Monday, July 09, 2012

The bus

There were no seats and several people already standing, so she grabbed hold of a strap and planted her feet as the bus lurched forward. She could have walked it in a half-hour and often did if the weather was okay and she wasn’t too tired, but today she was dead on her feet and eager to just get home and out of her work clothes. The traffic was bad, though, and she quickly regretted her decision. Gingerly easing its way around construction vehicles, crossing pedestrians, and cabs picking up or discharging passengers, the bus slowed to a crawl at every intersection and barely managed to make up time in the long stretches between avenues. All was quiet in the interior. One young woman was silently nodding to music, her headphones trailing down from her ear and disappearing into her clothes, but the other faces around Helen were patient, impassive, inured. If any of the riders were traveling together they had let their conversation lapse and were staring blankly ahead or out the window, rocking with the motion of the bus, when it moved at all. She recognized a couple of people from other times but no one she knew well enough to say hello to.

A voice came over the radio and the driver picked up the handset to respond. Over the noise of the motor she couldn’t make out all the back-and-forth but it sounded like the dispatcher was reporting a tie-up somewhere ahead. The bus had been stuck for several minutes, fifty yards from the end of a block, and streams of pedestrians — heavier than usual, Helen thought — were flowing past it on either side, as if the age of the automobile and the internal combustion engine had suddenly ground to a halt, undone by their own success, returning the streets of the city to older and more agile forms of transportation. No one complained or stood up or even let out a sigh, though the bus’s air conditioning wasn’t great and they were getting hit head-on with the declining sun in the west. The bus crept forward a few yards, halted, crept a few yards more, and finally pulled up to a designated stop where a dozen or so figures were waiting, skeptically, hoping to board. As the doors opened Helen made a snap decision, strode forward, and stepped to the sidewalk. She was only halfway home but anything was better than wasting the rest of the afternoon standing on a bus that wasn’t going anywhere.

The block stood in the middle of a busy wholesale and manufacturing district made up of older buildings, with narrow storefronts, fire escapes, and lofts in the upper storeys — not the trendy kind the bohemians liked, but the kind that still actually produced something, though Helen had no idea what. At night the area was pretty much deserted and she avoided it, but she felt no fear at this hour, other than the terror of getting bowled over on the narrow sidewalks by people darting past to run errands, deliver packages, or just be somewhere else. Keeping as best she could to a steady pace, she soon left the stalled bus far behind, but when she reached the end of the second block she saw that a crowd had backed up from the next avenue, that some people were trying to work their way through but others were just lingering there watching something. The traffic heading downtown was barely inching along, and when she turned to look she quickly saw why: a block away there were hundreds of people standing in the middle of the street, swarming around the unlucky vehicles that had advanced that far and now could neither proceed nor turn off. Some of the people held signs aloft but most just seemed to be staring further down the avenue, at something that Helen wasn’t able to make out. Two squad cars with flashing lights were parked at the edge of the crowd and the cops were trying to get traffic off the avenue, but the crowd was too big and the knot couldn’t be untied.

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