Sunday, August 29, 2010

BUS STORY # 199 (The Strike-Out Artist)

I Ride . . . 2, originally uploaded by busboy4.

We’re up on the platform, sitting across from one another on the bench seats facing the aisle.

He keeps sneaking looks at the woman sitting in the seat in the last row, directly in line with him. She’s got her feet up on the rail and is looking out the window.

He’s a big, meaty guy with a shaved head and wearing a red golf visor, backwards. Gray tank top, baggy shorts, brown sandals. Tattoo on his right calf.

She’s a pretty meaty gal herself. Shoulder-length black hair, plucked and penciled eyebrows, red, red lips. Black tank top, blue jeans, and those high-heeled platform sandals. She’s got a tattoo just above her abundant right breast. She’s not exactly spilling out of her tank top. It’s more like a grocery bag with a spray of greens pouring out the top. You can’t help but know there’s a bunch of carrots down in there. She's holding one of those smartphones that are competing with iPods for rider share these days.

He risks a longer look. She keeps looking out the window. Finally, he asks her name.

“Anna”* she replies without any enthusiasm.

He nods his head, waits a minute.

“I’m Mike.”*

She nods, looks back out the window.

He looks down at his sandals for a while. Then:

“Just get off work?”

And adds quickly, “You work at McDonalds?”

She shakes her head no. Her phone rings, and she answers it. A conversation ensues. He’s staring at his sandals again, frowning. Bad timing, that call. He looks over to his right.

A young, slim woman with two small children on either side of her is sitting quietly. Black hair down past her shoulders. Simple brown scoop neck T-shirt with blue jeans and flat-heeled shoes.

Mike says something her way. The children look over at him, but she doesn’t give any indication she’s heard him.

He tries again, louder this time.

She looks over at him. Her reply is polite, but her face says she really isn’t interested in having a conversation with him. She looks away when she’s finished answering.

He asks the little girl nearest him how old she is.

She tells him and he asks about her sister.

The woman looks down at her daughter who is enjoying this conversation, then over at him. She is clearly annoyed and at a loss at how to deal with this.

He makes the mistake of re-engaging mom and she shuts him down in a way that he understands. He hangs his head, and I feel a little sorry for the poor guy.

But when he looks left again, the first girl is off her phone. Hope surely springs eternal because he restarts a conversation.

Her phone rings again, and that’s the end of that.

He gets off the bus shortly afterwards, but not before waving to phone girl. She waves back.

When the back door closes, she puts the phone back down in her lap, no goodbye or anything else. It takes a minute to register.

The next day, I email my daughter and ask if she can make her iPhone ring when she wants it to. She has no idea. But I do.


*Real name changed.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

BUS STORY # 198 (The Summerfest Detour)

It was Saturday. My wife was out of town, I had no commitments, and it seemed like a good day to take the bus to the Coop in Nob Hill to do my shopping.

I caught the 11 and transferred to the Red Line at Louisiana.

Once we pulled out of the San Mateo station, the driver announced we’d be detouring around Nob Hill due to Summerfest.

Well, dang.

I asked the driver how close to Carlisle he could drop me. He said it would be just east of Carlisle -- on Lomas. And he did. Later, coming back, I realized that he’d made a special stop just for me. Thank you, driver.

Carlisle and Lomas is a short mile to Carlisle and Central. The weather was overcast and the street barriers had eliminated most of the traffic. Throw in intrinsically interesting Carlisle itself and I had myself a pretty pleasant walk.

I got my shopping done and pondered my choices: 1) walk east to San Mateo and catch the Red Line to Louisiana; 2) walk west to Girard and count on there being a detour stop there for the Red Line; 3) walk back up Carlisle and just catch the 11 straight home.

Three sounded like the best bet. So I headed north on Carlisle across Central.

I was crossing the intersection where Campus turns into Copper when I saw a sign for a Thai restaurant where the old Ragin’ Shrimp used to be. I wandered over to see if it was open. It was. And even though I’d had no plans for lunch, I went inside.

I should explain here that I love Thai food. I love Thai food even more than I love Mexican food, which is saying something.

I should also explain there are a number of good Thai restaurants in town, just as there are a number of good Mexican restaurants. “Best” really means “my favorite” the way most of us use it, and we all are quite sure our favorites are the best.

For years, my favorite Thai restaurant was a place in the Southeast Heights called Thai Ginger. The neighborhood has been in decline for the last 30 years, and the restaurant was just a step up from your classic “hole in the wall.”

