Anyone who believes in the rule of law has never been on a broken down NYC commuter bus. There’s a rare kind of tension among the early morning commuter crowd. To put this in context I should say that I awake at 4 a.m. to catch the first us through town, five days a week. I’m usually somewhere between four and six on the passenger count, but if lots of people need to be in New York before sun-up, I may be as far down as 10. I select my seat with care. I tend to sit two seats behind the driver. I prefer the right-hand side of the bus, but there’s a regular who sits there and, I’m given to understand, she’s been doing this for over a decade. So I sit left. It’s never a good portent when I end up having to go four or more rows back. You see, the buses usually unload in a fairly orderly way, the front rows get out first, and each row takes its turn. Since too early is never early enough to be at work, I sit near the front because in the back you can lose precious minutes waiting for those who are sleeping to rouse themselves enough to find their feet and stumble off. If it sounds like I’m overthinking this, it’s because I’ve been awake since before four and how you start your day sets the tone. Where’d I put my coffee? Arriving at the office frantic and sweating isn’t the best way to impress anyone.
There’s a kind of comfort at being at the end of the line of service. Of course, the commute home means you’re on the bus longer than people who can afford to live closer to the City. First on, last off. Although I easily fall prey to motion sickness, I have taught myself to read on the bus. An hour in and two hours out are goodly amounts of time to really get into a book. I hate to waste time.
You can smell a bus breaking down. I always hope the driver doesn’t catch a whiff, because s/he’ll call the control center and lawyers will dictate that the bus be stopped. By definition, you’ll be late to work that day. So when I smelled something burning, I hoped I was the only one. Luck has never been my strong suit. The driver pulled over and announced, in a soft voice, that we’d have to wait for the next bus. That means I could’ve slept in for ten more minutes.
The next bus is an “express”—that is local compared to my bus. The driver said, “Just stay in your seats, and I’ll call you.” Of course, people started to get off to form a line, despite the captain’s words. In a universal display of self-importance, those who just got on immediately hurry to get off first. They’ll be first in line to get seats on the next bus. Those who obey the driver are penalized. When it became clear that I could hear crickets chirping on the bus, I decided to put away my book and join the line. After quite a wait, the local came. That would get us to the City in time for work tomorrow. Several minutes later the express came. Those at the back of the line behind me hurried over. By the time I’d gotten there, still trying to honor the most ancient of queuing honor codes—the line—all the seats were taken. Those in the front of the line, now the back, headed over to take first place again, since they had expected the rescue bus to pull in front of our smoking wreck instead of behind, where it did. They weren’t shy about elbowing their unrighteous way to the front when the next bus came. I’d been on the abandoned bus since before 6 a.m. I made the third bus. The guy in my row on the adopted bus tried hard not to make room for a new passenger next to him. I was headed to New York where, I know, all the rules are off.