Sunday, March 29, 2009


BUS STORY # 126 (Newbie)


There’s only one guy waiting at the stop for the No. 50 when I arrive. It’s about ten after seven in the morning, with another seven or so minutes before our bus arrives.

He’s looking north, toward the campus, as if he expects the No. 50 to be showing up any minute now. He’s clapping his gloved hands together. The gloves are leather and look like dress gloves. It’s not just the gloves that look dressy. He’s a complete package: walk-in-the-woods jacket, wide-wale corduroy trousers, and loafers. Dress loafers.

The corduroys are cuffed. And wheat colored. I have a pair of wheat trousers (not cuffed) which I quit wearing when I take the bus because they invariably pick up black marks from my backpack. It’s a mystery to me why this only happens when I wear light pants. (I can hear my wife now: “It happens when you wear dark pants, too. You just don’t see them.”) The cords look nice. I worry about them.

He turns to me and asks, “Have you ridden this bus before?” Then he adds, “There is a Number 50 bus, isn’t there?”

Something in his speech turns “dressy” into “fastidious.” I assure him there is, that the No. 50 is what I’ve been riding for over two years now, and I’m expecting it to arrive in about 10 minutes.

“Was there supposed to be an earlier bus?”

“Yes,” I reply. “It’s actually scheduled for six forty-seven, but sometimes there’s a good five-minute leeway on either side. Although I have to say lately, the buses have been running on schedule. They run every 30 minutes.”

“Does the bus ever not show?”

I laugh. “I’ve had this bus not show at this end once, and at the go-home end twice.” Which, I think now, is not so bad in almost three years.

“The first bus didn’t show this morning.”

“How long have you been here?

He pulled his sleeve back and studied his watch. “Twenty-four minutes.”

As I think about that “twenty-four,” I notice his hair. It’s gray, and its neatly cut and combed old-style. I get a whiff of Lucky Tiger and hear the ch-ching of the old National Cash Register in the barbershop of my grade school days.

His glasses are a throwback, too. They’re the wire, rimless glasses of my high school principle. Well, not exactly. They aren’t the coke bottle lenses, and the corners aren’t angled and beveled. But they are rectangular.

“I plotted this trip very carefully. I took the Rapid Ride to The Frontier. I got there at six-forty, and walked straight here. The bus didn’t come.”

I’m thinking the walk can’t take more than three or four minutes. He would have seen the bus cross Central if it had been early.

“It’s bad enough being late for work. But leaving people out in the cold like this . . .” He claps his gloved hands for emphasis.

I’m sympathetic about the “being late for work” part because I’ve been there. But I’m also amused by “out in the cold.” It’s a crisp, cold morning, low 30’s, no wind. Altogether a fine, late winter morning to be at this particular stop. The one time this bus didn’t show for me, it was 13 degrees, and I didn’t get my toes back until mid-afternoon. I don’t think he’s waited for very many buses.

About this time, a No. 50 comes up Yale from the south. It’s the Happy Feet bus, and I’m amused all over again, thinking about my unhappy feet the morning my bus didn’t come.

“Looks like your bus must have been early. This is the first run returning from the airport.” I explain.

“Well, it was very early. The driver should have adhered to the schedule. People need to be able to rely on schedules.”

“Maybe your watch is off,” I suggest, meaning off from the bus clock. I’m remembering calibrating every timepiece I own – including my pager and the microwave – to “bus time.”

“My watch is very accurate,” he sniffs.

No point in trying to explain what I meant, I think to myself. He’s new, and he’ll figure it all out sooner or later. It finally occurs to me there might be a good story in why he’s riding the bus, but about that time, another Rapid Ride has sent a group of riders to our stop. Two of those riders work in the same building I do, and they engage me in conversation. When the bus arrives, I’ve missed my chance.

I end up sitting up on the platform in the back. He sits down front, near the door, and angles himself to look forward through the windshield. He stays fixed on the route. I can tell when we’re getting near his stop because he starts to get antsy. I know he’s anxious about where, exactly, he needs to get off and when to signal for the stop. When he goes to pull the cord, there is no cord. One of the riders sitting next to him presses the bar behind them and triggers the request. He’s nonplussed again by the back doors. No question he’s a first timer, at least on a 400. It takes me back. He’ll figure it all out.

