Tuesday, September 14, 2010


I caught the #20 just in time to make the 5 pm service at church, unaware of the education I was about to receive on that fated bus ride...
In normal fashion, people of all types came on.  The most colorful of passengers was this woman with disheveled mid-length brown hair.  She squinted up half her face as if she were auditioning for the role of a drunken pirate.  When she spoke, it was with the practiced tone of a committed chain smoker.  Her first words to the driver was a command to wait until she made it to her seat.  As she slowly stumbled and wove her way through the uninhibited aisle, it became clear that acting wasn't her strength, but being drunk was.

She mumbled something to us as she sunk in her chair in the handicap section.  Most people ignored her even as I was strangely fascinated by such a character study.  At the next stop, with great effort, she stood up and switched to a seat across the aisle.  When we began moving again, she started mumbling louder a second time, clearly trying to communicate something to us.  She looked above the windows and tried again.  I began to decipher that she wanted someone to pull the yellow bus string  for her, to indicate the next  stop as her exit.  I reached up to oblige.

Her eyes slowly rolled towards me in acknowledgment of what I had accomplished for her.  "Thank you" comes out in a thick, deep groan.  I am flooded with thoughts that maybe this woman is simply misunderstood; that she is down on her luck and just needs some love and attention.  Perhaps I was wrong about her being drunk; maybe she has simply been overpowered by life's circumstances.

Her exit comes, and this woman's body lurched forward as though it was too frustrated to wait for what her mind was only beginning to register:  time to leave.  She got off the bus the way most people would navigate a walk on a rolling pin.  The back doors closed behind her just as the front doors opened up to let in new customers.

"No, don't..."  A woman in the front row is trying to refuse a man who goes to sit next to her.  He ignores her and sits anyway, much to the agitation of the people around him.   "No!  A woman just urinated on that seat!" Several nearby passengers gravely confirm this announcement.  The man jumps up and heads towards the back, shaking his head at his misfortune.
What?  That misunderstood lady whom everyone ignored had actually been leaking her body fluids on the bus seat?  Eww.  But wait-- I saw her change seats, so does that mean...

"Ahh!! No!  Don't sit down!"  my voice joins the now chorus of warnings to the new lady approaching the other soiled seat.  Fortunately, we saved her, but more keep coming.  This dire news is repeated as we begin moving on down the road.  The bus driver asks the riders near "the spills" if they would mind covering it up somehow while she calls it into the transit center.  A helpful woman grabs some discarded store flyers and covers both of the offending seats.  The bus pulls over again.

A well dressed man walks on, sees the empty seats, and heads towards them.  We watch as if in slow motion.  Will he choose wrongly? Surely he won't sit where the papers lay.  "Ahhhh!  Nooo!  Stop!!" we cry as he bends to lift the advertisement from the chair, but our voices are muffled and weak, as if we were in a nightmare where our throats have constricted.  He turns to sit, he's bending, ever so slowly bending, and I, paralyzed with what is about to occur, just yell loudly and long.  Pausing in his descent to look at me, I buy enough time to allow his neighbor to explain why we don't want him to sit down.  He stares horrified at the fate he was just saved from, and asks why we didn't cry louder the first time.  We are exhausted with victory, and breathe a sigh of relief when the front doors close again.

Before we pull back into the street, the driver advises the front row to just fold up the handicap accessible seats to prevent further incidents.  We smile in appreciation of this sage advice.  Surely now the unsuspecting will not be victimized.

One by one, the newcomers stream to bus #20, and like the Greeks heeding the Sirens' cry, each are inevitably drawn to the stain soaked seats.  It would have been no stranger if the disheveled woman had been a sorceress, so powerfully did her poison cloak its lurid death with a sweet perfumed appeal. 

Together, the natives of the bus banded together to warn each new face as it boarded.  Whenever we saved a person, we cheered.  When we failed, we each felt the loss keenly.  It wasn't easy.  One passenger was deaf and didn't understand why we all were waving her away from the front seats.  She became angry, offended, and felt as if we were universally  mocking her in her handicap.  It took some improvised signing and slow lip reading to explain our intentions towards her.

The very next passenger appeared to have Down's Syndrome.  It was almost as if our desire to help our neighbor was being tested by the gods, so challenging had it become to warn those new to the journey.  This young man couldn't grasp why we were calling out to him.  He went to pull out the folded up seats, and our front row Joan of Arc, reached out to stop him.   We all pleaded with him to not sit there, that those seats were no good.  Our warnings didn't register, but he did seem to pause in pulling down the bench.  Good. Oh no, but what was this?  Instead of him unfolding the seats, we watched helplessly as he slid his hand down the crease to feel around.  Collectively our stomachs turned as our imaginations journeyed with his fingers to discover what awaited them down there.  We weakly tried again, "Don't, no..."  Undisturbed, this boy/man continued his quest.  When he was satisfied in verifying that it was indeed repulsive, he turned, grabbed the hand held bus loop and worked his way to another seat.  We watched each part of the bus he touched with that hand.  Bus loop, side bar, seat back, top bar.  Each place his hand landed, it was if a red smoky acid illuminated the path he took.  All of us were making mental notes not to touch any of those spots on our way out, no matter how convenient or helpful they may be to our staying upright on the lurching bus.  To the credit of the now seat partner to this young man, she only cringed slightly before resigning herself to fate.  I prayed that his hand would not settle in the small area she was occupying.

There were two more stops before I came to my destination.  By now, I was bonded to these passengers.  We had fought a hard battle and it looked like we would win.  The call had been made for the bus to have a thorough sanitizing, and there was standing room only in case any more people came on.  As I stood up to exit, several people looked at me knowingly, smiled, and then waved goodbye.  There was nothing I could do but wish them luck for the rest of their journey.


  1. As soon as I learned urine was sterile, it didn't gross me out as much. You can drink yours or anyone else's if you are in survival mode. Ha. HOWEVER, I would have reacted the same way . . .good story.

  2. ewwww......feeling like I should wash my hands, too....remembering a time on a Septa bus as a student--losing my balance I grabbed for the pole (I was standing holding all my books and school things of course) and in the process knocked a lady's hairpiece so that it flipped up like a lid opening and back down to safety as a lid snapping shut....sooo embarrasing but not as much "ew" factor :)

  3. some drunk guy came on the bus the other day and the same thing happened. but thankfully i was getting off in a few stops. oh how fun public transit is :)