GRAY mornings take me back to Ithaca, New York, where it's cloudy most of the year. There were 30 of us who rode the city bus.
By the time I got on at the corner of Triphammer, most of the seats were already filled. I gripped the bar that was too high for me, and then I studied the driver. He was a conductor of sorts, and his mood set the tone for our trip. Most mornings we had a white-haired man who smiled and tipped his cap to each patron. The bus hummed as he followed those winding streets.
The conversations changed every morning, but not the cast of characters. Two little girls who did not speak English spent their time tying and untying each other's shoes. The bearded Englishman practiced jokes he would use on his radio program, and a man with a square hat sat reading his paper. An older lady chattered about modeling for an art class, while a dark-haired man showed us what he was bringing his sweetie. Some mornings it was a homemade cookie, or apples picked from someone's fruit tree. Once
he had cut almost all of his neighbor's flowers.
There was something strange about that bus. Everyone seemed a little different, a little more colorful, once they were aboard.
Whatever it was, the regulars felt like family, and it was understood that the morning wasn't right if someone was absent. We were like a band without a drummer.
The day was almost ruined, though, the first time Hank was our driver. He was a small man, wiry, and he hunched over the steering wheel as if he were wrestling it. He cussed at other drivers, he drove too fast, and he made it a point to yell at almost every passenger. It was like standing too close to crashing cymbals.
"Next time I'm not going to stop," he'd bark, "unless you ring that bell a little sooner." He didn't wait for people to sit down, and he wouldn't stop at crosswalks. And where the other driver made the bus hum, Hank always made it whine.
We soon lost our regular driver, and for the first time in my Ithaca years, the gray sky was depressing. The girls didn't giggle, and Richard, our Englishman, didn't even smile.
The bus made its way along Pleasant Grove Road, down towards Cascadilla Gorge. The river was dirty, flooding its banks, when Hank made an unexpected stop.
A woman stood shivering on the side of the road. She slowly came up the bus steps, and fumbled with coins in her pocket.
Hank smiled and hummed as she made her way back. No one had seen this woman before, and no one would see her again. Some people stared at her ragged clothing, and others at her badly scarred face. But Hank kept smiling. And then he cracked a joke.
For the next two stops, he laughed with the woman. The gray sky seemed to lighten. Hank waved as she stepped off the bus, and for the first time he made that bus hum.