Transit Weltanschauung

A bus is a bus, eh? It is a means to and end, not an end in itself; the destination is the reward, the journey, its price. And yet, sometimes I wonder…

Even now, as Covid winds down, and there is a wealth of empty seats, people continue to be fearful of crowds, and avoid standing too close to anyone without a mask. But there are still conversations across the empty aisles, often shouted to overcome the noise of the vacant rattling space.

We are a talkative species, a curious lot, unhappy with silence by and large… or is it our own emptiness after the relentless never-ending pandemic that drives the itch, and the bus is merely the excuse to scratch? For me, however, it is an opportunity to listen without seeming to. I do not pry, I observe; I smile, without an object; I nod, and to cover it, pretend I am falling asleep. And if someone turns their head to check if their secrets have escaped, I merely look away, as if bored with the journey, or glance at my phone and fade into the background of phones around me.

I could be a bus mole for all they know -a fifth columnist practicing on the #250 winding its way along the busy street past the innumerable shops and retirement homes that populate the section of West Vancouver through which I ride. But I spy only for myself -it is how I partake of another’s life, if only as a taster. I live alone, and I travel alone; the bus is often as close as I can get to agency -but not too close, I hope, to unregarded age in corners thrown. 

I try to listen unobtrusively, but nonetheless I find I am still swept up in the Gestalt of the bus, and for a short while, I am the bus: I laugh (quietly) at the humour near the back; I sigh at the shared reports of illnesses in the seat ahead; and occasionally, I even pull the cord above my window for the elderly person I see struggling to reach the one above hers across the aisle.

But, on occasion it starts long before I board. As I wait in the still socially distanced line at the bus stop, I might find myself hoping that some of the people in the queue are taking a different bus. Sometimes, their voice is too loud, or too grating for my ears; sometimes they are pretending they are something or somebody I’m sure they’re not. And sometimes they simply seem too old for what they profess -the man with the longboard, for example.

I have to confess, that until I saw him discussing his sport with a portly, balding man leaning heavily on a cane, I had never even seen a longboard. And the board he was spinning like a top as he waited, just seemed like a longer, wider skateboard. But mainly, it was his age, I think. True, he had long, unruly hair roughly gathered into a younger man’s makeshift ponytail, and wore a beginner’s beard on parts of his face, but the wrinkles around his puffy eyes positively screamed Old. The thought crossed my mind that he was trespassing somehow -not into the bus line, nor because he was standing where he shouldn’t, but more that he’d violated those invisible fences that old people erect around themselves for protection: barriers to remind them they are no longer young, with erased areas in their eyes, and regions of their faces with Here be dragons pencilled in.

The boarder was friendly in the queue and apart from his torn jeans and dirty sweatshirt, he seemed ordinary enough -well, he would have been, had he been in his early twenties, say. But, I should know by now not to judge people by how they look -I’m old enough to use other criteria; I’m old enough to know that first impressions are dangerous guides. And I should realize that anyone standing in my line that begins to move as the bus pulls in, is likely going to get on with me.

There were perhaps ten people in our queue, and they all got on and scattered into the almost empty #250. But the man and his longboard sat across the aisle from me. I’m not sure what the stimulus was, but a large, balding elderly man in a rumpled brown suit and a booming no-nonsense voice sitting two or three rows ahead, turned around and started asking him questions about the strange looking board. It was the once-quiet old man who had been curious about the board when he’d stood near him in the queue.

What surprised me most at first, though, was the longboarder’s voice. He sounded younger than he looked –much younger in fact. And he knew a lot about what he called longboarding and both its dangers and the skill required. But, it soon became apparent that the older man, now sitting sideways on his seat, felt he needed to tell the boarder -well, the bus really- that he also had something interesting to talk about, and proceeded to tell him about some other dangerous sports -like rugby.

I could see the longboarder was interested, and he kept stroking the scanty hairs of his beard, with a big smile on his face

“Interesting,” the younger man replied without losing his smile. “I was a scrum-half in our university team a couple of years ago…” He spun his longboard for a moment when the balding man didn’t reply. “Did you ever play rugby?” he asked, suddenly curious.

“Yeah… but I was better proportioned in those days,” he answered loudly and then laughed. “I was a hooker for a while…”

A lot of furrowed brows turned towards the man when he said that, and the boarder realized he’d better extricate him. “That’s such an important position, especially for the scrum-half, like me…” he said, looking around the bus to see if he’d succeeded. “How long did you play?” he added, satisfied that people around him no longer looked quite as offended.

“Got knocked unconscious in the middle of my ninth game, and the coach, and then the docs wouldn’t let me go back. Ended up coaching for a season or two, though… the university league,” he added for clarification.

The boarder’s eyes suddenly opened wide and his smile blossomed as he slowly shook his head in admiration. “I thought I recognized your face,” he said, clearly excited. “Isn’t there a photograph of you hanging in the sports locker room at the university…?”

The old man’s face actually blushed. “Well, I guess there used to be…”

“Still is,” the boarder said, rising from his seat after pulling the cord to get off the bus. “The team still talks about you.” Before he left, he walked over to the old man, shook his hand, and then reached over to touch his arm in admiration.

I could see tears beginning to slip down the old man’s cheeks as he watched the boarder get off the bus.

In fact, I had to wipe my own eyes as I pretended to blow my nose. We all need some time on a plinth, I think… Even if it is only briefly, and on a bus…

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