I used to think busses were for suburban types, and I use the term with disdain even though I live in Queens. Busses were for those who considered themselves too good for the grit. Real New Yorkers took the subway. I walked a mile and a half every morning to hop the subway rather than take the bus that stopped a block from my apartment. In those times, the closest you got to anyone was probably the people on the trains. They fascinated me, those people—every face told a story. Bus people, by contrast, were stolid and impassive, or so I thought until that Wednesday afternoon on the Q66 into Flushing.
I was running late and had a heavy backpack. Faced with the choice of hauling my load to the corner and boarding a boring bus or sprinting eight blocks to the subway and standing up all the way home, I condescended to take the bus. Dipping my Metrocard, I faced a dreary clientele with saggy faces and closed eyes. There were still a few empty seats, and I swung into one as the bus rumbled down Northern Boulevard with its cargo of the dead.
Two blocks later a crowd of school kids piled in and the atmosphere was transformed. Passengers tensed visibly, eyebrows raised, knuckles whitened as they clutched their bags. The kids were ten or eleven years old, full of the excitement of the day, bursting with suppressed energy. Within a few minutes I knew all about the gross personal habits of their teachers, who had a boyfriend, who was too ugly to ever have a boyfriend, and who wanted to dump her boyfriend. Pleasantly surprised, I stared straight ahead and feigned disinterest while I memorized every word and inflection. It’s a writers’ thing; good dialogue is rarely created. It’s more often transcribed.
I was so intent on sorting out the varied threads of their conversation that I almost missed the grumbled monologue of the lady in the seat behind me. “Why can’t you keep your voices down? Who wants to listen to you? I have the right to enjoy my ride in peace and quiet! This is a public bus.” They ignored her, of course, but she kept punctuating their exuberant exchanges with exasperated sighs and admonishments. Finally one of the little boys cursed at her. The word torpedoed out of his mouth and found its mark, stunning her momentarily before she rose from her seat. She was on a righteous mission. Head high, lips pursed, she sailed in queenly indignity toward the driver and leaned over his shoulder.
“Did you hear what that boy said to me? You can’t let him talk to me like that! I’m a grandmother! I have a right to peace and quiet! This is a public bus!”
The driver pulled over. It was a scheduled stop anyway, but the timing was perfect and achieved the desired effect. Tight, silent apprehension replaced the hilarity that had reigned only moments before. The driver turned in his seat and eyeballed the kids, singling out the offender. “You, kid, come up here.”
The kid took his time, his eyes narrowed into mean little slits, his fists jammed into his pockets. He was scared to death.
“You think you can curse out an old lady? What’s the matter with you?”
The driver stood up and put his hands on his hips, towering over the boy. “How would you like it if I cursed out your mother? How about if I come up to your door and ring your bell and when your mother answers I just curse her out? You want me to do that, kid? Huh? Answer me!” He paused for a reply but the kid remained speechless. “Oh, you’re real quiet all of a sudden without all your friends around, aren’t you? Speak up, kid! Would you like it if I cursed out your mother?”
“You’re nothing but a little punk. Get off my bus!” The kid started back down the aisle, shoulders hunched, eyes down. “Where you going, kid? I said get off my bus!”
He stopped, suddenly defiant. “I’m gettin’ my stuff!” His friends held their breath as he shouldered his school bag and made his way back to the front. I could feel the old lady’s self-satisfied smirk on the back of my neck. One step down from the driver’s seat, the kid turned to deliver his parting shot. “I’m telling my mother!” His index finger jabbed each word as it was formed, a chubby exclamation point. “This is a public bus!”
Every preadolescent heart soared as he made his triumphant exit. He was a New Yorker, like the old lady, like the bus driver, like me. For some of us instigate, some of us irritate, some take the hits and remain standing, and some just take notes and enjoy the ride.