I’ve been stuck on a bus for ten hours on a five hour ride.
Five hours are spent moving forward. The other five spent stuck on the highway, caught in traffic at the city part of the Bronx. A subway station – the 4 – sits in plain sight on the street side of the rail.
I’m stuck on a bus heading into Manhattan to cut some hair. To drop off my apartment keys. To check in and out of life. To remind myself who I am. To remind myself why I left. To visit my mother. To do all sorts of things.
It’s September 11, which is the main the reason I am stuck on the bus. Everyone wants in.
At first it’s traffic. Bad traffic. An hour dissolves, then another. My afternoon plans crumble like a cheap cookie.
Cars crush the space between fenders humming with the opposite of speed. Maybe passengers want to be sad, or angry, or part of something, but maybe they are people like us, who want to go to the city to see friends, to check in and out of life, perhaps watch a Broadway show.
Trucks, buses, cars idle, then stand still, then move inch by inch past that subway station just out of reach.
With them, we also idle, the stand still, then move an inch. And then, stop short.
Passengers in their seats lurch forward, as a woman making her way to the toilet is tossed back, into the aisle. She falls. She bumps her head. It starts to bleed. Four loud girls in the back of the bus shriek. A Japanese tourist who is shy about his English, runs to the front of the bus for a first aid kit. A long-haired, grey-haired biker takes a cooling pack from the galley refrigerator and holds it against her head. I imagine he was in Vietnam, though he is too young to have been there. An obese woman sitting directly behind the driver screams at the driver, she orders him to pull off the highway.
We are nowhere near an exit.
We are in stand still traffic.
The bus will not take side streets to a hospital despite the screaming woman’s insistance. “I know these roads like the back of my hand,” she screams, “you have an injured person on board your bus. Get off the highway now!”
The bus goes, then stops, then goes. And then stops.
We inch past another subway station, just off the highway, just a quick dash away. If only the bus windows would open. I would break out and run.
The bleeding woman stops bleeding. The screaming woman stops screaming, for the moment.
I text my friend about the bleeding lady, the screaming lady, the loud girls, the grey-haired Vietnam non-vet. His response: “are there live chickens and goats on the bus?”
Two women sit across the aisle from me, a mother and daughter, the daughter around my age. The daughter has blonde highlights, blown straight, the mother is a bottle blonde with a perm. She wears a Phantom of the Opera t-shirt.
They are going to a Broadway show, hoping that they will not miss the curtain. Of course I am curious what show they are going to, since Broadway is part of my not-too-distant past and possibly part of my not-too-distant future. At the beginning of the trip, before we are stuck in traffic, before the bleeding woman hits her head, before the screaming woman screams, I eavesdrop on their conversation, but their conversation is brief. The daughter pulls out her kindle, the mother a romance novel, the spine comfortably broken. They read in silence. If I had had my wits about me, I could’ve guessed that they are going to see Les Mis and, while they sit in the audience, surrounded in a heavy blanket of story, my friends and colleagues will sit, stand, run, and walk in the wings and the hallways and the basement of the theaer, coming and going, pressing buttons, fixing collars, paging curtain, guiding the spotlight, flinging on fake dirt and blood, calling the show, laughing, chatting, weeping. Each with their own stories to tell.
The sad absence of the talented Kyle-Jean Baptiste, Jean Val Jean, who met his tragic, sudden death a week ago is abstract to the women across the aisle. This is not so to the actors and crew who sing through their sadness. I say nothing about this to them as the bus inches past a second impossible subway stop and towards the city.
The bleeding lady is laughing, chatting with the Japanese tourists. She sits on the floor of the aisle cool pack still pressed to her neck. The loud girls chatter amongst themselves.
Suddenly, the screaming lady screams again, which causes me to laugh. I laugh so hard that my stomach hurts. I laugh until I cry.
The women across the aisle ask me why I’m laughing.
“You can’t write this shit,” I say. They start laughing, too.
“I am running, too,” I tell them. “I will get you to your show. You will be safe.”
We hear sirens. We see fire trucks. They pull in front of the bus. Eight firemen, full uniform, board the bus. We are trapped on the bus with a bleeding lady, a screaming lady, four loud girls, three Japanese tourists, and long-haired, grey-haired man, too young to have been in Vietnam. We are not getting off at the next exit. There is no escape.
The firemen flirt with the loud girls. We wait for the ambulance.
We are three and a half hours late.
And then four.
“Will we make the eight o’clock show,” the mother worries. We are so close, and yet so far.
“I hope so,” says the bus driver. “I’m supposed to pick up the return trip at 6:30.”
Finally, the ambulance arrives. The bleeding lady is escorted off the bus, the screaming lady screams at the bus driver. The long-haired grey-haired man screams at the screaming lady. A loud girl screams from the back of the bus that she hopes someone is tweeting this.
I laugh. We are four hours late, just outside the city. I worry that we will not make it off the bus alive.
“I like what she said,” the mother says.
“What did she say,” the daughter asks.
“You can’t write this stuff.”
The couple sitting in front of them nods.
Except, a week later, I do write about it. Or, at least, I try.
Truth is stranger than fiction.