Bus Story #1
I flag down the 350 southbound near the Greyhound Station. After boarding I take my seat. Immediately someone passes gas, and tries to cover it up with sickening sweet perfume spray. There are only two women on the bus, the driver and me. She driver floors it down Airport, and the empty bus stops fly by. Just past Oak Springs the driver suddenly brings the bus to a halt and announces: "we're four and a half minutes early, so...I'll be right back". She puts the bus in park and, with the engine idling, walks off towards Golden Chick. I look back with a bewildered smile at another passenger, an older Tejano man with a white beard, who knowingly says, "she does this every time, speeds down Airport so she can stop for her chicken sandwich". Now all three of us passengers are smiling. She gets back on the bus with her box of Golden Chick and continues hauling ass down Airport. At one point she mumbles something and makes a face, and moves the Golden Chick box from one spot to another on the dashboard. We cross the river at Montopolis Bridge just as the sunset turns to gloam. The bus hits my my stop in record time. And when I get off, I hardly notice the honest-to-god tent revival going full blast across the street because I'm wondering, how does she eat the sandwich and drive a bus at the same time?
Bus Story #2
The 4 passes me just as I was crossing the street to catch it. So rather than wait in the broiling sun at an unshaded bus stop, I walk east until I find shade. I chat with the other person waiting, an older black man with mirrored sunglasses. It turns out we are both from Chicago. "I used to work at Goldblatt's…remember Goldblatts?" Back in the day he sold TVs out of his shop down on 51st Street. "Oh wow. My dad sold TVs at Belmont & Central, up in the old Polish neighborhood". We sit quietly for a moment, staring down the chasm of Chicago's segregated geography. And when we get on the bus it is crowded, everyone's smell is up from the heat. A leathery bearded guy with a cowboy hat and wild eyes gets on at Red River. He carries a brand new mop like a spear, shaking it up and down. The construction on East 7th has traffic crawling along. Just in front of me a middle-aged white guy talks to a young black woman whose hair is up in a scarf. She's a girl really, maybe 16 or 17, and the energy between her and the guy is weird and intense. A confrontation seems inevitable and my instincts sharpen. But instead of walking away from him or telling him off, she just moves across the aisle and sits down next to another middle-aged guy, and starts talking to him instead. At Pleasant Valley all three of them get off, along with two severe, ponytailed white women with sunken faces. The group moves in unison, spreading out gently but heading towards a shared destination. The bus picks up speed and we cross the river on the Montopolis Bridge. Storm clouds are puffing up to the east and to the north it's a spongy grey. "You think we'll get any rain?" I ask the elderly man whose seat I share. "Oh only 'bout…thirty percent". The leathery guy gets off, brandishing his mop and waving it enthusiastically to his friends still the bus. Delirious from the heat, my mind drifts, and I almost miss my stop. On my walk home I stop to look at a beautiful crimson 1940s loveseat with elaborate carved wooden legs. It rests, filthy and discarded at the curb. I imagine it clean and fresh in my living room, the envy of all my friends, and wonder where I can rent a steam cleaner. Someone recognizes me and yells my name. And now, it's raining.
Bus Story #3
I pick up the 350 near San Jose Cemetario and get the runaround from the driver about the disabled fare. I rummage through my bag for my ID card to show him, pay my 60 cents and sit in front. Nobody gets on until Austin Community College, where a middle-aged white dude boards and sits across from me in the handicapped seats. I only see him from the corner of my eye, but I can feel his gaze, which seems to consume me greedily for a long few seconds. It creeps me out. So I get up and move to an empty seat near the back door, where I can keep to myself, but still keep an eye on him. He stretches out, nods off and makes twitchy faces, like he's arguing with an unseen presence. My mood softens a bit as I realize that he is somewhere else, and could not have been staring at me personally. He was simply staring through me, at something beyond. He reminds me of the carnys I worked with at Kenny's Funland traveling Carnival in Smithville: a guy in his late 40s or early 50s, wiry, new dentures up top and cheekbones that look like they're carved out of his face with a hatchet. He dresses like a teenager though, in a baggy 90s-style Jack Daniels t-shirt, khaki cargo shorts, black high tops and a gold chain, orange Oakleys perched atop a full head of silvery hair. On the seat next to him is a new brown paper bag from Dollar General, the ones that cost fifty cents. In it? Canned goods, flip flops, underwear, honey buns, cup o noodles? He has a lot of tattoos, all prison blue-black. Tattoos on his neck and right ring finger. Full sleeves on both arms, and the lines on his right arm are so dense as to be indecipherable. He alternates between nodding off, his face twisting in a deathly grimace, and snapping forward into a belligerent hyper-vigillance. And as we bounce along a remnant of an old country road, a short cut to Route 71, he moves in tune with the rhythm of the bus braking, the bus accelerating. In his hand is what looks like an e-cigarette. He fiddles with it. And, strangely, pulls a paper match out of a matchbook and grips it tightly to the sandpaper strip, without actually pulling it into flame. He could not be more ready to smoke. I imagine there's a special someone nodding off on another bus somewhere in town, with a matching finger tattoo. Clutching an e-cigarette, going wherever they're going. Dying for their ride to end.
