Crowd Pleaser

My recent journey retracing last year’s 1580km expedition north by rail to visit my daughter’s family is well and truly complete, but I have a final reflection to share. It’s a sequel to the thoughts in last week’s post I think.

Passing through Sydney twice, it was inevitable that at some point I would end up on a crowded bus. This is can be nerve racking. Most bus drivers have proved to be helpful and kind, but I have met one or two that are tense, cautious … even gruff. At one bus stop on this trip the driver looked at me with something like disbelief and said,

“You want to bring that   (pointing dramatically at The Chug),
“in here?”                         (pointing sceptically at his bus).

Honestly, I don’t blame drivers for their caution. With all my paraphernalia, my “rolling show”, I’m sure I look unlike any other passenger they have seen. And there is another factor: more than half the people I see in wheelchairs on buses also have carers with them. In fact I have never yet seen another person with a manual chair on a bus without a carer, and many have significant, obvious disabilities. So it’s probably quite reasonable for drivers to have legitimate questions about my level of physical and intellectual ability, my communication, or anything at all really.

This is Qld, not NSW. And it's a train, not a bus. And we are facing forwards, not backwards. And it's empty, not crowded. But it's the only photo Iv'e got .... you get the general idea.
This is Qld, not NSW. And it’s a train, not a bus. And we are facing forwards, not backwards. And it’s empty, not crowded. And they are on opposite sides of the aisle, not side by side. But it’s the only photo I can find …. you get the general idea.

The Chug is the same width as Bugger, a narrow manual chair, so that side by side they will fit snugly into the smallest two-seat wheelchair space on any bus. Living in the country I have had much practice driving up the ramp and turning into fairly empty buses, uncoupling from The Chug and parking both units neatly and quickly. I generally have myself organised before the driver gets back to the wheel after he lifts the ramp. I can do it quite efficiently now, but the first dozen times were quite daunting, and the second dozen still intimidating. A crowded bus still brings considerable apprehension.

The dread moment arrived in Sydney surely enough: a full looking bus was pulling up, and time pressures did not permit me to wait for another.  The driver was happy and courteous, but even so the multiple challenges of driving onto the bus, putting a ticket through the little machine, squeezing past who or goodness knows what, and finally parking both units, were all waiting ahead. I could hear the driver asking people to move out of the designated spaces behind the front wheel arches, and I heard a couple of the seats being folded up.  It’s amazing how much your brain can process in one moment, and along with fierce concentration on the practical details at hand my thoughts delved into the possible reactions of the people on the bus.  Especially the ones who had been asked to move!  Were they annoyed with me? Would they be looking at their watches wondering if the slight delay would escalate into missed connections in peak hour transit? Were some people questioning my right to take up 4 seats when many were already standing? Were people tut-tutting under their breath, asking themselves (and possibly their bus-neighbours) the very same questions about my level of ability that bus drivers must ponder?

Sydney buses have a peculiar stipulation that I have encountered nowhere else: wheelchairs must be parked backwards (hence the need for 4 spaces on this bus, double the disruption I generally cause in Victoria). There is a bulkhead that you must back up to, which would presumably serve well in the case of a collision. But the result was that as all these anxious thoughts were still whirling around I found myself looking straight into the faces of my imagined antagonists.  Several were barely an arm’s length away! What’s worse, the seating on buses steps up as you progress down the aisle, presumably to accommodate mechanical things going on under the floor. From the perspective of the backwards-facing-wheelchair-spot this creates a veritable amphitheatre of interrogators!

There was nowhere to look except into eyes and faces, most wearing the blank, dispassionate look of the city dweller. They were everywhere! As I was imagining the unspoken ire of the audience I faced, one of the blank faces broadened into a smile.

“Nice driving”, said the smile.

“Good job” came a second.

“You must have practised that”.

And suddenly there were several smiles and nods, and a couple more kind remarks too. Briefly, we were connected.

My mission to spend a couple of days with distant family was quite unknown to my new found friends. They were unaware that it would take 9 days of travelling on public transport to accomplish my goal; they had no idea of the complexity of preparing for the trip with a check-list with over 100 headings; nor had they any sense of the climactic, blissful celebration of life which my grandsons and I enjoyed at the other end. Similarly, I was utterly unaware of the private challenges each of my (smiling!) audience no doubt carried.  And yet …

There was a connection. We were all on the same bus, just for a moment sharing a common destination, forging our way along life’s uncertain path. I don’t think I am reading too much into that moment; I think the warmth I suddenly felt in the face of fear came from a tiny glimpse of human truth, shared by a few, on an ordinary bus: that we are all in this together. One of us might have had a more obvious challenge right then, but the rest well knew that we’ve all got to take our chances, have a go, and hope.