Sunday, October 26, 2014

BUS STORY # 416 (What Happened)

Detail from a photo of an El Metro bus (Laredo, Texas) downloaded from Que Fregados

I barely remember what she looked like. Brown hair, I think. Pulled back. Black frame glasses. White ear buds. Maybe a sweatshirt, skinny jeans, something like that.

I was reading, waiting for the bus. She wasn’t the only high school kid waiting there. I heard someone say “Sir? Sir?” It was her.

“Does this bus go to Wyoming?”

“Yes it does,” I answered.

She said, “Thank you.”

She had a foreign accent. French, maybe. European, anyway, I’m pretty sure.

I went back to my reading until the bus came.

I boarded behind her. She was at the till, then she turned around to exit the bus.

I asked her what happened.

She didn’t have the correct change. She showed me a five.

Wait, I told her. I reached for my wallet, pulled out a buck, handed it to her.

I don’t remember if she said thank you this time or not. I remember after she put the dollar in the fare box, she turned and offered me the five.

“No, no,” I replied, shaking my head. Foreigner for sure, I registered, offering me the five for that one. Or else open-heartedly grateful, the way we can be when we’re young, feeling vulnerable, and somebody does something to help that’s no big deal to them but is to us. Young and naive. A sweetheart.

I’m telling this story to a friend when he asks me if I thought I might have been played. The question surprises me. No, I don’t think so, I tell him. We move on.

A few days later, I’m reading an article by Patricia Marx which begins:

What a wonderful time it is for the scammer, the conniver, and the cheat: the underage drinkers who flash fake I.D.s, the able-bodied adults who drive cars with handicapped license plates, the parents who use a phony address so that their child can attend a more desirable public school, the customers with eleven items who stand in the express lane.

My friend’s question returns, and this time, it lingers. Was I played?

Why would I think such a thing?

Well, for one thing, Lomas crosses Wyoming just a mile east of where we were. Was she really just off the boat?

Maybe she was. Maybe she didn’t know the neighborhood yet. Or maybe she just wasn’t sure about the bus route.

She obviously knew enough to be at the right bus stop. But why did she ask me, and not one of her schoolmates?

Maybe she was new enough her schoolmates still intimidated her. Or maybe she felt misplaced among a rougher, less well-rounded community of high schoolers. Maybe none of them were classmates. Maybe I looked safer, like I wouldn’t prank her or something. Or maybe she was pranking me. Maybe she was showing her friends how she could get someone to pay her fare. Maybe there was a bet going on. Maybe she needed to be sure I heard the foreign accent.

Maybe she was faking the accent. I remember this kid waiting for the bus in downtown Houston, trying to cadge a cigarette and telling everyone he was from “Dun Loghair” in an awful approximation of an Irish accent.

Anyway, if I was being played, she would have had to maneuver her place in the line so she would be right in front of me. Could she have done that without my noticing?

Well, yes. Easily.

The rest played as I remembered it. And now I recall she had a Big Gulp in her hand. I remember the awkwardness of her holding that giant cup and her open wallet, the five poking out. I remember now how she turned back around after paying the fare and tending the open wallet to me, either her face or her words or both asking me if I wanted to take the five.

That would have been her very confident gamble if this was a play.

Smooth operator for sure, I registered, offering me the five for that one. Damsel in distress, foreign a nice touch. Worked like a beaded Hare’s Ear on a rainbow trout. Old and still naive. A safe gamble on her part for sure.

I’ve seen my share of cons, successful and failed, while using the bus. Some of those have turned up here in Bus Stories. I’m sure I’ve missed some, too, being too slow or too inexperienced to realize what was going on at the time.

But it’s not the bus that makes me second-guess what happened in this particular story. As Ms. Marks points out, we live in a culture where the con is on. But she doesn’t include the most sophisticated, most appealing, most invisible con of all: modern advertising. It’s as ubiquitous as the air we breathe, and daily we are expertly played in the choices we make for everything from personal hygiene products to political candidates.

I’d hate to have to defend against P.T. Barnum’s assertion there’s a fool born every minute. But I’d argue for another way of looking at the fools. I’d argue the real reason we remain susceptible to the con is because we are, most of us, most of the time, sweethearts. We have good hearts and good intentions. But we’ve all been burned. And so we inevitably either suspect the con or spot it where, in fact, it’s not.

