Dear Slightly Less Cruel Universe,
Recent events in my circumscribed, pre-but-almost-adolescent life have given me cause to reflect on the strange beast that is American mass transit. Although my experience with mass transit has been limited to daily rides to and from school on the local city bus route, and one brief journey on an extremely screechy subway train in New York City whilst visiting my Uncle Harry, it seems to me that these buses and subways, these light rail lines and ferries, are this country’s great comminglers. On such vehicles as are enlisted by municipal governments to provide travel services to the local proletariat, their riders are tossed together in a kind of great human salad, whether rich or poor, young or old, black or white, popular or unpopular. (Although it does seem to me that the majority of citizens who utilize the services of the Capital District Transportation Authority are primarily old, and black.) Whilst riding the bus, one finds oneself bumping up against, both literally and figuratively, all manner of people.
Yes, in Albany, schoolchildren are transported to and from the city’s various temples of learning via city buses, buses which follow predetermined routes, designed for convenience of use by local commuters, whether or not school is in session but which—I am sure to adult riders’ chagrin—become packed to the lees with middle school and high school students at those hours in the morning and the afternoon that coincide with the inauguration and conclusion of the school day. It occasionally strikes me as rather strange that we latchkey babes are forced to board the city bus, where any number of perverts and strangers may tempt us with kind salutations and candy, in order to get to school, instead of being safely ferried there by government-sanctioned children-only yellow buses piloted by jovial potbellied older gentlemen, vehicles upon the side of which the name of the local school district is stamped like a protective coat of arms and within which one will find a happy universe of pen-marked seats and pull-tab windows and a stench unique to this automotive genre: a sort of hybrid scent of damp sneakers, diesel exhaust, and the gaseous emissions of be-pimpled pubescent boys. Such environs may encourage either camaraderie, or nausea, depending upon your temperament. (I am familiar with the so-called “cheese bus” thanks to countless summer camp field trips that involved our being loaded onto said buses like chattel and whisked off to spend an afternoon at such uneducational hubs of mindless entertainment as the Zoom Flume Water Park or the Funplex Funpark Go-Kart Raceway.) It seems to me that in a city as small and provincial as Albany, residents might assume that if they choose to reproduce, their progeny will have safe and sanctioned educational transportation at their disposal, but this is not the case. And thus, most mornings I find myself alone at the city bus stop at the end of my street, swaddled in my L.L. Bean down vest and huddled against the autumn winds which howl down from the North Country.
On a sparkling fall morn last week, shortly following the cafeteria dustup in which I became embroiled on the first day of school, I boarded the #13 bus and found a pleasant seat midway back wherein I cozied myself against the broad window and cracked open my earth science textbook. The bus was relatively empty, but my stop is early in route to school; as we made our way down New Scotland Avenue, the bus creaking and hissing, every block or so the vehicle would squat down on its haunches and admit new legions of commuters and students alike, so that not ten minutes after I boarded the fetid machine was full to brimming with passengers. Every journey brings a new triangulation of seats and social arrangements, a new phalanx of awkward encounters with the panoply of my fellow student riders. (For example, one ignominious day in the sixth grade I had to endure a particularly excruciating thirty-minute ride next to Shane McManus, née love-of-my-life, who sat next to me of his own accord, though there were many free seats left throughout the bus chassis, but for the entire term of which I could not find one single solitary thing to say to him.)
At one stop shortly following my own, Angela Fiorentino tripped on board in her gelled bun and sparkling white and neon green Nike sneakers. I have always liked Angela, though we are cut from different cloth. She struts around school in tight jeans and headphones (which invariably blare some iteration of hip-hop music at decibels so high the actual lyrics of said songs are able to be discerned by any passerby with a remotely functional eardrum) and seems to have nary a whit of concern for the regular rules of middle school social strata. We attended the same elementary school and she never fails to give a friendly wave or offer me a piece of her loudly-smacked gum if we find ourselves sharing the same bus seat. On the day in question she hooted at me “Whattup, bookworm?” as she passed on her way to a free seat a few rows back, where she no doubt planned to plunk herself and play some inane pixilated game on her cell phone. A few minutes later I wished dearly that she had chosen to sit with me, for at the next stop a large and ill-dressed man redolent of body odor and some other sharp, nostril-clogging scent that readily reminded me of my father’s nightly nip of Black Velvet chose to disgorge himself into the free seat next to mine. I had been witness to this man before; he was a regular rider of the #13 bus, but usually he sat up near the driver and dozed with is cranium nodding and knocking against the plastic partition by the folding door. Today he toted a metal push cart full of plastic grocery bags and crushed aluminum cans, and after he had settled himself upon our bench he pulled his trolley betwixt his legs, folded his arms round his ample midsection and gave me a nod with an accompanying friendly smile. I returned this smile in the smallest possible way, using only my peripheral vision to acknowledge his presence, hoping that somehow this meager attempt still managed to fall under the purview of politeness (the simultaneous advice of my father to never, ever, ever engage with anyone on the bus, not even fellow students, not even the bus driver, and of my bleeding-heart mother to show love to all mankind because each sentient being on this earth, no matter how low-down in life, has the light of the soul hidden somewhere inside himself, cacophonously ringing in my ears). I could see, then, through his body language, despite his crossed arms, that he was angling for some kind of conversation: the bus lunged forward and he sighed, he shifted his bulk, he began to read over my shoulder. My prized abilities of concentration of course chose to escape me at this crucial moment, and so in an effort to look utterly unavailable for social discourse, I faux-scanned my textbook with an intensity even I, presumptive class valedictorian, rarely display in the actual act of studying.
