The city buses in Memphis are often late. Sometimes they never come at all. And once on a blistering day in May the driver stopped just to let the miserable, waiting clump of people, including a man in a wheel chair, know that there wasn’t any more room and they’d have to hope for better luck with the next bus.
In a city where white people are not the majority yet often form enclaved neighborhoods and possess the majority of the wealth, the few that ride the bus include some working class men and women, an Emily Dickinson impersonator, and a gaggle of high schoolers who don’t have cars. These students, with their ponderous backpacks that take up the space of a whole person in a place where there’s no room to spare, squeeze between tired women, trying not to appear too privileged or too spoiled.
When it rains, the bus feels like an aquarium dragged underneath currents while the children outside travel in a frenzied cluster the way schools of fish do towards the library or a burger joint. The people inside cling to their poles behind glass, sway like water weeds when the bus takes a long turn and bends at its center, accordion-style, screeching one mechanical note. You can look out the window, up at the roiling of early summer thunder-stuffed clouds and pretend that this really is a strange trolley-ship hybrid instead of a bus, that the road is a river running towards the sea instead of a road on the way to various homes, that you are a strange sailor instead of you.
Once a year, three seats at the front are roped off in honor of Rosa Parks. A few years ago on this day, a cold day, two young white girls gave up their seat for an elderly black woman. Everyone was watching them; a few of the older women pointed them out and discussed them even though it is difficult to disguise whispers and stares in such a close space.
It’s generally a quiet ride, but you might get chatted up by a friendly woman from the cosmetology school who is certain she can improve your acne situation, or flirted with by middle-aged men who won’t notice or care if you’ve got on a school uniform and a backpack that’s the same size you are. And when it’s a hot day and you’ve skipped lunch, when you must force yourself to stand beside the old man in the nice hat with the oaken cane, when your vision blurs as you tremble and rock with the buzzing motion of the bus, when a seat opens up, all the other passengers will recognize that you need it. They will tell you. You’ll try to offer it to the old man with the hat and cane, but he’ll furrow his brow, shake his head. A younger man opposite you will insist, “Grab that,” and you’ll do it.