The November meeting was done at 6:30 and you’re on the last leg of the bus trip home. It’s already dark and the wipers on the front window are going. You stare at them. Asymmetrical rhythms to you are like light to a moth. Bus wipers must operate by separate motors because they never stay in synch. Bomp, be-domp. Bomp, bomp-de, bomp, b-domp. Each one has its own tempo. Sometimes they hit together, but then they inevitably drift apart, further and further, then closer, and closer, until they meet again.
It’s an articulated bus and you are sitting behind the front area, between the hinge and the middle doors. When you got on the bus there were few seats available but now there are plenty because more people are getting off than are getting on. Most riders are heading home and as the bus gets further from downtown it becomes emptier.
At first you didn’t pay attention to the child making sounds. It’s a common enough occurrence on public transit and it came from up front so maybe you didn’t hear it clearly. Some sounds you don’t listen to until someone draws your attention to it and then you grab it from your short term memory. But you do notice when her mother says something to the man in the wheelchair across the aisle from her.
“Don’t be telling my child to be quiet,” she says.
The man is seated in the courtesy area behind the driver. His wheelchair is parked facing toward the back and you can see that he is older, grey haired, with dark plastic frame glasses. From your angle only the back of the head of the woman who spoke is visible. You can see her shoulder length straight dark hair and dark blue ski jacket. The woman sitting next to her has similar hair but with some grey in it.
The man had been looking straight ahead. Now turns his head toward the woman. “Well, someone’s gotta say something if you’re not going to.”
“She’s just a baby. You don’t tell someone else’s baby to shut up.”
“I didn’t say ‘shut up’. I said ‘be quiet’.” He’s not angry, but apparently he feels a need to be clear.
“She’s my baby. Don’t go telling her to be quiet. She’s just a baby.”
Two people walk past you to the doors and stand waiting to get off at the next stop. For the moment they block your view of the women and child. The man is still visible though. He is not looking at her anymore. He’s looking down the aisle and talking without meeting her eyes. “She’s a baby, but there are other people on the bus and they don’t want to hear a crying baby.”
“Who are you, old man, to be telling me to shut my baby up? This is a bus. It’s not your house.”
“I know this is a bus. A bus is a public place. Out of consideration for the other people in a public place, some people try to keep their children quiet.”
“Nobody else is complaining. Just you.”
Neither of them seem to want to give it up. The mother has a bee in her bonnet and the man can’t stop responding. You don’t want to be too obvious so you look straight ahead. Across the aisle you see a young woman in dark green tights and a dark skirt. She has her earbuds in and is staring into the distance. She probably can’t even hear. The bus stops and the people at the door leave.
“No one else is saying anything but I’m sure some of them are thinking it,” the man says.
“How do you know what people are thinking? You reading their minds or something?”
The man takes a moment before answering. “No. People just want a quiet ride home. If you’re not going to be considerate so they can have that, then they’re going to be irritated too.”
The woman sitting in front of the man says something, but you can’t quite make it out. You think that she might be his wife. She looks to be of a similar age and socio-economic background. Other than the man and the two women with the child, she’s the only other person remaining in the front part of the bus.
“There’s nothing to drop,” the man says. She must have been trying to get him to stop.
“You don’t stop harassing us I’m going to call my husband,” says the mother.
“‘I’m not harassing you. I just asked you to try to keep your child quiet.”
The mother calls over her shoulder, “Robert, this guy is harassing us. Robert!” You get a brief profile of her when she turns her head. She has a round face and thick neck and you guess that she may be Aboriginal.
A man walks up from the middle of the bus. He is a little under six feet tall and, like the mother, looks to be Aboriginal. He has dark straight hair swept to one side and earthy brown skin. You estimate that he weighs twice the man in the wheelchair.
“Robert, this guy is giving us a bad time, just because the baby was crying.”
“You giving my family a bad time?” Robert asks the man in the wheelchair.
“No, I was asking her to keep the baby from crying.” The man is looking down the aisle, not at any of the group.
“You mess with my family, you’re messing with me.”
“I’m not messing with anybody.” He glances at Robert, then looks away again. “I just asked her to try to keep the baby quiet.”
You are starting to find the interaction embarrassing. It was a small incident that’s being blown into a multi-participant argument. They’re gathering allies, claiming points, choosing which points to defend and feeling out which points are the most valid. As a witness you think about preparing to make your own stand if things get out of control. At the same time you think they’re all being overly sensitive. It’s entertaining, but painful. Why do we let ourselves get into these kinds of situations? You look away again. The woman across from you is still in her music world. There are more people further back in the bus but you don’t want to look that far away from the action.
“She’s just a baby,” the wife says.
“She’s just a baby,” repeats Robert.
“I know she’s just a baby. I was just asking her to try to keep her quiet.” You can’t resist looking back again. Robert is still standing, the man in the wheelchair is not meeting his opponent’s eyes. You can see the top of the child’s head above the mother’s shoulder. The child is quiet now.
“No. You’re giving me a bad time because you want her to be quiet,” says the wife.
“I’m not giving anyone a bad time. I just asked you to try to keep her quiet.”
“We’ll settle this outside,” says Robert. “Next stop, you and me, outside.”
The man glances into Robert’s face. “You’re going to beat up someone in a wheelchair?”
“You mess with my family, you mess with me, wheelchair or not.”
The man moves his eyes to the aisleway again. “I’m not trying to mess with anybody.”
“You and me, outside.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” the man says. “I’m just riding the bus.”
The bus has stopped. The driver opens the door and says “Hey, take it outside, off the bus. All of you.” He doesn’t sound forceful. He doesn’t sound like you do when you tell your son to shut the door behind him or to please take out the garbage like you asked him to do an hour ago. You wonder if the driver really means to send an elderly man in a wheelchair off with a big able bodied man angry at him. Doesn’t he have some responsibility for the safety of his riders? It seems more likely that he just wants the trouble off his bus so that his responsibility in the matter would be over. And the lack of forcefulness in his voice could be designed to cover his responsibility to the bus company, while avoiding getting directly involved himself and having someone get angry with him as well.
Now everyone remaining on the bus must be aware of what’s going on. The bus sits at the stop, doors open, but no one is moving. Even the woman with the music must be wondering, but now that there’s full acknowledgment of an issue you think that it’s no longer impolite to stare. The rest of the bus behind is probably doing the same. You are aware of your own unwillingness to get involved and your belief that is all overblown and absurd. You notice that you are sitting relaxed but attentive because if someone else does get involved or things start to go further you may have to become a part of it too. They wait. You all wait. No one seems to want to press the issue or ramp things up. The bus driver closes the door and pulls back into the road.
The bus rides in silence, the front section frozen in their positions. The bell rings and a woman in a fuzzy long coat passes in front of you. This is your stop as well so you fall in behind her. The bus pulls into the stop and the woman presses to open the doors. As she does so she says to Robert, “Good on you. Standing up for your family. I saw it from back there.”
“Thank you,” Robert says.
“Good on you,” the woman says again. Now the doors are open and you wait for the woman and her fuzzy coat to move so that you can get off.
“No one messes with my family.” The woman steps off and you follow her to the sidewalk.
Much later you wonder if the bus driver expected anything to happen after his statement. Or was the statement was supposed to do what it did, freeze the participants? You remember when your children were small you would say to them “if you don’t play nice I’m going to take the toys away,” and they would sullenly stop arguing.