It is not rare for a woman’s friendliness to be misconstrued as interest in the interlocutor. But when advances are made from the least expected quarters, one is left mildly amused.
On a blistering hot day last summer, the Metro Houston bus driver on my regular commute, with whom I had exchanged pleasantries in the past, handed me a pamphlet. Since I was exiting the vehicle, I hurriedly nodded my thanks. But he was in no mood to let me go, prodding me instead, with a smile, to turn the page. On the back of the pamphlet, words were written in shaky writing: “I am single.” Alongside his phone number, the driver had left a drawing of a heart.
If this story had any potential for ending in harassment, it didn’t reach its fruition. While accepting his heart was out of the question, I thought breaking it was the next best possibility. I changed the timing of my commute and never took that bus again. But the story has since become one of my favorites to narrate about my life in Houston as someone who regularly navigates the city without an automobile. Unfailingly, it has resulted in laughter, and sometimes, empathy for the driver. Where else can a bus driver hope to find love if not in the space he most frequently inhabits?
If you, like me, have been a regular Metro commuter in Houston, you will have noticed that bus drivers are, by and large, an endearing lot. Late one evening when my husband and I were the only ones aboard, the driver told us she was famished. Would we mind if she stopped at a McDonald’s? Of course not, we said. She returned with a burger, fries and a drink. Another time, soon after the overhaul of the bus network, our driver lost his way. “I am very sorry for this,” he said to his passengers. We didn’t mind and cheered a little later when he got back on the right route.
When not attempting to flirt with passengers, bus drivers are busy offering kindness and free rides to those who don’t have money, or chatting with anyone who cares to listen. From them, I have learned about the day’s weather forecast and local news; roads blocked for construction; and once, even their fear of police, following a high-profile police shooting of a black person.
Interactions with fellow commuters are abundantly interesting too. One time, while waiting for a bus, alone (as I often find myself to be) a fellow Indian drew close. After introducing himself as being new to Houston and making small talk, he popped the question: “Are you single?” Perhaps he felt emboldened by the freedom of being away from home. Perhaps he assumed that a lone woman at a bus stop must be been in want of a man. Tempted to show him the finger – the ring finger, of course – I shook my head no.
One of my very first memories of riding the bus in Houston is a girl who started bleeding profusely from the nose. Within moments, her fellow passengers huddled together to offer her water and an endless supply of tissue paper. I know that at least two people went to bed feeling hopeful about the world that night.
The triumph of public transportation, beyond the economic and ecological fronts, lies as much in the fodder it provides to the imagination as in the rich repository of human experiences it builds. These have the capacity to invoke often comical, sometimes moving memories long after exiting the vehicle, as life chugs along its unplanned course.
Bus and light-rail commutes in Houston opened up new vistas for me. When I moved from Mumbai to Houston two years ago, I felt the public transit system was at best wanting, but it functioned well enough to let me peel back the layers of the city, one route after another. Much progress has been made since, thanks in large part to more efficient bus routes taking effect in August 2015.
Among the many misgivings that prevent people from riding the bus or rail in Houston – apart from questions about reliability – is the one I hear about safety, often based on conjecture.
But the larger story -- of the inclusion that public transport weaves into the lives of the less privileged and homeless -- is one that deserves to be celebrated. For those who are afflicted by the daily burdens of life and struggle to make ends meet, the bus and rail become a refuge, a lifeline connecting them from the fringes of society to its very annals. If they’re seen aimlessly hovering around bus stops and train stations, it probably means that these are the best spaces the city offers them. Without judgment.
Just as I was finishing this essay, I got a text from my Belgian neighbor friend, Rosemie. “I have a good Metro story from today. I’ll tell you over tea.” After losing her wallet on the bus, she took a chance by sitting at the bus stop in the opposite direction, hoping that the same bus would be back soon. Forty-five minutes later, a familiar face from behind a windshield started waving something at her. The bus stopped, and the driver said, “You forgot something,” handing back the wallet to her. Apart from $4 in cash, everything was untouched.
“You meet good people on the bus, you know,” she said.
The image I usually associate with public transportation is one from back home in Mumbai: a woman hugging the pole at the door of a packed train, eyes narrowing as the breeze flirts with her hair, and dupatta flying with a mind of its own. It is no different from the image I now have of passengers in Houston, each carrying the various and truest versions of themselves, playing their part in this microcosm of society, journeying alone in the comfort of strangers.