I don’t ride the bus downtown all that often anymore. I’m only asked to be at the downtown office once each week, and with my emeritus status nobody makes an issue of it if I decide to skip even that visit and choose instead to work from my cozy home office on Thursdays. And when I do go downtown, for the last few months I’ve tended to drive. Initially this was out of deference to a surgically repaired knee that allowed me to park in front of the building for free, but then it became habit. Habit is what often happens if you don’t carefully consider your choices.
But the knee is nearly healed now, and I’ve vowed to walk the six miles home after work today, so the #4 bus is where I am this early morning before dawn.
Things change quickly when you don’t pay close attention, and I’m startled this morning by how many different faces are on the bus this morning. From my elevated seat midway back in the big electric hybrid bus, I find myself studying one of the unfamiliar faces, Margret, who sits as close to the front as she can. Margret bears a passing resemblance to Stockard Channing from the era of the movie “Grease. ” She has the same short dark hair and similar features to Ms. Channing. In age though, Margret is pretty close to Stockard Channing’s current age, which makes the very dark hair a bit out of place and artificial.
Margret talks steadily to the bus driver, and from nature of the conversation I know that they are new acquaintances, since the dialogue speaks to basics about their families, their jobs. If they had known each other even a few days, some of these questions and answers wouldn’t need to be discussed. The pitch of Margret’s voice is such that I can hear her clearly. I cannot hear the bus driver at all, but can get the gist of the conversation just from Margret’s questions and answers. I learn, for example, that Margret cannot tolerate caffeine any longer, and that her favorite vacation spot is Florida. She has three grown children, only one of which really likes her. Her husband passed away three years ago, and she can’t believe it’s been that long. Seems like last week that he passed.
People like Margret fascinate me and make me a little jealous. She is one of those people, as is my wife, who thrives on social communion. People like this seek interaction with people, the more people the better. In moments of discouragement or dejection, these folks gain energy from simple social contact with many people. For others of us, though, rejuvenation is found in solitude. Though I’m not a traditionally religious fellow, it is when I’m in utter solitude in a natural setting—deep in a woods or off in a prairie meadow—that I feel the presence of the gods. It’s not that I believe with Jean Paul Sartre that “hell is other people,” exactly—I very much enjoy being with a few close friends. But a crowd of people surely isn’t heaven for me. Walking alone in the mountains, though, is indeed nirvana. I do envy Margret, though. Life would be easier, I think, if crowds of people invigorated you.
It is still completely dark in this early morning hour, and as the bus passes Bryant Park, strings of white LED lights in the skeletal trees reflect down into the smooth surface of a skating rink. The reflection in the ice looks like strings of translucent pearls. A lone young man who is wearing hockey-style skates sails noiselessly around the ice, doing maneuvers that seem more like figure skating than hockey moves. I’m charmed by the idea of this young fellow choosing to go out for a skate at 6:45 am in the morning. It is a very Minnesotan thing to do.
As the bus begins to fill up, the conversation between Margret and the bus driver begins to quiet down. Whether this is because they have exhausted the conversational topics appropriate between strangers, or because they don’t want to disturb the now-larger group of passengers, is unclear. Politeness would be a likely reason, because this, too, is a very Minnesotan virtue.
I recognize very few of the passengers today, but near Lake Street, the bus is boarded by Frank, whom I do recognize. Frank is a 70-something black man wearing a cowboy hat and western-style suede jacket covering a white chef’s uniform. It’s never been clear to me which downtown restaurant he works at, though it has to be one that serves breakfast. Frank pats each of the passengers in the first few seats at the front of the bus—the two facing rows that traditionally has been the home of the passengers who like to chat amiably across the aisle in the mornings. Further back in the bus, the passengers tend to be those who spend the time scrolling on their smart phones or reading the newspaper. Or those whose recreation is studying the other passengers and imagining their lives.
Although the up-front passenger greet Frank warmly, after he sits down Frank quickly fades into silence. Though a friendly and social man, I’ve never seen him engage in a lot of chit-chat in the morning. He always seems quite comfortable to be alone with his thoughts.
As we near Franklin Avenue, I see a Victorian-style home in which the residents have placed one of those programmable electric signs in the front picture window—one of those that can be programmed to flash verbal messages. This one flashes a two-line message: “Nasty Women,” “Live Here,” it says repeatedly in red lights arranged in small dots. I reflect on my good fortune to live in a city where the liberalism is strident and sometimes slightly angry. For example, the very next day after Donald Trump’s edict regarding restricting entry to the U.S. by Muslims, more than 5,000 people spontaneously appeared in front of the Federal building in downtown Minneapolis in protest. Nearly 100,000 appeared during the women’s march after the presidential inauguration. I very much like this quality of my city.
The sky has pinkened by the time I step off the bus at the corner of Hennepin Avenue and Fourth Street in downtown Minneapolis. I am slightly sad to be leaving the bus, and I think that someday when I have transitioned into full-time retirement, I shall sometimes ride the bus in the pre-dawn hours. Just for the fun of it.