by Donna Johnson
It never occurred to me that I would be living out my middle age without a car. Cars were something every respectable person had. To me, taking buses was the next thing to being homeless. But being the irresponsible person I am, and knowing little about automobiles, i.e., that they need oil to run on, I frequently forgot to put oil in my car, thinking oil checks were as arbitrary as putting those little Christmas-tree air-fresheners over the rear-view mirror. Consequently, it was bound to happen at some time, in some place, that my car would run out of oil and blow up. In my case, this happened on April 4, 2006. Not having money to get the car fixed, I simply left it there, most likely to be impounded. Thus it happened that I began to take buses.
Imagine my surprise to find there were many so-called normal people like myselfâ"well, some of my friends might question thatâ"riding the bus. An attractive downtown librarian wearing a trench coat, reading quietly on her way home. A well-dressed businessman typing on his personal computer, and even the furtive Jack Neely of Metro Pulse , looking like a character from The Great Gatsby , who says he takes buses on a regular basis.
After a few weeks of taking buses I began to know the regulars and see that there is a veritable community of bus people. I have met women who lost their children to the custody of Department of Children's Services, then a few months later, after working many hours and days of grueling labor at minimum-wage jobs, observed them riding the bus joyfully with their children, having regained custody of them.
I have heard sermons preached on the bus: â“I no longer run with the devil. I hang with Christ now. It don't matter what you've done or who you've done it to, Christ will forgive you and help you out of a scrape.â”
I have learned interesting information, for example, that acupuncture will cure sinus and allergy problems, and I've bought a fresh pizza on the bus for two dollars from someone who needed money to continue on his way across town. For the most part, people are generous and helpful on buses in Knoxville.
The last time I rode buses on a regular basis was in New York City, where one's life was in peril each time one boarded the bus. Being a Southern Baptist, I naturally gave up my seat to whomever got on the bus after me, which left me hanging desperately, hands clutching the handles attached to the ceiling of the bus, until I arrived at my destination of Lexington and 23rd Street. In New York the buses were dirty and crowded, the bus-drivers ill tempered and rude. In Knoxville, the buses are clean, the bus-drivers, for the most part, generous and helpful. On two occasions, when I had mistakenly gotten on the wrong bus, the bus-driver went off his scheduled route to take me to my street. And buses here are rarely crowded. On several occasions I have been the only traveler besides the bus driver.
On the Saturday evening before Easter I was traveling with an extremely handicapped bus-rider who could not understand the directions the bus-driver was giving him, so I explained to him where to get off the bus and told him I would help him get to his apartment as I was going the same way. When he got off the bus, clutching his six-pack of beer to his chest as though it were a treasure chest filled with precious gems, I saw that he was so handicapped that he could not walk without falling down every few steps. He swayed from side to side dangerously, and I felt completely overwhelmed. Surely not only he, but the two of us, were going to be run over by the busy Fountain City traffic on Broadway. Catching the eye of a driver who had stopped at the red light, I mouthed: â“Can you help us?â” Miraculously, he nodded, and he and his wife took us to our destination.
â“You must be Christians,â” I said.
â“We are,â” they replied, beaming with joy. It was a heartwarming encounter for the day before Easter and greatly increased my own lukewarm faith.
One of my favorite bus-comrades is a beautiful Japanese woman who my friend Marc and I have named, for lack of a better title, â“Suzy Wong.â” She is probably in her early 40s, wears her black hair in two ponytails on either side of her head, a gray sweatshirt, pink socks and sneakers. I have heard various stories about her. She frequently tells people that she has a husband and home in Oak Ridge. From another bus-rider I've heard that she was gang-raped by a motorcycle rang, her husband killed. Marc thinks she is a Zen priestess.
I have seen her pushing her grocery cart at West Town Mall, at Kroger's in Bearden, and many times seen her at the UT library. She almost always gets off the bus at 9 o'clock at the mission, where she lives. I have been told by a reliable source who also lived at the mission for a while that most nights she sleeps sitting straight up on a pew in the mission chapel. The one time I attempted to start a conversation with her, she rebuffed me by saying, â“I don't know what you are talking about!â” On another occasion, when I had dozed off on my way home, I awakened to find her studying my face attentively. I smiled at her, and she smiled back. It's the only eye contact we have ever had.
Another traveler of the night that I have grown fond of is a young woman I call â“Helen.â” She usually carries a baby-doll with a green face, a coloring book and crayons. Helen is a pretty woman with black, curly hair who appears to be in her early 20s. On her forehead, the numbers â“666â” are tattooed in large print. She was allegedly, according to another bus person, held down while the numbers were permanently engraved on her forehead. Like Suzy Wong, Helen rarely makes eye contact with anyone, but the other night, when I was grieving the loss of a cherished friendship, she touched my arm and asked, â“Are you alright?â” When I thanked her for her concern, she honored me by saying, â“Why don't you visit me sometime?â” Before she got off the bus she gave me her address. The next time I saw her, I asked how her baby was doing and she opened the blanket she was carrying to reveal a live bunny, which wrinkled his nose at me. She had bought a leash for him and was going to Cumberland Avenue to walk him.
I have had joyful reunions on the bus. My favorite one was with a woman I will call â“Delores.â” One morning as I was traveling to the library, a very pretty woman with a warm smile greeted me, â“Hello, Donna. It's great to see you.â”
Not recognizing her, I asked: â“Who are you?â”
â“I'm Delores,â” she answered in a husky voice.
â“Oh my God,â” I said, suddenly remembering. She was a woman I had worked with many years ago when I was a case manager with the Department of Children's Services. Delores and her children were my favorite family; I became so obsessed with that particular family, to the exclusion of all others, that my supervisor finally had to take me off the case. I would haul all six children to my home, which was strictly forbidden by the department, give them hot chocolate, and let them jump up and down on my waterbed. Kira, the youngest, was then three. She was the first depressed child I ever knew, and I used to cuddle her in my arms for hours.
Their Aunt Elvira had custody of them at the time, and when she died suddenly, I remember the children walking to the store, the little girls in white lace dresses, the boys in suits and ties, their grief overcome for a few moments by the joy of having money jingling in their pockets and to be going to the store to buy sodas and candy bars. Delores sang a beautiful spiritual at the funeral, and I have never before or since heard such a beautiful, sad, heart-wrenching voice. I have often gained courage myself since then by remembering Delores on the porch of her Walter Peay Taylor apartment, having suddenly regained custody of all six children. â“I can do this. I can do this,â” she repeated over and over to herself, like a mantra.
â“Tell me about the children,â” I said.
â“Kira is 18 and finishing high school,â” she said. â“Tyrone drives a Cadillac, and Myra Lynn is married to a preacher. We'll come and see you and they can tell you the rest.â” She laughed. We exchanged phone numbers, and in parting she said, â“I have a job now, and I've found God.â” I envied her the radiance she wore so gracefully. It's funny how things can turn around sometimes. At the time I knew Delores, she was on welfare, her name frequently at the top of several bondsmen's most wanted lists. Now she is working, and I am on welfare (disability for bi-polar disorder). Destiny has a way of bringing back someone from your past when you least expect it who mirrors your life in this way.
Though occasionally I still miss having a car, there is no question that taking buses has enriched my life immeasurably. Not to mention that you save a whole lot of money and protect the environment. Think about that the next time you get into your big, gas-guzzling SUV with the $400-a-month payments on it.
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