It’s early morning in Milwaukee. Picture the day as bright and clear, perhaps in early autumn, as the leaves on the Ash trees are just starting to turn golden. Picture the light glinting off the yellow school bus in front of the white house with a wraparound porch on Marietta Avenue. Imagine three sets of small feet, all clad in brown leather Sabagos, shuffling down the porch steps toward the bus. See the littlest two children grab the metal railing and hoist themselves up onto the bus’s first step. Watch the parents give a friendly wave to the bus driver from the front porch as the bus’s doors slowly swing closed. See the parents pause for a moment in the doorway, breathing in the sweet, crisp air, watching as the bus carries their precious cargo farther down the street until it’s out of view. Perhaps the parents sigh with contentment and a small sense of triumph. Morning ritual complete, they have done their duty for now. The kids are reasonably clean, clothed and fed. They can relax.
Little do they know they’ve just consigned their children to an hour-long Jurassic Park encounter in which the security fences are down and the velociraptors are pimply faced bullies intent on inflicting social humiliation.
If I sound dramatic, let me admit outright that my tenure on the East Side bus was unremarkable. I can’t claim to have been one of the bus’s worst victims, but neither was I a hero to the weak and scorned. Truth be told, I slept on the bus. A lot. A YA novel about my time on the bus might be titled What I Saw and How I Slept. The rhythm of the bus wheels had an entrancing, hypnotic effect on me that I was powerless against. Just a few short blocks and I was out. Occasionally, my mind registered the protestations of some small child as one of the older kids inflicted some act of monstrous cruelty upon him, and I would open my eyes, blearily observe the injustice of it all and then slip promptly back to sleep.
I remember an early incident at the age of ten (my first year attending USM, and hence my first year riding that vile bus) in which I’d sat down in one of the last rows, unknowingly breaking school bus protocol. As one of the first stops on the route and one of the first students to board, I had my choice of seating. I innocently parked it in that last row and began to doze uncomfortably with my head tapping against the window. I was shaken awake by an enraged 9th grader who insisted that I move to the middle of the bus, where the middle schoolers sat, OR ELSE. I still remember the sick feeling that washed over me, an oozing embarrassment made all the worse by not fully comprehending my crime. I did, however, perceive that the other kids were all watching me, that my own brother and sister were among them, and that I absolutely must not back down. After all, I was the Big Sister.
Here is how it all shook out: when I refused to move, he sat on me. I’ll admit, it was uncomfortable. He wore an olive green army coat that scratched my cheek and he smelled like Eggo waffles. But he was a poor excuse for a bully – not much bigger than I was and more bark than bite. We rode in awkward silence for a few blocks as he waited for me to relent. He must have been very disappointed when he realized that I’d quietly fallen asleep.
When I woke up the bus had reached the school, and my bully was nowhere to be found. Perhaps sensing that there were other, more fun, small frye to fry, the bully left me alone after that morning. But I never made the mistake of sitting in the back row again.
Cocooned as I was in the sweet slumber of denial, I did my best to block out the subsequent eight long years that I would ride that bus (the car in the driveway with the big ribbon on it never materialized on my sixteenth birthday the way it did for other teens in Hollywood movies of the 80s and early 90s). I don’t remember where I was when another infamous bully tied my little brother to the bus seat with his own shoelaces while he slept. I vaguely recall opening my eyes to the image of my classmate Josh being held upside down while someone yanked his underwear almost over his shoulders, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t do anything about it. I remember there was a lot of gum slipped anonymously into girls’ hair. A lot of Beastie Boys lyrics screamed full volume from the lungs of pre-pubescent boys who clearly did not brush their teeth. There was also the time when our new bus driver Tammy backed up into a parked car (the impact shook me awake) and then sped away at at least twice the legal speed limit. I don’t recall saying anything about that either. My role within the bus’s greater story is a small one, for which I’m grateful.
But my thoughts drift back to those long ago bus rides with an increasing fondness these days, as I now brave the New York City subways and the dreaded MTA. The act of getting up and getting out the door to go to work in the morning is emptier now than the mad rush to catch the bus I knew as a kid. Living on my own, the world is quieter and I spend more time inside my own head. It’s not unpleasant, but sometimes my daily experience seems a little less colorful, less sharply defined. Which is not to say I don’t encounter my share of nutjobs on the 6 train. They aren’t quite San Francisco quality, but they’re there. And they are much better behaved than the bullies of my youth. So why do I find myself missing those little creeps from the East Side route?
I can’t quite explain this nostalgia I feel, and it worries me to think that maybe if enough time passes, memory can turn something as crumby as those wretched bus rides into a rosy remembrance. But I smile now when I hear the Beastie Boys’ Brass Monkey (even if my smile is still a little pained), and I always ride to work in the mornings in the last subway car. I have a nagging suspicion that if I have children, I will happily sign them up to take the bus. It’s nice to be on the far side, looking back.