” she says. “Nobody here has any manners.” A young bench-sitter in oversized clothes, buzz cut, and a CD earphone in one ear, laughs. Not derisively; appreciatively.


There’s a long line of us waiting for the Rapid Ride in front of The Frontier. When the front door opens, the “beep-beep-beep” tells us to stand back because the driver is lowering the drawbridge. That means there’s a wheelchair-bound rider aboard who’s getting off. The middle and rear doors open and passengers stream out. I see the driver walk over to the wheelchair area and start unhooking all the safety restraints. The young kid in front of me starts tracking something behind me. I turn in time to see an oversized middle-aged woman in a powder blue sweat suit duck into the bus through the rear exit door. The driver is bent over and too preoccupied with the wheelchair to see her, of course. The kid looks at another young kid behind me. He raises his eyebrows and nods toward the rear exit. The other kid says, “Yeah. Cool, huh? First kid says, “We oughta try it.” But they don’t. The wheelchair rolls across the platform and onto the sidewalk. It holds an old guy in one of those veteran hats. He’s got big, black-framed glasses and a big smile. The hat and his jacket are bedecked with pins. He works the chair with his left leg. “God bless you, God bless, God bless you,” he tells each of us waiting in line.


The Rapid Ride is between stations going south on Wyoming. After a light turns green and traffic starts moving, we don’t. I hear a horn blast, look down the aisle and through the windshield. A woman is standing in the street in front of the bus waving her arms. She wants on. The driver shakes his head no. She’s not moving. He tries to pull around, but the traffic has him blocked in. Finally, he signals her to the front door. When she moves around to the door, he pulls away. I see her out my window, staring dumbfounded at the bus rolling past her.


After boarding a standing room only Yale bus one morning, a young kid (black jeans, black T-shirt, backpack) stands up and offers me his seat. “You don’t want to sit?” I ask. “No, I get off in a couple of stops,” he replies. Looking back, I count three guys and two women standing in the aisle. I ask the women if either of them want a seat. They shake their heads no. The guy behind me motions me to sit down. I do. I’m thinking about how it is this kid has offered me a seat when I spot a sign in the overhead advertising panel across the aisle: “PLEASE OFFER SEATS FORWARD OF THIS SIGN TO THE ELDERLY AND HANDICAPPED.”

Sunday, August 05, 2007

BUS STORY # 44 (One Degree Of Separation)

I’m at the bus stop ready to go home when I see the Yale bus heading up to the airport. It’s some 10 minutes late, and even though the bus is empty right now, it doesn’t look like it’s trying to make up for lost time.

I’m the second stop on the loop back north from the airport, and am often the first person to board the bus. I go to my usual seat up on the platform in the rear, stow my gear, and start reading. We stop at almost every stop as usual, and the bus is close to full when we get to the Transit Department.

The Transit Department is a city block-size combination of offices on the north end and a huge depot at the south. This is home for all ABQ RIDE buses. They all roll out in the morning and come back home one by one at night. This is also where they come limping home during the day if they’re lucky enough not to break down completely on the streets. When the first commuter run passes by in the morning, all the doors are open and it looks like an empty hanger inside. In the afternoon, most of the doors are down. The ones that are open offer a glimpse of a handful of buses scattered over the empty lanes.

We take an unexpected left turn into the pull-in in front of the garage. I can hear the driver talking on the phone. He’s telling someone he needs to change buses . . . no, he’s right here in the driveway and can already see half a dozen buses lined up for tomorrow. He gets off the phone, then tells us they’re going to change buses and would we please exit this bus now.

While we’re standing around waiting for the exchange, I see the driver on the phone. When he gets off, I amble over and ask why the switch.

It’s losing power. It won’t accelerate, and it’s barely making it up the hills. Happens all the time to these buses. “These buses” are the smaller “400” buses powered by natural gas (“We’re commuting without polluting”), with the bench seating around the perimeter and the platform at the back. So that’s why he was 10 minutes late.

He explains we got these buses after a bunch of suits went out to San Diego to look them over. The San Diego folks raved about them, but they warned our folks they don’t do so well at higher altitudes. Don’t worry, the suits said, our mechanics can keep anything running. The city bought a busload. Now they’re always in the shop. He figures there was probably some money under the table somewhere.

I have to laugh. Just this afternoon, we were in the office discussing why our organization had chosen a particular software vendor whose products were making everyone’s lives miserable on a daily basis. Our conclusion: probably some money under the table somewhere.

There’s a little heat in the driver’s explanation, but his underlying good nature will not be denied. He goes on to explain the buses are running longer each day and longer between scheduled maintenance to meet the demands of the increased ridership. Plus, they’re down 14 mechanics right now. No big surprise the buses are breaking down more often.

He laughs. “They didn’t want to give me a new bus. They told me they didn’t have any ready, but I told ‘em I was in the driveway and could see for myself. They just didn’t want to take out one they’d already prepped for tomorrow.”

We get our new bus, and we all return to the same seats we had on the old one. And then we’re on the road again.