By the psychic reader and Wash and Fold, Smitty and Delores get on. They've been missing for a couple of weeks now. The driver didn't give their absence a thought until this moment.

      "Say, Delores—where've you guys been—vacationing in Maui?" he asks.

      Delores sits behind him. “Been in the General, driver—three weeks. Sugar diabetes—they had to cut off my toe. Got all black. I'm not gonna take no medication pills no more. Smitty’s gonna have to learn to give me shots, now.”

      “Yeah,” Smitty says,  “I’m the significant other. I’m not gonna learn to give no shots. And now the social worker says she’s gonna get Delores a city apartment. Maybe over in the Pink Palace. Only they don't call it that now. Supposedly cleaned it up. Now it's called the Rosa Parks Senior Apartments. You ever been in the Pink Palace back in the day? The elevators were broken and the halls smelled like piss before they even finished building the place.”

      Down on Market the bus run starts.  Every day, the same sleeper clings to his cardboard raft on the concrete ocean. The workers rise from the underground train station in waves and step right over him. The 38-Geary accordions between downtown towers, a behemoth caterpillar, as the driver barks out the stops—Market, Montgomery, Van Ness. He wears his hat at a jaunty angle like Che. Passengers deposit their fares. He greets them, repeating over and over, “How’re y’all doing this morning? Please be considerate of other passengers with your cell phones.” In mile high heels and short leopard skirt, a young woman moves to the back, speaking pitch clear into a red phone: “Yeah, he’s depressed, but I told him, like, I have needs too… I just got on the bus…Yeah, yeah...I know…”

      The bus pulls into the Tenderloin, the soft underbelly, and a bent Chinese woman hauls three grocery bags on board. Streets tight with ambulances, delivery trucks, SROs, tourists, prostitutes and Vietnamese mothers walking their children to school. This was where the survivors went after the Big Quake. Fire demolished the rest of the city. The old man in the flannel shirt who used to sit by the window of the Patel Hotel, maybe his mother grabbed him from his cradle and ran here for safety. He's been gone for years from his old place by the window. No one left to tell that tale.

      A woman in a blue raincoat pulls a little girl behind her onto the bus, the little girl crying softly, the way she’s crying making him uneasy. She’s almost hiding it. You have to let the quiet in or you don't see it.

      The driver looks back at gap-toothed Delores and thinks what he always thinks, that she's a bundle of instinct trying to speak from under water. If she gets close enough to you, she smells of Raid, urine and cooking grease. Dolores is Smitty’s meal ticket, his cash cow. Pretty low yield investment. The driver can never figure out the deal. Smitty lives off her. Off what? Her disability money? In exchange, he looks after her in his way. Not sure what else is part of the arrangement, better not to think too hard on the subject. Smitty—looks like any number of formerly tough guys he knew growing up, slowed down by middle-age, settling for petty predation, maybe served some time—hair grey at the temples, getting a belly, and still hair-trigger defensive.

      The question he asks himself is: where do the two of them go every damned day on this bus? They get off somewhere near the turn around point. Out near Fort Miley. Smitty getting therapy at the VA? Not likely. Maybe they’re panhandling the tourists out near the Cliff House. Maybe they just want to take their daily constitutional by the ocean.

       The bus gets stuck crossing Larkin hard up against the inbound 38. Buxom Celia is the driver. The brown beret looks good on her. The two drivers open up their side windows, lean out and give a kiss on each cheek in the European manner. Then Celia lands one right on his lips. “See you in the yard, baby,” she calls. The buses uncouple and move in opposite directions.

      Once Delores told him, “I’m from Manchester. That’s in New Hampshire." How did She end up here? When? Did she hitchhike? Summer of Love? What addled her? Alcohol? Too many hallucinogens? No—dull-normal was probably her baseline. Smitty claims that they squat for free in an abandoned house next to the Zen Center, and brags that he tapped into the Center electricity so they could have TV. All those meditators with the next cycle of Karmic damnation right through the walls next door.

      The bus crosses Van Ness where Geary widens and the pace picks up. This part of the city haunts him. This is where he grew up, where his grandparents had an old Victorian three-story out on Eddy. Along Fillmore were mom and pop grocery stores, barbershops, liquor stores, and blues clubs. Music poured into the street. His people came here in the forties to build ships for Kaiser when the government pulled apart old Japantown and dragged the Nisei off to Manzanar. Some of those folks came back, like that old man sitting in front of the Nippon Senior Center all day; his eyes hold the bus in a fixed stare. Spooky.

