Thank You For Riding
It was February 2020. The corona virus, CoVid 19, was a time bomb that had gone off in Wuhan. It was not yet a major event in the United States, but we were aware of it and knew it was coming for us. It was also flu season, and just damn cold. The wind was blowing in gusts above ten miles an hour, and a persistent light rain was doing its best to make everyone at the Frankford Transportation Center miserable. I got off the El and immediately remembered I had not dressed warm enough. The weather had given me notice initially the moment I left the building in Center City where I worked. The crowded El had been a respite from the weather. Now I was back in it again.
My dollar store umbrella was broken. It had been good for two storms. I had learned the hard way that more expensive umbrellas did not necessarily last longer, so I stuck with the cheap ones. Sometimes things break and you’re just out of luck, no matter what you’ve paid. I scurried with the crowd down the stairs and out to where the buses and trolleys waited. There was a Route 66 trackless trolley waiting. SEPTA, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority, ran the trolley in two loops at peak hours: short run between the Frankford Transportation Center and Cottman Avenue, and an express that had its first stop at Cottman then ran north to the end of the City. I needed the express.
There was an overhang to keep the rain off waiting passengers, but that space was already filled. I stood in the cold drizzle. The normal variety of passengers were waiting. Old, young, disabled. Male, female, fill in the blank. There was always a subgroup off to the side selling or smoking weed or stronger stuff. There’s always the few who stare death at you if glance at them doing their business. There’s always a few passengers that look, act and give out the feel that they’re on their way back to one of the residential and semi-residential rehab centers and halfway houses that dot the area.
One guy with a beard and a green army jacket was bouncing up and down, possibly to keep warm, possibly out of habit. He was a few feet away from me, but I could smell him, even in the rain. It was bad, but not overwhelming. I had smelled worse on the El, which was nicknamed by some “the homeless hotel” or “the hotel on wheels.” Homeless people who had begged a fair staked out a seat, sprawled, and road all day and almost all might, with dirty blankets covering them, even their heads, a potential reservoir for contagions, a certain source of foul odors.
The driver came and opened the door. He sat in the driver’s seat and watched people as they boarded. A relatively clean looking guy in old clothes, with a beaten down, weary look, that rang out rehab or half way house, asked the driver, “Do you stop at Frankford and Magee?”
The driver nodded.
The guy got on, paid his fair, and made me think, they must have a rehab place near Magee Street now. It didn’t surprise me. Rehab, halfway houses, methadone clinics. They were a growth industry in the area, along with store front churches and massage parlors.
The guy in the army jacket kept bouncing up and down, shivering, but oblivious to the trolley and its open doors. There were a number of people including myself, waiting for the express, so I figured he must be going farther north than Cottman,
The trolley was nearly filled. The driver called out, “Anyone else? Local to Cottman. Pulling out soon.”
Mr. Army jacket woke up and went over to the door.
“Do you stop at Magee?”
The driver looked at him and shook his head, “No I don’t.”
The driver shut the doors, and was getting ready to leave. I looked at Mr. Army jacket shivering and bouncing. I knew it would be twenty minutes until the next local. The guy was not dressed as warm as I was. He already looked sick. He was going to get worse. Hell, even I was starting to feel sick standing in the cold wind and rain.
I walked over to Mr. Army jacket. “Hey,” I said. “I think the driver misunderstood. That’s a local to Cottman Avenue. It stops at Magee.”
He walked over to the trolley door with me. I banged on the door. The driver open the door.
“Hey, I think you misunderstood him earlier.” I gestured towards Mr. Army jacket. “He wants to go to Magee. This is a local to Cottman. It stops at Magee, right?”
The driver looked at me with a frown.
“Not for him.”
Mr. Army jacket said, “What?”
“Not for you. I’m not taking you.”
Mr. Army jacket reached in his pocket and pulled out a handful of coins.
“I’ve got money this time.”
The moment Mr. Army jacket said that, I wondered if I should have gotten involved. There was history here. Backstory that I didn’t know about.
The driver hesitated, but let Mr. Army jacket on. Mr. Army jacket dropped his coins into the fair box then went to find a seat. When he had gone the driver called out the door.
“Sir. Hey sir!”
I turned towards him. Our eyes met.
“Thanks a lot mister.” The driver looked angry. He took a small spray can off his belt and sprayed the floor next to the driver’s seat. “Thanks a lot.”
He closed the door. The trolley pulled out. I wondered, what was in that can? Was it air freshener? A comment on Mr. Army jacket’s natural perfume? Or was it mace? A threat?
I tried to memorize the trolley’s registration number to report the driver, but forgot it. I had other things on my mind by then. I was sick. Had felt it coming on while waiting in the rain for the express. After I got home and finished in the bathroom, all the details were gone. I just wanted to go to bed.
I could not remember the driver’s face so I didn’t know when I rode the 66 after that if he was ever the driver. No driver said anything to me about the incident after it happened. No driver did anything to dis me more than usual. I mean, there are always a few trolleys or buses that go by you when you’re waiting, pretend you’re not there or are moving too fast by the time they spot you that they can’t slow down. Who’s to say it was that guy or that he was worse than what you’d normally expect from SEPTA?
My father had taught me no good deed goes unpunished. A quote from somewhere, but to me it was my father talking. Did I do a good deed? Was I punished? Maybe the driver had to fumigate the trolley at the end of his run thanks to Mr. Army jacket. Maybe Mr. Army jacket coughed all over the passengers or shit or pissed himself in the back seat.
Maybe I did the right thing. Maybe I should have kept my head down and not gotten involved. It doesn’t matter now. So much sickness going around. So many places shut down. So few passengers on the trolley and El. Drivers and passengers put themselves at risk every day just to put food on table. And me? I work from home now. Non essential. Not like a trolley driver.
From my living room window I watch the 66 roll by my house on Frankford Avenue. Empty or close to it. Occasionally, I have to leave my house and take the 66 to the supermarket. Most people try to keep a safe distance. Some wear masks. The dealers no longer stand on the corner. They work out of parked cars. Wear disposable gloves. Everyone seems nicer, more polite, more considerate. Except to the homeless or dirty. They’re avoided more than ever.
There’s a supermarket near Frankford and Magee Street. Sometimes I shop there. But I also shop other places. I have not seen Mr. Army jacket since that night. I hope he’s okay. I hope everyone’s okay. The driver. Every driver. All the passengers. The dealers. The users. The homeless. First responders. Family. Friends. Coworkers. Me. Safe and warm and dry and well. At least until the governor says the emergency is over. After that we can go back to the way things were, all of us, and have fun being jerks again.