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Welcome aboard

One day last January I fishtailedmy Ford over icy roads, backed down three hills blocked by cars going nowhere, and trudged in my plastic boots through a field of knee- deep snow because my final approach was thwarted by a sixteen-wheeler astride the intersection. An hour and a half after leaving my home five miles away, I arrived at my destination and a decision: my next job would be one I could reach by bus.

An so it is. I bought myself a mouse-colored storm coat (the kind you look fat in) and real boots (the kind you have to polish after sloshing through puddles.) Now I'm one of those people I used to feel sorry for, standing there waiting for the bus with water dripping off their noses, while I drove by, anesthetized by Mozart on my car stereo. Beyond the savings of nerves jangled by the hassles of cross-town traffic, there are certain small delights in riding the bus.

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Begin with Harry, the driver. He is a man of average size, but enormous pride in his work. His uniform coat is always buttoned and his cap firmly in place. His business like "Good morning" gives importance to the beginning of the day.

One day that first week, after a soggy vigil in cold rain, I answered his "Good monring" with grumpy, "Not really."

"Sure it is -- good and wet," Harry said. The people in the first four rows laughed at the reprimand. Now I was one of the regulars. Everybody knows Harry loves rain.

Although Harry is ruled by a schedule, human considerations come first. He waits with forbearance for a regular who at least once a week has to make a run for the corner, and then admits her without the comments people of lesser sensitivity might make.One day a small boy with a large Afro ran in front of the bus to retrieve a sneaker his buddy had thrown into the street. Once the boy was aboard, Harry stopped time for thirty seconds to give him an awesome dressing down, the likes of which I haven't heard since Sister Francis Joseph's second grade catechism class.

"You ain't neverm goin' do that again," Harry finished.

"Nossir," said the boy with respect.

The rest of Harry's regulars share that respect. While he uses the same equipment as every other driver in the city, hism bus doesn't lurch or jolt -- it glides smoothly down the inside lane of morning traffic as if on its own private tracks. The doors open and close with precision, leaving just enough time for entrances and exits without any unnecessary blasts of cold air. The required stop at the railroad tracks is a marvel of timing. Harry was late only once last year I'm told: the same day I was.

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Anybody who considers himself well-educated ought to ride the 7:18 and discover what really matters. Since I'm not an early morning talker, I mostly listen and learn. The real issues in the next city election will be, not taxes and federal grants, but the poky switch engine on the Sixth Street tracks and the downtown pigeons which almostm everybody says peck people and are dirty. The Book of Revelation is the most significant part of the Bible. The chemistry teacher at the high school gives impossible tests. Two of the young people from the sheltered workshop are "getting sweet" on each other, a pleased matchmaker observes. And, according to a retired seaman, sailors on his ship were issued machine guns during the Korean War and told to shoot Communists on sight. A Venus fly trap is almost as good a pet as a dog.

". . . but not as good as Archie," Harry says. Harry, usually taciturn, converses only on matters of importance. His dog Archie Bunker is one of these, and so are the Cleveland Browns and his plans for the weekend. We don't talk much about school or work on the bus -- we're all going to get there soon enough.

The 7:18 regulars probably cheat on their income tax, yell at the kids, and get fractious on Saturday night with the same dismal regularity of the rest of the population. But if we step on someone's toes or poke someone with an umbrella, we apologize. We wedge ourselves in more tightly for the angry lady with the white cane who shouts that the front seats are reserved for the handicapped. When the bus is crowded, someone will usually give up a seat for a person obviously in need. For the duration of the morning run, we are a civilized society. And although most of us don't know each others' names, we recognize that we belong to a social group that meets regularly, even if not by choice.

I began to understand this one day when I drove my car downtown to do some shopping after work. About half-way there I heard at my back, not time's winged chariot, for sure, but Harry. I slouched down in the seat and pulled my hat over my face until I left him behind at his scheduled stop. I was reasonably sure nobody would comment on my defection the next morning, but how could I sit there with everybody wondering why I could possibly prefer driving to riding the bus?

I wondered myself. The ultimate joy of the ride is the feeling of irresponsibility that anxious drivers are missing out on. I, a compulsive get-there-on-time person, am not the master of my fate for those few minutes of the day. Should I one day be late, the blame will fall on an act of heaven -- or Harry -- and probably in that order.


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