Running Amok on the Select Bus

by

01/17/2011

Neighborhood: All Over, Uncategorized

Running Amok on the Select Bus
Photo by Charlie Cowins

People tell me that being shit on by a pigeon is good luck but from my point of view it was simply the second annoying thing that had happened to me that day. The first was when I was told that my cushy, if slightly soul-crushing, freelance gig with a New York publishing company was coming to an abrupt end after several years. It was being turned into a staff position in the publisher’s Pennsylvania office, where they could pay someone half what they were paying me. But I was welcome to apply for the job. I laughed as they told me this, or smiled anyway, swilling cold coffee around in my mouth but not spitting it in anyone’s face.

The pigeon shit on me that afternoon, as I trudged back to the office with a wrinkled bag of Wendy’s clutched in one hand, over puddles and around those maddening rolling suitcases everyone in midtown seems to drag behind them, salivating at the thought of my double cheeseburger and new sea-salt fries, but slightly nauseated as well by the faint whiff of bird shit in the air, and oh, let’s just admit it, verging on despair.

“Enough of this charade, I’m leaving early today.” I resolved to go downtown to my barber, to get a beard trim and perhaps a haircut as well, try to regain some semblance of my humanity. With all this wild growth, I was like a homeless man, or the ghost of a homeless man, stalking the hallways of an office where I was no longer wanted.

An hour or so later, at the bus stop on Second Avenue and 45th Street, I purchased a “select” bus ticket at one of the new outdoor kiosks and boarded near the back of the bus when it arrived. “Select” buses are a new feature in New York City, designed to speed up the excruciatingly slow process of taking a city bus anywhere. You buy the ticket beforehand and hold onto it for the duration of the ride, ready to present it to any transit cops that might materialize and give you a hard time (and, of course, there are many). Then you board through any of the three bus doors, which does indeed speed things up, and the bus makes far fewer stops, which also speeds things up, so that when all goes well, you can cruise to your destination with exciting efficiency.

I slid into a seat near the back of the bus—plucking nervously at my unruly beard—next to a middle-aged and exhausted-looking Latino guy with a long scar on his face, which he was letting bump against the window, as if he’d already been utterly defeated by the ride, life … everything. I could smell booze seeping out of him into the air around us, but I didn’t mind. It smelled sweet, and I was happy to have such a miserable-looking seatmate. And what a scar! The other people, I didn’t really look at—I was preoccupied with an increasingly tense series of text messages I was sending to a friend about the reduced income I was suddenly going to be facing in the coming months.

“What percentage of your income comes from that job?” she wanted to know. “Ninety-five percent,” I said, dramatically, then tempered that down to “About 80 percent,” which was probably closer to the real number, but still far too much.

A few stops later, the doors opened and a rowdy, unruly group of about 20 Chinese children boarded the bus in unison—screaming, milling around in a confused frenzy, punching each other, gnawing on fistfuls of candy—and I thought that perhaps I should just get off the bus then and there. I surveyed their faces as they crowded around me—they were about 10 years old, or 12, most of them, happy, arrogant-looking, very self-assured in their youth. Were they definitely Chinese? Perhaps Japanese? “No, I can tell these groups apart, and these children are definitely Chinese.” I often wonder if I can “tell” what kind of person someone is just by looking at him—it’s fun, to try to guess ethnicities, sexual orientations, those kinds of things. And I like to think that I’m rarely wrong.

As engrossing as this was, I was painfully aware that the bus wasn’t moving. The bus driver was on the intercom now, peevishly telling everyone to “move away from the doors.” Apparently the bus cannot start if people are standing in the door wells—a good safety measure in theory, but ridiculous in practice, the way people cram onto a New York City bus at rush hour.

It made me wish I was back in India, where there were no safety measures on buses at all. People just packed in as tightly as they could, and then hung on to the doors from the outside if there was no more room inside, or climbed up on the roof as a last resort. That’s something I’d love to see in New York—a bus ripping down Second Avenue with a bunch of people on top, hanging on for dear life. Not on Bloomberg’s watch, but maybe I’ll be mayor someday.

“This bus is going out of service if you all can’t clear out of the door wells,” the bus driver hollered into her microphone. The mob of children paid absolutely no attention, except one boy who mimicked, “This bus is going out of service!” to the delight of his friends. The bus driver had had enough. “OK, this bus is out of service,” she thundered, “I’m going to have to call someone to do a mechanical check on these doors. Everyone off the bus.” The doors swung open again, and people started streaming off, back onto the street. For the most part, they seemed blithe, unconcerned, as if the absurdity of this was not registering with them. Several staunch, angry riders, including myself, stayed put.

It seemed clear to me that once a few people had gotten off the bus, the driver could shut the doors again and we could be on our way. But this was not what she had in mind. “Everyone off the bus,” she yelled again, “and I mean everyone.”

I glanced at my seatmate, whose scarred, alcohol-soaked face was still mashed into the widow beside us, blissfully unaware of the drama unfolding around us. My tension levels, on the other hand, which had been rising throughout the day, were now unbearably high. I pushed my way to the front of the bus, stepping on a few straggling children, and planted myself in front of the bus driver—a round-faced black woman with bright-red lipstick and a weary expression.

