Chris Wiewiora | Longreads | September 2017 | 13 minutes (3,328 words)
Zoe looks right through me as she boards my bus. She was one of my best public speaking students at Iowa State and admirably focused on social justice, but on the bus, she doesn’t give me a hint of recognition. David keeps looking at my rearview mirror as he sits by the door, trying to figure out how he knows me. He was a guy who skimmed along through the academics of class, but emanated a genuineness and care about his work. It’s been only a year since I taught them. I still know their last names and their final grades. Past semesters blur together for me the way that I must blur together, in the minds of these students, with the other drivers who pick them up at the park-and-ride lot by the Alumni Center and chauffeur them to campus.
I justify their blindness with what I think of as my disguise; my CyRide uniform of a tucked in polo and slacks is nothing like my daily teaching outfit of button-ups and unbelted jeans. Under my ball cap, I wear black-framed glasses now. But I’m not Clark Kent and I wasn’t a Superman.
I never felt like a superhero in my classroom and I don’t feel like an everyday driver on the road. After my contract expired, I chose to leave behind sitting in a desk chair in front of students. I was haunted by my inability to protect them, one particular afternoon, from a danger more fearsome than speaking in public. Now I hide behind the wheel of a bus.
There might be one or two regulars on my bus, but I don’t know their names. I don’t converse with any students who ride. I flick my eyes to my mirrors as much as I watch the road.
To become a regular, which means you’re special in your continued sameness, you have to do the same thing over and over again at the same place at the same time yet also make yourself known with a hint, an oddity, a tip. In college, when I worked at a Starbucks, we had a drive-thru and people expected to be acknowledged, known, remembered. All I wanted was to get them their correct drink quickly and then glance at the tip jar, tilt my chin, maybe raise an eyebrow or tighten my lips. I loved the invisible push of a car behind a car making the line taut, the car in front of me then pulling forward, out and away, gone.
Before I went out on my first in-service route, my transit-trainer showed me an awareness test video on his office computer. Text appears on the blank screen: How many passes does the team in white make? Then, under a bridge, a group of basketball players — four dressed in white and four dressed in black — hurl two balls back and forth to each team.
I counted thirteen.
Text appears again: Did you see the moonwalking bear?
The video replays in slow-mo. A person in a bear mascot outfit appears, walks across the ground through the middle of the frenzied ballers. The bear-man wiggles in a dance for one second and then slides off screen.
Text ends the video: It’s easy to miss something you’re not looking for.
After my contract expired, I chose to leave behind sitting in a desk chair in front of students. Now I hide behind the wheel of a bus.
I felt like an idiot rule-follower for not spotting the bear-man.
My trainer said that the point of the video was to keep me alert on the road, especially through campus. Once I started to focus on something like a car making a left turn in front of me, I might disregard the row of parked cars to the right of my bus where I would inadvertently drift to inflate my cushion of space. Or I might lock onto the cyclists with earphones passing me while a skateboarder ollied off the sidewalk’s curb. I would need to slow down to break the spell of magical thinking.
In front of the Memorial Union, which is used as a student center and dining hub, a student palms a Styrofoam clamshell takeout container and a plastic-lidded cup. The student wears a parka, the hood covering chopped black bangs and the hem coming almost all the way down to the knees of a pair of jeans. A gust of wind lifts the container off the student’s hand. The student tries to reach for it, but the other hand’s cup gushes soda. Stir-fry swirls in the air and plops to the sidewalk.
That spoiled lunch is one of many funny and sad food things that happen while I ride the wheel. These little moments break up driving the same circulator route around and around.
In my undergrad Human Species class, we watched an anthropology film. I remember a scene where a group of hairy Neanderthals stooped in a cave and gnawed on the leftovers from a hunt. One of them started to choke on a bone. He grabbed his throat. Nobody did anything. Somehow he coughed up the fragment. Everyone pointed and laughed.
