By NICOLE BURROWS
I JOKINGLY called it the bus ride from hell. Obviously, that was after I had safely disembarked and walked into familiar territory.
Why did I take it? Well, as I go about researching this next book and film, visiting all the little towns and cities in my reach, I want to and I try to experience how the local people live. If I’m writing about real people, I want to have real experiences. That makes sense, right? And what better way to do that than to watch them go about their usual day, blending in (I hope) while taking mental and written notes?
So I hopped aboard, just after 4pm, with the intention that I’d return within the hour. After all, all buses do a loop and return to the place you got on… eventually. So this would be a breeze. What I didn’t bargain on, which ended up being both a good and bad thing, was that the rush hour in this small part of town was maddening... and the lives of the people rushing so very real.
I first encounter an elderly Asian couple, each of them eighty-plus for sure, maybe older. One thing about the people in this town, they get around, no matter their age. They have a decent public transportation system and they make good use of it.
These two long-time lovers are waiting in the shade of a big tree. The man walks slowly and speaks loudly. The woman walks with a walker. They ride the bus for just a short while before getting off at the grocery store. He shouts at the driver to stop, never mind the bell tag. He can’t reach that quickly enough so he hollers. It’s actually kinda sweet; even though she can reach it, he does the shouting on her behalf. They mosey on out.
A few stops later, a young African-American man (and now I really have to be specific because I have never been in one place with such a high concentration of ethnic diversity) boards the bus. He looks deeply displeased. There’s lengthy dialogue with the driver before we even pull off. I can’t quite make out what they’re saying, but I get the feeling that something has gone awry with his previous bus connection, leaving him without the proper ticket to board this bus. Somehow they work it out, but he sits, shaking his head, clearly annoyed, but composed. I watch him through my shades. That goes on for a few minutes. And since this is a people watching expedition, I look more closely at the bags he’s carrying. He had just been to the grocery store, and through the bags I could see about two giant multipacks of Ramen noodles. I know about Ramen noodles. We ate Ramen noodles every which way we could think of in college. We weren’t well-off - in hindsight we were somewhat poor - so we had to be creative with our meals. I could only hope that this young man would also be creative with his Ramen noodles, because I know what it means when that’s the biggest portion of your grocery list.
We drive a little further, having just taken our northern loop, and all is well. I’ve been aboard for maybe ten or 15 minutes now and looking forward to scoping out the area, familiarising myself with what’s around me, so I can make a list of places to go. We’re headed south and my excitement is still at a healthy setting. I see a popular shopping district and wonder if I should get off there. Nope; this bus will soon make a loop and once I’ve seen where it goes I can get off on the way back up.
We pass another few points of interest and I make note. After about 20 more minutes of driving, I decide the bus is probably gonna turn around soon. It veers off perpendicularly, and does a loop at a school, dropping off and collecting passengers. I figure this is the beginning of the return trip.
The bus continues south and I look at my watch… it’s almost 45 minutes now I’ve been riding and maybe I should get off and get the next bus heading back up. But as I think of this, we cross over a major highway, and then the scenery starts changing instantly and drastically. We’re headed into the inner city, and a colourful assortment of passengers await this bus.
Two more young African-American men board, and they are loud… the kind of loud that by the time they’re gone you feel like you’ve known them for years. But these guys are really young and that’s part of their loudness… they’re having fun, telling jokes, some of which make me smile, though I try not to seem like I’m listening. On and on they go. On more people board. And I lose track of who came first: black, white, in between; very young and very old; fragrant not so fragrant; able-bodied and disabled.
At some point, this rugged, white lady gets on the bus. She doesn’t seem like she’s got it all upstairs. She clearly leads a hard life. She talks loudly and hardly sits down before she’s asking a young woman about her baby. And I swear there’s blood on her shirt. And maybe some greenish coloured snot. I turn away. The OCD germophobe in me is crying. The bus is suddenly too hot. There are too many people on it. And as fast as six people disembark, another dozen climb aboard. I can’t feel the AC. I can smell everything. Someone who just boarded has a three-week overdue need for a soapy shower. The pretty lady with the braids smells like she just smoked enough cigarettes for everyone on this bus.
