The November meeting was done by 6:30 and Hugo is on the last leg of the bus trip home. It’s already dark and he is watching the wipers on the front window. 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 and sometimes they hit together and then drift apart, further and further, then closer, and closer, until they meet again. It’s an result of his musical background that these asymmetrical patterns draw him like moths to a light, rather than any disorder. Or at least, so he hopes.
It’s an articulated bus and Hugo sits just behind the front area and before the hinge. When he got on there were only a few seats available but now there are lots because more people are getting off than are getting on. Most are heading home and as the bus gets further from downtown it becomes emptier.
He doesn’t pay attention to the child making sounds. It’s common enough on public transit and maybe he is far enough back that he doesn’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 he does 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 so Hugo can see that he is older, grey haired, with dark plastic frame glasses. He can only see the back of the head of the woman who spoke. She has medium length straight dark hair and is wearing a 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 the man 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 Hugo to the doors and stand there, waiting to get off at the next stop and blocking his view of the women and child. He can still see the man though. The man is not looking at the mother 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. Hugo tries not to be obvious and stare so he glances to the person across the aisle from him. A young woman in dark green tights and a dark skirt with earbuds stares 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 that Hugo can’t make out. She might be his wife. She looks to be of a similar age and social economic background. Other than the man, the two women with the child and 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 make him 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!” In the brief profile when she turns her head Hugo guesses that she is Aboriginal, with a round face and thick neck. Robert comes from the middle of the bus and stands in the aisle behind the grandmother. He looks Aboriginal as well which gives credence to Hugo’s guess as to the mother’s ethnicity. He is a little under six feet tall, with a heavy body shape. He probably 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?” he 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.”
Hugo starts to find this 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 stand and defend and feeling out which points are the most valid. As a witness Hugo thinks that he should be prepared to make his own stand if things get out of control. On the other hand he thinks that they are all being overly sensitive. It’s entertaining, but painful. Why do we let ourselves get into these kinds of situations? He looks away again. The woman across from Hugo is still in her music world. He know that there are more people further back in the bus, but he doesn’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.”
“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.” Hugo looks back and sees the man glances from the mother to Robert, and then to the floor of the bus beside Robert’s shoe.
“We’ll settle this outside,” says Robert. “Next stop, you and me, outside.”
“You’re going to beat up someone in a wheelchair?”
“You mess with my family, you mess with me, wheelchair or not.”
“I’m not trying to mess with anybody.”
“You and me, outside.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” the man replies. 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 a parent or teacher who makes a command expecting it to be carried out. Hugo wonders if he 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 to Hugo that the drive just wants the trouble off his bus so his responsibility in the matter would be over. And the lack of forcefulness in his voice could be designed to cover his own responsibility to the bus company without annoying anyone and getting anyone angry with him.
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 it’s not impolite to stare and so Hugo’s eyes are glued on the participants. He thinks that the rest of the bus behind him is doing the same. He’s aware of his own unwillingness to get involved and his perspective that is all overblown and absurd. Hugo sits relaxed but attentive, and if someone else does get involved or things start to go further he may have to be a part of it too. They wait. They 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 Hugo. This is his stop as well so he falls 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 Hugo has to wait for her to move so that he can get off.
“No one messes with my family.” The woman steps off and I follow her onto the sidewalk.
Much later Hugo wonders if the bus driver expected anything to happen after his statement. Or was the statement supposed to do what it did, freeze the participants? He remembers how his mother used to say “if you don’t play nice I’m going to take the toys away,” and he and his brother would sullenly stop arguing.