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Catching the Bus



Late morning, the summer beginning to subside.

The empty bus eased away from the curb and headed for Orleans Avenue. Across the way, the miniature train slowed to take the curve around the lip of the lagoon at the edge of the City Park. There was no one but the engineer on the train.

The two empty carriers, in search of those who wait to travel, saluted each other, whistle and horn, toot and honk.

More than 40 years ago, in a book about Earl Long and local politics, A.J. Liebling digressed to say what an unspeakable social crime it had become in America not to have possession of an automobile.

It was true then, it's even truer now, and I was thinking about this one fine, sunny afternoon when I was tooling around aimlessly with the top down. It was a perfect day to celebrate the car culture, and most of the convertibles I saw had their tops down, too. Roof-free, I began to take notice of my fellow citizens whose lives had been put out in a rowboat minus paddles. In our society of speed, those whose arrival time at their next destination would depend on the hurry of others or the pace of their own feet. Those without cars in our car culture.

Here was a woman waiting alone in a bus shelter, standing to catch her reflection in the plastic shield over the advertisement for yet another litigious lawyer, pulling her hair back with one hand and making pretty faces at herself.

At the next stop, an undersized man of work, with a face furrowed in thought. Does he think of getting to a place where he understands how and who and maybe even is understood in return? A couple of suits, midway through a commute, smoking fiercely until the bus gets there. They get aboard, leaving all smiles behind.

Pull over, put up the top, take a ride on the bus.

Mingle at the bus stop. Notice how some strangers will talk to each other till the bus comes. Then they will get on and sit separately and silently. A middle-distance stare.

They all come to the bus stop. Old men in baseball caps. Red-haired women in red golf shirts from Harrah's. Young men in the starched whites of kitchen help, waiting to wait on those who ride cars to work. All squinting at the sunspots shimmering off windshields of passing cars, wincing at the keen of sirens on their way to their grim and desperate work.

Shuffle to the door. People dragging paraphernalia, strollers, canes, parasols, video cameras, algebra and sociology textbooks, a well-thumbed paperback titled Rogue Warriors. The neighborhood jocks sashay down the aisle, stop as the bus lurches, sashay some more as they model their jerseys: Pirates, Panthers, Buccaneers, Bulls.

Two women sit together. One is tall and says nothing audible. The other wears a tee, with a couple of armored fighting vehicles stenciled on the back above the caption, "Expect me, nigga! Did you expect Jesus to come back." She does all the talking. A middle-aged man, eating Cocoa Puffs out of a brown bag, can't take his eyes off the pair.

Two working girls share a story. One is telling of leaving the marriage bed and moving back in with her parents.

"He's an old-fashioned Sicilian type. He sets a curfew for me. A curfew! 'Under my roof, under my rules' is what he says. The first date I go out on, when the guy pulls into the driveway, his headlights fall on my dad standing in the bay window.

"My mama tells him, 'You can't stand in the window like that. Karen's a woman now.' So the next time I go out, my date pulls his car into the driveway and there in his headlights, taped to the bay window, is an 11-by-16 photograph of my dad."

End of the line. Everyone clambers off the bus, taking their stories with them, far away from the people riding past in cars. The bus marked "St. Bernard -- Senate" empties and fills. A sidewalk apostle bellows into a portable microphone, "Hell is a huge place. You ain't gonna see nobody you know!"

The bus pulls off. The advertisement on its flank is for the lottery. It reads, "Got Numbers?"

Not really. The triumph of personal machine was made final and formal last week with the late-summer announcement that there are now, in America, more cars than drivers.


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