Press "Enter" to skip to content

Why Not Take The Bus?

“Urban public transit has never made its living off promises of gentility or grace. To the middle class, it’s mostly been: “We’re faster, cheaper, more convenient than your car.” The pitch to the poor has sported thinner varnish: “You don’t have a car.”

Anyone who braves the routes through rougher neighborhoods of San Francisco has tales to tell of anarchy or bust-out insurrection. Even the lines that link upscale residential areas with downtown hives of finance are not immune. I’ve sidled into slashed, scratched, strangely stained or sticky seats for some little while, and have seen my standards — thresholds for what is odious, that is — sink steadily.

Time was that I would take offense at relatively minor-league transgressions. Drums, bass, and cymbals crashing through the vacant skull of the Walkmanned passenger beside me. Women undertaking complex and laborious beautification regimens en route, aided by an arsenal of compacts, mascara whisk-brooms, pancake pads, lip glosses and eyeliners. Worse still, men intent on freelance touch-ups of their manicures, clippers snapping smartly as fingernail fragments fly.

Several hundred round-trips in, those don’t even count as misdemeanors, petty annoyances unworthy of citation.

Join me on a humid April morning on the 2 Clement.

Boarding well after rush hour (central to my ultimately failed sanity-preservation strategy), 10 before 10 or thereabouts, I noticed that the sparsely populated bus (or “coach,” as the drivers insist on calling them) was entirely unoccupied in back. There was one exception. A skinny, twitchy African American, with thick topiary hair adorning scalp and chin, his attenuated features somehow reminiscent of the Nile, was staying active.

His feet were thumping toe-heel-toe, hard and loud against the ribs of the rubber mat. His hands were thrashing, as if shaking off the drops that clung after a swim. A yes-no counterpoint capped the routine, as he alternately nodded and shook his head. The accompanying soundtrack was a demented speed rap.

“My baby love me, huh, but she don’ gimme what ah need, ah-huh-huh. My baby love me, ah-huh, don’ gimme what ah need,” he chanted. It seemed like blues lyrics at first, but it wasn’t. It was only tortured vocals, broadcast by a brainpan overamped on nasty product.

Soon even the gutteral verbiage ceded the stage to a succession of grunts, alongside the ah-huh, ah-huh-huh chorus, and still with the syncopated foot thumps and the thrashing hands.

The mind of every other passenger was focused solely on this wired-up madman, yet each one acted studious and unaware. Gazing out the window … ah-huh … refolding pages of the paper … ah-huh-huh.

Tension mounted in direct proportion to attempts to mask it. Finally, one rider could endure no more. An imposing, densely-muscled, and deceptively serene black man ambled purposefully backward from the front of the “coach.” He stood directly above the palpitating lunatic, and told him, “Man, you buggin’ me.”

The speed-freak’s frantic hand and foot work stopped, and he looked up, wild-eyed, but held his tongue for once.

“I am axin’ you to chill,” the large, serene man elaborated.

“Who the fuck are you?” challenged the over-stimulated passenger. “Is you the police? Ah-huh. Is you Napoleon? Ah-huh-huh.”

“I ain’t the ‘po-lice,’ and I ain’t Napoleon, either. I’m the one who is axin’ you to chill.” Aside from their face-off, and the labored shrieking of the diesel engine, the bus was altogether silent.

“Do you have that crack cocaine?” the dope fiend demanded. “Ah-huh. Do you have that crystal crank? Ah-huh-huh. ‘Cause that’s what I need, ah-huh, to make me happy.”

“No shit. Well, what J need to make me happy is for you to get your sorry ass off this motherfuckin’ bus,” the large man declared, and at the next stop, that’s exactly what the public nuisance did.

A subdued round of applause paid tribute to the civic-minded citizen during his victorious stroll back to the front of the coach.

For several days, I participated in a one-man bus boycott. There’d be no more rain until the fall. Even in low gear, my walk to work took 35 or 40 minutes, tops. Less than a week after Major Confidence and Corporal Crank went at it, though, an inbound trolley pulled up beside me on the downside of a hill. So I got on. It was a bad mistake.

This time the bus, from exit door to back ledge, was crowded, and in the middle of the rearmost five-wide bank of seats was an animated individual. Ethnically ambiguous, this guy resembled the Native American on the obverse of the “buffalo” nickel, if you ignored the acne scars.

In place of the tribal ponytail was a tonsorial statement that featured shaved scalp more than two inches up from the ears, surmounted by a lank, petro-jellied hank of pelt, which caught the light prismatically like a pool of 30-weight.

The possessor of the oily pelt appeared exasperated. He sighed and stretched histrionically, shifting in his seat to punctuate each utterance. With theatrical exaggeration, he extracted from a vinyl satchel a vial of viscous, milky fluid, shook several generous globules into a cupped palm, and began kneading the goo into his pelt.

Horrified commuters in the adjoining seats evacuated instantly. Meanwhile, our man’s lubrication of his ornamental headdress continued, complete with grandiose gestures and grandiloquent gasps.

For a stop or two, there appeared to be a truce. Near the epicenter of the freshly-greased pelt, passengers scowled and hunkered, but made no bolder statement.

Then all bets were off. Why? Because the cosmetically challenged rogue rider in the middle of the back seat determined that he hadn’t yet been moisturized sufficiently.

Out of the satchel came a chrome-finished atomizer, a weapon that he held at arm’s length, and from which he began to pump a cloud of fragrant, suffocating spray, thick as dead gardenias.

Eyes shut, expectant in the rancid rain, Pelt Boy luxuriated, while all around, his choking, coughing fellow citizens stampeded toward the door.

Just what you need to deal with on the morning commute. Or, as we say here in town, “That’s all right. I’ll walk the rest of the way.”


  1. Bob A. June 6, 2023

    As Sterno said when I recounted a tale of a warm piss puddle on an MTA seat, “That’s the bus.”

    • George Dorner June 7, 2023

      At least it was warm.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *