Here is a story I wrote a few weeks ago when the train lines were down in Melbourne with major works and the buses were under pressure with swelling crowds at the bus stops. A bus driver led the way as did a family in the front passenger seats… Thanks to Eureka Street for putting this out there.
Saturday 4.50pm. On Punt Road bus brakes squeal and huff out compressed air. The 246 hits a standstill at the Bridge Road corner. There’s a momentary pall of silence on board, only the indicator click-clacks. The bus rests low on its suspension, sinks a little and seems to sigh. I slide across to the window side of my seat and brace myself. I expect noise, heat, irritation. I’d forgotten about the train lines closing for works.
Looking down the hill, every lane is gridlocked, cars inch out of the MCG driveways, footy fans crowd the footpaths and line the bus stops. It’s hard to tell where the queues begin or end, people are huddling five-deep. The bus doors hiss open.
A family climbs on board with a pram, a baby and a young boy. They line themselves along the side-on seats at the front of the bus. The boy sits across his father’s knees with his back to the driver and gazes at the passengers already on board. His wide brown eyes are fringed by black lashes, his dark olive skin and shiny black hair match his father’s. The child’s face relaxes as his father speaks quietly to him. During the minutes that follow, the temperature rises and I peel my coat off, twisting away from the close-by seat companion who has come to join me. As I pull my arms out of my sleeves he tells me the good thing about a bus this packed is that it will probably express past the other stops.
The driver stands out of his seat and faces the back of the bus. He raises his voice only slightly. Ten minutes ago we’d been on a routine bus ride, he’d welcomed us on board. There’s no edge in the bus driver’s voice. ‘Please keep moving,’ he says lightly, ‘Keep moving please, right down to the back.’ He watches steadily, repeats the request.
There’s a pattern in the way this moment often plays out – a bus or tram driver speaks, their voice might be amplified, usually it’s disembodied. The instruction will ricochet from the driver’s seat, people will begrudgingly shuffle, fail to notice there is indeed more space, then shrug and stay put. Along with the driver we will resign ourselves to the hopelessness of humans following a simple request.
But today we have the kindly and calm Bus Driver. He wants the bus to do its job, to move as many people as possible on this afternoon when there is only one train line open in Melbourne, where the street is thick with footy crowds. It wouldn’t take much for an accident to happen, for things to fall apart.
They don’t fall apart. People give each other a nudge or a nod and keep moving to the back of the bus. The child, watching from the front is a beacon of cheerful curiosity. His father keeps up a quiet commentary, answering the boy’s questions. The mother’s posture is composed. She holds the baby close but outwards so it can see what’s going on so close around it. Leaning forward she rests her face near the baby’s cheek. Almost in concert they lift their heads. In profile, the mother’s face carries traces of pleasure and anticipation, the baby rocks a little on her lap. Quite possibly new to Australia, the family at the front exude their own sunshine, they are pleased to be here. There is no trace of cynicism that begrudges the space in the cramped conditions on the bus, their faces are open in a way that echoes the enthusiasm of their shining boy.
The bus nudges forward then stops. The driver stands up again and turns toward us. ‘We have a person in a wheelchair coming on board, make a space please.’ People get it quickly this time. When the man wheels himself on board no hustling is needed. His place is assured. No big palaver. My seat neighbour and I remark on this smooth execution of what is often an awkward other-ing moment.
I spend over an hour on the 246 bus on a trip that would normally take 30 minutes. Instead of resenting it I find myself meeting the mood at the front. I am awake to the privilege of public transport, the gift of being ferried as safely and as reliably as possible in a difficult situation. There are major site-works being undertaken, people are doing their best.
A couple of nights later my friend texts me from the queues of people waiting for buses near Princes Bridge, ‘It’s unbelievable, yet the driver greeted each person as they got on the bus.’
There are too many stories that differ from these, most of us have brushed up against them.
But the 246 is a Tardis, the driver a good Doctor. While we are breathing in to make a bit more space for others, at the same time we’ve expanded. We are different to what we thought we were – better, gladder, less impatient. When I get to St Kilda Botanical Gardens I am late for my meet up, I’ve missed the chance I’d planned for walking and reading. But I don’t mind a bit, I’ve been on board the Tardis.