Daily fraternity

The gasoline shortage does not have a high priority on my list of things to worry about. I ride the bus five days a week. I'm a satisfied user of public transportation.

I live on the outskirts of a large Southern city serviced by a fleet of mammoth diesel things. Big land-boats of blue and white enamel, of chrome and blinking yellow lights, they rumble in and out of town, carrying thousands of commuters every day, on rigid schedules with fixed stops.

But not No. 44. To those of us on the 44 line, bus service is a cross between the Toonerville Trolley and an old-fashioned jitney.

No. 44 arrives in front of my house at approximately 8:10 every morning. The legitimate bus stop is at the corner, several houses down the street, but time and bus stops mean nothing at all to Mr. Timken, our morning driver. I have only to be at the end of my own driveway for the enamel-and- chrome-and-yellow-lights to come to a halt, fling open the door and let me on. If I'm not there, it stops anyway, Mr. Timken toots the horn, and then goes on only if I'm not out in a reasonable length of time. I've kept him really waiting only once, when my electric clock stopped briefly in the night and I didn't know it.

Mr. Timken is truly a "gentleman of the old school," for once I'm safely in my seat, no matter how far back into the caverns of the bus I go. And I'm not the only one so favored. All the lady passengers, greyhaired or not, are accorded the same consideration. It's a wonder we ever get to town.

I'm the second one to get on every morning. George is the first.

George is of Greek origin, a man in his 40's, I think, with a slight balding and some silver at his temples. He's been in this country only a few years, English is still loaded with a decided Greek distortion. But what he lacks in language communication, he makes up in Old Country courtliness. He leaves the bus at the same time I do, and he is my protector to the very door of my office building. He guides me across the street, shelters me with his umbrella, and insists on carrying any extra bundles I may have from time to time. Once, when I was going out of town straight from work that evening, he carried my overnight bag to the elevator and, for a moment, I thought he was going to kiss me goodbye.

The next to get on is a Spanish lady, and from her George and I learned how to say "It's very cold" in Spanish. "Mucha fria,"m she would say as she boarded the bus those cold winter mornings. "Mucha fria!"m

Next comes Mary Ann, plump, funny and pregnant. The baby is due in September , and we of the No. 44 fraternity are debating its probable sex and offering up hopefully appropriate names. I'm knitting it a sweater in a neutral yellow.

There are other regular riders whose names I don't know, but there are seldom more than twelve of us. There's a college boy who smiles his greeting every morning, a shy smile that warms the heart of every lady passenger. But he's interested in a pretty, pony-tailed girl who's obviously aware of his interest and does not discourage it.

And there's another pretty girl who rides only part-way with us. She gets off as Carmen gets on.

Carmen is from Panama, and out of her damp past I suppose, she frequently wears a stiff, see-through raincoat and see-through galoshes. And though she carries on a rapid, non-stopo, one-sided conversation, her communication is worse than George's. I can understand no more than every fourth word . . . which makes for some fascinating sentences. But she must be an enthralling woman, for George, who understands her better than I, tells me she has travelled the world over -- as a Panamanian emissary.

You can see how diverse a group we are. But for a short span of time each morning, we are a fraternity. There is an undeniable bond between us, and when we meet on the street unexpectedly during the day, it is always with joyous recognition.

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