Tag Archives: commuters

New Old Friends

This morning as I waited for the bus to take me to work, I thought again about the never ending source of entertainment provided by my daily commute. I’ve relayed anecdotes before about my bus rides and I wondered when the next interesting scenario would present itself. I had only minutes to wait…

As I stepped onto the bus I noticed there were a few choice empty seats up front. These are a good find since sitting up front makes it easier to quickly exit the bus when we reach the end of our route. I sat in the first row of seats which happens to run along the side of the bus so that the person seated isn’t facing the front, but is facing an identical row of seats on the opposite side of the bus. That row of seats opposite me was empty except for one elderly man with a newspaper.

At the very next stop an elderly woman climbed onto the bus. As she saw the man opposite me she screamed in sheer delight, “Hello there!” and grabbed his hand and smiled as she sat down beside him. She was clearly excited to find him riding the bus this morning and she leaned over to give him a kiss on the cheek. Since my seat faced theirs, separated by only about three feet, I could clearly hear their animated conversation.

“How in the world have you been?” she asked as she twisted her body to try to face him. She now grasped both of his hands.

“Doing well!” he responded as he smiled back at her. He leaned over and gave her a hug. “It’s been so long since I last saw you!”

They seemed genuinely excited to see each other and to have a couple minutes to catch up.

“It’s been years since I’ve seen you!” she said as she patted him on the knee.

“You still live in the Chatham?” she asked.

“No, I never lived in the Chatham.” he said. “I live off of Four Mile Run.”

“Oh, yes.” she said still smiling.

He was smiling too as he asked, “Are you still working part time at the flower shop in Alexandria?”

“I never worked in a flower shop.” she said, staring at him a little more intently.

“Ok, I was thinking flower shop.” he said apologetically.

Trying to get the conversation back on solid ground she asked him, “How are the grandchildren?”

“Whose?” he asked in return.

“Yours.” she answered, looking puzzled.

“I don’t even have children.” he responded. They both smiled a little less now and had let go of each others hands.

“I thought your daughter’s children visited you when you lived in North Arlington?” she asked as she sat a bit more upright, inching back into place in her own seat.

He attempted to bring some understanding to the conversation. “I never lived in North Arlington, but your grandson stayed with you for a week one summer when we both lived in the neighborhood near Petworth, right? he asked. His eyes searched for some sort of acknowledgment.

“I never lived in that area.” she said, staring at him blankly.

“Are you Ruth?” he asked bluntly, appearing to realize he had just hugged a total stranger and then held her hands.

“My name is Edith.” she said.

“Are you Martin”? she asked, appearing to realize she had just kissed a stranger on the cheek and then patted his knee.

“My name is Larry.” he answered.

They stared at each other for a second, then both grinned sheepishly as they talked over themselves apologizing for the mistake.

As the bus approached the end of our route, Larry and Edith said no more but stared straight ahead as though their conversation had never happened. When the bus stopped for us to exit, they stood, gave each other a slight grin and a nod, then left in different directions.

What a shame, I thought. In five minutes time they had gone from what they thought were old friends, back to total strangers again, embarrassed by their own friendliness towards each other.

This evening after work as I approached the bus waiting to take me back home, I saw Larry sitting up front in the same seat he had occupied this morning. I passed by his seat on the way to an empty one a few rows down. Just as the bus doors were about to shut, Edith climbed up the steps. She fumbled with her purse as she walked down the aisle and didn’t look up until she heard her name.

“Hello Edith.” Larry said with a smile.

“Well Larry!” Edith grinned as she greeted him.

Larry patted the empty seat beside him and nodded for Edith to sit down. She sat down. Amid the din of conversations on the evening bus, always louder and more crowded than the morning bus, I heard him ask about her day, she asked about his, and I swear I heard some mention of dinner plans in there…

The bus approached my stop and as I stood up they were still smiling.

As I walked by them, Edith giggled and patted Larry on the knee.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Bus Whisperer

Working in D.C. means that public transportation is a routine part of my day. When I moved here a few years ago I balked at the notion of waiting every morning for a bus to take me to work, and another to take me home. I wasn’t going to stand in rain or snow or heat and wait! I decided to drive myself to work for a week to see how it might be. Could the commute be that bad? I only live four miles away.

It was four miles of unholy misery.

Realizing I would rather take a bullet to the groin than drive into D.C. again, I waited for a bus the very next Monday. There would still be traffic, but I wouldn’t be driving in it. That first morning I felt a little foolish waiting at the bus stop. I felt out of place, silly, and conspicuous. All I lacked was a yellow rain slicker and a Sesame Street lunchbox with matching thermos.

Over time, however, my daily bus rides have become a great source of entertainment. At least weekly I see or hear something fascinating, interesting, or completely puzzling. I began to notice over time that while most people don’t speak to each other during the commute, I seemed to be the one person on the bus that others felt compelled to sit beside when they had the urge to talk.

Once, a woman once sat down, turned to me, and asked a question in what sounded like perfect Spanish. I replied, “Oh I’m sorry. I can’t speak Spanish.”

She then said, in perfect English, “Yeah, me either.” and turned away never saying another word.

