1978 Bus Incident
This is a story about two New York City bus drivers dealing with a racist passenger. It is a work of fiction but reflects the author's experience as an NYC bus driver in the 1970s & 1980s
The white bus driver stands under the streetlamp at 126th Street and 2nd Avenue. The tenements all around are empty. This is a quiet place in Manhattan. Night hasn't lowered the temperature. The air smells like motor oil from the garage set back from the street where three long doors are up. Inside, buses waiting to be repaired face the street while from above come sounds of talking and the click of billiard balls through the crew room window. The sound of rattling metal down the block, coming closer, then the squeal of air brakes. A bus pulls up to the curb, with the speed and racket of the run just completed clinging to it. The driver from the corner takes over the driver's seat, for the start of a new run downtown.
Number 3368 is an old GM, began its work in the 50's and still going 20 years later. The windows are stuck open, but its summer and there's no AC. There is a thick nauseating smell of insecticide inside the bus, a sticky smell that finds its way into cracks in the seats and the peeled linoleum floor and probably into the ventilation system and a good thing too because that's where the roaches live. Running down the route on Second Avenue in East Harlem, the bus shakes all over - the entire body feels like it’s come loose from the frame and slams over bumps in the road.
The driver has one passenger - a fellow driver from the garage, finished with his shift, riding downtown. The one in the driver's seat is in his 20's. Hair untrimmed, uniform shirt wrinkled, sleeves rolled up, his collar button undone, his tie loosened. Passenger Luis is Hispanic, 40 years old. Luis's shirt is buttoned at the cuff and collar and pressed, with his tie in perfect order. The drivers know each other but neither speaks. At this moment, the entire compass of their lives is subsumed in their jobs. Thoughts, feelings, behaviors track within a tick of baseline.
There shouldn't be any passengers for another 20 blocks because this whole part of East Harlem has been burned out. Along Second Avenue and down the side streets, empty buildings, windows smashed in, storefronts missing the whole front wall, litter in the streets and not a soul around. A trickle of water comes out of a fire hydrant missing its cap and cover.
But a man, in his 60's, white, hair askew, unshaven, is standing at the bus stop at 118th Street, standing right at the pole, looking out into the street. He is wearing a sports jacket, but one so filthy that he might have been wearing it when he slept on the street or in a basement last night. He exudes a faint smell of urine and feces. There's a bruise on his forehead. The bus driver pulls over and he gets on. He puts a token in the box.
A red light. Another couple of blocks. Another red light. The man starts to talk.
"Nobody can throw me off," he says, talking out into space. "You can't even touch me. I'm a customer." To the bus driver: "You're not allowed to leave your seat."
Then to Luis, whom the man identifies as Puerto Rican: "your people is what dragged the City down." Out into space again: "that's what they come here for the money and the City gives them a room. Worthless. They live in the Projects. The Projects smell like a shit hole."
A pause. Just the sound of the rattling bus, the smell of insecticide and fluorescent light. The man pipes up again. "They're filthy. You can smell them. You'd rather have cancer than Puerto Ricans." Since the man got on, no one else has boarded the bus.
At 111th Street, Luis, who has been sitting opposite the man, gets up and grabs him by the front of his shirt collar, pulls him up out of the seat and punches him in the face, then delivers a punch to the man's stomach that doubles him over. The man's face is bloody.The bus driver pulls over to the curb and opens the doors. Luis drags the man to the back door, down the three exit steps and throws him out the door half onto the sidewalk half into the gutter. The driver closes the doors and pulls away.
A couple of blocks further on, the driver looks over at Luis and smiles. Luis has taken out a cloth handkerchief and is wiping blood off his hands.