Sunday, November 27, 2011

BUS STORY # 264 (Helping Hand)

From the way they’re talking, the guy sitting across from the driver is either a co-worker or a friend. I think maybe a co-worker because, when we get to his stop, he heads for the back exit rather than the close-by front door, where there are people waiting to board.

“Have a good day, bro!” he calls down the aisle just before exiting.

A couple of new riders climb aboard, and the bus starts into the intersection.

We all hear the siren about the same time.

The bus lurches to a stop. We’re most of the way into the outside northbound lane and still not sure where the siren is coming from.

A couple of seconds later, and we see an ambulance across the street, heading south.

By the time it gets through the intersection, the light has turned red and we’re now blocking that outside lane.

The driver can’t back up because neither he nor the rest of us have any idea what’s behind the bus.

Then we see the guy who just got off the bus signaling to the driver to back up. He keeps signaling while keeping his eyes on whatever is behind us. When he signals to stop, we’ve backed all the way out of the lane.

The traffic goes streaming by.

The guy waves, then heads north up the sidewalk.

Co-worker. Gotta be.


The photo at the top of this story is "Series: Toronto through my lens," © Dean Askin, AskinImages Photography. All rights reserved. Used with permission. You can see this and other photos by AskinImages on Flickr .

Sunday, November 20, 2011

BUS STORY # 263 (Mer’s Bus Story # 1: “Bus Go. I Here.”)

Our bus in Macedonia by Dave Proffer
Our bus in Macedonia, a photo by Dave Proffer on Flickr.

One of my nieces spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer.  During a recent visit,  she shared a couple of her own bus stories from her time in Macedonia.

Mer had taken the bus into Skopje, the capitol, for a day trip.  It was a cold winter day.  The bus to her town, Debar, was more like a shuttle van, holding about 20 people, max.  The buses run approximately every couple of hours, and she was in the habit of catching the second-to-last bus home.  That gave her a one-bus cushion just in case.  This bus left the Skopje station at 2:00 in the afternoon.   

The ride back to her village took about three hours, much of which was taken up by stops at the villages and smaller towns along the way.  

About halfway to Debar, the final destination, the driver would stop for a break so the passengers could use the restroom, stop for a snack, have a quick smoke. In the wintertime, it was pretty dark by the time the bus took the break.  There was no prescribed time for the break.  Everybody just seemed to know when it was time to return to the bus.  This town was also one of the stops along the way, so some passengers would leave the bus for good.

Mer had developed a taste for a certain kind of candy bar with a soft, brownie-like center.  She went into a nearby shop to buy one, but the shop didn’t have one.  She went on to the next shop.  Again, no luck.  

She decided against looking any further and headed out toward the bus, only to see it pulling out into the roadway.  She ran shouting and waving after it, to no avail.  When she saw the taillights turning the corner, she knew she really had missed the bus.

Her first thought was that even though her overnight bag was still on the bus, thank goodness she had her purse, cell phone and coat. Her second thought was that at least she could catch the last bus from Skopje as it came through for its break.  However, that wouldn't happen for another two and a half hours.

Across the street, another bus from the same company was parked, facing the opposite direction.  Several of the bus drivers knew Mer, as she had been living in her home village for about a year.  This driver saw her running after her bus shouting and waving, and called her over.  Mer explained that, in the emotional shock of the moment, her command of the language disintegrated.  She described her response to the driver as her pointing down the empty road and saying the Macedonian equivalent of “Bus go,” then at herself, and saying, “I here.”  

The driver understood.  Since he belonged to the same transportation company, he had the other bus drivers' cell phone numbers.  He made a call and told the driver he had to turn around and come back -- he’d “left the American behind.”  He then gave Mer a card with all of the bus drivers' numbers, in case something like this ever happened to her again.

After a few minutes, Mer's bus reappeared.

Her bus driver apologized profusely when he did, explaining he’d been careful to ask if everyone was on board (and, as Mer pointed out, after all, she hadn’t say “no...”).

