Caught by the Bus

State Street Scribe

by Jeff Wing

Some years ago our white Honda station wagon died. Well, not exactly. A mere 72 hours of curbside quiescence and she was expensively tagged an unmoving derelict by the City of SB Traffic Centurions and hauled away. The punitive expense of having to buy our hobbled Honda out of Impound Fee Hell© decided us, instead, to sell the old dear to our friendly and honest longtime mechanic. He would make some resurrectionist repairs and give her the semi-active retirement she deserved.

The car in her prime had been a loudly spectacular totem of middling-class and middle age; the dreaded White Station Wagon— a sort of scarlet letter, but loudly white and 30 feet long. She’d finally logged as many miles as the u-turning Apollo 13 Command Module, and was sometimes as smoke-filled. I was sad to see her go. We become attached to our cars, yes. As we contemplate separation, the grill becomes a despondent grimace, the headlights accusingly staring eyes, the malfunctioning seat belts the saddened, panicked grasp of a death-bed jalopy that can’t understand being sent away. I won’t miss waving to friends out the window of a long white station wagon, though. That I won’t miss.

Keep Driving, Dumbass

I still remember—like an unforgettable scene from a beloved but emotionally wracking movie— bumping into her for the very last time. Running a work errand in Old Town Goleta, with a shock I glimpsed our familiar old friend on a side street in this unfamiliar neighborhood, her hunched look of having been betrayed practically grabbing me by the collar as I shot her a guilt-ridden, drive-by peripheral glance. Her pursed little Honda mouth didn’t change expression but I felt her desperately trying to move when she saw me. It was awful. I got misty, then checked myself. Keep driving, dumbass.

Her final symptoms before leaving us; an indecipherable and always burning Check Engine light, dangling side-view mirror mummified with two patterns of designer duct tape, AirBag warning lamp an omnipresent Christmas-colored bauble on the instrument array, fluids hemorrhaging everywhere, oil dripping as ceaselessly as a New Testament miracle, but without the hosannas.

So we were a sudden one-car family. It took some hasty getting used to. I began jauntily taking the bus, yet another window through which you wouldn’t find me excitedly announcing myself on arrival. Being a bus rider, though, did make me more fully human. And more attractively urban, which was cool. I began to rub shoulders with real people, and to invest them with a spiritual largesse that may have, in the end, burdened them.

The Extraordinary Bus

A city bus is an extraordinary thing. The ride rattles, lurches, bumps, hisses. What holds the bolts in place on these madly vibrating juggernauts is anybody’s guess. But the self-conscious among us—we who see in every quotidian scene the excited and artful hand of an omniscient second unit cameraman— we can get a lot of mileage out of a bus. Every short bus journey becomes a condensed and choppily edited version of the celebrated 1965 film Ship of Fools; a culture-exposing parable on wheels.

You look deliberately down its length from a seat near the back, and you get the Mike Nichols shot at the end of The Graduate, as Hoffman and Ross’ smiles fade and they feel the full blossoming weight of the consequence-laden present tense. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing. From the back of the bus as it chugs and grunts and twists through the mean streets of SB and Goleta, the expressionless, staring whole of the passenger list dazedly sways as one— sea grasses in a gentle current. It can mesmerize.

So I was a newly minted bus passenger and loving it. Not least because the bus is a rolling rainbow coalition of Santa Barbarans, a mobile variety pack of the city’s actual demographic in unvarnished, dazzling Technicolor. A tall black retired gentleman named Willy wore a blue jumpsuit and carried a cane, laughed like your favorite grandfather and seemed a dear, longtime pal of half the passengers on any given day. He volunteered at the Santa Barbara Food Bank and on disembarking would yell over his shoulder “Have a wonderful day, everybody.” Once outside the bus he would gesture a silent fare-thee-well with his upraised cane.

I soon learned his family was from Alabama, that he’d been in Los Angeles and then in Santa Barbara since the early sixties, and I peppered him with questions about the layout and vibe of our town back then. Willy seemed to have more spiritual gravity in the bags under his eyes than I did in the whole of my bantamweight being. Is this a reasonable assessment? Or is it more likely the sort of self-serving, projectile tone poem that finally blurs and misapprehends someone through a refusal, or simple inability, to see an unfiltered person? Did I even vaguely get to know Willy, or was that his cultural avatar I befriended? This isn’t a rhetorical question. We try our best, but it’s not always clear what our “best” is. Still.

Knotts Observes Knights

I vividly remember one day a young handsome Latino guy got off the bus, and as he passed my seat I saw a longish line of blue script on the back of his bobbing head, above the occipital ridge, barely visible through the translucent scrim of shaved hair. He passed by my seat and it seemed the tattoo was glaring from the back of his receding head like a warning. Who knows what it said? He exited the bus with a fitful hop and saw a friend there.

With big, beautiful smiles, the two guys hung their hands at chest level for 5 or so seconds, palms down, as if to say “Hey, my little cousin Carl is only about this tall!”. Then the hands fell together in a sudden, fluid and complicated series of twists and bumps and sliding, followed by a brief full-body embrace. I realized I was staring at all this like a slack-jawed Don Knotts through the smeared bus window. Compared to that Knights Templar handshake, genuine esprit de corps and manifest commonality of purpose, what did I have? A tight black t-shirt, and a compact little lunch box I momentarily couldn’t bear to look at. Hoisting their backpacks, the guys headed off into their day.

****, This Suitcase is Heavy!

My bus epoch saw women in hijabs leaning into each other and laughing helplessly, blank-looking ear bud commuters in non-responsive worlds of their own, bespectacled, other-abled chatterboxes more than willing to share their life stories and radiantly expressed victories with me, blue-haired elderly women conferring quietly— a riot of sometimes cacophonous music. Florists, model airplane enthusiasts, engineers, programmers, landscapers, altruistic volunteers, Samaritans—we crowd onto the bus in an egalitarian clot of undifferentiated color, thinking nothing of it. Is that a big deal? I dunno. Maybe.

Yeah, I’m aware that all this “Norman Rockwell’s Family of Man On the Bus” business can’t help but be delivered with the smug self-congratulation of a Princeling’s charmed dispatch from the Kingdom’s outer boroughs. I’m not sure that very fair accusation can be easily dismissed. The baggage is everywhere and stuffed with the weighted props of overacted tragedy—several centuries’ worth. Jamming onto public transportation with your lesser-known neighbors is not a panacea. Our mouse-like obsessions with skin tone and cosmology continue to maim the world. Artillery still rains down on the nameless in their millions. We’ll continue to misjudge, throw occasional gasoline on the flames of ignorance and get our eyebrows burned off.

But as our kids continue to play Street Fighter or Tekken or Sonic the Porcupine online with their unruffled chums in foreign countries they can’t pronounce [let alone find on a map], things will get better. Our elephantine geopolitical alliances, phony plastic prejudices and infantile political gibberish will be over-swarmed by energetic kids bored of the classroom’s misery and privation stories, and this unhappy crap will all go away like a stubborn infection. It has to.

As has been said many many times before, and much less laboriously – we’re all the same curious, insecure, lovely toe-stubbing clods; smiling through tears, routinely burning the toast, and, yeah, still a little bit scared. But the wheels on the bus go round and round.