      The downtown types really worked over the Fillmore. They condemned the old Victorian rooming houses, tore down everything in their path, and cut a swath of destruction five miles wide like it was a big emergency. They tore down the stores and the clubs. They tore down his Grandma Davis’s house and pulled out her roses. And when they finished, it was like they lost interest. They didn’t even know what they wanted it for—for twenty-five years, it was a rat and weed infested empty lot. Then they started building million dollar condominiums. He wonders who the hell is going to buy them. They even tried to spiff up the old Lone Star Hotel on Divisidero. Now it's called the "Fillmore Arms" and the downstairs liquor store is gone, replaced by a Chinese take-out. Gone, too, are the old men, white Oakies, Blacks and Philippines, who used to sit outside the hotel smoking, spitting and coughing their tubercular coughs.

      Across the intersection a big line is forming around the Fillmore Auditorium. The sign says, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers or some geezer group like that. A big crowd waits at the next stop. There’s some scuffling when a guy and girl push aside the other riders to get on. They stand over Smitty and Delores at a sharp tilt, hanging on. Everyone else retreats deep inside to stay out of the way. Except Smitty. "Fuckin' suburban hip hop hippie wannabees," he mutters. The guy leans over him. His girl sucks on a Kentucky Fried Chicken bone. Randall is keeping one eye on the rear-view. These two are high and a little drunk. He could smell it and shouldn’t have let them get on.

      “You all think you own this bus? You think you can push everyone around? You just come down here like you just own the place?" Smitty says.

      “Hush now Smitty; don’t you get started now,” says Delores.

      The driver seconds the motion. “She’s right Smitty. You just keep to yourself now, friend. I don’t want trouble on my bus.”

       “You don’t just come down here and start pushin’ people around. You should show a little respect.”

      The guy leans down over Smitty. “Who asked you?”

      “You did, motherfucker. Comin’ down here and pushing everyone around. No respect, no manners."

      “Shut-up Smitty. Why do you always have to go lookin’ for a fight?”

      “Yeah—you should listen to your gorgeous girlfriend there.”

      “You best leave her out of it. Your high school ‘ho's no prize neither.”

      The driver pulls over and puts the bus in park. He radios in the trouble and walks back towards the two men, but he gets there a second too late. They're squared off like roosters. The guy has pulled Smitty to his feet. He shoves him down on the floor and gives him a kick. Smitty grabs his leg and bites him. Tall and wide when he's out of his seat, the driver grabs both of them by the collar, drags them to the front and throws them off the bus. The bone-chewing girlfriend hops out the back exit. Door shut hard behind them all, without a word the driver starts up and moves out.

      There sits Delores momentarily dazed, and then she starts crying. “Why does Smitty always do like that—always starts things up? Now what am I gonna do? Left me behind. I’m so tired of Smitty. Like he can never mind his business, and he don’t treat me right neither. I had a nurse comin’ to my house for my foot and he goes and tells her he wants to taste her. Like I couldn't hear him, too. Couldn’t keep his mouth shut. Now the nurses gotta come with an escort ‘cause of him.” Her nose is dripping.

      But two stops later, she gets off at the same place they always get off.

      "You gonna be all right, Delores? You know how to get home now?" The driver calls out the door.

      "I know how, driver."

      "Well, all right then."

      They're almost at Fort Miley—break time. After that he'll do the inbound run: shoppers, high school kids all talking on cell phones—the same looping conversations, looping around and around. But for a half hour, he'll pull out his sandwich and newspaper, sit and think, looking out to where the horizon tilts and the Pacific bends around to connect with other oceans. There are old stories packed in bedrock and landfill that ride the tectonic plates, soon to be swallowed by the Aleutian Trench, whirlpooled into orange lava, and spit out in new formations. You have to let the quiet in or you don't hear, you don't see. He needs to have the daydream function turned on, the noise turned off. People used to just pass the time staring out the bus window. He misses that. They were seeing, too.

Wendy Breuer lives in Berkeley, CA with her husband and five cats that almost replace two daughters who've
flown from the nest. She's wandered through the work world as office temp (in the typewriter age), waitress,
day care teacher, RN, and Luddite data manager. Her favorite job was helping to start a program that trains
volunteer coaches to work with high school students on critical thinking and writing. She has an MPH from UC
and an MFA in creative writing from Mills College.

This piece comes from my years of riding the bus and observing the strange instant community that forms there, for better or worse. Each ride is like an odyssey with the driver as the anchoring consciousness. I tried to contain all of this in a poem as a formal sestina, but it burst its seams. Then I began to experiment with placing different characters on the bus, including some interesting folks I'd run across in my visiting nurse days. And of course, the city itself became a character.



Copyright 2009