Let me begin this entry stating simply that I by no means intend disrespect to the fine, unionized transit drivers of my fair city. You go ahead and strand thousands by striking whenever you damn well please.
The first time I rode a bus, a Greyhound bound for Canada, I have fleeting memories of passing streetlights, the smell of stale sweat similar to riding inside an end of season hockey bag. I remember panic and tension, my mother several months pregnant and fleeing her mistakes and misfortunes to return to the fold, to her parents shacked up in a hotel in Canada while the carpenters finished raising high the roof beams of their retirement home in northern Ontario. Radiohead has a song called “Backdrift (the Honeymoon is Over)” that suits my fleeting memories of this frantic moment of relocation, fleeing one fire for another, fearing reprisal from either fiasco. There is no banana fish, the pool is empty as the womb is full, and a Greyhound bus is nothing but backseat drivers when the snow begins the fall and the aft fishtails.
A hand in the sifting dark like a psalm upon a preacher’s lips, the agony of uncertainly rapidly ingrained into the unformed wax that is my childhood being. Three memories proceed this travel. Where I try to reassure my toys, shield them from the thunderous assault of my enraged father, basis of being a selfless attempt to protect the inert from the incoherent. Precedent setting bracing against the unfathomable. Because I shit myself. Because I let the neighbor’s chimpanzee out. because I’m three, lonely, and desperately want to play, learn, and grow. To know I’m loved. To not be alone, all alone, all the fucking time.
And then I’m on a bus, fleeing, running to be with people I have never even heard of, at best names and reassurances as my mother held a sobbing me and crooned convincing herself time had come to return to water, to return to a home that aptly enough no longer existed, to parents making an new home for themselves and redefining their relationship with their prodigal daughter.
My forth memory is on the bus, on a bus to freedom, on a dark, smelly, fear laced midnight train waiting for Harriet Tubman to return from her smoke break.
And Radiohead sings, “There’s nothing we could do…”
My fifth memory is the smell of ironing in a cramped motel room, the energy as warm as the wood paneled, forced air baseboard heated space, my newly discovered grandparents busy with getting ready, with preparing their clothes and composure as caringly as though they were twenty years earlier in time with lives and jobs to go to. Bracing themselves with familiar ritual in the face of an uncertain future.
My sixth memory is visiting the construction site. Could be later the same day, could be a week later, a toddler’s memory is rather slippery from this distance, I’ll admit. I remember the rainbows on the oil at the base of a barrel leaking at the edge of the long, windy drive down to the two lane highway that ran the vertical length of Ontario like a narrow urethra through Ron Jeremy’s titanic shaft. I remember playing among the exposed studs, the damp, cool smell of the concrete apron that would become the basement of the house. I remember the family of rabbits that had moved into the clutch of grass grown up beneath the plank board swing my Grandfather’d sentimentally or optimistically hung from a thick arm of the lot’s mightiest tree when he knew this lot would be the place his grandchildren would one day play, perhaps anticipating his daughter would one day return to make amends with him though perhaps not so soon, or under quite such circumstances. My grandfather had named the Mama rabbit and each member of her litter. He filled a bowl of kibble for them each time he visited the site. I remember he never mentioned the rabbits or feeding them when my Grandma was around, and that I’d somehow known not to mention them either.
A week after the house had been finished and we moved into it a fall storm hit the region and dropped a massive tree onto the motel we’d stayed in, crashed through the roof of the room adjacent to the one we’d called home for quite some time. Fortunately no one had been in the room, yet I remember feeling a mix of relief and sadness as we watched the news on my Grandpa’s modest sized Zenith television. Relief to not be a pancake, sadness our most recent home had been ravaged by nature.
(image borrowed from an EBay auction, actual owl packed away safe)
The bedrooms were upstairs, and outside the window the moon sat huge and bright like a voyeur. I had two toys to keep me company then, a Steiff owl I chewed the felt toes open on and a patchwork fabric St. Bernard too big for me to even shove around. The owl stayed with me as I fought to remain awake to better stair down the moon and the shadows of men I though walked slowly, tiredly across it. The dog remained downstairs in the living room, waiting for me to come nap on its lap and ride on its shoulders.
A couple years ago my Mom sent me a very unsettling, burst in to tears sort of landmine gift, a wonderful landmine, a flush of memories and emotion. She sent me the owl I treasured and chewed on as a toddler, the one I remembered from those moonlight drenched nights in Ontario, Canada. When we fled Tennessee we left my plastic cowboy and Indian toys behind, the owl had been a consolation, as had the dog from my Grandfather, waiting for me the first time I ever entered into the finished home, waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs in the high ceiling living room. I’ll introduce Otis to the owl when he’s older, or perhaps another of the same make and model, symbolic for me and hopefully interesting for him despite the differences of circumstances.
My next memories are of storms, of my Mother having to rush to hospital to give birth to my brother while the very sky seemed intent on folding us into it like origami while trees waves and winds sang and the television broadcast only static and hollow voices. And then I have a brother, a baby brother, tiny and fragile and interesting and terrifying. I sometimes wonder if Otis needs a brother what with a world so over populated and money tight and future uncertain and zombies at the door, and then I try to imagine my life without my brother, and for all I wish I had treated him better, appreciated him more, and understood him more willingly, I can to imagine my life without him. I think we would have been better aligned if we’d been born closer together, so that lesson I take to heart, and while I don’t know if we’re ready for another, I believe Otis would be well off with a sibling, especially one not separated from him by enough years as too make collaboration strained.
