Saturday, March 4, 2006

Bus Stories


Minneapolis 18 line. Nicollet Avenue, Southbound through downtown, past Franklin and the K-Mart on Lake Street, and on into South Minneapolis.

There was a wizened old woman who would show up on my bus each day after the morning rush hour elapsed. I remember her riding on several routes I drove, but the 18 was where I saw her most of the time. During rush hours (6:am-9:am, 3:30pm-6:30pm) everybody paid full fare, no exceptions. But at other times, discounts were granted to seniors and students and people with state-recognized disabilities. She was a thousand years old, and on my first pass Southward through downtown after 9:am, she would be waiting for me at the first stop after leaving the Nicollet Mall. She was really an adorable little thing, petite and sunny with her old lady head scarf and depression-era clothes. I tried always to have a cheery mien, and she took to me.

It sure seemed that way.

She began bringing me cookies. As I drove gently away from her stop, we would chat amiably for a bit while she ferreted through her old lady purse for her dime and Medicare card (the accepted senior citizen I.D.), and after a few days of this I remember she specifically asked me if I drove this route every day. I assured her I did, and she said she would bring me cookies. Thenceforth she would hobble up the steps and pay her fare, and then dig in her purse and produce a couple sugar cookies wrapped in a paper towel. I accepted them graciously and set them aside "to eat during my layover." I never ate stuff given me by passengers, as a matter of public health and big city common sense. But I was moved by her kindness, the thought that this old woman, living alone and on a restrictive fixed income, had baked these cookies and put them in her purse to make a little gesture toward those who had been kind to her.

Bus riders would pay their fare and could get a transfer slip, which enabled them to ride up to two more buses over a specified period to complete their trip without paying again. The only restriction was that the transfer not be used to make a round trip; the slips had the day's date printed on them, and were punched by the driver to indicate the bus route and direction of travel, and then torn off at a length that determined their expiration time, generally an hour beyond the time at which the run's final transfer point was passed. (The heavy brass punch was part of the bus driver's kit, often carried in a little holster hanging from the belt; it was another of those things which hark back to the railroads. And part of a driver's pre-trip regimen would be to figure out how many books of transfers were needed for the run and to pre-punch a number of these books. Mornings at the garage would have a hundred drivers sitting around bullshitting with their coworkers amid the click, click, click of transfer punching. I still have my punch and badge, my only mementos from my 10 years at the wheel.) A transfer slip used to pay for a ride would be scrutinized by the bus driver for the proper date and expiration time and direction of travel.

As you might imagine, there were lots of opportunities in this system for error and deception on the part of the users, and there was always a question about how much energy one was willing to put into transfer scrutiny and discipline. The most egregious sins--completely wrong date, woefully expired time--simply had to be faced; but just-expired transfers and the whole no-round-trip business were much grayer areas. The transfer slip had to be requested at the time the fare was paid, that is, immediately at boarding. One of the oldest tricks in the book was for a group of teens to get on in a rush, overwhelming the driver, throw a few pennies in the farebox, and run to the back of the bus. Then later they'd come up, one-by-one, and innocently say they forgot to get a transfer. This would test the water. The driver who caved in would then be inundated by the whole gaggle over the course of the trip. Of course, these transfers were later offered for use, expired, on their return trip. The skies begin to darken.

Back to the sweet old woman. After a couple weeks she began gradually to pay her fare, give me cookies, go to the back, and then come back up and ask for the transfer she forgot because of our most pleasant conversation. Of course I happily obliged her. Then would come the occasional lapse wherein she would forget to pay her dime. Ah, well. When she would then come up later for her transfer slip, I thought nothing of it; she had been giving me cookies now for two months, what's a dime to me? Or to the State of Minnesota?