The next morning, he’s not there. I’d love to know that story, too.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


BUS STORY # 125 (Kicking The Cat)


Among the throng waiting at the outbound Rapid Ride Station at San Mateo are an older, one-legged Native American in a wheelchair, a younger woman standing behind the chair with her hands on the handles, and a salt and pepper pair of older guys.

There’s a distance between the two pairs. The wheelchair is out almost to the curb right where the front doors should be when the bus stops. Salt and Pepper are sitting under the shelter on the bench.

Pepper has an oxygen tank in front of him and green tubing under his nose. He nods toward the guy in the wheelchair and tells Salt how the guy was run over twice. He was trying to crawl out of the street after the first time when the second car ran him over. Salt shakes his head.

Pepper explains he was drunk, and there ain’t no way around that. Man’d be better off if he’d been going to church than out on the street drinking. Salt nods, tells Pepper he’s got a point there, all right. Pepper ruminates on how we make our own beds.

A wave of folks from the northbound San Mateo reaches the station. Some walk on by, others stop for the transfer. A young guy walking quickly stops just past Salt, looks back, and says something I can’t hear. Neither can Salt, apparently. The kid walks up to Salt and says, “I axed you a question.” His face is furious.

Salt tells him he didn’t hear him.

“I said, what’re you lookin’ at?”

He’s clearly not feeling the inaugural love.

I can’t hear Salt’s reply, but it doesn’t do anything to pacify the kid. He tells Salt he’s in no mood to be messed with today. Pepper is watching the interaction closely. He’s not disengaging himself from the confrontation the way most of us would.

The kid starts to walk off, then returns.

“You a real registered one, ain’t you?”

Salt is clearly puzzled.

“Am I registered?” he asks. “You mean to vote?”

The kid just stares at him for a moment, then walks off muttering angrily.

Salt looks at Pepper as if for an explanation of what just happened.

“Just let it roll off,” Pepper advises him. “Just let it roll off.”

Saturday, March 14, 2009


BUS STORY # 124 (Portrait # 2: Monk)


He’s sitting on the bench facing the aisle, behind the first exit door. Older black man, tall, lean, white hair cut close, a cylindrical tuft of white beard underneath his chin that reminds me of an old-fashioned shaving brush except the bristles are curly instead of straight.

I’ve seen him in the mornings and in the evenings. I’ve seen him both coming and going on the same day. That’s how I know he changes clothes at work. Coming home, he’s got on grimy construction work clothes. But in the mornings, it’s a different story.

This morning, he’s wearing sleek, white-framed sunglasses, and a hooded sweatshirt. The sweatshirt is sage gray, and he’s got the hood cowled around his neck. He keeps those sunglasses looking straight ahead, and the rest of his face looks peacefully detached from all the bus commotion. He keeps his hands spread out across his thighs, palms down. They’re large, long hands, with long fingers.

He looks like a very cool monk. Maybe even a Thelonious.

Sunday, March 08, 2009


BUS STORY # 123 (Silversmith)


He asks me if I’ve got a light. I can see the cigarette is hand rolled.

“Sorry,” I say.

“Nobody smokes anymore. It’s a drag.”

I register the pun, look at his face. He's oblivious.

“What time does the next bus come?” he asks. Someone has broken the plastic window and pulled out the posted schedule.

“Have you seen an inbound bus since you’ve been here?” I reply.

“Yeah, just before you got here.”

“I figure we have about five minutes, then.”

He’s Native American, about my height, big but not fat. He’s got his hair pulled back in a long pony tail bound at top and bottom with those sparkly elastic hair bands. Checked, flannel pullover, jeans, athletic shoes. He’s got one of those 20-hair moustaches.

“I’m takin’ this bike to my kid,” he says, nodding toward the small bike leaning against the bus stop pole. “He’s the youngest of twelve.”

He asks me what I do. I tell him and ask him back.

“I’m a silversmith,” he says. “Here, let me show you a couple of pieces I just sold.”

He pulls out a cell phone and shows me a photo of two bracelets. It’s impossible to see the detail, but they look good – classic “Indian-style” jewelry you see in all the stores, tourist areas, and on the wrists of lots of local Anglos.

He says he was lucky to sell these. The business tanked about five months ago. Nobody’s buying. He’s been making the rounds of his usual buyers here and in Santa Fe, Phoenix and Las Vegas. No one is buying from them, they aren’t buying from him. It’s the same story with all the silversmiths he knows.

“Funny thing is, silver was over twenty-one dollars just before the crash. I had to up my prices. Pissed the buyers off, but, hey, what could I do. Now it’s down to eleven, and no one’s buying except me, and I can’t sell the stuff.”