I have a theory about jokes as an evolutionary reaction. Jokes are told as either an “I did something stupid” story, or a “how stupid was that person” story, in either case allowing listeners to appreciate not being the ones who got hurt. I’ve heard of joking as a safety (read: defense) mechanism, and what’s interesting is that the safety is given to the audience rather than the jokester. The first kind of joke is personal and vulnerable, while the second is collective and critical. Both are valid and vital as they allow people to appreciate, and learn, how to survive being stupid (read: human).
This big guy gets on my bus. He’s wearing trainers, mesh shorts, and an ISU hoodie. He could have been one of the ballers I used to play with on Saturdays at the east campus’ Lied Rec Center. He’s the last passenger I can safely fit before students spill over the yellow line painted beside my seat. The guy holds a bottle of diet water. I know he’s going to open it before he opens it.
The carbonation volcanoes.
I know it’s just a drink, but I say, “That’s why we don’t allow eating on the bus.” The guy holds his hands out away from him with fizz dripping off his fingertips. I feel like I’m a jerk to this guy, who knows he did something stupid and doesn’t need me to rub it in. I slow down to the stop by the first set of dorms on campus and park. I grab some paper towels from behind my chair and pass them for the guy to clean up.
CyRide is a mashup of Cyclone and Ride.
The Cyclones is the name for all of Iowa State University’s athletic teams. ISU got the name back when it was Iowa State Agriculture School and they played a football game against Northwestern University. They were expected to be pummeled behind the line of scrimmage, but they moved touchdowns as quickly as twisters.
Cy is the name of ISU’s cardinal mascot. Cy is in honor of C.Y. Stephens — an Iowa State alumnus who donated one million dollars to construct the university’s auditorium building, also named for him. ISU’s official logo shows an angry red bird with crunched eyebrows stuck inside a swirling storm system.
In my mind, Cy is also my angry and stuck mascot while riding the wheel.
Glenn strikes up conversations about ISU athletics with his passengers. I’ve sat on his bus many times saying, “I didn’t know there was a game this weekend.” Home team sports should be a positive, or at least neutral, topic to discuss but there’s something charged behind what Glenn says. He keeps a slanted smile as he nods his ball-capped bald head, seemingly in agreement, but even on the same side he wants to point out what’s wrong with what you believe. Since Glenn is a lifer, I’m surprised he doesn’t just keep quiet instead of risking a write-up.
Ben, a professor in speech communication, gets on my bus close to Carver Hall. He stops in the aisle to give me a double-take. Stunned, he asks, ‘So, this is what you’re doing now?’
By the drivers’ lockers, on break back at base, Glenn reintroduces himself to me. I don’t know if he just doesn’t remember my name or he thinks I’ve forgotten his. He asks if I heard the radio call with Randy.
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Randy always looks hangdog. The jowls of his face droop. His large-lensed glasses block off his cheeks. He should seem like a light-hearted and active guy because he favors wearing shorts and short sleeves as early in the year as he can. However, his lips pull down in a perpetual frown and when he waves it appears as a half-hearted effort, as if he’s signaling a hangman. He’s a lifer who looks defeated by riding the wheel.
But I don’t know much more about Randy because he’s silent and the radio call with dispatch was the only time I heard Randy speak more than when he’d mentioned transfers while we shared the same radio channel.
Randy: “There’s a woman with a cat on my bus who says it’s an emergency.”
Dispatch: “Well, you shouldn’t let her on…or ride.”
Randy: “You want me to physically remove her?”
Dispatch: “Well…tell her there’s no bus back.”
I want to tell Glenn how I thought the confrontation was hilariously passive aggressive, but I’ve found pointing out those kinds of ironies don’t go over so well. Instead, I start to say to Glenn that I tell potential rule breakers, “In the future…” but he just interrupts to monologue:
“It’s like food. I just ignore it. Not worth a complaint. They could say I don’t have an appropriate tone. I don’t care about food anymore, I just drive. And I think management doesn’t care either.” He points above his head at the ceiling like God is up there. “They just don’t say anything to us.”
I don’t say anything more to Glenn.
It’s cold but sunny and the light bounces glare off my windshield. This is one of those days where I can get sunburnt while blasting the heat in my bus. Finally, a cloud cuts over the sun and the warmth just radiates from the thawing asphalt.