I don’t know whether I was played or not that afternoon at the bus stop. My gut still tells me this was a kid who, for whatever reason, was going to give up taking the bus after school because she didn’t have the correct change. Which makes me a nice guy. Which makes me feel better about myself, and her, too. A dollar was, for me, at this place in my life, a small price to pay for possibly being wrong. And if it was a con, we both got my dollar’s worth.


The photo at the top of this story is posted with the permission of Que Fregados.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

BUS STORY # 415 (Portrait # 28: Good Lookin’)

Photo by Busboy

She’s in her 40s, probably the near side of 45. Plain white sleeveless blouse, denim clamdiggers, flip-flops. Brown hair, and long for her age -- past her shoulders. It looks good.

She recognized the driver when she boarded, and she’s standing in the front and having a conversation. About barbecue.

It’s an animated discussion, and there is friendly disagreement.

The animation comes from the tone of her voice. And, I realize, from the way her hair moves with her vocal cadence.

And then I realize it’s just not her hair that looks good. She looks good.

That’s when I really start looking.

And at first, I can’t figure it out.

It’s not her clothes. They couldn’t be more nondescript.

She’s trim, but everywhere I look -- the backside of her clamdiggers, her upper arms, her ankles, -- there is undisguised middle-age thickness.

Her elbows look roughened. And I can see wrinkles on the side of her face.

And, yes, she still looks good...

(I can also see the face of the driver in his rearview mirror. He’s obviously enjoying the conversation and the company, but I never see him take his eyes off the road.)

After a while, she moves to the bench seat behind the driver. I’m near the front on the passenger side of the bus, and have a good view of her face now. It’s a middle-aged woman’s face, pleasant enough, and you can see the attractive girl that used to be where the woman is now. She isn’t wearing any makeup that I can see.

And then she smiles, to herself.

That’s when I figure it out. There’s an unguarded joy in that smile you just don’t see everyday. It’s the smile of someone who is comfortable with who she is, and who is enjoying herself in the ordinary everyday.

She looks terrific.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

BUS STORY # 414 (A Driver, Part 2)

Photo by Busboy

You can read Part 1 here.

The driver stands outside the bus, by the bus stop sign, smoking a pipe.

His hair is gray, or rather, silver, streaked with lighter and darker silver lines. He’s got it pulled straight back into a small knot. I’m thinking prematurely gray; his face suggests he’s somewhere in his 30s, and his hairline has only just begun to retreat.

He’s wearing rimless sunglasses, lightly tinted, the tint fading as it descends. Prominent nose, large but ennobling, actually. His face is right for it. And perhaps this is what draws me to realize he’s actually a pretty big guy. Over six feet, but not so tall it’s the first thing you notice.

He’s not thin, and not thick or going to fat, either. Except for his hair, and maybe his nose, I’m not sure what it is that calls my attention.

He says something to me -- I don’t recall what -- and a conversation begins. He talks, I ask questions, he answers, talks some more, and I have a story.

He is from Argentina. (The ponytail knot made me think “tango.” But he doesn’t have the face for it. Too easy going, too content.) He met an American, they got married. They went to Cancun and ended up living there for three years. Then she told him she’d been cruising through her life for too long now, and she needed to go back home and do something real. They moved to Philadelphia, she got something real, they got divorced. He had to get away to someplace far away.

That “had to get away” is the only clue I have that this was a troubled time for him. He’s telling his story with a mild smile and an easygoing inflection, not too animated but not flat, either.

“Far away” was Texas. I ask where in Texas. San Antonio. Ah, best place in Texas, I tell him. Austin, he counters, Austin. And I understand why he’s right, too.

He was working as a tour guide, leading tours to South America. Between tours, he took motorcycle trips out west, partly because he wanted to expand his scope for tours, partly because he wanted to see the country, and a lot because he loves riding motorcycles.

Those trips took him through New Mexico and Colorado. He knew California and the Pacific Coast, too. I don’t know whether he just toured these places, or whether he lived there for a while. I suspect the latter, at least where Los Angeles is concerned.

He loves the Rockies, but Albuquerque turns out to be “the sweet spot.” Great weather, great roads for biking, like the back way up the Sandias. He likes to hike, too; climbs Cabezon once a year.