Mer also apologized profusely, realizing everyone else had been delayed on her account.  But no one seemed upset.  Once again, as she had experienced so many times before in so many other situations, she was among a generous people who truly practiced caring for the strangers among them.

The photo at the top of this story is “Our bus in Macedonia,” and is posted with the kind permission of Dave Proffer. You can see this and all Dave Proffer’s photos on Flickr at:

Sunday, November 13, 2011

BUS STORY # 262 (David Ortega Is Looking For Work)

Painter by busboy4
Painter, a photo by busboy4 on Flickr.

I met David on (where else?) the bus.

He’d just had the greatest luck with a connection -- off one bus, around the corner, and here comes the other bus -- and it has just started raining.

He’s laughing at his good luck as I’m folding up my umbrella to board.

We end up in the back, sitting across from one other, and get to talking.

He’s a painter.


House, inside and out, garage, fences, you name it. He also does stucco work, and he’s not a half-bad carpenter, but painting is what he does best.

Who does he work for?

Himself! And not only is he good, he’s fair. He’ll match his bid against anyone’s.

He recently finished a job for $400. The other two bids were $1500 and $2000. Those bids might have included the paint. But he doesn’t include the paint. He lets the customer buy whatever paint he wants. He provides the rest -- brushes. rollers, ladders, drop cloths, edgers.

Four rooms in one day. He knows what he’s doing and he doesn’t mess around.

How’s work these days?

He makes a face. Not so good. Times are hard.

So how does he advertise?

Word of mouth. People who know his work spread the word. And he’s got cards at all the paint stores in town.

He pulls out his wallet, takes a card from it, and hands it to me.

Has he gotten jobs this way?

He sure has. The people at the store know him, know his work.

He’s also got a couple of newspaper articles he doesn’t have with him, and he needs to get them laminated before they start tearing.

From here in Albuquerque?

No, one is from Liberal, Kansas. He went up there to help paint a museum. One day, everybody had gone home, but he was still working. A photographer took his picture, then talked to him about his work. Next thing he knew, he was in the paper.

And people recognized him. Hey, aren’t you that guy in the paper? He got job offers because of that article.

Where was the other article from?

California. Another museum job. He was dismantling a scaffold when he heard someone yell, “Hey!” He turned around and this guy snapped his picture. It was in the paper the next day.

While he’s been telling me his stories, I’ve been looking at his business card.

The first thing I notice is the bottom right corner. It’s been cut off. Above the shear is a hand-written local phone number.

The second thing I notice is the middle of the card. Where one might expect to see the name of the person or the business, I see “SNOW WHITE.” And beneath that, “Salinas, Cal.”

At the top of the card, the word “Painter” has been hand-written.

The upper left corner has something blacked out.

The lower left corner has the name “David Ortega.”

I’m pretty sure I’m looking at a paint chip for the color Snow White with the paint brand name sheared off the lower left corner, and which has been made into a business card for one David Ortega.

I’m guessing David must have recently moved here from Salinas and hasn’t had time to update his card.

“So how long have you been here in Albuquerque?”

Twenty years.

Twenty years!

Well, except for that six-year stint in Kansas and the shorter one in California.

So why does he have Salinas, California, on his card?

Because that’s where he’s from. He’s proud of where he came from.

You gotta love an answer like that.

And regardless of how he came by those paint chips, you gotta love the ingenuity.

He asks me to spread the word.

I tell him I will.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

BUS STORY # 261 (No Good Samaritan)

NO SVC by busboy4
NO SVC, a photo by busboy4 on Flickr.

We’ve just gotten off the Red Line and are waiting to cross Lomas when he asks me where the bus stop is. I point to the bench across the street, to the left of the intersection.

“Figures,” he says. It’s in the full sun, and it is a hot July afternoon.

“And they wonder why public transportation doesn’t work around here.”

He’s got wraparound sunglasses and a black push broom of a mustache. I’d taken him for a Latino native son until he opened his mouth. The accent is down home Southern white.

We cross the street. I slow a bit so he can keep up. He looks to be in his early 40s, but he’s got a cane, and he walks with a pronounced limp.

