“Dad, it’s seven twenty,” Jason shouted from the living room.
“Seven eighteen,” Collie corrected from my bedroom.
“Danks, dat’s fibe,” I shouted back. “D’ime ammost dube wid Diddie’s ‘air!”
“Please hurry, Dad,” Jason begged. “I can’t be late.”
I took the hair ties from my lips and looked at Lillie in the mirror. “Do you hear? We need to finish this.”
She sobbed. “Okay. But it hurts!”
“I’m being very careful, sweetie.” I held a clump of Lillie’s hair in my fingers—tight, so that there would be no pressure on the roots—and gently combed out the ends.
“Ow!” she said, watching my arms in the mirror. “That hurts!”
“Sweetie, please close your eyes. You are just watching so you can fake cry.”
“I’m not fake crying!”
“Okay, okay.” I held a clump of hair and ran the comb near her head, out of view of the mirror.
“Okay, okay, that’s enough. I didn’t even touch you.” I put a tie in my lips, and quickly braided a strand from the front to back. I tied it off. “Brush your teeth and let’s get your shoes.”
Lillie sniffed and picked up her toothbrush.
The boys sat on the couch, looking bored in coats, shoes and backpacks.
“Won’t be long,” I said, taking Lillie’s shoes from the niche by the door. I untied the laces.
“It’s seven twenty five,” Jason sighed.
“Seven twenty two,” Collie corrected.
“We’re fine. Lillie? Can you join us please?”
“I have to poop!”
“Great,” Collie said, throwing up his hands. “Now we’ll be late for sure.”
I held up a hand. “Collie, please. Lillie, wash your hands when you’re done. We’re waiting.”
She closed the bathroom door. “Okay!”
Seven thirty two.
“Lillie, come on please! We need to cross before the light changes.”
“Can you hold my backpack?”
She fumbled with the hood of her coat, the wind blowing her hair into her face. A taxicab stopped a few feet from her, revving engines for a right turn, as if my daughter were just another speed bump.
“Lillie . . . okay, give it to me, but cross the street, please. Hold my hand.”
“Dad, I’ll get the bus,” Collie shouted.
“Run like the wind, son!”
Collie jumped in the bus and waved from the door.
The kids stepped into the nearly empty bus and headed to the back, as I’ve taught them—always move to the back to allow room for more passengers.
“Good morning,” I said to the driver, pulling out my wallet. I smiled as we made eye contact.
The driver was a handsome young man, with long dreadlocks. “Good morning,” he nodded.
My MetroCard dinged off its final fare. I made a mental note to refill my card before picking up the kids that afternoon.
I returned the card in my wallet, adjusted Lillie’s backpack on my arm, and headed to the back of the bus.
“Sir? Excuse me, sir?”
I turned. “Yes?”
The driver caught my eyes in his rear view mirror. He jerked a thumb. “You got to pay fares for them.”
“No, I don’t. We never pay for kids.”
“I don’t care what you never do.” He tapped the fare box. “Read the rules.”
I adjusted Lillie’s backpack and returned to the front of the bus. On the side of the fare box was a list of regular and discounted costs.
Midway down the list was the relevant regulation. I read it aloud.
“It says ‘Up to Three Children Traveling With An Adult, Free.’ I have three children. So we’re good.”
I turned. An elderly passenger raised an eyebrow to me. I shrugged.
“No, that’s not all. Read the fine print.”
I looked back. “’Children up to forty-four inches.’ So? My kids aren’t that tall.”
“That one is.” The driver jerked his thumb again.
I looked back to the kids. They looked confused.
The elderly passenger looked confused.
We were all confused.
In nearly twelve years of using public transportation as a parent, I have never once been asked to pay fare for my children.
Now that Jason is in middle school, he travels alone at times. For this reason, middle schools provide students with reduced fare student cards that are free upon request.
“Jason, can you come up here please?”
Jason trundled to the front of the bus, still wearing his overloaded backpack. “What’s up, why aren’t we moving?”
“The driver says you need to pay. Do you have your MetroCard?”
Jason made a face. “I think so.” He dropped his backpack. His hand fished passed his French book, his Social Studies book, his homework folder, his lunch bag.
The driver sat, watching.
The elderly passenger sighed.
