The man sat hunched on a beat up bench beneath a shotty overhead cover made of foggy glass, stained by rain and the passing of time. For longer than he’d ever cared to keep track, the man had sat beneath that same glass case waiting for the same bus to come and carry him away from the day behind him. Each and every night he’d hunch his back and watch this thumbs wrestle each other as that bus seemed to arrive just a few minutes late, almost reluctant to give a ride to him specifically. As far as he was concerned, he couldn’t blame the bus for wanting to miss him.
Eventually his luxury limousine arrived, just moments before the man would give up hope completely and start the long job of wearing his shoes to the sole by walking. The silver shine of paint was interrupted every few inches by stormish grey streaks that reminded the man of his distaste for the lack of seatbelts on public transport. He disregarded his small gripe as the doors were ripped open, accompanied by a sound similar to the opening of a can of soda or the firing of a small handgun. As he stepped up through the just barely sticky steps he mustered a soft grin for the driver, who he did not recognize. A man not quite old or large enough to play the role of mall santa, but most certainly training for next year's auditions. The man quickly moved through the aisle, assessing each seats leg space to ripped upholstery ratio until he landed just shy of the very center, leaning towards the front. Having seen his passengers decision, the driver clamped the doors back to their places, and jerked the bus softly into motion.
In the thirty seconds of silence that the man had, he was able to worry and annoy himself to a very impressive extent. The list was one he was used to, or more accurately, used to hearing. Enjoying or accepting, on the other hand, not so much. That list went something like this: what had he screwed up at work, what trouble could he be in for what was really an honest mistake, how many hours had he accumulated this week, a quick calculation of how much he would earn next tuesday based on those hours, how much rent would be, how long a human could go without eating, and how much money he could make if he just dropped everything decided to drive a bus like the one he was on right now. Very standard all things considered. However, going through this list always had one outcome that he wished he could control, that being a sort of anxious reaction on his face that even the most emotionless man could detect from a mile away. And that nervous reaction is exactly what ended the mans thirty seconds of silence when the driver spotted that anxious face and decided to say --
“Somethin’ on your mind?”
Great. Exactly the reason the man really needed to get a handle on his very telling face. People just might decide to try and talk to him. Well, he had gone through this conversation plenty of times already. Just a soft smile and a quiet chuckle to accompany the ‘oh yeah, just ready for bed!’ that usually elicited a simple ‘me too buddy, me too’ and ended the conversation as simple as a snap. Knowing this formula to be 100% effective, the motion was made.
“Oh yeah, I’m fine, just ready to get home and get to bed!” the man said, exactly as he always had.
“Don’t I know it, I could really use some sleep after a day like this too.” was the drivers response. He seemed honest in his answer, but almost as if he was egging the man on towards a follow-up. Like there was some small variation in a single syllable of his return that pushed the man to ask what he did.
“Why’s that? Rough Day?” the man said. Most of his response was just the pleasantry of continuing the conversation, but a small piece of him was truly curious.
“You don’t know the half of it. Some days I wonder if I should just give it all up and do somethin’ new, or just disappear altogether.” the driver sighed.
“You’d be shocked to hear I’ve been thinking the same thing.” was the man's answer. He continued with a humble and nervous question: “You really feel that way too?”
The driver answered: “No sir”.
This was followed immediately by a chuckle coming straight from the drivers belly, something that the man wanted truly to be angry about. What was the point of all of this? Was this all some big joke to the driver? Not being able to wait or think any longer, the man simply shook his head angrily while speaking to the driver.
“Why would you say all that if you didn’t mean it?” was the man's instinctual response. “You think this is a joke?”
The driver had stopped his laughing by this point and was able to speak again: “No sir, I don’t think this is a joke. I just know that a lotta people won’t start talking about what's eatin’em unless ya coax’em into it a little”.
“So it was a trick to get some conversation.” The man was somewhere between yelling in anger and crying from embarrassment. “That’s sick.”
By this point the two had reached another stop, this one empty. The driver pulled up to the lonely little stand, put on the brakes, and decided to spare his passenger the pain of hearing the doors open again. He looked up into his overhead mirror, allowing him to look the man in the eyes as they continued their conversation.
“Look,” the driver started, “I’ve been drivin’ these same buses all around this city for well over a decade. I seen plenty of people and plenty of faces, more than enough to know the look of somebody who’s havin’ a tough time and could use a boost”.
Still trying to defend himself, the man responded: “what do you know about me or the ‘tough time’ you seem to think I’m going through?”
“I’d say close to nothing at all.” was the drivers answer.
“Then why ask? Why try to fix the problem if you don’t know what it is?”
The driver released the parking brake as he answered. “Because it doesn’t matter what I do or don’t know about you. When someone’s down on themselves and needs some help, only thing that matters is that ya try and help’em. Least that’s the way I see it.”
The bus kicked off from the curb again as the man felt his walls start to sink away. He started to think that maybe he was a bit too harsh on the driver that, seemingly, only wanted to help. Maybe somebody truly had a desire to hear him out for what was truly on his mind. He decided it was best to take the chance, he wasn’t sure when another one would come along.
“I’m sorry I was so harsh.” was the first thing that came to the man's mind. “I guess I’m just not used to people actually wanting to hear me out. It’s been a while since anyone has.”
The bus driver shook his head slowly. “That’s exactly why I try to talk to the people I meet on this bus. This world is so fast and busy nowadays that people forget to stop and connect with each other. They forget to ask one another how they’ve been, what’s wrong, and really they forget to listen to the answer once they’ve asked.”
The man nodded in agreement. “Yeah, I think you’re right. I wonder why that is?”
“I’ll tell ya why,” the driver started, “it’s cause people are scared. Scared of bein’ ignored, scared of bein’ a burden, just scared that they won’t be able to make everyone happy at once. But here’s the secret about makin’ everyone happy at once: ya can’t!”
The driver let out another chuckle, this time dragging the man into it as well. The man had cracked a very subtle grin as he listened to the drivers upbeat style of midwestern speaking, and he tried to hold on to it for the better part of his response.
“Yeah, I suppose I’d be in the group of people that try to please everyone. Turns out, trying to make everyone happy always seems to end up putting a lot of stress on yourself”.
“Yessir, that’s why I always say that the most we can do is our best. And as long as we do our best, we’ll get the most!” the driver looked back in his mirror with a smile that made the man forget what had left him hunched over on that bus stop forever ago. As he redirected his focus to the road, he slowed the bus to a pause against another stop that came with a message: “last stop”.
The man got up from his seat a walked to the front of the bus a few inches taller than when he had walked back. He reached the driver and tried to slide a few dollars into the fare box, only to be pushed away. He looked at the man that he would never have expected to change his mind so quickly, saw past the white hair and glasses that he noticed only barely as he first boarded, and felt a real connection for the first time in a long time.
“Thank you” was the only thing he can manage to say. He thought of a hundred different things to add to the end of the message, maybe ‘for everything’, or ‘for changing my life’, but all of them were unnecessary.
“Any time, bud” was the drivers answer. And as simple as that answer was, it made the man happy. Happy to know that someone had cared to really listen.
The man watched as his therapists office on wheels disappeared around the corner of his apartment building. He walked to the front door and turned the key with everything the driver had given him well in tact. He hoped he would see the driver again, hoped that he could return the influence he had been given in some way. Maybe someday. The man finished his night, stepping through the door with a smile for the very first time, knowing it wouldn’t be the last. And he smiled for tomorrow, ready to do his best.