“This is ridiculous,” I said at her, trying to be calm, but almost screaming: “You know very well this bus still works. You should have just had a few people get off and then started the bus back up. I can’t believe this is the system you guys have—to tell everyone to get off the bus and then act like there’s something wrong with the bus itself.”

“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to step off and catch the next bus. This bus is no longer in service. I have to call someone to check all the doors for mechanical errors.”

“You know that’s not what it is!” I said, “There were just too many people on the bus; you could start it back up right now!”

“Sir, are you really going to let three buses go past”—she glanced outside at the other buses nearby—“while arguing this invalid point.”

“An invalid point?” I sputtered. “Oh no, the point is valid. The point is very valid, and you know it.” I was wagging my finger in her face now, and she shifted her weight on her massive bus-driver’s chair and fixed me with a defiant glare. I was choking now, too angry to speak—so I fled that bus and got on another one just outside, a local bus, also packed with people.

I had expected a 20-minute ride downtown to the barber, where I could reclaim at least some small part of my identity, or dignity, or whatever it was I’d been gradually losing over these last few years—or at least alter my appearance enough to look in the mirror and know that things had changed, and might continue to change. Instead, the ride was turning into an hour-long ordeal.

As my new local bus approached 14th Street, something shocking happened. I looked out the window and saw the “select” bus I’d originally been on go speeding past, once again full of people. “I knew it! She lied to me—the bus worked the whole time. She could have just told me to stay put!”

The select bus pulled into the 14th Street stop just a few moments ahead of my local bus, and I frantically pushed my way to the front, cursing at strangers—and especially children—desperate to get off and catch back up with my original bus.

Slipping in the slush left over from last week’s blizzard, I broke into a sprint and was just able to board the select bus, right up front near the driver, before the doors closed. The driver’s jaw dropped when she saw me. There were about half a dozen transit cops on the front of the bus checking tickets, and I knew my beard looked long and wild, and my eyes wide and wilder, but I didn’t care.

“This bus does work!” I screamed. “I knew this bus worked the whole time.” The driver looked at the nearest transit cop with disgust and dismay.

“This man was on my bus before,” she said, “giving me a hard time, acting all crazy.”

“All I said was that the bus worked and you knew it, you didn’t need to kick everyone off,” I said. “I knew the bus worked. You knew it worked. And, see, it does work.”

The transit cop, who seemed fairly friendly, less of a meathead than some of the other guys I’ve seen with his job, stared at us both, obviously confused. I had to get out of there before a thought materialized in his still vacant skull.

“I knew it worked. I knew it,” I said again, as if this one simple truth were the crux of all that was wrong in the world, then I scrambled down the length of the bus, looking for an empty seat.

As soon as I found one, I took out my phone and started scrolling through the various screens, as if to give the impression that I was about to fire off some very damning missives about the embarrassing chaos that ensues on these new “select” buses, as if maybe I was about the bring the whole MTA down with a few choice words. “One hundred and four dollars for a Metrocard and this is what you get. They know they’re all crooks!”

Any moment, this cop was going to swoop down on me and arrest me, I could feel it. Then I would have been laid off, shit on by a pigeon, and arrested all in the same day. But that moment didn’t come. The cop stepped off into the snow, the doors swung shut, and we were back on our way.

When the bus stopped at Allen and Houston streets, where I was getting off, I suppressed my desire to harangue the bus driver one more time, and instead left quietly through one of the rear doors and hurried along to my barber, without looking back. “I am an insane person, but soon, at least, I’ll have a beard that’s trimmed enough to disguise it.”

I searched for Van in the back of the barbershop, but couldn’t find him. “I’ve come all this way for nothing.” I glanced down at my boots, defeated. Then, when I looked up again, there he was. His eyes contained both warmth and interesting complexities, and I relaxed, knowing that soon my beard would be in his capable hands.

“Just put your head back,” he said, once I was comfortable in the barber’s chair. “My beard is looking way too long and crazy right now,” I said, “we need to scale it back.” He nodded with appreciation, as if we’ve all been there, then said, “You’re lucky you caught me, I was just about to leave. My wife’s not going to be home tonight, and neither is the baby—it’s literally going to be the first night in two years that I have the house to myself, completely alone. I figured I’d go home and take advantage of it, just stare at the walls for a while or something.”

“That’s incredible,” I said, amazed, “how can you do that—never have any time to yourself? I’d go nuts.”

“It’s easy,” Van said, “I love my wife, and I love my daughter even more. My daughter saved my life.” He paused, and reflected further. “Plus, I’m a twin,” he said, “so my whole life I’ve never really been alone.”

Then silence—and the sound of his scissors, bringing my beard back under control, bringing me back to reality.

Rob Williams is a mercenary copywriter and copy editor who currently lives above a meat market in the East Village.

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§ 2 Responses to “Running Amok on the Select Bus”

  • Janet Thayer says:

    The suspense of this narrator’s challenged self control I found hilarious.

  • Pam Jacobstein says:

    I laughed out loud twice. In between , there were several smiles brought on byclever passages and dialogue. More!

§ Leave a Reply

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