Then out the corner of my eye I swear I see smoke. Is someone behind me smoking? Is this damn bus on fire?!? You see, this is the same nonsense. Why did I choose to get on this bus today? And now it’s rush hour! I was supposed to be off the bus by rush hour! But, how was I to know the bus would stay on a southbound journey for so long!?
I look at the quiet guy to my left to see if he knows where this smoke is gently billowing from, and he looks behind us. And then the somewhat crazy white lady, shouts out “It’s only vapours! It’s only vapours! Okay I’ll stop! But it’s only vapours!”
What the hell? I am definitely in the twilight zone. This cannot be happening. She’s vaping on the bus!?
Now I’m panicked, because it’s too late to get off. I don’t know how much longer this bus will go further away from where I got on, but it ain’t turning around. And I would be more stupid to get off now, in the middle of ‘Hood Nowhere’ to wait for any other transportation. Safer to stay on board, even with all that’s going on around me.
Then, a young black woman boards and the two young guys are smitten with her, so they chat her up a bit. At one point, they start to ask her if she doesn’t want to talk to them and I have flashbacks of many a jitney ride under the same duress. She’s calm and pleasant and they work it out aloud and keep chatting. Then she gets off and they wish aloud that the ride was 40 minutes longer so they could get to know her much better. The bus passes by her as she walks and one of them near sprains his neck to watch her behind; in five minutes more he’ll need a bib.
Not long after, another young black woman boards and the same two young men get excited – more to play with! Even though she is clearly very young and has a young baby with her. Then they realise, the boy behind her is not her little brother, but her baby’s father. I swear, he looked no more than 16 or 17. Okay, maybe 17. But not 18. Maybe she was 18, but, then again…
So the two guys reeled in their game and gave respect to the baby daddy, telling him “she look just like you, man”.
And after that, a man in a wheelchair boarded. He was paralysed, though not fully, but also had a breathing tube. The two young guys - I should really give them names - obnoxious though they were (one admitted loving to look at himself in the mirror every day), were very respectful to the man. They told him “we gat you” when the bus stopped suddenly and the brake on his chair didn’t fully hold. A few minutes later, one of them was bold enough to ask him how he got paralysed. He said he was shot by police. I can’t believe my ears. Though I’m sure there is a long and interesting story there, the young men reply, “yeah, well, you know when they see our colour skin that’s what happens”. And you know you’ve heard this before, but I’m now seeing a man who was shot by a cop. I have no idea what may have gone down, but my mind is flooded with all the possibilities… overlain with the thought, “this really happens”.
We pass through the deepest part of a ghetto, where there are houses just like the ones you’d see in Pinewood, or Yellow Elder. Mostly black folk live in this neighbourhood. Mostly black folk ride this bus. There are a dozen churches. I’m betting mostly black folk attend them. And I’m wondering how that has helped, if they are still so depressed and living in poverty.
Is this the fate of my Caribbean people? Because I’ve already heard two different accents on this one bus ride... several Jamaicans and a couple of Haitians, all looking for a better life in this vast land. And I start to feel melancholy… for them, for my island people. Even though right now, I have the lightest skin on board and no one would think I was an islander unless I opened my mouth to talk. They probably think I’m the ‘po-po’.
More people get off, more people get on. The bus keeps going south. By the time I realise where it’s headed, I see skyscrapers.
We pull into a bus depot. Everyone gets off. I’m the only one left on board. At this point, the driver usually turns around and asks, “Ma’am, where you going?” But not this guy. He’s just trying to load up to head back. And really, that’s fine with me, because I’ve seen, heard, felt, and smelt enough for the day.
The new crew pack the bus… they all just got off from work. But no more observing for me. In fact, I try to block everyone out, because I feel down and I just want to be back where I got on.
We finally turn around and head north, but not until we’ve sat in some rush hour traffic for another half hour. Then the bus roof starts leaking as the AC kicks up a notch. The bus slams into something in the roadway sending shocks throughout my body... vertical pain.
Are we there yet?
Finally, we break free of traffic, scary people, nasty language, horror stories, vapours, and people who wanna knock you over when you try to find a new seat.
And finally, I reach the stop where I got on. It’s now after 7pm.
I’m the last one on the bus again. It’s three hours later. And I’ve got a story of my own to tell.
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