But the food! Early on, I ordered a house specialty called “Thai Ginger Perfect” -- a concoction of fresh vegetables and chicken sauteed with ginger and lightly spiced. After that, I could never bring myself to order anything else.

I didn’t go as often as I would have if left to my own devices. For a number of reasons (the atmosphere, the always small number of patrons whenever we were there, the neighborhood), my wife did not share my enthusiasm. And so I would stop only every month or two on my way home when my wife was working late.

When I started taking the bus four years ago, Thai Ginger fell off my map. It would have been right on the 140/141 route, but that would have meant an extra transfer -- the 50, the Red Line, the 140/141 down, then back up to the 11. It felt like more trouble than it was worth. And besides, my late-working wife would probably have beaten me home.

Recently, I drove by the old place. It had been repainted a deep lime green and renamed the Thai House. Well, dang. I felt I had let Thai Ginger and myself down. Another personal “best in Albuquerque” gone for good.

I’ve had some tasty meals at Orchid Thai, Siam Cafe, Thai Crystal, and the original Thai House in the University area (all easily accessible by bus), but none of them have been Thai Ginger.

So even though I had no plans for lunch, I found myself wondering if this new place could come close to the old Thai Ginger. And that, really, is why I went inside.

Inside was an airy, well-lighted little place, a big step up from the old Thai Ginger. I sat in the front room, at a table for two.

My server was a young guy, friendly, efficient, polite. Perfect English. I remembered the waitresses at Thai Ginger, and how I wasn’t sure their English went much beyond “number seven” from the menu.

I searched the menu and found Pad Khing which sounded like it could be close to the old Thai Ginger Perfect. While I was searching, a customer came in: a Buddhist monk! An Asian, older guy Buddhist monk. That reminded me of the first time I’d been to Yasmine’s and saw this old guy sitting at a table reading an Arabic newspaper. OK, I said to myself, authentic.

The Pad Khing presentation was lovely -- a dark, square porcelain plate had replaced the utilitarian white platter at the old Thai Ginger. I took a bite. Oh my goodness! This was really good. Fresh, flavorful, spiced just right -- oh my goodness! By the time I’d finished, I knew I’d found my new and worthy favorite. And I knew my wife would not have any trouble with the ambiance or the location.

I spoke with my server. How long had they been open? A month. How were they doing? Not bad, considering they hadn’t done any advertising yet. Most of their traffic was neighborhood folks, and they were spreading the word.

After paying the bill, I noticed framed reviews on the wall. Since they’d just opened, I was curious about those reviews. I became even more curious when I discovered every one of them was a (glowing) review of the old Thai Ginger. I went back to the register and waited for my server to reappear.

Turns out these are the same folks. Thai House down on San Mateo is family, but not this immediate family, not the Thai Ginger family. As is only natural, new recipes and different cooking styles have been implemented at Thai House. But, he told me, many of the old Thai Ginger patrons started asking his family to return to the restaurant business. And so they have.

As I walked outside on my way back to Carlisle, I passed the door to the kitchen. It was open. I recognized the cook. He and his wife were manning the woks. I stopped and called in that I was very happy to see they were back. They both smiled broadly and were gracious in their thanks.

Walking back up Carlisle to catch the 11, I realized if it hadn’t been for the Summerfest detour, I would have never found this reincarnation of Thai Ginger, now called Salathai.

And it’s less than a hundred yards from the Nob Hill station. What more could a Thai-food-loving busboy ask for?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

BUS STORY # 197 (Romo)

Thrive., originally uploaded by busboy4.

He scoots down a few seats until he’s sitting just across from where I’m sitting and reading.

“How’re you doin’?”

I look up at the question and see him reaching out to shake my hand.

He’s a young guy, early 20s, short hair, not bad looking. Brand new shiny white Dallas Cowboys jersey and oversize blue jeans shorts. Script I can’t read tattooed across the right side of his neck, and large gothic letters I can’t decipher running down each forearm.

I shake his hand.

“What’re you reading?”

I show him my New Yorker.

“You from New York?”

“No.” I pause, then add, “I have a daughter who lives there.”

“You from New Mexico, then?”

“For the last 30 years,” I answer.

“You like it here?”

“Sure do.” I pause again, then ask, “How about you?”

“Born and raised here.”

“Ever been out of the state?”

“I been west, but not south.”

“South” surprises me. I was expecting “east.”

“How far’ve you been?” I ask.

“Depends on what you mean by ‘how far.’”

That one also throws me a bit.

“I was thinking ‘miles.’”

He nods, says nothing.

“Seen the ocean?” I ask.

“Yup. California.”