“Got it,” Jason said. “What, do I just put it in?”
“That’s right,” said the driver.
A virgin fare was dinged from Jason’s card.
“Thanks buddy,” I said as Jason hoisted his backpack. I put a hand on his shoulder and guided him back to his seat.
“Not so fast, sir.” The driver called. “What about them other kids?”
I turned. “You’re serious?”
“Read the rules.”
“I did read the rules. We read them together. My kids are not forty-four inches tall.”
“Sir,” he turned to face me and pointed to the door. “Do you see that, right there?”
“What? The door?”
“No sir, the post, above the handrail.”
“Yes, I see the post.”
“Will we be leaving soon?” the elderly passenger asked.
“Yes ma’am, one moment, I beseech you. Sir, do you see that gold mark on the post?”
I looked and saw a brass notch in the stainless steel.
“Yes, I do. Never noticed that before.”
“That mark is forty-four inches from the floor.”
“Your children are higher than that mark.”
His eyes watched mine. “I really don’t think so,” I said.
“Sir . . .”
“Collie? Lillie? Can you come here please?”
Another bus passed us.
The elderly passenger sighed loudly.
“Why aren’t we moving, Dad?”
“Good question, Collie. Would you do me a favor and stand by that post? Back up to it; I want to measure you.”
He giggled. “Why?”
“It will make the driver happy. Do you mind?”
Collie backed up to the post.
“You see, sir? He is clearly higher than that mark.”
“Well, what do you know, son. You are just over forty-four inches tall.”
“Is it my turn, Dad?” Lillie asked.
“Yes ma’am. Collie, step aside and let’s measure your sister.”
Collie stood to the left. Lillie backed up to the post and stood erect.
“How tall am I?” she asked.
“You are forty-four inches tall, young lady.”
“No sir, she is higher.”
“She’s just not. Look.” I pressed down on her ponytail, bringing my hand level with the mark. “What next, do I take out her ponytail to satisfy you?”
“No sir, you pay a fare for the boy.”
“Look, I just paid the last fare on my MetroCard. You made your point. You win. I’m going to sit with my children.”
I guided the kids to the back of the bus.
“Sir, it’s not about winning nothing,” the driver called. He tapped his fare box. “It’s about the clearly stated rules.”
“This is finished,” I called back.
“Can you please drive the bus, please?” the elderly passenger pleaded.
The driver watched as I sat between Lillie and Collie. Jason raised his hands. I shook my head.
I looked out the window, my hands folded on my lap.
The driver shook his head and closed the door.
He announced the next stop.
“Dad?” Lillie whispered. “Why is the bus driver so mean?”
“ I don’t know, Lillie. Maybe he is having a bad day.”
Lillie looked at Collie. “I don’t want a bad day.”
“Me too,” Collie said.
A week later, we hurried to catch the bus to school. There was a longer line than usual.
We encountered the same driver.
Jason spotted his distinctive dreadlocks behind the wheel as we waited to board. “Better get my card,” he said, dropping his backpack.
“Yes, thank you,” I said.
Jason boarded and paid his fare.
He headed to the back of the bus. His brother and sister followed.
I inserted my card for one fare.
“Sir,” the driver said. “You know you got to pay for the other boy.”
I looked at him.
“Kids? Can you come back please? We are not taking this bus.”
“Huh? Why Dad?”
“Sir, you don’t need to do that. Just pay the fare.”
“Just enjoy the fares you have already collected from us, on me,” I replied, curtly. “Excuse us, please.” I ushered my children past the boarding passengers. “Exiting, please.”
“Are you getting off?” a woman smiled, stepping back.
“Yes. I can’t allow an officious twit to destroy my morning.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way, sir,” the driver called.
I wasn’t listening. I had already hailed a cab.
“That driver is so mean!” Lillie exclaimed.
“What a jerk,” Jason said.
“Totally,” Collie agreed.
“What’s up with that guy?” I asked, giving the cabbie the school address.
I watched the trees as we crossed the park.
Gosh, did I really use the phrase “officious twit?,” I thought.
I must have been angry enough to spit nails.
When that happens, I don’t raise my voice or lash out.
Instead, I channel my mother’s sense of justice and my father’s measured calm, later thanking my tenth-grade grammar teacher for insisting that his students memorize lists of vocabulary words.
