I'm back on the bus.
While away from D.C. for a few years, I almost forgot about Metrobus, even though it once delivered me home from school every day. But now, once again, twice a day, I find myself in my familiar chariot, lumbering down Columbia Road.
I love the bus now, as I did when my brother and I traveled home across town from elementary school. We parted with our classmates early on, as they went their way and we went ours. My brother and I had a long, entertaining ride.
What we saw from the windows of the bus were the scenes my grandmother before me had passed. But she had traveled on rollerskates. She and her friends had flown all over town, no doubt faster than my Metrobus, to the Mount Vernon Place library, the Monument grounds, embassies ("We didn't go in, we just went to see them"), parks, past much of the scenery I pass today. She always went out of her own neighborhood. "That was the point," she told me, "we wanted to see things. But we had to have a destination."
My brother's and my destination was always the same: home from school. Sometimes we slept, bobbing into temporary oblivion. The metal window sashes left creases on our cheeks.
Sometimes we ate junk food -- Bar- B-Que potato chips and "chocolate-flavored" Yoohoos -- purchased while waiting for the bus and eaten with surreptitious glee, as both were forbidden at home and on Metrobus.
Sometimes we read, but reading made us woozy. And, as we were given to the vacillation of sibling affection, we did not always wish to speak to each other. That left people-watching, people-meeting or city-gazing -- "seeing things," just as my grandmother had.
From bus windows, my brother and I watched buildings go up, and come down. We waved to stoop-sitting raconteurs, and wondered what, exactly, were the "things" at "Wings 'n' Things." A single ride was a cheap Tourmobile, passing the Cathedral, the White House, museums, the Capitol. We went through extrordinary ethnic and economic variety, from upper Northwest, across the Duke Ellington Bridge, through Adams Morgan and along Florida Avenue, toward D.C. General Hospital, all the while trying to imagine who lived in houses and apartments that did not look like ours.
There were many conversations with strangers. I remember talking with an elderly man who was convinced that "gut-bucket" blues is the only real music and with a woman overloaded with groceries, a burden a car could have handled far better. Day after day, people ran alongside the bus calling through open windows for unused transfers, perhaps because they were slicksters, perhaps because they simply did not have the fare.
When a great snowstorm rose suddenly one winter, Washington flew into a panic. I rode one particular bus for 41/2 hours, but not without entertainment: groups of boys and girls sang dueling versions of "My Girl/My Guy." Those friendships lasted long enough to get us home.
Of course, it wasn't perfect. When the air-conditioners worked, they blew mysterious particles into our faces, and passengers never seemed to make enough room for the sardine stampede, despite the bus driver's repeated command, boomed as if from Mount Olympus, "Move to the back of the bus."
But, as my grandmother once told me, "I felt the whole of Washington was my neighborhood as a child." Those bus rides took me beyond the limits of my neighborhood, on the way to growing up.
Today, I have other destinations. But the bus still takes me places that I never expect. The other morning, my first morning back on the familiar chariot, I sat next to an enthusiastic "student of forensic medicine." (I vaguely remembered hearing the term on "Quincy.") She informed me, at 8:30 a.m. no less, that it took 45 minutes to drain all the blood from an about-to-be-autopsied body. "Since I've been in this business, I've lost 17 pounds," she chirped. "I just can't eat meat anymore!"
Only on the bus.