The Early-Morning Crew on the City Bus

MY wife and I used to feel that it was virtually impossible to be a true friend to someone without first establishing and using names. Learning a person's name was essential to show you cared, to strengthen a friend's self-worth, to bind you - even lightly - together.

How wrong we were!

Several years of bus trips through the city with the same group of "nameless" people have changed our thinking radically.

We gather in the early hours on Sunday mornings in rain, snow, and sunshine, through bleak midwinters and steamy midsummers. In these circumstances, teamwork is far more important than checking names.

Someone has to make sure that our regular driver is on duty at the bus station: to check that he is awake and has punched up the right destination on the front of the bus, and to bring him something hot to drink, especially in the winter if he seems to need persuasion to skate with our heavy vehicle across icy roads. He's the captain, and it's in our interest to make sure that he's a happy leader.

His walrus moustache, snowy at the edges, stands out in rich contrast to his well-worn face. He smiles benignly at each passenger, expecting him or her to put the right change in the box, and to obey the written and unwritten rules that govern each trip.

There's definitely no smoking on his bus, no littering, no rudeness. And there are as few strident bells as possible, especially as he makes it his business to learn the stop used by every regular passenger.

As an early-morning "team," we tend to care for one another more than do most passengers. We all participate in a mental roll call before we take off.

Where's the sullen woman who sits up front near the driver and never responds to our cheery greetings as we get on the bus? Ah! Here she comes, clutching an extra cup of coffee for the driver. Her worn clothing suggests she doesn't have much money to spare - but her gesture to the captain doesn't go unnoticed by the rest of us.

Where's the factory security guard who comes off a long night shift and somehow makes us feel protected even though he slumps in his seat with his eyes closed until the precise moment that the driver approaches his corner?

Reluctantly the guard's eyes open, and he heaves himself to the front door of the bus. There's trust for you, although we all know that our driver would never let his bulkiest customer sleep through his stop.

Then there's the rotund little fellow who comes into town simply to buy his Sunday newspaper, join us for a bagel in the coffee shop, and return to his stop with his paper clutched under his arm.

One morning he collapsed on the sidewalk as he moved forward to board the bus. The entire team leapt to his aid. Overcoats were soiled, and the bus was very late that morning. His head was cradled in anonymous, caring arms until an ambulance arrived. A prayerful silence filled the bus as we pulled away.

Then someone spotted a forlorn newspaper in the gutter, and the driver delayed the trip a little longer while the paper was slipped into the ambulance beside its silent but grateful passenger.

Next Sunday morning the man was back on the bus with a fresh newspaper and the same unmistakably grateful smile.

We always get smiles from a Mexican couple as they spring toward the bus hand in hand. When they alight, they're still holding hands. The woman was pregnant late last year, and the other day her big smile and a change of shape confirmed that she'd safely delivered a child we look forward to meeting. We even felt a little pride at the thought of our extended family.

Our Haitian friends are used to living life a little dangerously - at home and abroad. They make a tricky connection with our bus 15 blocks from Kenmore Square, invariably arriving at the change-over point later than we do.

The Haitians have such a sense of fun and so much enthusiasm - even early on Sunday morning - that we're reluctant to leave the meeting point before the hourly cross-town bus has arrived. When they're all abroad, we communicate in chuckles and nods; after all, who needs words - or names - when you're already saying it all.

For many months, our only sadness lay in our inability to establish the same rapport with the woman at the front of the bus, who, after all, was English-speaking.

ONE evening we went to a fish restaurant that happens to be along the route taken by our Sunday morning bus. The tables are close together, and there's an atmosphere that brings the patrons close together as well.

We were shown to a table alongside someone who was sitting alone, huddled within an overcoat that we recognized before we saw the owner's face. It was the woman from the front seat of the bus.

We greeted her with the friendly familiarity we'd shown all year, but this time - like ice floes unlocking on the Charles River in April - her face softened into a gleam of recognition, and then a shy smile.

When she spoke 10 minutes later, the words escaped awkwardly from lips stiffened by a speech impediment, but loosening a little as we showed interest in her. All at once we realized she hadn't spoken to us on the bus because talking was hard for her, and her exchanges with the driver had been little more than nods and grunts.

Over the plates of New Zealand orange roughy and Boston scrod, we learned the story of a single mother with a disabled child. On Sundays she rode the bus all morning - same seat, same route, in and out - simply for the companionship of the driver whose name she didn't know, but who appreciated the hot drinks she unfailingly provided.

The bus ride was the best thing she did all week. Her occasional visits to the fish restaurant were a close second.

The time she spent visiting the home in which her son was receiving special care was always challenging, she explained. She missed him desperately. She wished she could do more for him. "But it's probably all for the best," she murmured haltingly, mainly to herself.

"I love him ... and he loves me, even though he doesn't express it very well. But lots of us have that problem, don't we? We don't say what we want to say ... what we should be saying. And that's not good enough. Look at me, I'm a prime example."

Her soliloquy, slow but ever more eloquent, drifted on for several minutes until halted by the arrival of our food.

Now she perked up. After all, she'd saved up for weeks for this treat, "And this time I'm sharing it with f-f-f-friends."

The candles flared on our tables, which were close enough to be one. Our orange roughy had never tasted better.

The winter's night lengthened and grew cozy, and when we parted, with the bond firmly established - we shared names.

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