People-Reading on the Bus

bus wheel2Last week I took the bus for the first time in the city where I’ve lived for nearly 15 years. I’m all for fewer cars and public transit—it’s just that I live on a quiet capillary distant from the arteries plied by the buses. It’s not lost on me that I’ve taken buses on five continents but never in the place I call home.

The light on the bus was a dirty green that blotted the colour from the faces of other passengers. An icy draft slid past the rows of seats and I spent several moments looking for the cracked window that might be letting winter in. Does a boot exist, I wondered, anywhere on the planet, capable of keeping my feet toasty in the heart of a Canadian January?

No one else on the bus was idly looking around, glancing at the faces of fellow bus-riders and guessing at their plots and histories. Most were locked onto their cellphones—texting, scrolling, and trolling their music collections. My smartphone was dead so I had to come up with other, more old-fashioned ways to keep disengaged from my surroundings.

I pulled out the The Orchid Thief  by Susan Orlean—assigned reading for my class at the university. My old book club read it years ago, but I’m re-reading it now with more of a critical, how-to eye. I love Orlean’s descriptions of Florida, so muggy and lush and proliferative. On the bus, the heat rising from the page was almost enough to lift me out of my chilly seat. I admire her microscopic precision, her eye for the absurd, and her scratch-the-surface-and-keep-digging storytelling style. I appreciate the canny use of lists and juxtaposition to show us Florida’s idiosyncrasies as well as those of her focus, John Laroche.

I also like her languid pace. She’s hinted to her readers as to where she plans to take us—on a search for the elusive ghost orchid—but she’s also made it clear: it’s hot and steamy in the world she’s showing us. The humidity is pressing down and nothing gets accomplished quickly. Be patient. Have a look around.

I closed the book. I was on a bus for the first time in the city where I live. I ought to be opening my eyes and observing. I should be hunting for characters and practicing the art of precise description.

The bus was only half-full. In the last minute before we departed, a man in cargo pants and a green coat stepped onto the bus. His hood was trimmed in fur so matted it looked like his face, mostly obscured, was nesting in the hide of something it had trapped and killed. He reeked of pot, having no doubt dashed for the bus from lab experiments aimed at intensifying marijuana vapours. He carried a cloud of it along with him as he slouched down the aisle, trying not to knock his guitar case against anyone’s knees. I wasn’t the only one, I’m sure, who glanced up at the smell and wondered whether I would leave the bus with a bit of a buzz. When he disembarked from the exit at the back of the bus, he bellowed a polite and happy thank you to the driver.

Across the aisle from me, a young couple cuddled as they scrutinized their separate mobile devices, snuggling into one another without lifting their eyes from their screens. Twice, the woman turned to the man and pronounced: I love you. She said it so emphatically, with such finality, I assumed she was about to stand and disembark. Instead, she settled back into her screen, burrowing her shoulder more tightly into his bent form.

No one was sitting tall, I realized. No one was letting the arctic breeze slip past her coat collar, turtleneck, or scarf. We were all hunched and antisocial, letting nothing impress or undo us. I thought of all the sweatier bus trips I’d taken. South America, Asia, Africa, Arabia. I remembered, in particular, a sweltering bus-trip in South India, my body crammed so tightly against those around me that I couldn’t have read a book or trolled my social media accounts if I’d wanted to. What I could do was stand upright in the aisle without holding onto a bar or strap, held aloft by perspiring flesh that wasn’t mine. I would sway when all the other bodies swayed, learning far too much and never enough about all the people around me.


NOTE: I’m back at school, taking a course requiring me to write a weekly blog, sometimes about the works we’re reading in class, sometimes about new encounters or experiences, particularly those that involve other art forms. If these posts seem different from those in the past, this is why.