There was a time when my morning commute meant a pre-dawn commute before the commute. It required taking a very early bus to the subway, to another bus, and then to a station where I met up with my Work Crew for what was then another 30-to-90-minute drive to site, wherever it happened to be that day.
The Very Early Bus arrived at around 6:00AM and the stop was about a 10-minute walk from my house.
Now. There was my Work Crew, whom I saw every day, and then there was my Commute Crew, with whom I also had a specialized relationship (they being the first faces of the new day, which placed my Work Crew in a close, yet distant second).
There was really no comparison:
- Leather Jacket Motorcycle Man. The jacket was of a rich, heavy leather. It had shoulder armour (impressive!) and fit him perfectly; less like a glove and more like a second skin. I never saw a motorcycle helmet. I never saw a motorcycle. Seemed unnecessary, maybe even over-the-top.
- The Old Timer. He must have lived close; his stop was only one away from mine. We could have been neighbours, though I never saw him in the street. He was quite, if not rather, elderly, perhaps even venerated.
- Army Gent. Over the weeks I watched him go from civvies and duffle bag to full-on uniform: beret, Canadian Flag patched prominently on his camo jacket; shining, immaculate boots. And duffle bag. He looked rather dashing, set. He smiled often, and not unkindly.
- Mr. Hard Hat. The yellow hat was sometimes worn on this man’s squarish head or on his heavy belt and sometimes it was nestled securely in his lap. He never took his gaze off the middle distance. His hours were probably as bad (if not worse) than mine. He sat tall, and primly, regardless.
- Lady Grey. She and The Old Timer were friends (or maybe neighbours – there’s a difference sometimes). She helped him off the bus. She reminded me of Tea Time. She carried a big shoulder bag looped over her small torso. Sometimes it appeared heavy and overloaded, as if it were full of bricks or hard drives. Other times, it was so empty it swung chaotically around her, like a siren. Maybe she kept tea in there? It seemed full of promises. She and The Old Timer sometimes talked animatedly (though quietly) with each other, but I didn’t ever catch a word of their conversation. Why spoil a good thing?
The Subway was usually empty at that hour, or it was full of people still clinging to or retreating back towards the last vestiges of sleep (including me). It was warmer, roomier, quieter there: you could be totally alone. It was easy. Can you blame us?
The Another Bus was not without its charm. For example: The Man With the Scruffy Dog He Kept Inside His Jacket. For example: The Woman Who Cut Her Fingernails At the Back of the Bus. For example: The Bad Hermit. But by that time of day, the riders were more diffuse, more varied. I never kept close track of them.
The Station had the Steel Drums Man. By then, it was about an hour into my morning commute to my commute (sometimes longer if traffic was bad). Whatever time I arrived, he was there, playing away on a set of steel drums in the vast corridor connecting the buses and the subway, near but not too close to the escalators leading to daylight. The perfect spot.
After a while I realized that he was playing the same set of songs every day, day after day. I realized then as I remain sure now that it could not have been otherwise: they were nice, and he was very good at them. He made them sing. 1) Seeing the Steel Drums Man and 2) hearing him play meant that 3) I had made it (for another day at least). One more day at least. No small feat, by any measure.
My commute before the commute went on for months, until there came a time when work was scarce and I was laid-off from the company for the winter. In the spring, I walked to take the Very Early Bus again.
The bus driver recognized me immediately.
“Where have you been?” he cried. Each word was almost its own sentence, its own question: Where. Have. You. Been?
It felt good, if not right (not really) to be there again, with my fellow pre-dawn commuters. Sometimes you don’t need all that much to count on, and the extras you do get don’t make up for anything but themselves.
I saw Motorcycle Man, The Old Timer, and Lady Grey, though there were a few new faces I didn’t recognize.
If anyone was missing, I’m sure they had their reasons.