Empathy on the Emerald Express

Empathy on the Emerald Express

Note: This post is more "story driven" than my previous travel blog entries. I hope you enjoy!

“Everyone get your bus passes out! Bus passes please!”

A collective groan emitted from the riders as a man donning an equipment laden black vest stepped onto the bus. His hands were lightly clasping the shoulder straps of his vest and sweat glistened his balding head. Tufts of orange hair clung to the side of his scalp like the last remnants of a mangled carpet. A baton threateningly jostled at his side with each step he took. A heat wave was rolling through Oregon, and it could be felt infiltrating the bus as the doors remained open for the random inspection.

The bus driver, long accustomed to this ritual, looked ahead without comment as the transit officer strode down the aisle. Her hands still instinctively clutched at the steering wheel while she absent-mindedly listened to her knees and back complain about sitting all day. Through the dark lenses of her sunglasses she watched pedestrian vehicles speed by. She was eager to make it to Eugene Station, where she could step outside for a momentary break to stretch her legs.

Since I was sitting near the front, I was the first to undergo inspection. My movements were hurried and almost took on a frantic edge even though I knew I would pass unscathed. I pulled out my cellphone and mistyped the lock screen password twice with nervous fingers before displaying the moving QR code of my UMO Pass application to the officer. He gave it a perfunctory glance before nodding his head and moving on.

I reflected that the QR code did nothing to authenticate the purchase of a bus ticket. The Emerald Express bus line of Eugene, Oregon was not equipped with a QR code reader or ticket depository. The only mechanism for ensuring a passenger purchased a ticket was these random inspections and even they failed to ensure compliance if you were fortunate enough to be able to afford a cellphone with an application store. The QR code on the application with its constantly shifting white and black squares displayed whether or not you had purchased a bus pass on your account. Only the numbered buses of the city had code readers installed at the front. The drivers on those buses watched as you scanned your code and waited for the responding ding from your phone before allowing you to enter. As one might have guessed, the numbered bus’s passengers were of a variety less inclined to travel with their sleeping bag and belongings.

In a way, there was a disturbing, unspoken segregation in the Emerald Express. Those with bus passes (or the ability to feign having a pass) sat towards the front while the others less fortunate gravitated towards the back. With disheveled hair and dirt-stained clothes, they boarded carrying an assortment of items. Most wore bulging backpacks that weighed heavily on their shoulders as they traversed the city. Some pulled on small four-wheeled wagons like you used to be transported in as a child, except these wagons weren’t filled with gleeful children. No, they overflowed with bags filled with recyclables, sleeping bags, tents, an assortment of boards, helmets, jugs, food scraps, etc. A few of the “back seaters” were accompanied by dogs. Their furry companions splayed out in the middle of the aisle shortly after entering with their pink tongues lolled out. Their excitement over being able to escape the sweltering heat was palpable. The transit district’s websites said only small dogs in carriers or service animals were allowed to ride the bus, but the drivers and transit officers appeared uninterested in enforcing that rule. It seemed friendship transcended the banality of being able to afford a $1.75 ticket.

As the transit officer continued down the aisle towards the back of our bus, most of the passengers departed without waiting for him to approach them. A few of those seated in the back feigned looking for passes or tried to ignore the transit officer, but seeing that the officer or bus wasn’t going anywhere without their compliance, they gathered their things and headed outside muttering curses under their breath. The officer followed the last departing individual, a man who was carrying two motorcycle helmets under his arms. The man with helmets seemed initially accepting of meandering off with the rest of the crowd, but turned around abruptly and asked the officer how he could get a bus ticket. The officer, momentarily taken aback, removed one hand from his vest and pointed to the nearby ticket terminal. As the man with helmets turned to face the machine, the officer began explaining how to purchase a ticket.

The ticket machine stood imposing like a schoolyard bully. Its gray metal surface glistened in the sunlight. The man took a few hesitant steps until he stood directly in front of it. He placed his helmets on the ground and looked into the dull green display screen. The screen callously inquired what type of ticket the man wanted. The weight of the question pressed down on him like a car crusher. His back stooped under the pressure. He no longer had the courage to face the screen’s penetrating gaze and his eyes furtively glanced between the ground and the machine. The bully wanted his lunch money, but his mother hadn’t given him any. He had rarely had lunch money growing up, but that didn’t excuse him from paying. No, there was always a price with these bullies. They weren’t really in it for the money. After all, what could $1.75 really buy? Not even a fraction of the gas it took for this bus to take him to the station. It was the currency of pain and humiliation the bullies were after. If the bullies brought enough of it to the currency exchange shop, they could feel more comfortable in their own skin.

