Caution: Strong language ahead.
“FUCK ‘YO MAMA!”
I had a feeling that my bus ride home was going to be different today and this was certainly an unexpected turn of events.
“TAKE YOUR HAND OFF MY BUS!”
In the 1980s and ‘90s, my preferred method of commuting to and from work in San Francisco was on one of the Golden Gate Ferry boats. Sometimes my job location put me too far away from the ferry terminal to catch an early ferry and instead I would ride home on one of the green and white Golden Gate Transit buses. This was one of those take-the-bus-Gus afternoons.
Every day I stood in line to catch the “big green limousine” with more or less the same group of commuters. The bus stop was about a block away from work and every day we got on the bus in more or less the same order and gravitated to the same unassigned seats. There were two seats to a row and an equal number of rows down each side of the vehicle. A center aisle ran the length of the bus and dead-ended into the last row of seats that spanned its width.
My favorite place to sit was in the aisle seat of the second row on the opposite side of the bus from the driver. The seat next to me was behind the raised wheel well of the bus. This one, and the other three like it, were usually the last ones selected by savvy commuters because it was difficult to get their legs into a comfortable position for the ride home.
Once on the bus I noticed that our regular driver, Lawrence, was missing. In his place was a large, heavily-muscled African-American gentleman sporting a neatly trimmed goatee under a pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses. He wore a white short-sleeved shirt with the transit logo over the left pocket and black pants, socks, and shoes. A brown beret, complete with an orange and black San Francisco Giants pin on the side, sat at a jaunty angle on his head. On his hands he had a pair of tight black leather fingerless gloves that were perforated with rows of small round holes from the back of each finger to the wrist closure.
The San Francisco Municipal Railway (MUNI) had recently laid off some employees and the beret reminded me of the ones worn by some of the cable car gripmen in the city. Perhaps this man was one of them? He certainly appeared to have the required upper-body strength and build.
“Hey, man, how’s it going?” I dropped my commute ticket into the fare box next to him and smiled. He gave me a blank stare and then a slight head nod in return. It was no big deal. He was the FNG and would soon get familiar with his “regulars”.
The last commuter in line stepped onboard and the doors closed behind them. As that person paid his fare the Fucking New Guy looked into the outside rear-view mirror and eased the bus away from the curb and into traffic. We settled in for the ride across town, punctuated with numerous stops to pick up more riders.
20 minutes passed and I began to get used to the rhythm of the new driver. His gradual acceleration in traffic and gentle use of the brakes at the traffic lights was very similar to Lawrence’s style of driving.
Unlike Lawrence, he had not spoken a single word or greeting to any of the passengers onboard the bus.
It takes all kinds of people to make up this world, but I was comfortable with the new guy and on track to catch a quick nap by the time the bus turned onto Lombard Street.
It may be known as the World’s Crookedest Street, but the portion of Lombard that we traveled on is a nice straight, six-lane boulevard stretching downhill from Van Ness Avenue heading west toward Doyle Drive and eventually north to the Golden Gate Bridge. Lombard St. also forms the dividing line between the affluent Cow Hollow neighborhood—to the south—with the scenic Marina District that stretches north to San Francisco Bay.
I got comfortable in my seat and closed my eyes for my daily commuter nap. For some reason we were moving a lot slower than normal in the afternoon traffic. My head rocked back and forth repeatedly in an erratic rhythm, at times pushing my chin down onto my chest. I placed head against the back of my high-back seat only to have it pushed down again when the driver hit the brakes.
Someone a few rows behind me said, “Man, what a jerk.” Surely they weren’t talking about our new driver? I opened my eyes and tilted my head to the left to get a good look down the aisle and through the windshield.
There was a thirty-something man on a bicycle two cars ahead of us. He was weaving from side-to-side in our lane and preventing anyone from getting past. A long line of cars in the lane to our left made it impossible to straddle the lanes and go around him.
The next traffic light was green but the biker was intentionally slowing his pace. I could see the brake lights on the back of the cars ahead of us. Someone honked their horn. The light turned yellow and the guy stopped his bicycle.
There were no cars in the cross-street to our right and as soon as the light turned red he pedaled his way through the intersection, going faster than ever before.
A lady across the aisle voiced the outrage that I felt boiling up inside me, “What a dick!”
There was a smattering of laughter and a few murmurs of approval, but for the most part it was quiet in the bus.
The traffic light turned green and the driver of the car at the front of our lane stomped on his accelerator pedal. He had more than enough speed to change lanes in front of the car to his left and avoid hitting the cyclist slowly weaving from side-to-side in our lane. A block later, the car in front of us was able to change lanes and that left us directly behind the Happy Wanderer.
At the next traffic light our HW repeated his former behavior. Slow down on green. Stop on yellow. Pedal like hell on red.
I looked at the reflection of our driver’s face in the wide rear-view mirror above the windshield. He displayed no outward emotion.
