JOAN OF ARC, THE D5 LINE (FERRY TO CHURCH STREET):
I used to see her carrying the Bible. Her shoulder bag, handbag and Bible were all leather, her precious things all armoured like a biker shielding herself from contact with the rougher elements on her journeys. She herself is wrapped in big skirts, modest jacket and righteousness, the Bible a battle flag.
She’s gone one better now. She has armed herself with a silver Magnavox DVD player that projects the Word of God in a protective sphere all around her. Praise fills the air, loud enough for the whole bus to hear.
Headphones? She sneers at the idea. The voice of God was not made for headphones. Headphones are for people who are ashamed of the things they listen to. She is not ashamed. She will bring joy and salvation to every sinner on this bus, whether they realise that they need it or not.
It’s modern inspirational R’n’B, the music. The program is half sermon and half praise music. I have friends who sing this kind of music. They are exceptional singers, but I can’t stand the music they make. If I have to listen to Christian devotional music, I’ll choose gospel any day.
She gets off the bus, still spinning her prayer wheel, barely holding all the pieces of her armour as she steps off, leaving the rest of us heretics and hoodlums to ride the bus unprotected, and I can barely contain a sigh of relief.
But every one of us is a story that nobody else has read. Joan gets off in front of one of the rattiest little low-income housing complexes in the area, and I wonder if the constant reassurances of her preacher and his backup band help her cope with the gangstas and dealers and the rest of what haunts her front door from early evening to the small hours. If they do, I can’t begrudge her that belief.
FLANNEL SHIRTS AND PAINT SPOTS (CHURCH AND CROWN):
I’m not going to try to tell you how convenient and wonderful buses are. You and I both know that’s a lie. Everything the car-lovers tell you about buses is true. They’re never on time, they don’t go exactly where you need to go, they take forever to cross town, they’re crowded and smelly and generally they’re way behind cars in terms of convenience and equally far behind bicycles in “greenness”. And waiting for buses in the rain really bites.
But there is one really nice thing about buses: in most of the US, buses are not the default mode of transportation for most people with money, so everyone you meet on the bus is in your tax bracket and in pretty much the same situation. They’re working two jobs to feed their kids, or they’ve been looking for work for the last three months. The men are wearing the construction worker and landscapers’ uniform of flannel shirt, paint spots and baseball cap. The women are wearing scrubs or McDonald’s shirts. Nobody is on that bus to impress anybody or pick up chicks. And it’s a community. We know each other and look out for each other, at least in the little ways that keep a community running.
If your daughter’s school has given you fundraising candy to sell, you’ll do better taking it on the bus for a couple of rides, selling dollar bags of M&Ms to people who barely have five dollars in their bank accounts, than going door to door through your entire neighbourhood. If you’re short a quarter for the fare, there is always someone who will pay up for you. People help each other with their bags and children, wake each other up at their regular stops, give each other job hunting tips when a new Target opens up because they pay like a buck an hour more than Wal-Mart. The men bitch about their women to other women, but never to other men. The women bitch about their men to other women, but never to other men. Everyone bitches to everyone else about their worthless, no good children who still live at home with them. Every ride is a community gathering.
I won’t start into that “poor people are wonderful” routine because it just isn’t so. We’ve got drunks, junkies, hustlers, gangbangers, wifebeaters and worse riding these buses, and it is by no means unusual to find out less than a minute into a conversation that the person sitting next to you just got out of jail or rehab. You can see old ladies who can barely stand get onto a crowded bus with their arms full of groceries on a snowy day, and not a soul will stand up to give them a seat. You can spend the entire ride home trying to distract your preschool-aged kid from the sixteen-year-olds in the back seats spewing forth a barrage of language so vile and explicit Quentin Tarantino would have apologetically cut it from a script thinking that people just don’t talk that crudely in real life. There’s a lot of evil shit in our world these days, and a lot of it rides the buses.
But then again, I’ve seen that same shit in every place I’ve lived, from rich neighbourhoods to isolated farming communities and lower-class urban wastelands in several different countries. It just gets hidden a little better in the other places.
GERMOPHOBIA, THE S LINE (CHURCH TO CHERRY HILL WAL-MART):
Joan of Arc is not half as annoying as the psycho that starts shouting at the driver of the S shuttle when he tries to examine her pass.
“Don’t touch it,” she warns him.
“I have to look at it and see the time and date,” he tells her, quite correctly.
“No you don’t,” she insists. “It’s a day pass. You can see it’s a day pass. You don’t have to touch it.”
“I need to check it.”
“No you don’t. It’s a day pass.”
“I have to check that for myself.”
“No you don’t.”
And that goes on for almost five minutes, I need to check it, no you don’t, again and again while she waves her pass in his face just a little too far away and too quickly for him to see if there is an expiration time on it or not. Every other passenger on the bus would be perfectly happy to see this person – I use the word in its broadest possible sense – forcibly thrown off the bus by the time he shrugs and waves her towards a seat. Most of them ride this bus to work every day, and have no time to be dealing with this kind of thing so early in the morning. Half a dozen people are telling the driver to call the cops.
“Mind your own business,” she tells the world. Even after she’s won her petty victory, she won’t shut up.
I turn the volume up on my walkman. Wyclef is telling me to thank God it’s Friday. Finally a religion that speaks my language.
THREE MINUTES LATE, THE F LINE (WAL-MART TO STATE) AND D12 (STATE TO FERRY):
The F bus is late again. The guy that used to drive this route was fantastically punctual and one of the friendliest drivers around. He was young, and had dreadlocks, and always asked you how you were doing. He remembered all his riders, too. He would wait for you if he saw you coming down the road, and he would still get to his last stop on time. He would probably make a great bartender.
But they don’t let anybody stay on the same route for very long, unless you’ve got some kind of ultra seniority. Most of the drivers switch routes every couple of months, so now I ride with this guy who is always about ten minutes late. My entire afternoon connection gets fucked because of this guy being ten minutes late.
Getting on the F ten minutes late means I get to State Street just in time to see the D4 disappear. That means I wait another fifteen minutes for a D12 and get to school at three minutes past three.
“You’re late,” my daughter helpfully informs me. “You said you were gonna be here at three o’clock. Do you know what time it is?”
“Three minutes past?”
“It’s after three o’clock!” The little snot points at the clock to show me. Her latest thing is, she is the one teaching me everything. She teaches me how to read. She teaches me how to count in Spanish. She teaches me the names of the plants that I taught her last week. And she teaches me how to tell time.
“The little hand is on the 3, and where is the big hand? AFTER the 12!”
“All right, all right, I’m late. I’m sorry, my bus from work was late. Where is your lunchbox? Go get it. We have to run to get the C3. Do you need to pee?”
“Are you sure?”
We say goodbye to everyone, get the lunchbox, hustle out the door. She stops as soon as we get down the front steps.
“Daddy, I need to pee.”
We miss the C3.
Every day is an adventure.