When winter falls in Ontario, it isn’t fooling around. Like the blanket of snow that falls on Bone in Bone, one day has post rain storm gloom, the next day has bright blue skies over a landscape of unbroken white terrain punctuated by the towering evergreen arrowheads, wherein animals took refuge, an owl here, a black bear there. Mom and I tried to make a snowman, hiked through the snow on archaic snowshoes to begin a snowball at the end of the drive only to have to abandon hope midway up the sloping driveway, begin a new one that would become the base for our snowman in front of the house.
My Grandpa brought home a hollow red plastic brick with a handle so we could attempt to make igloos together, at best ending up with several curious snow forts. The end product never mattered. Only the time with my Grandpa did. Especially from hindsight.
As winter thawed into spring my Mom began to consider her return to civilization, to pick up the loose ends of her life in Tennessee, a life as a single mother with two boys on her hip. I have no idea why she didn’t stay in Canada. Her strained relationships with her mother? Her innate need to be her own person, live her own life? She made the choice and I am somewhat who I am for growing up where and when I did, I have to think she did the right thing. I believe to my core she did, and you can ask the sisters I wouldn’t have had otherwise if they’d agree.
As winter thawed into spring I spent considerable time with my Grandpa, and we watched television together, the show Bob Barker was on before Price is Right, Warner Brothers cartoon theater before the socially questionable cartoons were removed, and Hogan’s Heroes. My Grandpa had spent time in a German prison camp during the final year or so of the second World War. I believe he came home through the great prisoner exchange referenced in Kurt Vonnegut’s book Slaughterhouse Five. I had no idea about all that, and never seemed odd that we’d only watch those reruns when my Mom and Grandma weren’t around. Years later when I mentioned watching that show with Grandpa to my Mom and seeing her shocked expression, I realized I knew a side of Grandpa she didn’t, a side that comes with age, hindsight, introspection, maybe even some remorse.
Grandpa had a game called the shaving game. He’d cut a T shape out of cardboard, likely the back of an emptied cereal box, and get some lather going with soap and water. He had the sort of dark hair that defied aging, remained dark and scarcely touched by silver until he got well past sixty, and he had the five o’clock shadow by two in the afternoon I need a couple days to grow. The shaving game put four year old me into the role of barber, while my Grandpa sat on a kitchen chair with a dishtowel around his neck and soap slather on his cheeks. I would slowly, carefully scrape away the slather with the cardboard, clearing swaths of facial real estate to the gratifying rasp of cardboard twanging across stubble. The shaving game would take minutes, yet seem like hours as I tried my best each time to get every bit of slather whisked away without injury. “Don’t nick me now.” He’d say playfully, his smoker’s voice low as gravel, thick and bellowing, rich and warmer than a hug.
After I’d finish, worried beyond remembering this all pretend, all a game, fretting nervously until he’d stand and pat his cheeks, slap them red and proclaim that the best and finest shave he’d ever had. He’d walk around talking in imaginary patrons in our improvised barber shop, telling them they better have a number, a shaver this skilled would have a line around the block, people’d have to wait a week for a shave as fine as this.
Years later, while I lived in Cincinnati trying to sort out what to do with my life and whom to do it with, my Grandfather passed away. To say I wanted to destroy things to express my inconsolable grief would be to assert someone with asthma would love to breathe clearly, or someone with cataracts misses working the Sunday crossword. I had been so absorbed with my own shenanigans I’d forgotten the man needing a shave.
I could say I don’t ride the bus because I don’t like getting that close to other people. Would be true, though wouldn’t be the entire truth. I could point to my friend Celine’s incident where she sat down on a bus along Granville headed downtown and felt the seat of her pants go warmly wet before she smelled the unmistakable reason why and had to resist the urge to hurl while transferring to another bus to return home for a long shower and exasperated sob.
Coming from the lands of non-existent public transit and cheap car insurance, I could point to pride, however the American appetite for automotive independence seems to have passed me by, I would prefer more cities follow San Francisco, Hong Kong, and Stockholm for reliable, secure, and inexpensive rail and bus systems.
I could with some honesty observe that the bus takes longer than walking or biking, and in Vancouver, this would largely be true. Except perhaps when the local hockey team is in the Stanley Cup finals, then all bets about practical or timely transit by any means would have to be off.
The real life horror story about the pathetically psychotic passenger beheading some poor home bound kid and traipsing around the cabin until authorities arrived could be considered a good reason for avoiding buses, as well as a great reason to wonder about police priorities when a non-English speaker in the Vancouver airport’s international exit can be electrocuted by enthusiastic cops while a mad dog killer on domestic bus doesn’t even get a good flogging by fellow passengers.
The reason I don’t like buses is because they make me sad. I can’t get onto one without remembering my fleeing Mother, my beloved Grandfather, and all the stories in between. I can ride a bus, especially with friends and colleagues; I’m not debilitated by my past or my memories. Alone though, left standing with a grip on a runner rail, waiting for my turn to exit on an epic B-Line from Waterfront Station to some spot near Parker Place on Number 3 road in Richmond, and my mind wanders, thinks of other bus rides, other places and times, and eventually I’m thinking about my grandfather, of how much I miss him, and that I wish I could find the bus that would take me to where he is, where we could watch Hogan’s Heroes reruns and I could give him the best shave in the beaver lake rich Ontario province north of Tweed. Where we could ride together on pioneer wagon trails in the bright red fireman’s Jeep and complain about the size of the summer mosquitoes. With the husky riding in the back, the one that showed up one day to keep my lonely Grandpa company until he passed away, and disappeared into the forest after my Grandpa had gone.
This entry is dedicated to the memory of my Grandpa Dean Van Dussen. I miss you, sir. My chair remains vacant for you.