Bus Story #4
I'm waiting for the 350 on the desolate stretch of Airport Boulevard between Dan's Hamburgers and the Montopolis bridge. I'm not far from my house as the crow flies, but crossing the bridge on foot is a suicide mission. I consider it anyway, out loud to the man who is already waiting with his bicycle at the bus stop. He shakes his head and lets into a quiet screed about patience, and how he's never in a hurry to go anywhere, because when you are, you go too fast and end up being someplace god doesn't want you to be. He's right. I settle in with him on the bench. We sit quietly a moment, and look at the dust devils across the street, whipping up from the gravel parking lot in front of My Primo Tire Shop. The dust devils move in and out of the last long rays of the sun, and the light is striped and billowy against the stacks of black tires and the shop's bright blue cinderblock walls. The man is about my age, and next to him on the bench is a plastic shopping bag full of shopping bags. On his head he has a baseball hat backwards over a wave cap. He doesn't look at me, just talks in measured tones, giving all the glory to god, Jesus. He speaks in parables almost, with a hint of regret, like a modest, lucid, tired preacher. Like he's used to people not understanding, but it's not going to stop him from trying. He says he's leaving Austin because the heat. This stream of thought segues into how he approaches music (aha!) and how he's a singer, and god gave him this beautiful voice and he doesn't even have to try. From his pocket, he pulls a scrap of paper with a handwritten list: guitar, drums, bass, alto sax, trumpet, singer. A map for song arranging. Singer was last. He didn't write it, someone else did. One second he's explaining a song that he wrote and the next he's singing it, in a sweet high tenor like Smoky Robinson or Eddie Kendricks. His song titles roll off his tongue quickly, and come to be in perfectly phrased melodies: "Don't Mess With God When He's Doin' His Business", about how god has tools, like thunder and lightning, and how you don't want to get caught outside during a storm; and another, "A Rainbow In the Sky, Where I Wanna Be, On High". When he says this title, he glances towards the river, and brightens, like he sees the rainbow which arced over it one time, glowing against black backlit clouds. I wonder if I should say it, then I say it, then I regret it: I'm a singer too. He is quiet a moment, there's a spark of introspection or possibly shame, like he is re-aligning himself and all the things he's just told me, based on this information. Then he asks me if I know this Earth, Wind and Fire Song. Our voices settle in together nice and easy just as the bus rolls up. We hop on. The bus chugs over the bridge. Time moves too quickly. The houses and trees of my neighborhood are streaking by and we have only a moment to talk before I pull the yellow wire to request my stop. The bus brakes as possibilities flash before my eyes--I get his contact, I record a song for him, or I help make a record for him, or I make a record WITH him--and he is thinking too. His eyes shimmer sadness, regret, then a flicker of something darker. A curtain falls. I shake his hand, wish him well and I am off the bus now, cutting across the cemetery towards the darkening sky. I lose myself in the orange and crimson clouds. There's the magic of believing in something, and pulling beautiful things from the void. Then there's seeing what seems like glorious things, effortless things, but they're someplace god doesn't want you to be.
Bus Story #5
…is not so much about the bus, which, damn it, comes early. I watch in despair from a block away as the 350 barrels down Montopolis without stopping. I say fuck. Three miles to the pharmacy. The sun's already burned through the low overcast of early morning. The heat is coming down. My whole body aches, and there's unrelenting pain in my belly like a glowing lump of steel. I stand forlornly on the broken sidewalk, just past the bus stop, and look up. A large branch of one of the neighborhood's ancient Live Oaks hangs low over the street, and perched on the branch is a partially beheaded plastic Santa Claus. He looks like he's been there for years. Drivers pass under the plastic Santa Claus like he's not even there. I indulge in a momentary contempt for these drivers…do they even know how lucky they are? Going wherever they want to go, whenever they want to. Air conditioning blasting on the empty passenger seat. Without stopping, without schedules. Without requiring exact change to be inserted in a cranky, complicated fare box that beeps at you, no matter what you do. Across the street, though, the action is picking up: today is flea market day. My mood brightens, and my steps lighten as I walk towards the Tomgro parking lot lot, which is full of tents. The smell of sweet steamed masa and braising meat wafts through the stands. Banda music rings out from a boom box, and the vendors lay out their wares in time to the shotgun snare and tipsy tremolo brass. Smartly dressed couples, an amputee vet in a motorized wheelchair, and entire families are taking in the market, surveying the wares. I join them, and between mountains of used clothing and the raspado truck, I find some things for myself. I travel on, happy with my treasures, and reach Riverside Drive just as the 100 bus rolls up to the stop.
