The People You Meet On Buses
For reasons I cannot explain in fear of alienating half of the people reading this, I’ve taken a lot of bus rides over the past few months, more bus rides than you’ll probably ever take in your entire life. What might feel like a massive inconvenience to most people has been an unexpected gift for me.
For four months, I lived in an apartment in NYC that costs more than all of rubies on the Crown Jewel combined. Crammed into a two-bedroom house with two other girls, each with their own established routines and friend groups that know the walls of this urban cave better than I do, I learned not to expect privacy. That costs extra in the city. During the day, I could curl up in a coffee shop or a bookstore but when night rolled around, people started to question the quiet girl who had spent 10 hours sitting in the corner, plugging away at her keyboard. When their eyes screamed “You’ve had enough of this place,” I was forced to retreat to my shared bedroom in midtown, with its paper thin walls and its 24-hour television chatter that’s always set to a volume more appropriate for nursing homes. I’d type in the deskless, semi-silence of the bedroom, trying to drown out the Empire soundtrack seeping through the door crack with my analytical thoughts on “The Rise of Franchises, Volume 3.”
Buses were my reprieve. Little havens of silence on wheels, buses are filled with people too exhausted at the thought of a four-hour trip to even consider speaking. A woman with a very important call once attempted to speak on such a trip, only to be reprimanded by the driver on multiple occasions over the intercom, like a young mom trying to punish her child through public humiliation causing not only the child but also everyone around him to shift in their seats and wish away their vicarious discomfort. In other words, they are perfect for working, and I welcome them as much as I welcome unannounced free samples or unseasonably warm days in March. Despite the expectation of these “chatter-free” zones, there are some individuals that challenge the system and force me into conversation, overlooking (sometimes intentionally, sometimes inadvertently) the aura of unapproachability that I try so desperately to give off.
A few weeks ago, I boarded my usual bus on Sunday afternoon and plopped down in a seat nearest to the door, in case the bus driver’s reckless maneuvering finally put me in the position of needing a quick escape. (These thoughts become commonplace after the third or fourth trip when you realize the bus crash statistics are working against you.) The Sunday bus is never packed. I like to think it’s because New York scared most of the tourists away with its high prices and eccentricity by the previous afternoon, but realistically, I know that a weekend trip to the city in the middle of winter is not an appealing idea to most people. Once the Rockefeller tree is gone, the only attractions in Manhattan are clumsy ice skaters and metro performers.
There are three unspoken rules that exist on bus rides as far as I’m concerned: Don’t be disruptive, don’t eat any stinky food and don’t buddy up with a stranger unless every two-person seat has been checked for potential openings. I don’t want to be bumping knees with you unless you’ve exhausted all other options first. I mean, I know we’re going on a trip together but we still hardly know each other, respect my emotional boundaries, please.
Pushing my headphones deeper into my eardrums, I bundled up by the window and prepared to stare distantly out the glass for the next few hours. A woman shuffled onto the bus, squeezing her puffy coat through the doorway while trying to properly perch her bag on her jacket’s marshmallow shoulder pads. After making the long journey from the curb to the bus, the woman, whose attempt to inhale the entire bus’s oxygen supply had left her red in the face, took a quick look down the row of empty chairs before pointing at my backpack’s seat. “Um…here?” She poked the seat with her finger, half-smiling, half on the verge of bursting a lung, and as I moved my bag aside, I watched my anti-social plans disappear in a puff of smoke.
Silently lamenting the loss of my peaceful bus ride, I pressed my face closer to the window in the hope that I would merge with the glass and live out the rest of my days touring the countryside as a Megabus window. The woman beside me regained her breath just long enough to pick up her cell phone and make a phone call, breaking rule number one before the bus had even pulled away from the station. In the break between iPod songs, I caught parts of her frustrated conversation and realized, far too late, my impending involvement.
“What time this bus?” she said with the confidence of a person who thinks they’re asking a fully-constructed question.
“The bus leaves this station at 10am and arrives in Boston at 2pm,” I replied in my best flight attendant voice, hoping its sheer cheeriness would placate her curiosity and release me to my comfortable traveling daze.
“Now?” she persisted.
“It’s 9:50. We’re leaving here in 10 minutes.”
“Here.” She handed me the phone and turned back to her purse, adopting a look of nonchalance that said “Could you just figure it out?” Did I have a choice?
“I’m so sorry. She does this a lot.” I recognized the exasperated tone of a daughter who, from the sound of it, had probably been through this routine one too many times. After quickly explaining the bus schedule and receiving a shower of thank yous, I passed the phone back to my seatmate who spewed a few more gibberish words before tossing the phone back into her pocketbook.