Looking at the scene before me, I wondered if I had mistaken the appearance of the man with the helmets. Yes, I could see it then. The man had never been a “man,” but a child pretending to be an adult. The stubble on his face was actually dirt smeared there by the bullies. The tattered clothes hanging loosely on his scrawny frame were oversized hand-me downs from his older sibling. His backpack was filled with textbooks and notepads.

The bus driver closed the doors of the bus indicating her impatience over the charade.

The doors sliding shut broke the spell. The man looked despondently at the ticket machine for a few more moments before turning back to the transit officer with a snarl. He raised his arms and his lips parted revealing rows of decaying teeth. His eyes bulged as he began shouting at the officer. The exact words were lost amid the surrounding traffic and closed bus doors, but I gleamed their overall meaning through the man’s deportment. The transit officer, with hands lightly grabbing the shoulder straps of his vest, nodded patiently as the tirade continued. After a few moments, the upset man grabbed his belongings from the ground and headed down the street along the bus’s path.

To my surprise, the obscenity screaming man from earlier boarded the bus a few stops later unimpeded. I marveled at his knowledge of the city. He must have navigated quite a few side streets to have caught up on foot. His entrance lacked any of the prior fanfare. He boarded and headed to the back of the bus depositing his backpack and motorcycle helmets. He muttered a few words to himself, but otherwise made no mention about the earlier incident. The bus driver didn’t comment on the man’s return. The bus drivers never questioned the legitimacy of the passengers. They simply drove on in the jerking acceleration and stopping pattern of a city bus. If they were posed a question about the bus route or directions to a certain area, they answered dutifully. When a passenger mechanically offered a “Thank you, driver” as they departed, the bus operator gave a curt nod in acknowledgment.

Our bus pulled into the designated port of the Eugene Station and the driver quickly deactivated the airbag suspension system. The bus let out a long hiss like an angry group of snakes as it lowered closer to the ground. Before the final whoosh of air, the driver had already stepped outside and was reaching her hands to the sky. Feet planted, she rotated her torso a few times to illicit grinding pops in her back, not unlike the bus’s pressure relieving suspension system. The doors of the bus remained open and a flock of people lounging around the station hurried to board.

One woman, particularly enthusiastic, rushed in and subsequently tripped on one of the steps leading to the back sending her crashing to the floor. She let out a gargled yelp before bouncing back to her feet with unexpected agility for a person her size. She was a heavy-set woman. The backpack she wore looked small against the mounds of flesh confined beneath her shirt. Her forehead jutted out and her thin blonde hair was pulled into a ponytail. She breathed heavily through her open mouth. She looked older, but her jerky movements and lively eyes gave the impression of someone much younger. Her parted lips twitched into what could have been the beginnings of a smile as a transit officer, previously engaged in a conversation with a group of his peers a ways down the platform, started heading purposefully towards our bus.

“Everyone get your bus passes out! Bus passes please!”

I know there’s only so many ways to politely ask for bus passes, but the sense of déjà vu was still troubling. Two inspections in such quick succession was a rare occurrence.

Undeterred by her earlier slip, the woman with the backpack catapulted off the bus with the same reckless abandon while a few other newcomers followed behind. I showed the transit officer my useless QR code and I received my second approving nod of the day. I noticed the group who had just left the bus were expectantly standing nearby outside in a small circle. The woman in the backpack bounced from one foot to the other.

After a few nods, the transit officer departed the bus and joined the recently formed circle outside. A beaming smile crossed his face as the departees began talking to him. Unlike the scene that had played out earlier today, there was no shouting or accusatory gesturing. Everyone was equal in the circle and bantered like old friends. The woman with the backpack noticeably fought for the officer’s attention as she pressed closer to him. The officer nodded a few times with much more enthusiasm than he showed any QR code.

The bus driver reboarded the bus and signaled the pending departure by pressing the button to refill the suspension bags. Noticing the cue, the transit officer gave a small wave to his group and walked back to his fellow transit officers. None of them showed him a bus pass or phone as they filed back into the bus.

It was a heart-warming sight.