I settled into my bus seat, put on my glasses and continued editing my book proposal. As I considered rearranging a few words, the letters seemed to blur. Mist from the April rain, perhaps? I removed my specs and passed my index finger through the ring that should have encircled a lens.
I dreaded going to my optician to replace it—I didn’t have the time and the lens would cost several hundred dollars because my prescription called for a prism that had to be carefully ground.
I had heard a delicate clink just as I rose to disembark the 96th Street cross-town. But having shoved my manuscript into my bag, I could not imagine what else might have slid off my lap, so I dismissed any further grab of gravity. Must’ve been some lady of leisure’s purse, its hardware dangling against a pole or something. And if the ping was from a falling button, well, my long 1980s raincoat would still keep me dry.
Now, having transferred to the downtown Lexington Avenue bus, I plotted how, after my East Side errand, I would backtrack. Maybe if I returned home the way I came, I’d get lucky and catch the same bus. The driver, a woman, had actually smiled and wished me a good morning and I’d returned the greeting. Maybe she would be helpful.
The first westbound bus on 96th was driven by a man who offered to wait while I punched in the bus depot number he knew by heart into my mobile phone. But I was probably the last person in Manhattan to get a VCR—a contrarianism rooted in having covered high-tech during the revolution with the result that I eschewed domestic gadgets––although I was pretty sure I wasn’t the only Upper West Sider without a cell. So the driver patiently watched while I fumbled for my pencil and file folder and scribbled the number. I thanked him, but as he pulled away, I thought I’d seen my driver wiz by in the opposite direction. But a guy in a red baseball cap was operating the next bus so evidently she had not yet turned around. It seemed I could spend hours hoping to catch her, whereas she might have ended her shift or gone to lunch. So I alighted the baseball guy’s bus and told him my plight.
“Do you know what time you took that bus?” he said.
“What stop you getting off?”
“I’ll take you to the dispatcher. He’ll help.”
I preferred that to calling the depot, which I imagined to be the final home of dead umbrellas, crumpled hats, single gloves and lone earrings. Years ago I’d read in The Times of an MTA unclaimed belongings mortuary in a vast warehouse way out in Brooklyn, staffed by exasperated employees who rarely saw visitors. People just accepted that their possessions were fated to languish, abandoned, far from the churn of a town where time is money.
The dispatcher was hanging out in a stagnant M104 around the corner. My information told him exactly what bus I had been on, down to its fleet number.
“She should be back here in six minutes,” he said with confidence, through his white, handlebar mustache.
“Wow. You’re that organized?”
“Oh yeah. There’s some order in that chaos.”
“How many buses do you have running at a time?” Because I frequented the route, I often wondered about this.
“About 25 during rush hour, less at other times. Plus some drive the 106 route.” He was referring to the mysterious bus that turned north off East 96th on to Madison. Lots of people boarded blind and had to rush off to catch the real crosstown.
“Yup, that driver’s a really lovely woman,” the dispatcher volunteered.
“She was friendly to me this morning. Not your usual New York experience.”
“You’re not from New York?”
“I am. In fact, I’ve been afraid of bus drivers ever since I was a kid.” That admission just leapt out of my mouth like a big old frog.
The dispatcher gazed at me, surprised. Of course he wanted to know what little trauma had haunted me all those years.
“I used to ride the Q60 to school every day from Forrest Hills to the City,” I said. “And one day I needed change from the driver for a dollar bill.” Those days, you had to show your pass, which was a different color every month, and supplement your reduced fare with some coins. “I misunderstood what he wanted me to do and when I dropped the wrong amount into the fare box, he stood up, squinted through his blue eyes, and bellowed, ‘Don’t they teach you fancy private school kids any math?’” The dispatcher elevated his eyebrows. “I wanted to be invisible from then on,” I continued, “but that driver always recognized me and scowled. Trying to catch a mistake, seeking me out or some other kid with an out-of-date bus pass.” I didn’t add that he threw off violators, the persecutory bastard.
Again the dispatcher quizzically looked at me. I suppose he was figuring out my age because I remembered the days when drivers made change. It began to drizzle and he looked at his watch. “Maybe we missed her and she’s already on West End.”
“Can you call her on your walky-talky?”
He took up my suggestion. “What’s your location? Copy.”
“Approaching Columbus. Copy,” she crackled back. As we watched her bus barrel into the Broadway stop, I sort of waved to signal that nothing major was amiss. The dispatcher explained our mission, but the driver, thinking I was in search of a contact lens, warned that it might have dried out by now, two-and-a-half hours later.
We got on the bus after most passengers had stepped off. There, under my single seat, concave side up on the gritty black-and-white, dappled floor, was my lens. Uncrushed.
“You found it. They found it,” I announced to a pale, bald gentleman who was reading The Observer. He looked up and smiled at my smile. “Thank you,” I continued, this time addressing the driver and dispatcher, “You’ve saved me so much money and time.”
“You go get those repaired immediately,” the bus driver advised, with a bright laugh and a toss of her shiny, shoulder-length cornrows. I walked over to Cohen’s Optical where the clerk promptly found the right sized screw and secured my lens. While I watched, I babbled about my lucky retrieval. After polishing my now intact glasses, the clerk handed them to me free of charge.
She said, “You have a great day.”
“Thanks. I think I already did.”
Now all I have to do is land that book project.
Karen A. Frenkel is an award-winning science/technology journalist, editor, author and producer. Recent articles have appeared in Science Magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek (print and online) and U.S. News and World Report. She also blogs about neuroscience for the Foundation for Psychocultural Research and covers the intersection of science and the arts. She has made two documentaries about the impact of technology on society for public television––one on women and computing, the other about elearning. Her website is www.karenafrenkel.com. Twitter handle: @KarenAFrenkel