So this is how I’m going to die.
What other conclusion could I draw as the woman jumped from the curb onto the bus just as it was about to move, clutching a bow in one hand and a quiver of arrows in the other? As I looked around for the emergency exit, I thought, man, those terrorists are getting more creative every day.
I always knew I’d go down in some weird way. An MSG-induced coma at a Chinese buffet, maybe. A run-in with a clown, possibly. Something banjo related, perhaps. Honestly, being on a college bus highjacked by an archer never crossed my mind.
My wife and my mother would find out about this by turning on the news. A TV reporter would be standing there, like they always do, at a scene where nothing is happening. The reporter would appear very grim and dramatic. The assailant’s neighbors, like they always are, would be shocked. She’d turn out to have twenty-four cats, and be subsisting on four tins of Army surplus peanut butter a day, like they always do. Then the Bluebird lurched at the next stop, and as quickly as she appeared, the armed lady was gone. That’s how my first day on the 610 Minges started.
When I applied for graduate school at East Carolina University, the minutiae of getting to class everyday was the farthest thing from my mind. There were a lot of hoops to jump through. After my experience at the GRE testing center, I was convinced those folks actually train the frisky TSA airport search teams. There were shot records to track down, transcripts to dig up, and of course, trying to find three professors willing to put their credentials on the line by writing recommendation letters. I mean, they hadn’t seen me in twenty years — how would they know how much havoc I might have wreaked?
Then the first day of class arrived. Somehow, I had the misconception there was student
parking in Greenville, North Carolina. I bought a parking pass and after consulting a GPS, Google Maps and the Transportation Office, it was determined that the place I would be permitted to park did not actually exist. It seems there are more Internal Revenue Service auditors in Heaven than there are parking spaces at ECU. The final result: I would park at the athletic complex, and ride the bus to Joyner Library.
The route is known as the 610 Minges.
Having grown up and lived most of my life in a very rural area, I’ve never had much exposure to public transportation, but I figured it couldn’t be too bad. My thinking was that by riding the bus at the same time every week and boarding at the same location, it would be inevitable to meet some folks. I have never seen anyone more than once. And for that matter, no one wants to talk. My first couple of, “Good Mornings,” brought puzzled stares, reminiscent of how my puppy looks at me when I want to talk about Billy Collins or Ernest Hemingway. One day, when the bus was really crowded and many riders were forced to stand, I got up and gave my seat to a weary looking lady, younger than me, but older than the undergrads. My fellow riders looked at me like I was crazy.
One thing that stands out as the main difference from today and my undergrad days — which ended just before the invention of the iPod and when most cellphones were purchased with 30-minute Emergency Packages — is that no one wants to communicate face-to-face anymore. They still want to be social, just not in person. As soon as most riders step foot on the bus, they are plugging in earphones, making calls or checking emails on their phones. No eye contact, not even a Forrest Gump “seat taken” comment. It’s the same on campus, everybody is LOL-ing, but not really, they just type that they are; when was the last time anyone ROTFL-ed in person?
I told a friend from home about this lack of social participation and he had quick, direct advice for me. Stop, he said. Nice is the new Creepy, he said.
Lest you mistakenly get the impression that the buses at ECU are rolling mausoleums of silence, let me stop you right there. There is plenty of talk, from people getting on the bus together or worse, those yelling into their phones, not realizing that by overcoming poor reception and the roar of the diesel engines, they are informing the world of a lot of the things the world would probably prefer not to know.
Some will say that it is eavesdropping or just plain nosy or voyeuristic to intrude on a conversation you’ve not been invited to join. I don’t consider it eavesdropping when people sit on opposite sides of the bus, or one is forced to sit next to me and they carry on a conversation that can be heard from one end of the bus to the other.
One day, I was joined by two girls who were dressed exactly like one of my daughter’s Barbie dolls, cute as they could be. Then they opened their mouths, releasing a shock-and-awe of F-bombs. I think Quentin Tarantino would have been embarrassed.
Sadly, many drag onto the bus in the morning, even at the late hour of 10:30 a.m., still dealing with the consequences of the previous evening. Some had a few too many drinks, some have addiction problems, some question the wisdom of the one-night stand. One thing in plentiful supply that hasn’t changed since my generation — and I suspect it goes back much farther than that — is the concept of “dranking.” I lost count of how many guys have gotten on the bus talking about drinking heavily as if it were some kind of accomplishment.
One morning, two guys got on and one was bragging loudly about his multiple female conquests from the previous weekend. He went on and on for several stops, sparing few details and running the gamut from obnoxious to full blown misogyny. Finally, his companion spoke for all riders when he compared the speaker to a feminine hygiene product. For a moment, I wished the F-Bomb Barbies would get on the bus. They would have been a great match.
Maybe they could make a reality show out of the 610 Minges.
If I had paid better attention in high school science class, I could tell you the name of the guy who talked about herd mentalities, or learned behaviors. Bus riders are no exception.
For example, as the bus approaches the bus stop, everyone — no matter where they are standing — takes one step closer to the curb as the vehicle comes to a stop. Conversely, as the bus pulls into each stop, those who are getting off begin the scramble long before the doors open, as if the driver will trap them for another loop around campus.
Then there are the drivers. They seem like pretty good folks, mostly students working to pay for school. But there is one, one driver, who is evil.
At least I think he is evil. Or she. I’ve never actually seen him. Or her. Everyday, at least once, as I scramble across a parking lot or hustle through the brickyard at the library, this driver lets me get oh-so-close and then slams the doors shut…just as I get within a few yards of the bus. He, or maybe she, always decides to do this on a day when other buses are out of service or way behind schedule, or it is raining and there is a 20 minute wait for the next one. I picture her, or maybe him, laughing maniacally as she or he guns it into traffic at 20 miles per hour. Think the crazy mailman from the 1980s Chevy Chase film, “Funny Farm.” I vow vengeance and shake my fist each time this happens, except for the vowing and fist shaking.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve come to appreciate the bus, the hum, not rattle of the engine. The faint smell of diesel fumes may take away a few of my brain cells everyday, but maybe those are the ones where the Simpson episodes are stored. The hiss of the hydraulics opening and closing the doors signal it is time to begin the day, or end it. A bus is there for me everyday and it always gets me to the Library and then back to Minges. The seats are comfortable and always clean. Maybe it is good that no one wants to be friendly. Starting or ending a day with a few quiet minutes of not having to think, or control a motor vehicle, or carry on a conversation can do a man good. Maybe it is good to know what the generation after me is worried about and I can’t say that I haven’t had an education about realistic dialogue. Even conspiracy theories about bus drivers have a positive side…if you’re a creative writing grad student.
About Michael: Michael Brantley has been a writer, editor and freelance photographer for over 20 years. He has an MA in English from East Carolina University, and is pursuing an MFA at Queens University. He has been published in Prime Number Magazine and is a regular contributor to Bluegrass Unlimited, Fiddler Magazine and Carolina-Virginia Farmer. Michael also edits the online journal, WTF: What The Fiction.