Friday, November 30, 2012

City Bus Adventures #1: "The Definite Article"

This morning after sparring with my employer over my latest missing paycheck (Fresno Unified School District has a shameful nation-wide reputation for losing paychecks and shorting employees; they never answer their phones and frequently slam down the sliding metal shields at the service windows during office hours when they sense irate and desperate personnel approaching), I hopped on the northbound bus toward my favorite library, a branch tucked into a strip mall next to a kickboxing academy and a liquor warehouse.  This library, one of the last remaining quiet spots in cacophonous, screeching, gut-bellowing Fresno, is where I'm writing on one of the branch's newly acquired Google Chromebooks, available for 4 hour stretches to card-holding patrons.  Last night one of the librarians said to me, "I think getting these computers is turning out to be a big mistake.   They're attracting the wrong element."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"You know--library haters.   And Google is evil."

"Of course."

The bus ride to the library was uneventful until the last mile or so, when the rather striking and commanding female driver wrenched the bus over to the sidewalk--not at a designated spot-- where a disabled man waved limply, head lolling, from his powered wheelchair, over which a trio of shocking pink and green visibility flags bobbed atop bendy white stalks sprouting from his seat back.

"There he is!" she shouted.  "He ain't never in the right place!"

"Shit, man, just don't pick him up!"  This was from one of two other passengers besides me, a caballero in dark round shades and phony lizard-skin, lounging beneath his stylized wrangler hat near the front of the bus.   Behind me  another passenger, a snoring, marshmallowy lump, had been struggling to hold his head up above the metal seat bar in front of him.

"I gotta pick him up, brother."  She pulled a lever that started the beeping and squealing extrusion of the vehicle's handicap ramp.  As it tilted up and over, she executed a balletic hop-and turn-away from the passenger door to land on her booted feet facing us--me, the caballero, and the sleeper--in a vaguely menacing crouch, arms curving out and down.  She flipped back her long hair--a beautifully gold-streaked forest of straight strands and thin, tight braids.  A combat-ready air hung about the bus interior, coming from her strongly leonine face and her stance. "You men know how it be.  Man gotta help man."

"That's the way of it, for sure," said the caballero.

Normally I stay out such discussions, but she hopped again, shifting a bit and staring right at me.  "I know you can hear.   I see you on my bus all the time.  No! No! Don't turn around!  I ain't talking about Punky back there!"

"Okay," I said.  "It's all good.  Pick him up.  I'm in no hurry."

She started to answer but turned back to the door and the ramp.   "Dammit!  No!  I told you before!"  She leaned out over the ramp.   From the middle of the bus where I sat I could just make out that the man in the chair--a thin fellow with an ultra-white crew cut and round shades exactly like the caballero's--was stuck on the ramp.

"You stuck!  I always tell you you gotta go backwards!  You can't drive no wheelchair--here her voice turned snarly and whiny--no ASS-istive tech-NOLOGY!!!--up no ramp going forward!"  She turned back to us.  "He got them little spinny front wheels hung up.   Again!   I can't go out there and push."

She looked at me.  "Somebody got to go lift his ass up and unhook them wheels."    I was sitting right behind the mid-bus exit, my usual spot.   I started to squirm up, but the caballero sprang up and reached the door before I rose an inch.

"Watch that green light go on then push that door open!" shouted the driver.  "Touch the yellow strips down low!   Yellow strips down low, I said!"

"I know how to push the strips," said the caballero.  He hopped out and started tugging at the handles on the chair.

"Everybody know NOTHING!"  Now she had me fixed in her gaze.   "Man out there can't drive no car, can't walk, can't ride a bike,  ain't no preacher gonna slap his forehead and make him get up and walk, so he better learn to drive a wheelchair backward up a RAMP!  Huh!  Yeah?"

I thought for an instant of the fairly advanced technology installed on city buses like this one--little sparkly domes of multi-directional cameras studded all over--goggling and sound recording every bit of this scene.  The driver knew this very well but didn't care.

"Absolutely," I said.

After a moment's fuss, she and the caballero finished directing the man up the ramp and maneuvering him into  place in one of the bus's two wheelchair bays.   She straightened up after buckling the last safety strap around the chair.  The occupant's white head resumed lolling.   She faced her passengers again, arms akimbo, placid smile stretching, and sighed.

"This is all about . . . Man helping man.   Or should I say Man helping Mankind.  You know the difference I mean?  Because you men can see I ain't no man."

"No, you ain't," said the caballero.

She whipped her head toward me.  "Don't you worry, youngster!  We ain't behind schedule!  I keep a sharp-ass watch over you all!   You know who Neil Armstrong was?  Neil Armstrong!"

"He was the first man to walk on the moon," I said.

"That's right!  You know that because you an educated man!  Shut up!  I see you over at that library every day!"

I had only seen her on the bus.  "You go there?" I asked.

"Neil Armstrong wasn't riding no backwards-driving wheelchair he got free from the state up a RAMP was he?  He was flying a SPACE module!   And you know what he said when he stepped out on the moon?  You know how he messed up,  I mean MESSSSSED UP!  Huh?"

"He said, 'That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.'"

"And what did he leave out?   Shut up!  The definite article!  Thought I didn't know?"

"Not at all," I said.

"He should have said A man," said the caballero.

"That's right!  So we all clear?  When I said it's about man helping man I was speaking very very loose to mean women and men and everything in between, whatever the hell you all are.    But I ain't driving no SPACE module on a historic occasion so I didn't MESS anything up the way old Neil did for all time and posterity, now did I?"

She let that hang and stared directly down the center of the bus at no one in particular.

"Okay, then, precious cargo--Let's roll!"

So we did.

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