Stop the Bus!
My body was awake but my brain needed caffeine, and that’s just what I was aiming for at my local coffee shop that morning.
I could feel the presence of others gathering behind me as I looked across Third Avenue at East 32nd, waiting for the orange hand, the don’t cross signal, to become the walking man.
Manhattan was still slowly waking up, but the city has always had an uncanny way of catching us unaware, suddenly and without warning. A commotion erupted on the sleepy-eyed corner.
“Gramma, there goes the buses. We’re late!”
“No – those buses are white and fancy. We’re looking for yellow school buses.”
“Gramma, I think those are special buses they got for his trip.”
“Oh no, if those are the right buses, then we’re in big trouble. That first one is driving away! Oh, Dear Lord, your mother’s gonna kill me if your brother misses his trip to the country. She just gonna kill me.”
The words poured out of her like an open faucet, the only outlet for this woman’s pent up anxiety.
That was enough for me. I had to look back. This sounded important! What I saw was a grandmother squeezing the hand of a backpacked schoolboy – fifth grade, I guessed, as his older brother, a head taller, stood beside them. All their feet were pumping up and down in place, as if they were walking in quick-time, but they couldn’t move forward until the light changed. We were all stuck there, office workers, coffee junkies and school kids alike. Each of us had to wait for the walking man signal to let us go. We all had different reasons for wanting to cross Third Avenue but we were in the same asphalt boat together, waiting at the intersection.
It looked like a daily physical and emotional challenge for this woman, I thought to myself, early rising and just difficult to corale two young boys to school each morning.
“I have never seen any high-class, big ole buses like those for no public school. Where are the yellow buses? Maybe they’re around the corner?” Gramma wondered out loud.
The older boy assured her. “Gramma, those buses are filled with kids. They got special buses today, not the junky yellow ones.”
Their tension had become my tension.
“What’s going on?” I questioned the frantic faces fidgeting behind me. Gramma spoke first and without hesitation.
“I get these boys out for school ‘cause their momma gotta be at work uptown early. I live in the same building on 39th Street, but on another floor. We’re late and he’s got to get on the bus for a special trip.” She held up the smaller boy’s hand, meaning this grandson and not the other.
The older brother looked at me. “Those three buses right there, Mister.” He was very sure, unlike his grandmother, that those were definitely the buses his brother should be on and wasn’t – because they had gotten there too late.
Just then, I noticed the lead bus begin to slowly roll forward toward Second Avenue.
“Oh Good Lord! There they go. There they go. He’s gonna miss the bus for sure now. His mother is gonna kill me.”
Gramma was getting frantic, almost hysterical.
“Would you like some help?” I suggested.
“Oh, yes, sir – yes, sir – please help us!”
I inched my way off the sidewalk but the morning rush was heavy and I saw no breaks to make a mad dash for it, but I pushed forward, getting ready to run.
The second bus began to creep into line behind bus number one. They were on the move. I tried to will the walking man to appear. “Come on orange hand, CHANGE, CHANGE NOW!”
“Okay, okay, you guys take it easy. He’ll make that bus. I promise.” I promised? I just made a commitment to them. I could not fail now. Oh boy.
The light changed and I took off.
The three of them, linked together, ambled behind.
Bus three started to roll. I figured that the last bus would stay put just long enough for me to cross the street. That became the plan for my promise. But I was mistaken. I picked up the pace from trot to a full run, chasing after the coach as the hot exhaust rumbled into my face from its back end.
Gramma was shouting, “STOP THE BUS!” I could hear the rustle of backpacks closing in on me from the two brothers, but they were still too far back to be noticed by the driver to catch the attention of the passengers – his classmates. It was all up to me now. Just my promise and me.
The thought of this little boy sitting alone in a classroom by himself while his fellow students left the city was too much to bear. I had a vision of smiling kid faces jumping for joy as a game warden, in a green uniform, released barrels of little trout hatchlings into a pristine river somewhere in the woods.
Now, along with Gramma, I shouted STOP THE BUS and reached out and slapped the rear end exhaust panel…HARD!
To my surprise, the driver kept rolling along with no sign of stopping for us. So, quickening my stride, I ran faster alongside the bus, slapping it even harder as I made my way further close to the driver.
Can’t he see us in his gigantic side view mirror, a man pounding on his bus and a grandmother with two kids all over the place running down 32nd Street like maniacs? What’s wrong with this guy?!
He gunned the engine. I began to lose ground and, with all I had left, made one last desperate sprint and caught up to his window – finally.
“STOP THE BUS!” I commanded.
The window was wide open. Not only could he see me now, as big as life, but he could hear me too. I was right there! If his intention was to ignore me, hoping I would disappear, that was no longer possible. I was in his face.
“What are you doing?” he yelled down. “I can’t stop this bus. I got to stay in line with the other buses. Who are you? What the heck are you doing?”
“You see that kid back there? LOOK, LOOK! He must get on this bus! That’s his class in there, man!
He shook his head, “NO STOP.” The bus crept forward. At least it was at a fast walking pace now, but still he stubbornly would not come to a full halt.
“Is there a teacher in there?” I was quickly running out of breath – and road. A resolution had to come within seconds. I knew, or the four of us would be watching as all the buses drove away. I couldn’t accept that vision.
A teacher stretched across the driver’s steering wheel, craning her neck to look down at us on the street. Traffic was backing up behind us. Cabs started honking.
“Do you know this kid, this little guy here? Is he your student?” I said urgently.
She looked more closely.
“Yes – he’s in my class.”
“Then please tell the driver to STOP THE BUS and let the boy on!” I screamed.
She exchanged some words with the driver and the bus finally stopped moving.
The teacher came out to speak with the grandmother and the boy as I got out of the middle of the street. Clearly, the teacher was not happy and she was giving them “what for” and I didn’t want to hear or see that. The bus driver frantically checked and rechecked his mirrors as the cabs continued to honk.
Finally, the teacher took the boy’s hand and they boarded the bus. The deed was done, the promise kept.
I went to get coffee. The line at the coffee place was unusually short, so I got my container of hot java to go and exited where I had entered. The aroma was delicious, as usual.
As I walked out, much to my surprise, I saw the big charter bus number three, the one with the late kid on it, directly in front of me, stopped at the red light at Second Avenue. I figured they were long gone by this time. The bus appeared to me as a giant white rectangular room on wheels, filled with kids.
Every little face in every window was smiling at me, waving and pointing in my direction, as in “There he is.”
Excitedly, they bounced up and down in their bus seats as they headed toward the Midtown Tunnel and out of the city for the day. I nodded and smiled back at them all. I made direct eye contact with the kid I had promised to get on that bus. His smile was an ear-to-ear grin, and at the same time he gave me a “thumbs up!” I gave him my widest smile in return and returned the thumbs-up gesture as the driver made a wide hand overhand turn into the flow of traffic streaming along Second Avenue, leaving a wake of sooty exhaust behind for me to walk through.
I raised my fresh hot coffee to my mouth. The first gulp of the morning is always the best.
For about fifteen seconds, I thought, “This must be what it feels like to be a Super Hero.” Then I continued down the sidewalk, to carry on with the rest of my day.