On the buses

Hours of human theater can be found on Jerusalem's buses for the very reasonable price of NIS 5.50.

waiting for bus 88.298 (photo credit: )
waiting for bus 88.298
(photo credit: )
Am I the only one who feels a certain social embarrassment about choosing a seat on the bus? Is it my English sensibilities that make me avoid eye contact and do a rapid scan so that no one should feel "rejected" when I make my final choice? And I do wonder if I'm the only person to feel ever so slightly offended when someone gets up and moves to sit somewhere else? For a long time I would suffer a certain degree of humiliation as people swiftly abandoned the seat beside me in favor of the one directly opposite. With increasing experience of bus traveling I realized they were opting for a forward facing seat as soon as they could claim one. What wisdom. The lurch of the bus when facing backwards is only for those with very strong stomachs. I only recently discovered that the lurch of the Egged bus is not the result of swerving to avoid impulsive traffic, nor does it have anything to with inadequate suspension, or powerful airbrakes. The driver can steer his way through Jerusalem with the grace of an ice-skater. I know this absolutely for a fact because I was transported in this gliding fashion last week. I got on a bus at the Hebrew University and was bemused to see two open trays of eggs, each holding two dozen, sitting on the ledge between the driver and his windscreen. By maintaining a reasonable distance from the car in front, not accelerating up to stationary vehicles, and cornering slowly, the eggs and passengers were swept across town unscrambled. I love the Jerusalem buses. Daily I find hours of human theater there for only a few shekels. Much of the drama depends on the directing skills of the bus driver. Many have honed their art to perfection… tone of voice, gesture, facial expression. It is the driver who often sets the mood of the whole bus. We all roared with laughter the other morning when the driver, in his determination to get the denizens crammed at the front of the bus to move further down, spoke over his intercom system: "I know I am very handsome and you all want to be close to me, but could you please move down the bus" - a short pause, and with perfect timing, "I'm 32 and single, if anyone wants my phone number please come to me before you get off the bus." I've been on many buses where jovial exchanges between driver and passengers have produced ripples of comments right through the first half of the bus - note that beyond the backdoor is a different territory entirely. I haven't as yet ventured to those remoter regions. A bus journey is full of social exchange. Regularly drivers greet old friends, sometimes stopping in the middle of the street to exchange a few words with someone they have recognized on the sidewalk or driving a cab. And when passing the bus station there's often a cup of coffee rushed on to the bus and a packet of cigarettes added by special request. There was, a couple of weeks ago, a kind and patient driver who joked with a lad with Down syndrome. Throughout his journey the boy stood next to the driver and carefully closed the ticket machine at every stop. It was done in such a way that you could see that boy felt he was helping the driver... perhaps he really longed to be behind the wheel. Quietly and patiently the driver opened it each time with light humor that kept them both smiling and even involved contributions from others nearby. I must also mention the large, middle-aged woman in short socks, sneakers and skirt just below the knees, who stridently instructed a driver who was involved in pleasant conversation with the passenger just over his right shoulder… "You must not speak to the passengers!" She delivered these words in English with the authoritative tone of outrage. There was a short period of stunned silence. And when he resumed the banter with the passenger she bellowed, again in English, "Driver, I have already told you not to speak to the passengers, you must concentrate on your driving!" Whether he understood English or not, the tone was enough to convey her meaning and the driver continued in sheepish silence. In some ways her behavior was quintessentially English. There is sometimes a certain English arrogance of knowing what's best for the natives. But there is an English practice that I'm determined to preserve - that of thanking everyone for everything. I'm addicted to it and when the driver clips my ticket, I thank him. My "toda" invariably softens the most sullen driver. And if I get off at his door I turn and say "toda" again, and invariably see a warm smile. It's a much underused word here. But you do hear it when drivers pull up to let on those who didn't quite make it to the stop. And I love it when everyone shouts "rega" (wait a minute) because they have spotted the distant form of an elderly person hobbling towards the bus. Anyone familiar with England will know that no such courtesy is extended by English bus drivers to those who are not precisely at the designated stop. It made me wonder about the training of bus drivers. A friend mentioned that her son was doing an Egged course and it was costing a fortune. I was surprised because in England the training programs are free. She gave me some details… it makes me respect my bus driver even more. First they have a month of theoretical studies (first aid, geography, traffic rules, mechanics, etc). This costs NIS 2,000 and runs five full days a week for a month. There are then 10 exams and in her son's class 24 out of 30 passed. Then begin the driving lessons, about 75 of them, each costing NIS 165! There is a scheme for getting some of this deducted from pay once they become a fully fledged driver. But there are the things that you can't teach: the good humor with which to greet passengers; the initiative to avoid a major traffic jam by spontaneously taking a slightly different route; the imagination, when a man was spotted on a side road hosing down some steps, to take a slight detour and get the windscreen a good clean. I'm grateful to all those drivers who endeavor to enjoy their endless hours of journeys. And also to the diverse mix of passengers with whom I find myself sharing uninvited conversation. I've met some fascinating people on buses… But that's another story.