On the other side, we skip the bench and head for the shade of a nearby tree.

He didn’t like our bus driver.

“I ask him if this bus goes to Coronado, and he asks me if I’m plannin’ to git off the bus. I tell him I will if he’ll open the ______’ door.”

"I will" sounds like "Ah wheel." It is a lazy drawl, and it would be understandable if someone who didn’t know the language mistook it for calm.

It is not calm.

I tell him I’m surprised. The drivers are usually pretty helpful.

He tells me if he’d’ve been somewhere else, he’d’ve just shot him.

“Vet” flashes through my mind. I ask him where “somewhere else” might be.

“‘Fganistan.” Pause. “Eye-rack.”

He says he shot some people over there, and it was all for the best. But the service didn’t see it that way.

I said they probably figured it wasn’t the best way to go about winning the hearts and minds.

He said he wasn’t trying to win any hearts and minds. He finally figured out the only way to get home was to “kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out.”

He’s pretty sure it was his attitude on this matter, and not his 20 years or his knee full of shrapnel that led to his being turned down for another tour in Afghanistan.

“I told ‘em I could go another ten years, but they said ‘we don’t think so.’”

They told him he had mental problems. After two tours in Iraq and three in Afghanistan, why would they think anybody would have mental problems, he asks. It’s sarcastic, but he has a fine way of making it sound understated, as if he’s no longer invested in the anger.

He says he joined in time to go to Granada. Then Panama. Then Iraq. Then Afghanistan. Then Iraq. Then Afghanistan two more times. He’s been out three years.

I’m thinking Granada was sometime during Reagan’s first term. That would have put him in the service somewhere between 1980 and 1984. Which in turn would make him a 20-plus year veteran.

(Later, I will google Granada. The invasion was on October 25, 1983. With his “three years” ago retirement, that would give him at least 25 years.)

I ask him if the cane has anything to do with the shrapnel in his knee.

"Yes, sir.”

He says they told him the VA would fix him right up. He’s been on a list for three years now.

He answers “Yes, sir” again when I ask if he has any family here in town. Then he adds, “in a manner of speakin’.”

There is a pause.

“Haven’t seen much of ‘em.”

Another pause.

They would have preferred he’d re-enlisted, “for the pension.”

I don’t get this, but I do get the same lazy drawl, and that if it weren’t for the words, someone just listening to the sound of his voice could miss the bitterness.

He says he’s been out of work ever since he retired. Who’s gonna hire a person with mental problems, he asks me.

It’s the first time he’s looked at me. The rest of the time, he’s kept his face due west, where the bus will be coming.

I answer I don’t know. I’m halfway preoccupied with wondering what kind of disability benefits he might be eligible for, and with whether any of what he’s telling me is true.

He says if they’d fix his knee, he could get a job as a mercenary.

I say that doesn’t sound like much of a retirement.

“It’s perfect,” he replies. “Every day, you either win or die.”

Then he tells me the bus is coming.

And it is, and eventually does.

He boards first and takes a seat up front. I head for the back, and touch his shoulder and wish him good luck.

Truth is, I’m glad to be separating. I’ve been uncomfortable most of our time together. Not scared, just uncomfortable.

I think about this exchange the whole ride home, and I come to this conclusion: I don’t know how much, if any at all, his story is factual. But there’s no doubt in my mind he’s told me the truth.

He’s told me he’s feeling near the end of his rope, estranged from family and society, prematurely used up, physically impaired, slapped with a label that makes him impotent and dependent, bedeviled by bureaucracies and minor authorities, and the reason his anger sounds enervated is because it is turning to rage.

I’m thinking this is a guy who could go off one of these days and let God sort it all out.

I’m thinking he could use some help, or at least a friend.

But I’m not qualified to know, never mind offer, whatever kind of help he might need. And I am wary of inviting some sort of personal relationship.

The simple truth is I don’t want to get involved.

I don’t want to be the Good Samaritan.

And he’s still out there, doing a slow burn.

All of these make me uncomfortable.