On my scale of angry responses in the heat of the moment, referring to someone as an “officious twit” is equivalent to beating them with a two-by-four.
We had encountered the mean bus driver twice. As we leave home at the same time on school days, and take the same route, we would likely encounter him again.
I decided to take my revenge on the mean bus driver.
Once the kids were in class, I paid a visit to the school office.
“Good morning, Ms. Vernon,” I greeted the school secretary.
“Oh, good morning, Jefferson. How can I help you?”
“Is it possible for me to get two MetroCards?”
“I think so, but do you mind waiting for the school volunteer? She issues those.”
“Thank you, I don’t mind waiting. May I sit here?” I sat on a bench, folding my hands in my lap.
Ms. Vernon sat at her desk and returned to work.
“How are the kids?” she asked. “Good?”
“Very well, thanks. And you daughter? You hear from her often?”
“Yes, nearly twice a week,” she nodded. “I kid her that we hear from her more often now that she is stationed near Fallujah.”
“That must be a great comfort.”
She looked at me. “It sure is.”
The principal entered the office, trailed by a fourth grade boy. Both were wearing jackets and ties.
“Good morning, Jefferson. Are you being taken care of?”
“Yes, thank you, David. Hey there Jeremy! Why are you so dressed up?”
“I’m ‘Principal for the Day,’” Jeremy beamed.
“I thought so. Congratulations.”
David smiled at me and looked to the fourth grader. “Jeremy, are you ready for your most important morning duty?”
“Okay. This is the microphone.” David held a metal device the size of a desk lamp. “I will introduce you, then you are on. Ready?”
“Yes.” Jeremy stood tall.
“Good.” David pressed a button on the microphone base. “Good morning, students and teachers. Please rise for the Pledge of Allegiance, read this morning by Principal for a Day Jeremy Meyers.”
I stood, along with the office staff, as we covered our hearts.
David covered the mike and mouthed, Are you ready?
David held the microphone to Jeremy.
“I pledge allegiance,” he said, pausing as he heard his voice echoed by speakers and children throughout the school. “To the flag, of the United States of America.”
Jeremy breathed in and out.
“And to the Republic, for which it stands, one nation, under God, invisible, with Liberty and Justice for all, you may be seated.”
We sat. I smiled at Jeremy.
Lillie had recently recited the Pledge while playing school with Collie.
He had to tell her that “you may be seated” is not really a part of the Pledge.
The school volunteer came in shortly after the Pledge. She said hello to everyone and went to Ms. Vernon for the morning’s assignments.
Ms. Vernon stood and went over an itinerary.
I sat, my hands folded on my lap.
“Oh yes,” Ms. Vernon added. “First thing, can you give Jefferson two MetroCards?”
“Jefferson!” the volunteer said, grabbing her neck. “I didn’t see you there. You are so quiet!”
“Good morning, Frida.”
“Good morning. Two cards, huh? Collie and Lillie?”
“Yes, please, that’s right.”
She bent to retrieve a file. “How are you? Good?”
“I’m fine, thanks. How’s Julian? Lillie’s so sad he’s not in her class this year.”
She closed a drawer. “I know,” she grimaced. “Julian’s heartbroken. Okay, give me a moment—this computer takes time.”
“Take your time, I’m fine.”
She walked across the office to a desk under the clock. It was eight forty three.
She reached around to flip on the Commodore 64.
“Just takes a minute,” she apologized.
At eight fifty, she sat at the desk.
The volunteer turned to me. “Do you know their class numbers?”
“Lillie is 1-324, Collie is 4-238.”
“Thanks.” She turned back to the computer.
Nine twenty three.
“Okay, that’s that,” she said, returning the file to its drawer. She pulled out two cards and handed me a clipboard. Can you sign here, and here?”
“Great.” She gave me the cards and took the clipboard. “You are all set!”
“Thanks!” I tucked the cards into my wallet. “Have a good day. You too, Ms. Vernon,” I waved.
Ms. Vernon rested the receiver on her neck and waved back.
I stopped at the office door to allow Jeremy to pass. He scarcely noticed me, intent on carrying a sheaf of papers to the principal’s office.
I stepped though the school’s front door, and put on my hat.
As I walked through the park, I plotted my revenge against the bus driver.
