Bus #6, from Mineral Point Road to East Towne Mall.
On February 9, I rode it end to end. It began heavy with book-learning. Surrounded by University students and encompassed by the warm glow of unencumbered intelligence, my eyelids were weighted. Lined together in rows like volumes on cheap shelves, I was packaged with the rest of them. Expensive shoes, rounded backpacks and a disproportionate number of four-eyed people pondering the qualities of academia and dining hall food.
At the edge of campus, the throngs unloaded themselves from the sides of the bus, spilling into the snow drifts like spilled coffee, blackening the white ground. Hoisting backpacks high, they brushed shoulders and knocked knees with their headphones plugged firmly into their ears – a necessary precaution when surrounded by deep thinking. To protect from the imminent threat of knowledge spilling from their ears, they plug them with beats and trite lyrics – made to keep old knowledge in, or to keep new knowledge out?
The bus is emptier. At the first stop off of capitol square, two men in baseball caps climb on. The bus sways beneath the weight of their entrance, the heaviness of unemployment stretched across their backs. Mutters between their cracked, graying lips, its the first conversation I’ve heard. They talk about the snow. It’s been a warm winter. They are bound in disheveled layers of dirty cloth, hoods draped sadly across the brims of their caps, settling into exhaustion around the lines circling their eyes. With their windbreakers parting at the seams and thrift store boots beaten in by a long line of ownership, I am thankful for heated buses and “warm” winters.
Along Washington Avenue, people are expelled onto our bus from the safety of tattoo parlors and used car dealerships, pierced and inked, squinting and wiggling their eyebrows at motor-less trucks they can’t afford. Heavily lidded women carrying metallic purses, straps wrapped in the posh silver of fraying duct tape fall with their thick, bare ankles into the rough cloth of skinny metro seats. Too-close houses painted in neon colors turned ragged skim by my peripheral vision, children sitting with frozen toes too close to speeding cars. The omnipresent buzz of human existence: the whine of the newest hybrid-electric buses accompanied by the displeased grumble of pistons misfiring in 1994 fords, held to the earth by planes scraping their bellies on the shingle-less roofs.
At the last stop, the two men in their baseball caps finally climb onto stiff knees. One man bends at the waist, curving his shoulders to half their broken-in size as he coughs from the bottom of his lungs. Shoving air from his mouth with drops of spittle as if trying to cough out too many years of being poor. Outside the bus, they huddle beneath a droopy overhang, pulling their caps down over their eyes and putting mouths to ears to exchange widely grinning words. Two buildings down, they hug through layers of bulky jackets and unwashed skin. Start to finish, it began heavy with book learning, it ended heavy with an unnamed learning and stories the untainted intellectuals might want to unplug their ears to hear.