The room has remnants of previous large group activities - a whiteboard with assignment notes, paper and pens stacked in the corner. But this sunny day in February, there’s just four of us in the room. The meeting is almost over, and everyone has spoken, but not this newcomer. I’m privately writing his inventory. A detox dude, in a rehab program that requires he attend a bunch of meetings. Not into it, done it before, going through the motions. Wants to see his kids on weekends. He won’t say anything, or maybe some throwaway comment about being new here. Whatever. When this meeting is over, he’ll dig into his jean pocket and pull out a small folded piece of paper to be signed. Proof of his attendance.
My judgments are interrupted by his voice.
‘I drove a Muni bus for almost four years.’
‘Oh yeah, okay, um, my name is Jerome.’ Long pause, another deep breath. ‘Maaaan, so, okay, it was good money. Best money I ever made, really.’ Pause.
‘And the hardest job I ever did.’ No smile.
He sits up straighter, cups his eyes with both hands, then begins to rub his eyes. ‘But everybody, EVERYBODY hates bus drivers.’ He doesn’t raise his voice, but the pacing of his words is so deliberate, exasperated. ‘You just don’t know. When the bus is late, it’s my fault. When traffic is rough, it’s my fault. Crazy people, assholes, its all my fault. Nobody cares that some handicap guy needed help getting on the bus. You’re late and people are pissed. Drivers cut off you and everybody flips you off.’ It’s difficult for me to tell if he’s angry or wants to cry. ‘People walk right in front of the goddamn bus and then cuss you out.’ He shakes his head in a slow tired roll.
‘The thing that helped - the ONLY thing: Weed. Then I could just let that shit go.’ The room is quiet, several people shift in their chairs.
‘I knew I should cut back, but I just couldn’t.’ Pause. ‘And I really didn’t want to. ‘Cuz, like, it’s hard, man.’
His eyes go back to the ceiling, and he begins softly, ‘Then it happened. About ten this one morning, a lady gets on and just slips - walking down the center – I don’t know why, but she just goes down. I gotta stop the bus and help her up. She’s not really hurt or anything, but there’s protocol. I gotta call it in, fill out paperwork – you know the camera catches everything. I’m trying to be cool. Because here’s the thing – they’re going to drug test me. It’s not that I’m so high I can’t drive, it’s just that they’re going to find it in my system . . . and they do.’
‘But ya know what? I’m glad they did. Relieved, really. Nothing really bad happened. I know, I KNOW, I’m lucky. Somebody could’ve really got hurt. But nobody did. And Muni, they’re cool - got me into this drug program. And I’m not driving the bus for awhile.’ Group chuckle, he smiles. ‘I gotta figure this all out. Ya know, I got a twin brother, he drives a bus, smokes weed and he don’t get it. Thinks nothing could happen to him. Anyhow, that’s what’s going on with me.’
Meeting over, people dissipate. We’re the only two left in the room, and he digs around in his pocket, ‘Can you sign my paper?'
As I’m initializing the small, multi-folded form, I put some words together.
‘Thanks for your story, Jerome. I’ve never really thought much about bus drivers. Really. That’s . . . a . . . tough job.’ We both nod in an awkward unison. My mind was having an internal discussion, that if I had heard on the news that a bus driver was high and someone got hurt – I would little sympathy for the bus driver.
He looks tired, but I press on.
‘You know, more people really need to hear your story. Really. If I helped you tell that story in front of a bunch of people, would you do it? You could keep it your story, I’d just coach you a little bit so you’re prepared.’ It’s a blatant pitch, but guys come and go here pretty regularly and I might not see him again.
‘Yeah, yeah, sure’ he says. We exchange contact information.
I try to reach him, unsuccessfully - multiple times; it never happens, we lose touch, I never see him again.
I don’t know what happened to Jerome - but every time I see a bus, I think of the person driving it.