Finally this unsavory gentleman uncrossed one arm and gestured at the open page of my book with a blackened thumbnail. “I used to be in school once, you know. Loved to study. Just like you.” He folded his arm back and shook his head, presumably in some sort of bemusement, for I heard him chuckle softly to himself.
“Is that so?” I said, without looking up.
“Yes ma’am. Couldn’t get enough of biology. And trigonometry. That they don’t teach you until high school though. Trig. I took it the tenth grade. My last year of school. Yup,” he said to no one, “never made it past the tenth grade.”
“What happened?” I said as disinterestedly as possible, but glancing over at him quickly, despite my best intentions. The skin on his face was brown and stippled and reminded me of the sticky organic fruit leathers my mother insists on sticking in my lunch bag. His eyes were limned in pink.
“Aw, a lot of stuff, that year. My mom, she left us, and my dad, he went off the deep end, you know.” He snorted here, and made a dive-bombing motion with one hand. “He drank a lot, so. We got evicted.”
“Well,” I said. “I’m sorry.” The bus jerked to a halt, then, and dipped down to the curb to admit a flock of night nurses who had just finished their shift at the hospital across the street. My seatmate and I watched them board in a flurry of purple scrubs and bulging tote bags, and I had just made up my mind to dip my head back down to my textbook and redouble my efforts to appear to be studying, when I saw Madison Lauren skipping up the bus stairs like some sort of Vegas showgirl making a grand entrance, the nurses parting before like backup dancers.
She made her way down the aisle, clutching the silver bars as she went, the bus heaving to life and tossing us all pell-mell once again. She did not notice me; I was after all well concealed behind my overlarge textbook and my overlarge seatmate.
“You know,” the homeless man said, “you’re quite pretty.”
Feeling uncomfortable all over at the pederastic intimations of this statement and desiring to immediately halt any further inappropriate dialogue, I mustered up all the firmness I could summon. “Sir,” I said, “I’m twelve.”
“Oh, no. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not hitting on you. I’m just telling you—you’re very pretty.” I stared at the pages of my book, searching futilely yet again for some means of escape that would never come. “I know how it is. You don’t think you’re pretty. You probably think you’re a big nerd, right? You like to study, you got that crazy hair”—here he made a corkscrew motion with one finger—“you probably think you’re too skinny, or too fat, or something, right?”
I now turned my head as far as was humanly possible away from him, so that my attention was fully absorbed in the window-view, which at that moment took in the dismal McDonald’s around the corner from Van Buren Middle School where, when skipping classes, the more social of my peers choose to congregate and smoke clove cigarettes and guzzle milkshakes in its weed-crowded parking lot. Indeed at that very moment three boys from my own year were riding skateboards there, flinging their bodies with wild abandon over the pavement.
“But I’m telling you,” he continued, “you’re gonna be real beautiful one day. A real beauty. Don’t forget it, now. Don’t forget it.”
I heard a derisive snort flutter upwards from somewhere behind us. I turned, and of course! Of course, there was Madison Lauren, who, apparently unable to find a seat, had chosen to stand and clutch the pole immediately behind our seat. I found myself looking up at her before I quite comprehended her person, and undoubtedly my face, deepest crimson as I felt it so to be, in that moment revealed to her all my helpless floundering, all my cherished insecurities, as if my whole self had been reduced to only the pale underbelly of a turtle found flipped roadside, and she were the cruel neighborhood bully standing over me and armed with a long sharp stick.
My seatmate, hawk that he was, noted the direction in which my attention had been diverted, and turned himself laboriously in Madison’s direction. “What are you looking at?” he said, and not unrudely.
I could see the flicker of fear and discomfort in Madison’s kohl-rimmed eyes. “Nothin’,” she said.
“What,” he said, thumbing back toward me, “you think she ain’t pretty?”
Madison looked at me, rolled her eyes, pulled her phone out of her back pocket, snapped open its slide-out keyboard, and began texting furiously. In that moment, I wanted to die. I literally wanted to die.
“Yeah, what?” I heard another, almost rougher voice pipe up from a few rows back. “You think Matilda ain’t pretty?” I glanced further back and there, shouldering her backpack and coming up the bus aisle like the Angel of Death, was Angela Fiorentino.
Madison was, for once in her life, rendered unto silence by this turn of events. Yes, for once in her life, Madison Lauren was not the predator but the cornered prey. Angela seemed to be approaching her as if to fight—physical altercations being something she is rather known for round the schoolyard—but then, reaching Madison, she roughly shouldered past her and made her way to the front of the bus; we were, after all, almost to our stop.
And so we disembarked, Madison nose-deep in her Droid, which I knew was all a ruse, having just attempted such fakery myself. My seatmate swung his legs out into the aisle to let me depart, and, clutching my textbook to my chest, I looked him in the eye and said, “Thanks.”
And so it only remains to thank you, distant inventor of public transportation (much to my surprise, a spot of research reveals that Blaise Pascal, of all people—already one of my heroes—was perhaps the original concept man behind the city bus) for giving me the opportunity to experience this fleeting exchange. It was a moment unimportant to all but myself and I am quite positive that Madison Lauren is not the only person who would dismiss out-of-hand any statements, let alone compliments, put forth by a noxious mendicant. Yet I am also quite positive that I will treasure the words of this strange man in my heart, for he is the first person not genetically related to me, and therefore obligated, to state that I am even remotely aesthetically pleasing.
Where would I be, both literally and metaphorically, without the bus?
Liz lives and writes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.