A skateboarder goes whizzing by us.

“Hey, hey, hey!” he calls out. The kid stops.

“You got a light?” he asks the kid.

“Naw, I don’t smoke,” the kid replies, and takes off.

“Oh, sure,” he says sarcastically. “I bet he’s got a whole pocketful of weed right now.”

I laugh, and he returns to the economy.

“I figure we’ll hit bottom in six months, then things’ll start to turn around.”

“You’re more optimistic than I am,” I reply.

“You don’t have faith in the new guy?”

“I don’t think he’s a miracle worker.”

He doesn’t want to hear that. Right now, silversmithing is about all he can do. He’s been a welder, a construction worker, a mover. He hurt his back moving, and he’s been on SSI ever since.

“Is that when you took up silver?” I ask.

No. He started learning when he met his wife. A friend of hers worked in silver, and she apprenticed him. He says once he got good enough, she made a pretty good living off his work. He and his wife decided to start their own business. It became their main business after his back injury.

“She died four years ago,” he says, almost as an afterthought. But he’s silent after that.

A bike rider is coming toward us. He steps out into the street and waves the rider down.

“You got a light?”

“Don’t smoke,” says the rider, and pushes off quickly.

“Man, nobody smokes anymore.”

The bus pulls up. I board while he puts the bike on the rack. I’m in the front. When he boards, he passes me on his way to the rear of the bus and says, “Later, man.”

Sunday, March 01, 2009


BUS STORY # 122 (Rookie)


The driver looks like a kid. I show him my bus pass and take a seat.
A junior high kid boards and drops some change in the till.

“Hey, it’s a dollar, man,” says the driver.

The student looks at him, then starts digging for change.

The fares changed today, but I didn’t think the student fare had changed. On the other hand, the students are supposed to show a school or ABQ RIDE student ID. The kid hadn’t shown anything.

Another kid boards and drops change in the till. No pass.

“Hey, it’s a dollar,” says the driver.

The kid stops, stares at the driver.

“I’m a student,” he says.

“It’s still a dollar.”

“It’s thirty-five cents. Says right there.”

He’s pointing to signage on the till.

The driver leans over to look at the sign.

“See? Student, thirty-five cents.”

The driver sits back up and doesn’t say anything for a minute. Finally he says, “OK.” The kid moves to the back of the bus.

I’m wondering why the first kid who paid full fare hasn’t come back up front and gotten in the driver’s face about it. I’m wondering what the driver would do if he did.

I think the driver is having a hard time with all this. He’s young and inexperienced, still getting the basics of the job down. He may or may not know about the student ID, and he may or may not dread confrontation. And he may or may not have felt the sting of being successfully challenged by a kid. Maybe it’s his first day to solo.

I don’t know any of these things, but I can see his face in the mirror, and I can remember being young and insecure and in a position of authority. If you’re getting off on the power of that position, you’re gonna feel fine no matter how witless your decisions. You only feel uncomfortable when you’re trying to do the right thing under challenging circumstances. Our driver is trying to do the right thing.

Honking behind the bus pulls me out of my musing. We’re sitting at the intersection of Yale and Avenida Cesar Chavez. Cars are going around us, then turning right, right in front of us. Two of my fellow riders have leaned forward in their seats and are looking out through the front window.

A tractor-trailer rig is blocking both southbound lanes on Yale.

After a couple of traffic light rotations and more honking, the driver phones in. I hear him explain the situation. He sounds tentative on the phone. He explains the situation two more times before he hangs up and we wait some more. I’m assuming he’s been told to wait.

I’m watching his face in the mirror. He’s looking increasingly pressured and paralyzed. He doesn’t want to do the wrong thing, and he knows sitting here is the wrong thing even if he’s been told it’s the right thing. The riders are mercifully (and surprisingly) quiet.

Finally, he calls back to us.

“Anybody know this neighborhood?”

A chorus of yeahs comes back at him.

“So how can I go around?”

“Take a right, then turn left on Buena Vista. It’ll take you to Katherine, and you can turn right and get back on Yale.”

Murmer of assent from the riders.

He looks out ahead, takes a deep breath, then swings the bus to the right.

It works out fine. He’s about seven minutes behind on his schedule, but he can turn that around at the airport if he skips his break and his 400 cooperates.

By that time, he’ll be drier behind the ears.