Neither of us says anything for a minute or two. I’m wondering how it is that, of all the folks on the bus, I’m the one he’s decided to talk to. I’m an old white guy in office clothes -- the only old white guy in office clothes. All around us, the riders are listening in with studied indifference and feeling relieved he picked me and not them to talk to.

He starts up. “I like travelin’ -- North Carolina, South, Michigan . . .”

“You ever been to any of those places?”

“Michigan. Lots of times. I got family there.”

“Whereabouts in Michigan?”


“Cold winters there,” I tell him. “You ever been there in the winter?”

“Yeah, lots of times. You get into the swamp and pick berries.”

While I’m processing this one, he says, “I really wanna go to Ireland.”

“Ireland? Why Ireland?”

“Cuz it’s green, man. Really green.”

He pulls the cord.

“Michigan’s green,” I counter.

“I just gotta get out of here, get on the road. I like takin’ the road, seeing where it’ll take me without any money.”

Suddenly he calls out to the driver. “It’s the next stop. Sorry.”

“You’re tired of Albuquerque?” I ask.

“Everywhere I go here, nothin’ but trouble. I gotta get outa here.”

There’s another pause, and then he resumes.

“I’m tryin’ to get my life back together again. I’m gonna start classes at CNM.”

“What are you gonna study?”

“Veterinarian. Then I’m outa here.”

Once again, he calls out to the driver. “Sorry, driver, it’s the next stop after this. The one by the library. I’m so sorry.”

He shakes his head. I shake mine, too, on the inside. He’s getting off just as this bus story is getting under way.

I look forward, wondering if the driver is irritated. Instead, I see the driver looking back at us in the mirror and saying, “It’s all right.”

When we get to the library, he says, “Nice talkin’ to you,” and puts out a fist. We bump.

I watch him exit, and catch the name on the back of his jersey: ROMO. Out in the sunlight, that jersey is as bright as white can ever hope to be.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

BUS STORY # 196 (The Good Driver)

Kamdyn The Bus Driver, originally uploaded by TotalPhoto (Leon).

Lilly* has just paid her fare and wished the driver a good morning. And he’s just wished her a good morning back. And that is all it takes.

Lilly’s facing the rest of us when she announces, “Ooh-whee! We got the good driver this mornin’!”

She doesn’t let taking a seat stop her from going on about how much better today’s driver is than that other old grumpy guy. Ain’t no way to start a morning with all that grumpiness, no sir. You need to start the day right and it’ll carry you all through your day.

She has found a kindred soul in the seat just in front of her. He adds she’s right about that. You start your day with a smile, and you’ll be smilin’ all day. But you start your day with a grumpy old frown and that’s the way your whole day will be.

Lilly says if you start your day grumpy, you’ll make everybody you meet grumpy.

The two of them keep escalating the call and response until the guy says you’ll end up so grumpy your dog’ll bite you when you come home. Lilly cackles at this one.

My seatmate looks at me and says, “Well, it’s Friday.”

Meanwhile, the driver looks at the woman sitting across the aisle and asks her if she knows who the grumpy guy is. She has no idea. All she knows is he’s the good driver.

Real name changed.

The photo at the top of this story is titled “Kamdyn The Bus Driver” and is posted with the kind permission of TotalPhoto (Leon). You can see this and all TotalPhoto (Leon)’s photos on Flickr at:

Sunday, August 01, 2010

BUS STORY # 195 (Portrait # 8: Dancer)

Happy Feet!, originally uploaded by busboy4.

He’s hand dancing in the empty space by the middle exit door.

Wiry but well-muscled guy with a black tank top and a Dallas Cowboys star tattooed all over his right neck. Requisite cube of glass in each earlobe, and earpieces wired to an iPod somewhere below my line of vision.

Black leather fingerless gloves on both hands, looking elaborately laced, and making it easy to follow the amazingly fluid, ever inventive patterns of hand dancing to an inaudible sound track.


His eyes are closed. Sometimes his lips move, but just a little, and not for long. His expression is pretty much unchanging. No facial air guitar histrionics, just a mellow into-it look while his hands do all the emoting.

At each stop, his eyes open and his hands drop, and he steps out of the way. After everyone has exited at his door, he steps back into the space and begins again.

Then his hands disappear. I can see his head bouncing up and down, and I realize he's dancing with his feet now. I lean out into the aisle and catch a glimpse of black sneakers moving in place.

I have no idea what he’s listening to, no idea what music of the spheres has freed him from the mundane world on this particular morning, but I do know whatever it is has pulled me away from my mundane world as well.