The very next day a man wearing a kilt, a hunting vest, and a Hello Kitty wristwatch asked me how much it would cost him to fly to D.C.

I said, “Sir, you are in D.C.” He thanked me profusely for saving him the money.

Incidents like that occur so frequently that it was no surprise when an elderly woman sat beside me not long ago, looked at me and said, “You’re going to love this.”

That’s when it dawned on me. Did I have a special talent? Something bus riders saw in me that they didn’t see in other passengers? Was it a special gift I had that made people speak to me during the commute when they spoke to no one else?

Suddenly, I understood. I am the bus whisperer.

The elderly woman roused me from the daze of my realization by poking me in the arm with her bony finger. “Yes, you’re going to love this.” she repeated.

I wasn’t willing to bet as much, but it was Friday, so we’d see.

“Why is that?” I took the bait.

“Well, I had to have an operation. It took a while to recover so I stayed with my daughter. I love her but was happy to go home.” she said.

After she explained, at great length, every gory detail involved in giving a seventy year old woman a hysterectomy, she launched into even greater detail about her daughter’s increasingly unhappy marriage, her unruly grandchildren, and she reached back in time to tell me about the death of her husband.

I listened. She occasionally asked a question but before I could answer she started on the next sad extension of her conversation. I remembered what my grandmother, Nannie, used to say when we grandchildren wanted to help her with her chores. Not wanting to discourage us from being helpful, but also knowing that our attempts would likely slow her down, she would tell us “Watching is helping.” We then sat back at a distance feeling good about how much we were helping by watching, and Nannie was able to get on with her chores.

So maybe “Listening is helping”, I thought. I continued to listen as the elderly woman finished the part about her husband dying, which morphed into a story about his sister who died of the same thing. Each time she stopped to catch her breath before expounding on the next gloomy topic she would again say, “You’re going to love this.” By the time we reached the end of our commute I began to think, I do love this. I was simply listening, but this woman seemed as happy as if she’d been given a wonderful gift. But, I am the bus whisperer, after all.

The bus stopped. As we all moved slowly to the door to step out onto the street, the elderly woman poked me again with that bony finger. “You’re going to love this.” she said once more, “I’m having dental work done next week on top of it all!”

I smiled, nodded, and waved as she walked off down the block. I felt good about my newfound superpowers and wondered who I would help the next day.

It was endearing the way she had insisted “You’re going to love this.” before nearly every sentence. I had a few minutes before the shuttle came to take me the final mile to work so I walked over to a bench to wait and sat down beside another elderly woman. I thought this complete stranger might enjoy hearing what had just transpired so I decided I would tell her. I leaned over grinning and said, “You’re going to love this.”

“Creep!” she said with disgust, and moved to the next bench.

I guess she hadn’t yet heard. I am the bus whisperer.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Scent of a Memory

When I finally moved away from my parents’ house I still lived only a few miles away. I moved occasionally over the years but never more than a twenty minute drive or so from their house and the place I grew up.  A couple of years ago when I decided to make a bigger move, Mama clutched her breast at the travesty of my moving so far away. “It’s only two hours from Richmond to D.C. It’s not a big deal”, I tried to console her. To her though, I may as well have been taking part in efforts to colonize the moon. She couldn’t hide her distress when she asked “But won’t you get homesick?” I had never lived far from home maybe, but I had traveled to other countries, for years I went on annual week-long beach trips with old friends, and I’d had countless weekends away over the years. Homesick? Silly Mama, that’s not something to worry about. I’d never felt that way in the past and couldn’t see why I ever would. I made the move and homesickness was never a thought.

Until I smelled a cantaloupe.

While growing up, summer days always saw a cantaloupe in Mama’s kitchen. A huge bowl in the refrigerator was always full of a recently sliced melon and another would be waiting in the wings. There could be one in the large kitchen windowsill, maybe one on the floor by the stove, and probably one on the counter sometimes cut in half just waiting for Mama to return to the task. The smell of cantaloupe was always in the kitchen. After hot days riding bikes with cousins or building forts down in the pasture I looked forward to that bowl of cold, sliced cantaloupe that I knew would be waiting.

I would simply walk into the kitchen and smell cantaloupe.

These days I ride a bus to work each morning. The only smells are those of exhaust from passing traffic and bus fumes from the 4A as it picks me up, takes me a few miles away, and drops me off at a Metro station where I catch an equally smelly shuttle to cross the Potomac into Georgetown. One morning as the shuttle neared the university and stopped at a light, the greasy smell of the vehicle combined with the odor from asphalt pavers working on a side street. It wasn’t the best way to start a morning. As we sat on the shuttle waiting for the light to change the woman next to me began to rifle through her tote bag. She momentarily opened a plastic container and the aroma hit me. She had cantaloupe.

I felt a strange feeling come over me and for a minute I closed my eyes, unsure whether it might be the acrid odors of exhaust and asphalt that were finally getting to me. No, that wasn’t it. I was homesick. The smell of the shuttle, exhaust, bus fumes and asphalt disappeared. Instead, the smell of those few small chunks of cantaloupe took me back to Mama’s kitchen, building forts in the pasture among the blackberry bushes, and lazy summer days riding bikes with my cousins.

I had smelled a cantaloupe.

Stuart M. Perkins

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