You see where this is going. After a certain point--and I watched this happen day by day; it wasn't that I didn't recognize the signs, but I didn't interpret them the same way in the beginning as I came to do later on--she stopped paying her fare altogether. She eventually reached the point where she would come up the steps, cookies in hand, and ask for the transfer slip immediately at cookie exchange, thus obviating the need to haul her concave, bony ass back up front on the moving bus later in the trip.

At some point during this little P.T. Barnum transformation, as I began to suspect what she might be up to, I took the cookies out of the trash and, for the first time, looked at them carefully. Sure enough, they had a miniscule industrial manufacturing stamp on the bottom! They were store bought! And they were the kind of store bought that came from a dollar store somewhere, packaged 300 to the dollar!

This was fucking brilliant. A cunning strategy, a simmering long con, subtly worked up to take lichen-like advantage of the meanest of opportunities. I had to give the old biddy credit. She worked me like a cheap Moline whore at a frat party. Were her circumstances really that dire? Or was this just mental exercise for her? Her fare was only 10 cents, maybe 40 or 60 cents for the whole day's travels. But she had found a way to get by for the day on maybe 10 cents. That's a couple bucks a week. It adds up.

I never called her on her game. It was a fucking dime (I think of Cary Grant's line to the insurance man in To Catch a Thief: "Don't worry Stevens, it's only money and not even yours at that!"). But it did help push me further along my path of despairing for the human race. I just found that the unrelenting exposure to the unflattering side of humanity, which bus travel in a place like this puts squarely before one, was too much of everything base and uncivil and opportunistic in our animal nature. I know that crushing poverty in a materialistic world would get the best of all of us, certainly of me, and I'm well not to be too judgmental. But nevertheless, over time it turned me into a bit of a misanthrope. I learned to anticipate the worst from people, and to suspect everything I saw as a possible manipulation or advantage-taking.

After 10 years I had had enough. While I was terrified to leave the only job I had ever done in my adult life, a secure job that suited me well and provided a decent living and great benefits, I was resolved to pursue something else and was exhilarated to move on when my first airline called in April of 1994.

10 comments:

Esbee said...

Did you ever have occasion to raise your right hand, elbow at a 90 degree angle, and, moving your hand subtly to illustarte, say, "Move on back"?

woolf said...

this is an awesome story...you should write a book. Maybe call it Wheels and Wings, or something cooler than that.

Lizzie said...

I like Woolf's suggestion!

When even seemingly harmless little old biddies are trying to con people, something is seriously wrong with this world.

Esbee said...

lizzie, seemingly harmless little old bidies are the most dangerous.

I used to take the oldest, then a tiny baby, into the Whole Foods on Wisconsin to shop. One day these two old ladies stopped me and sweetly asked, "Boy or girl?" I proudly said, "Boy!" Both biddies' faces darkened immediately. One said, "That means he has a penis!" as if that was some horrible failing. The other nodded in agreement, then both stalked away. It was so incredibly weird. And then one day I was talking to other moms at the playground at Guy Mason and told the story, and two other moms of boys had had the same thing happen, also in Whole Foods. I've never trusted little old ladies ever since.

wunelle said...

I can't recall, at the moment, any other noteworthy old lady stories. Others will come, perhaps. But I could definitely do a collection of bus stories. I've forgotten so many of them now, but my friends used always to pump me for the latest & greatest because there was just so much weird stuff that went on.

Chairborne Stranger said...

ah, look out for those nice harmless old biddies-brilliant!

mysterygirl! said...

How funny-- you gotta watch the old ones, too, I guess...

It would have been funny if you could call in sick one day and have your sub driver tell her that you were out with food poisoning, which was strange because the only thing you'd eaten the day before was a couple of cookies...

(well, maybe that wasn't all that clever an idea...)

wunelle said...

That would be good! Or maybe tell her I was testifying before a federal grand jury about fare-cheating schemes. Then we could see how fast she could hobble!

BrianAlt said...

You know where I work, don't you?

wunelle said...

Brianalt--I know where my sitemeter tells me you look from... But, however titillating to a former bus driver, the details are a mystery to me!