The day has taken a turn towards generosity and serendipity. The bus throws open its doors and kneels graciously for me, then carries me right where I need to go. A few minutes later I'm at the Goodwill on Pleasant Valley. There I find an old metal letter-organizer with enameled roses in pink, green and gold; then a bird feeder shaped like a house, with glass windows and a copper roof that lifts off for filling. I head to the checkout, where a young male employee with shiny black hair explains that they're short staffed today and it'll be a while for the registers to open. He compliments my bird feeder, then notices my prairie falcon tattoo, and says he wants to go to a culture with a tattoo tradition, like the Amazon or the South Pacific, to get traditional tattoos. I ask if that's where he's from and he says no, he's from El Salvador. He goes on to say how dangerous it is there, with gangs and violence and people getting kidnapped. He says my mom went back to help his aunt who had cancer, and she got kidnapped, and his family had to give them the aunt's cancer fund to ransom her. His talkativeness is contagious, and opens up the growing crowd. An older lady goes out of her way to let him know she's not worried about the wait. The Salvadoran guy expands his circle, and to no one in particular brings up the recent police shooting in Dallas, and how crazy things are right now. People nod and a black man in his thirties says that's nothing compared to Minneapolis, and Baton Rouge. His toddler is seated in his cart facing him, and toddler jeans and shirts hang from the cart on little hangers.
I get checked out and wish them a blessed day and go across the street to pick up my prescription, by now the least interesting part of the day. The heat is loud as I start the long uphill walk to the bus stop. I pass an older man talking to himself in the far empty part of the parking lot. He's got a lot of shopping bags, full of ice. He opens a small ziploc bag full of toiletries and amber prescription bottles, and pulls out some tissues to mop the sweat from his face and neck. I lose track of him, but once I get to the bus stop he's right there behind me. He drops his bags by the metal bench, lights a Kool and says, "I'm from Houston, this heat is nothing". The smoke from his cigarette and the traffic exhaust billows up in waves. I squint against the glare and lower myself onto the hot metal seat. Thus starts a rapid-fire lopsided conversation, him mostly talking, me affirming and trying to keep up. He says he just finished a shift for Goodwill Special Projects. I say, "oh like Security?", and he says "no, it's like Security of people who work there". He explains that he's undercover, since employees are constantly trying to run a hustle out of Goodwill. He catches them, and he turns them in. He sticks his chin out, takes a deep breath and begins to break down the Goodwill Hustle in exquisite detail. I lean in. He has an incredible talent for breaking down hustles into logical systems. Desperate people trying to work steady so they can get services. Staying at ATC (Austin Transitional Center) in Del Valle, halfway house, three quarter house. Everything, he says, is for-profit. Parolees are free labor, "and there's no way to advance because six guys just like you are waiting to get paid 9 dollars an hour." If you're in Materials Processing, you're a trash sorter. You package it up, and send it to Burleson Road, and let the folks pick through it. It doesn't matter if it sells, the leftovers all get recycled and thats where the Big Bucks are. The commercials played in the stores are paid for by a government grant, and all the services offered by Goodwill are just a front.
Now the bus rolls up and lets out a huff. After we take our seats, the subject pivots to the man's residence. I know the place, a big abandoned 60's ranch house just before the highway on-ramp, across from the gas station and the fried chicken shop. The woods creep in from the back, and a cyclone fence sags across the frontage. The man explains that there is a raccoon which comes in the house. The raccoon is scary, he says, but he is scary too. He chased it out of the house with ammonia and a can of jalapeños, and so they came to an understanding. From then on, the raccoon would come in the house and alert him when someone was in his yard. Like the guy who showed up at 1 AM, and said that he used to live there. "He wouldn't leave," the man says dryly, regretfully, "so I shot him in the leg. The police came by and I told them what happened and showed them my gun license and they said 'have a good evening' and took the guy away in an ambulance". He says the guy who owns the place is rich, so he doesn't spend any money on the property. "You know, rich people are the ones who don't spend their money," he says wryly. "The owner is so tight, I'm gonna bring a can of WD-40 next time, cause he squeaking". He says how he feels about the place, "I can do what I want, when I want, with who I want. It's like my own Private Playhouse". By now we had been together almost an hour, and he hadn't asked me anything. He is quiet only as he gathers himself, his thoughts and his bags. He pulls the string and gets off the bus at Caddie street and walks East, to where the hustle is always going down. A few days later in a borrowed car, I drive past the Private Playhose, just before the highway on-ramp. Leaning against the sagging fence is a piece of plywood, and spray painted in big orange letters it says: "NEED $25 TO FINISH LANDSCAPING".