Portrait of Rose

I drive the No. 2 bus between Karori and Seatoun. I don’t mind the driving too much, which is lucky because there’s a lot of it. My route bisects the city—straight through the heart and out the other side—and when I reach the end I pretty much turn around and go back the way I came. Like someone who’s lost and won’t admit it.

       It’s a life of service, I always say. I doubt you could do it if you thought of it any other way. I smile at everyone as they get on, and say to myself “I am delighted to be part of your day, Jenny.” Or “Welcome aboard, Dean. Please find yourself somewhere comfortable to sit and we’ll be off.” Would you believe I am able to guess the name of each and every one of my passengers? The guesses may not be spot on, but they’re good enough as I hardly ever have to use them in conversation.

       I even met my husband-to-be Adrian on this route.       

       “Why this day?” he demanded as he climbed aboard at Hobart Street. And I thought he could do with a shave and his clothes needed a clean but his eyes sparkled and I liked him straight away.

       “Because it’s the only day we have.” I shot back with a smile, expecting him to move on down the bus with the procession of passengers. But he just stood there, grinning at me from ear to ear, not altogether unlike a crazy person, I thought. The remaining passengers pushed past him, but I knew right then that he was the one for me. There was just something about him.

       Driving a bus is all about technique, I like to say. If you were taught well, which I was, then you don’t have to think about it at all. If you’re thinking about it, you’re doing it wrong, and you won’t be able to stick at it. My mind is as free as a bird while my bus wears its groove back and forth across the city.

       I remember a young man, James, who was really struggling, and I happen to know that the smile we shared as he boarded one morning made something click inside him, and he decided to seek help to turn his life around. Nowadays I see him regularly and we always share the biggest grin. In the mornings lately he has a baby in a front pack. He’s doing great.

       Often I’ll get to the depot in the morning and find an old wreck waiting for me—the sort with a clapped out engine, shot suspension, fogged up windows and a back door that won’t open—but I don’t care. To me, that’s just the situation, the hand I’ve been dealt. I feel no shame when I pull up to the stop. My passengers and I are in this together. I raise my hands in mock horror when Jackie boards, gesturing at the bus, and we share a laugh about the way things are.

       Before you think how glad you are that you don’t drive a bus for a living, consider this: a world where people make a human connection with their bus driver is a better world. These moments we share ripple out into our days, changing everything they touch. This is how I know my job matters.

       Take Dean for example. Every day he would board the 7:05 AM at Seatoun village, lost in his headphones, tagging on without a glance. I silently welcomed him without resentment. I don’t need him to acknowledge me—he’s got his own stuff to deal with—I’m just here when he’s ready for this human connection thing, which we can share anytime by virtue of us both, you know, being human. Anyhow, one day I noticed that he seemed to be paying less attention to his appearance. He really didn’t wash his hair as often as he should. His shirt picked up a splash of food and it was the same shirt with the same stain the next day, and the next.

       “Sometimes things have to get worse before they get better.” I’d say to the side of his head, silently, as he boarded. Then he stopped catching my bus altogether. A day turned into a week turned into a month.

       A few weeks later I pulled into the Seatoun village at 9:50 AM and there he was, waiting by himself, without headphones and dressed in a suit. He went to tag on as usual but his card was declined. He looked up, appearing to see me for the very first time.

       “Sorry” he said, clearing his throat and picking through his wallet for some change that he didn’t have. He gave me that look I’ve seen before, the one that says something like “Shit—I have to beg for mercy from a person who I’ve never given even the slightest regard. I know I have no right to ask this, but please help me.” That’s how I interpret the look anyway.

       I gave Dean a warm smile and beckoned him on with a movement of my eyebrows and lift of the head that said, unequivocally, you’re all good. I’ve seen you, it said. I recognise you and I are one and the same.

       From that point on things were different between us. When he started catching the 7:05 again, he would always look for me in the driver’s seat as I approached, and give me a smile as he boarded. The headphones came off. The smile became a “Hi”, became a “How are you?” and pretty soon we were both a very welcome part of each other’s days. I laugh when I think that this all came about because Dean had neglected to top up his Snapper card. Adrian would probably say that if you keep your life too tightly controlled, you don’t leave room for the good stuff.

       “I had a job interview. That time, when you let me on for free.” he said one day as he tagged on.

       “How did it go?”

       “I got the job.” he said.

       “They especially liked my punctuality.” he added with a smile.

        We grinned at each other as he made his way past, perhaps at the way small things build into bigger things that build into the largest things, so that the small things aren’t really small at all when you think about it. Or if they are, they’re only small in the way that seeds are small.

       I really like Adrian’s smile, you know? “There was just something about you, that day.” I want to say to him. But I only saw him that once.