First, I considered my anger.
Why be mad at someone doing his job?
I was, in fact, impressed at the way he announced each stop in advance. Once we stopped, he asked passengers to step back to make room for others.
In doing so, he seemed to encourage us all to look out for one another.
He would be sure you did not miss your stop, if you paid attention.
We would all ride the bus if we made room for one another. If we cooperated, no one would have to wait for another bus.
Not all drivers care about these things. He did.
And that care gets to the purpose of public service.
It really is a special privilege to help people, and to serve the greater good, in whatever way we can.
I might have been the bus driver’s biggest fan.
But in confronting me as a parent, he crossed a line.
The greater good is served by getting kids to school on time.
I do my part by getting my children on his bus at seven thirty. The kids do their parts by dressing and brushing teeth when they would much rather be asleep. The driver does his part by driving the bus safely to our chosen stop.
If we all do our part, we serve the greater good. We all benefit.
The driver goes above and beyond his dedication to the greater good by announcing our stop in advance.
The driver negates the greater good by fixating on regulations about the heights of specific children.
The driver refutes the greater good when he refuses to do his duty until his authority is acknowledged.
By confronting me over fares, he put aside any concern of getting my kids to school on time. He put aside concerns about the elderly passenger’s appointment.
He cared only about winning a fight with me.
He won the fight, but really, he should choose his fights more carefully.
I’ll cede any nonsensical battle.
You can win any argument that you are foolish for starting.
As I walked through the park, I thought about my free MetroCards.
To gain these, I filed some information with the Board of Education. That information would be processed at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Papers would trade hands. Copies would be processed, after waiting in inboxes to be filed in duplicate manila folders.
If I did my part, these dueling bureaucracies would supply me with a card that sanctioned what I already had—free commutation for public school students.
My taxes at work.
I can’t fix bureaucracies, but I could address my situation with the mean bus driver. I rehearsed a few choice confrontations.
I would give into his insistence on MetroCards for the children, but exact a price when they were used.
“Thank you for insisting that my children get cards! If not for you, wow, my kids would grow up to be bad citizens! Please thank the nice driver, kids.”
“Bling, bling, bling! More fares for the MTA—I hope they consider that in reviewing your lifetime achievement record.”
“Guess I’m your bitch now, huh? You like it when I slip that card in your fare box? Do you? Well, you just drive the bus, baby, while Daddy reads his paper.”
Working out these options satisfied my desire for revenge.
A few days later, we were a minute or two late in leaving home.
We missed the bus.
“Come on, kids!” I rallied the troops. “Let’s run to the next stop!”
“I’ll run ahead, Dad!”
“Run like the wind, Collie!” Jason followed, waddling under his heavy pack.
As usual, there was a long line waiting.
Collie and Jason waved from the end of the line.
I waved back, tugging Lillie’s hand as I walked as fast as she allowed.
I watched as Collie stepped on the bus, half a block ahead.
Collie stepped out again, pointing back at me.
The door closed in his face.
The bus took off.
“What was that?” I asked as we caught up.
“It was the mean bus driver,” Collie said, stunned.
“He said he couldn’t wait,” Jason said.
“No problem,” I said. “We’ll get the next bus.”
You fucking motherfucker, I thought.
“I’ll get the bus, Dad!”
“Run like the wind, Collie!”
He stepped on the bus. He stepped out.
He ran to me, palm extended.
Jason dropped his backpack. He unzipped it and fished inside.
I reached back to my wallet. I gave cards to Lillie and Collie. I retrieved my own.
Jason paid his fare and went to the back of the empty bus.
Collie paid his fare and followed.
Lillie tried her card one way, then another, until it dinged. She ran to the back of the bus.
I paid my fare and followed.
I did not smile at the driver.
I did not say good morning.
I did not scowl, or make a bitchy comment, or look contrite.
The driver was invisible to me. He’s just someone who drives my bus. He does not deserve my smiles or greetings. He is not worth my anger.
He’s just someone I see, as I do what I need to do.
He’s nothing to me.
I collected the cards from Collie and Lillie, and returned them to my wallet. I asked Jason to put his card in a safe place.
“Dad,” Lillie whispered. “It’s the mean bus driver.”
“I know,” I whispered. “Get your book and let’s read.”