I lowered my gaze to his hands on the steering wheel and saw a different story. The leather of his gloves stretched and strained the stitches in the seams as he alternately squeezed and released his grip on the wheel. The muscles in his forearms knotted into long tangles of sinew each time he clenched his fists.
The traffic light turned from red to green and as our driver accelerated through the intersection he turned on the left-turn directional signal. The first car in the left lane sprinted past us and the next car slowed to open up space and give us a chance to scoot over and get around the cyclist.
Our bus drifted to the left, turn signal on. The Happy Wanderer pedaled hard to position himself on the left edge of his lane in front of our bus. Our driver made a more aggressive attempt to move over into the next lane just as a car pulled away from the curb in front of the HW.
I heard a collective gasp in the bus when my fellow passengers realized the situation that we were in.
My side of the bus was just inside our new lane. I could see the cyclist next to me. The automobile exiting the parking space blocked his path and there was no room between us and the car for the HW to fit through.
He yelled something unintelligible and pounded once on the side of the bus below me. That action caused him to lose his balance and he had to put both hands on the handlebars to regain control of the bicycle and stop before he hit the car in front of him. The cyclist’s screaming faded away as we traveled westward, catching every green light along the way to our final bus stop at the intersection with Fillmore Street.
A family of tourists and a half dozen regular commuters stood on the sidewalk ready to board the bus when we came to a stop at the curb. I squirmed in my seat trying to get a glimpse of the guy on the bicycle in the rear-view mirrors outside the bus. I couldn’t get a good angle to see behind us.
The bus pulled away from the curb and the traffic light turned red. This is it, I thought, he’s bound to catch up to us.
“HEY! Whadda ya think you’re doing back there?”
I had a partial view of the young man outside the driver’s side-window. He was sitting on his bicycle holding onto the handlebars with his left hand and the bus mirror with his right.
“I’ve got rights. You can’t crowd cyclists in their lanes. You have to give us room to ride.”
The bus driver sat quietly in his seat and stared directly at the outraged citizen below his window.
“FUCK ‘YO MAMA!”
Well what do you know, he does speak.
The cyclist leaned back away from the side of the bus, right arm extended, eyes wide open. His jaw dropped, his mouth forming a ragged ellipse. Apparently he was not versed with the intricacies of street-level profanity.
“TAKE YOUR HAND OFF MY BUS!”
The cars in the adjacent lanes began to move. Our driver turned his head, saw the green light, and stepped down hard on the accelerator petal.
“Hey! He-h-h-hey, Hold-on-a-minute!” The cyclist had a death-grip on the bus mirror with his right hand and another with his left hand on the handlebars of the bike.
We were picking up speed.
Mel’s Drive-in glided past us on our left side.
“Wa-wa-wait-a-minute!” The cyclist was having trouble guiding his bike with only one hand. This was starting to turn into one of those Wile E. Coyote moments.
The bus continued to accelerate. A green and white behemoth shot from a cannon, never wavering from it’s trajectory.
At the next intersection, we caught a green light. The driver still had the accelerator pedal down to the floor. The noise of the engine continued to get louder.
At this point the cyclist could no longer keep his balance and hold onto the bus. Thankfully, for him, he let go of the rear-view mirror and took control of his bike.
The bus continued to accelerate, putting time and distance between us and the, now, Unhappy Wanderer.
We caught a red light at Divisadero St. and the only sound in the bus was the purr of the engine as it idled at rest.
Our driver looked up into the rear-view mirror above his windshield. He could see the passengers all the way down the length of the bus. “ANYBODY got a problem?”
Could that be a rhetorical question? Probably not.
I spoke up, “No, man. I’m good.”
More replies and support came from some of the other passengers. I think that the rest of them were as intimidated by the new driver as the Happy Wanderer was.
The rest of our commute was as pleasant as it was uneventful. Our driver discharged about half of the passengers at the Transit area in San Rafael and took the rest of us west toward the Ross Valley.
I pulled the signal cord a block away from my intended stop, got out of my seat and took two steps forward, stopping behind the driver.
There was a traffic light between our position and my bus stop. The light turned red.
I leaned over to keep my conversation quiet. “That guy on the bike was completely out of line.”
The driver sighed and looked up at me, then back at the traffic light. “Yeah.”
“My name’s, Al. If you need someone to step up for you, I’m on this bus everyday.”
The light turned green and the driver drove across the intersection and coasted into my bus stop.
“I’m Reggie.” The stony expression on his face had softened. “I should be ok, but I’ll remember what you said.”
“See you tomorrow, Reggie.”
As time passed Reggie got more comfortable with his “regulars” and vise-versa. Everyone settled back into their old commute habits. Most people caught a nap, some read a book, a few of the ladies worked on their knitting projects, and the tourists spent their time sight-seeing out the windows of the bus.
I never heard if any complaints were lodged against our driver concerning the incident with the Happy Wanderer. Two months later I got transferred to a different job, one where I could catch the first afternoon ferry every day.
I never saw, or heard about, Reggie again but it is safe to say that I have never forgotten that first ride home with him.