He’d lived here before, in Santa Fe. He had a job at a high end car dealership. He left after some kind of dispute, but returned when his boss asked him to reconsider. He says he got to town only to discover his boss was out of town -- in South America -- and, anyway, it’s an employer’s market these days when it comes to wages. He went to work for ABQ RIDE.

Turns out he drove a bus in the Philadelphia area as well, so this isn’t a new career move. And my sense is ABQ RIDE is not really a career move, either. It’s what he can do now.

And he seems to be just fine with that. In fact, I sense he is just fine with wherever he is and with whatever he is doing, and when he’s not, he’ll change that.

I ask him if he ever misses Argentina.

He hates Argentina. The whiniest people on the planet. Well, next to the Angelenos, anyway. Which is why I suspect he lived in, maybe even drove a bus in, LA.

I’m not watching the clock, but if we’ve spent only eight minutes at the rest stop, I’ve learned a busload of things about my driver.

I cannot get over how relaxed and easygoing he is. I see a final little portrait later on during the trip when a rider boards with a lit cigarette in his mouth. He swipes his bus pass, starts up the aisle, then suddenly realizes the cigarette. He whirls around, throws the cigarette out the still-open doors.

“Why didn’t you say anything?” he asks the driver.

The driver is smiling. It is the smile of someone who has been watching this roll out and is amused.

“I was waiting for you,” he answers, laughing

He is having a good time on the job. That, perhaps, is what makes him stand out.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

BUS STORY # 413 (A Driver, Part 1)

Photo by Busboy

The 11 pulls up to its official end-of-the-line stop on Chelwood Park. Then the driver steps into the aisle and announces we’ll be here for 8 minutes

This is unusual, but occasionally, other drivers have let us riders know how long we’ll be parked before the bus resumes its route.

I flip open a magazine. He speaks up again, explaining we will have to exit the bus until it’s time to resume the trip.

That’s new. At least on this particular line.

I remember several years ago, many of the drivers of the 50 wouldn’t pick up folks near the airport turnaround, either. They’d have to go across the street and wait for the return route.

Once, on the 140, a driver made someone get off the bus and wait for the next bus up by the Eagle Rock Road stop. The rider was perplexed (as was I), but the driver explained that the rider had boarded during the northbound route before the loop that would have qualified him for a return trip. He should have crossed the street and waited for this bus to return.

I remember listening to the tone of the driver’s voice and thinking he was being kind of a jerk about the whole thing. It didn’t make sense that the rider should have to wait another 20 minutes for the next bus. But this story, and the others, suggest to me that there is probably an ABQ RIDE policy in place that is customarily not enforced.

I’ve never seen today’s driver before, but his face and voice do not suggest he’s being kind of a jerk. He’s smiling, and he explains he’s getting ready to step outside himself, and he can’t leave riders on the bus when he’s not aboard.

It’s a gentle, almost bemused, explanation. He has an accent; South American, I think.

“So go on outside and enjoy this wonderful sunshine,” he says.

His explanation makes sense. And so I get up and go outside. And he’s right about the sunshine. it is a glorious early autumn day, the kind where being in the sun is actually comforting.

A moment or so later, the driver steps outside and stands by the bus stop sign. He has a pipe in one hand and a plastic baggie of tobacco in the other. I watch him dip the pipe, fill the bowl, withdraw the pipe and tamp down the tobacco. It has the feel of habit, something he’s been doing a long time without having to think about it.

My father smoked a pipe the last years of his life. I took one of his pipes after he died, and smoked for a year or so. I understand I was in some way trying to stay connected to him, but either I am not a pipe smoker, or the times were not conducive to pipe smoking. Probably both. Certainly the times weren’t right; it takes slow time and careful work to smoke a pipe.

The driver looks like a pipe smoker, and when I take a longer look, I see someone who looks like he knows what he likes, and isn’t terribly concerned about what the times think about it.

It is about this time that I become aware that the driver has presence. He’s someone you would inevitably single out in a crowd because there is something more interesting, more attractive, more what-is-it-about-him, that exerts some gravitational pull.

I’m not thinking about a possible bus story yet. That comes later.

Continued next week.