Creeping Charlie carpets the lawns across town in purple, but ISU has coatings of green spray covering all the muddy patches. The fertilized seed soon will sprout in roped off areas that had been used as throughways across campus when it was covered with snow. The planters of CyBrid tulips open their tiger-striped ISU colors of gold and cardinal at the entrance to the first main set of connections on campus.
Between my first and third classes that afternoon I heard the sirens. At the door of my next class, one of my students told me, There’s been a shooting.
While my dashboard’s remote transponder opens the gate to the road, I pick up the PA mic and announce the ABCs (Attention Getter, Bus Stops, Connecting Routes), “Attention passengers, we’re approaching Kildee/Bessey with transfers to…” and since I’m running the ORANGE circuit, I rush through the list of connections listed by number and color in one breath, “1RED2GREEN3BLUE6BROWN21CARDINAL.”
On a single-digit thermometer day, Ben, a professor in speech communication, gets on my bus close to Carver Hall. Even though I knew the building was named after the famous ISU alum and peanut man George Washington Carver, I always thought of the short story writer Raymond Carver when I entered the doors to take three flights up to my no-window office. At the top of my steps into the bus, Ben says a quick hi as he’s about to move to a seat and then stops in the aisle to give me a double-take. Stunned, he asks, “So, this is what you’re doing now?”
Ben’s question makes me feel like I’m not living up to my potential by driving a bus. Maybe he imagines I should climb the academy’s ladder. I would have to get a senior instructorship, then a visiting gig, and hope for a tenure-track acceptance. I would live some sort of life cooped up in a closet-converted-into-a-home-office, grading instead of living my real life, which includes at-dawn alarm clock beeps, laundry, at least 30-minutes of daily exercise, seasonal-affective-disorder, shoveling the sidewalk, rolling the trash to the curb, date nights, getting the car’s oil changed, ordering seeds for a summer garden, scooping cat litter, bills, bills, bills, and for now, riding the wheel.
Between my first and third classes that afternoon I heard the sirens. Usually I heard the garbage truck beeping as it backed up to empty the dumpsters behind my corner classroom. It was a delivery day and in my classroom, one of my students was giving an instructional speech about what to do if you’re pulled over in your car by a cop. He continued — unfazed — through the sirens screaming along Lincoln Way and seemingly along Morrill Road in front of our building. I couldn’t believe that another vehicle was on the road, because only buses, delivery trucks, and limited administrative golf charts were allowed through campus during the day.
At the door of my next class, one of my students told me, There’s been a shooting. I didn’t believe her. Then, another student nodded his head. He told me that as he rolled past on a campus bus, he saw police shoot someone in a truck.
I told them to stay in the classroom while I went to find out what was happening. There was an echo of sirens. The sounds faded like ripples at the edges of their wakes.
There was no phone in the classroom. There was no alert on my cell phone. The hinges of my doors folded out of the classroom. There was no way to barricade the room. We were on the second floor. We could not exit without taking the stairs to where someone could come up. The tornado shelter in the basement could hardly hold a few classes of students. Our department had never done a warning drill. I knew the basement space, since I ran safety drills after one of my students gave a persuasive speech calling for educators to know where to go.
However, I did not know what to do with a gun, with a spray of bullets, with the flesh of these students who were children of some parents out there, far away from this threat that was here.
The assistant teaching director was teaching on the same floor as I was. I went to her room and asked what was going on, what could we do, what should we do. She said police officers had stopped someone on campus, that we just had to wait and see, that I should calm my students and carry on with my lesson plan.
I wanted to be able to slide a steel sheet from the ceiling to the floor in front of the door. I wanted to gather them around and hug all of them close. I wanted to say, ‘We are safe.’ I didn’t, because I couldn’t.
I walked back down the hall to my classroom. I opened the door. My students flinched when I got there, but settled down when they recognized me.