I should’ve known when I put that phone up to my ear that I was tacitly agreeing to a four-hour friendship with this woman, that my tiny display of kindness would open up the conversation floodgates, but the angel on my shoulder clouded my judgment. My only viable option was to fake my own death or, at the very least, a sudden sleep attack that rendered me a useless travel companion but her determination to break my steely, anti-social exterior beat me to the punch.
“My daughter,” she said, pointing to the phone.
“She sounded nice!” My small talk ineptitude went over her head.
“She has baby. Two month. Look, look!” Rummaging through her bag, she pulled out her phone once more, scrolling through her photo album until she found her prize.
“Boy,” she said, pointing to a photo of a small child, unsurprisingly covered in an orange residue that once used to be his dinner. The woman flipped through the photos, giggling her way through each bathtub and naptime snapshot until she stumbled onto a picture of a squash.
“That’s not baby. That’s squash. We’re done now.” I was starting to feel bad for the phone who made yet another journey into the woman’s bag.
Our conversation progressed through the typical topics (work, school, “are you married with kids yet”), like two timid college roommates meeting each other for the first time or two people standing in line at the DMV who had been suffering together for far too long to be ignoring each other’s presence.
She told me how she had run a bodega in the city for ten years with her husband on the Lower East Side until it got shut down due to poor business. She told me how all of her kids had moved away, one to Long Island, another to California, another to Sweden (her home country), and how she never got to see her grandkids anymore. She told me other things but my mind had drifted to images of the baby and the squash and lingered there.
Maybe this is why I didn’t notice her violate rule number two and pull out a bag of chocolate-covered rice cakes halfway through our conversation or why I kept accepting samples of her snack, despite everything my mother told me about food and strangers. Logic told me that poisoning a girl on a four-hour bus ride when the group of roudy college students across the aisle were actively watching this grandmotherly force-feeding routine didn’t make sense. Plus, the woman could hardly carry her bag onto the bus. The likelihood of her being able to lug my body over her shoulder and walk through South Station was improbable. I stashed the last few pieces away, though, for evidence. Just in case.
With the bus station in sight, she started questioning what I did for work, secretly wondering why a 21-year-old girl was traveling alone to a small city with nothing but a backpack and an empty coffee cup, I’m sure.
“I’m hoping to get into television but I’m still working on it,” I mustered.
“My nephew. He works in TV in Sweden. You work for him!”
Part of me wanted to say yes to mystery TV producer in Sweden. After hearing so much about the importance of networking in the TV industry, it seemed like a sign, and maybe I would meet some cute Swedish boy and we’d get married and I’d tell the story about the serendipitous encounter with the woman on the Megabus, and she’d come up and give a speech in broken-English about how I’d become like another daughter to her, and everyone would cry, including your uncle’s friend who says he doesn’t know how to cry, which would make the moment that much more touching, and I’d promise her that I’d never move away like her kids did even though deep down, I knew I would because the city is a terrible place for a family, and she’d recognize my lie but appreciate it nonetheless because it’s the thought that counts.
I wrote my email and name down in the notes section of her phone and packed up my stuff as we pulled into the lot. She wobbled down the aisle and off the bus, glancing back at me every few second to ensure that I hadn’t escaped out the emergency window or hid away in the bathroom. We grabbed our bags and headed for the pick-up station, her clinging to my arm, me wondering if I’d unofficially adopted this woman as my pseudo-grandmother and should be preparing some sort of explanation for my family.
We walked through the glass doors out into the pick-up area, searching the streets for any idling drivers. As her pseudo-granddaughter, I accepted the phone that was handed to me without explanation and listened for that familiar voice on the other end.
“Hey! I’m on the corner in white. Do you see me?”
Turning towards the road, I saw a middle-aged woman standing across the street give a hesitant wave and we both laughed in relief as I pointed her out to my bus companion. I returned the phone to my friend, who promptly threw it back into her bag and pulled me in for that European double-cheek kiss that made the introvert in me squirm.
With a smile and a “have a good life,” she was gone. I watched her waddle across the street and embrace her daughter, who gave me one last “thank you” wave before guiding her mother to the car. I never heard from her again, not because she hated me (I hope) but because I’m certain that she forgot how to open the Notes app the second I handed it back to her. (Either that or she’s disappointed that the poison failed to kill me.) I returned home a few hours behind on homework but a few decades ahead on life as the image of the woman’s ruined bodega and scattered family buried itself deeper into my mind.
Did my plans to sit blissfully against the window during my five-hour bus ride pan out the way I thought they would? No. Did my bus buddy break all three of my unspoken traveller rules? Definitely. Would I do it again? Absolutely. A glimpse into the life of a stranger is worth a million bus rides.
Image via Flickr.