I wanted to be able to slide a steel sheet from the ceiling to the floor in front of the door and from the frames to the sills of all the windows. I wanted to gather them into a circle like when we did group activities, and hug all of them close. I wanted to say, “We are safe.”
I didn’t, because I couldn’t.
The buses drove past the shooting. The on-board cameras record everything inside and outside the bus, but erase as they go. The red button by the windowsill saves video five minutes before, and five minutes after, it’s pressed.
The public didn’t get to see any videos from the buses. The Des Moines Register posted audio recordings of Ames’ city-wide emergency radio channel with the police’s chatter. Then, the police released their own dash cams’ footage. Perhaps they didn’t want people to only hear what had happened; people needed to be able to see it, too, albeit from their angle.
Before the video stops there is a nineteen-year-old body. Before the body, there were two officers standing with smoking guns from seven bullets fired. Two of their shots hit, one in the chest and another in the head. Before the body, there was a police dispatcher saying, for the second time, “Back down.” Before the body, there was a nineteen-year-old who rammed his father’s white truck into two squad cars that had been blocking him in on central campus. Before the body, there was a nineteen-year-old who drove a truck the wrong way onto Morill Road, against buses, against students, against the law. Before the body, there were two officers in city squad cars with their sirens and lights on full-blast while they pursued a truck onto campus. Before the body, there was a nineteen-year-old who backed up a trailer connected to a truck into a squad car. Before the body, there was a police dispatcher saying, “Back down.” Before the body, there was an officer in a squad car pursuing a truck that was reported stolen, both of them driving twice the speed limit on Lincoln Way in Ames. Before the body, there was a man who reported his truck stolen. Before the body, there was a nineteen-year-old who took his father’s truck without permission. Before the body, there was a father arguing with his nineteen-year-old son in the next town over. Before the body, there is a nineteen-year-old as young as most of my students.
Along Morrill Road, at the library and Carver Hall I hop on the PA and say, “Please exit through the rear doors so folks can come on in through the front. That would be helpful.” I shepherd these students to where I used to have lunch, where I used to check my email, where I used to text, where I used to read, where I used to lesson plan, where I used to wait for the bus.
When runners downshift to a jog I begin to close my doors. Then, they pick up their pace to catch my bus. When they board, I tell them, “You gotta keep up the hustle. I don’t want to leave you behind.”
I want to leave them behind.
Aubrey steps on, says, “Hello,” and smiles. She recognizes me. There is no pity in her face and she doesn’t condescend to say something like, “So, this is what you’re doing now?” She just greets me and thanks me. Perhaps Aubrey respects a working man because her father works at one of the three fire stations in town. She gave an informative speech about firefighters’ nonverbal communication in evacuation. One would make a quick slash on a checked door for any occupants, and then another would double-check by making another slash that X-ed out the door, closing it, keeping away the oxygen fueling the flames.
The rain comes down and students cram onto my bus. There is more than a normal load on this normally busy circuit route. I’ve got over 100 on board already.
I accidentally close my front door on a girl’s arm. She slips it back out into the wet. This is technically a collision. I don’t call it in.
The pressure of the route doesn’t give me time even to say sorry. I’m leaving by the time I realize something is wrong. I feel worse indirectly harming a student with my bus than not being able to protect students in my classroom.
I roll by the next stop. A kid slaps the front door’s windowpane. His hand leaves a rainbow-y oil print.
Two guys pop-n-lock at a stop. Their mouths are open, smiley. They could be singing or beat-boxing or just digging the rain.
I keep rolling, pulling up past shelters and only releasing my rear doors on stop requests. There’s another bus behind me and another behind that one. Somewhere, way back, there must be an articulator — a lengthy “bendy” bus, actually two hulls connected by an accordion center hinge with a rear engine that pushes the double-load from behind. The articulator can clear out everyone left behind. I look ahead, beyond soaked students, past ones that I left to fend for themselves after I didn’t return to teaching, and drive my bus.
* * *
Chris Wiewiora is from Orlando, Florida. After he earned an MFA in Creative Writing and Environment, he worked a variety of odd-jobs including bus driving.
Editor: Sari Botton