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Ballads, Beer and a Bus Driver

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Nina always wanted to be a poet, but she was a bus driver’s daughter.

The sensible thing would be to earn a living as a civil servant, regular hours and a guaranteed pension.

She boarded the bus at the beginning of the B-9 bus route her father drove every day in Brooklyn. It was her super-stretch limousine that smelled of peanuts and sweat.

Her dad wore a light-blue uniform. His ironed-on transit worker patch was positioned above his cuffed and starched right sleeve.

“Watch your step, sir.”

 

Nina admired how his biceps flexed as he manually maneuvered the crank that opened the accordion bus door.

Passengers read the Daily News, quick to open up the muddy tabloid, in the late 1970s. Keeping their elbows low to avoid brushing against those seated close, the riders hunkered down for the rumbling ride.

Nina thought their exasperated faces were as comical as the newspaper headlines when the occasional brush-up occurred. Congestion was an inconvenience of city living, like the urban myth of pigeons and rats having parties on the park after dark.

The bus lurched forward in starts and fits like a bad cough. “The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round…”

 

New riders on the route pulled the little string that ran along either side of the bus. It chirped, signaling their intention to disembark at an upcoming destination. Her dad knew the regulars and their stops. No string-pulling required.

“Getting off, getting off,” an impatient waitress said.  Her flippant attitude soon would be replaced by a false smile as she soon took orders in the local greasy spoon. Now, a smile was difficult to coax from her.  Her sensible shoes were planted at hip’s width apart to avoid toppling as she went down the bus steps to the outside.

But she did hum along to the Tony Bennett ballads her dad sang:  “Oh, the good life, full of fun seems to be the ideal…”

Her dad fancied himself a crooner. Nina fancied herself a poet. But he was a bus driver and she was his daughter.

Every day, Nina would scan the bus for the passengers her father told her about.

His tall tales were like Bible verses, sacred and familiar. There was the story about the rotund lady who always boarded the bus with a big pot of spaghetti and meatballs, and the Chinese snake charmer.

“He would just take out a flute, and the snake would dance in the air.”

Like the twirling reptile, Nina was mesmerized by her dad’s stories.

She collected the colored transfer papers that were handed out at passengers’ requests to complete their destinations on another bus or train without paying another fare. With the long gas lines, mass transit was a commuter’s lifeline.

 

The backs of the little slips of paper were perfect canvases for random doodles and the flowery big-girl cursive writing that Nina loved to practice. The transfers came bundled in little packs with perforated tops for easy dispatch.

Sometimes she spread them out and fanned herself when the air conditioning was not sufficient and the hot, late afternoon sun blazed through the bus windows.

“What do you think of this Daddy?” After listening to the umpteenth knock-knock joke, her father would slap his knee and declare it was the funniest thing he ever heard. She held on to the pole, steadying herself near the front of the bus. A regular stand-up comic.

At the end of the route, Nina’s father maneuvered the bus into the Ulmer Park Depot in Bensonhurst, a little Italian enclave in south Brooklyn, right off the Belt Parkway. Like an elephant at the zoo, the bus was put to sleep.

He hung his jacket in his locker lined with her drawings and report cards and then tossed the keys to the dispatcher on duty.

“Clocking out, Lou?”

Her father answered, “Yes. Yes, indeed.”

Their night had just begun.

Together they began their familiar jaunt home, several blocks along Cropsey Avenue.

“Ready, Beef Stew?” he father would ask, calling her by his nickname for her.

She would skip, avoiding the sidewalk cracks and counting the fire hydrants or “johnny pumps” along the route. Some of the hydrants still had the faded and chipped red, white and blue paint from when they were brushed patriotic to commemorate the Bicentennial.

Nina’s dad would walk more slowly, often guiding them to the Club 17/17, a slight detour on to 86th Street. It was cool and dark in the neighborhood watering hole.

It felt safe.

He always told her it was their place because she was born on the 17th of the month of March, St. Paddy’s Day.

The bar smelled of peanuts (minus the sweat) and the cola tasted deliciously sweet. Painfully shy, Nina cast her head down when she was asked her order.

“What’s your pleasure, doll?” the good-natured bartender asked.

Her dad answered quickly for her, “Well, she will have the regular of course, you havta ask? jeez…”

Nina’s regular was a straight-up soda, no ice, with extra cherries on a cocktail toothpick.

After taking a few sips and blowing bubbles into the tall glass, she eagerly waited for the two quarters her father would place in her palm. Then she jumped from the stool to play the pinball machine, which was positioned in the rear of the bar next to the cigarette machine.

Jiggling the controls, Nina mentally willed the little silver ball up and into the slot. She occasionally leaned too hard, forfeiting the game with a “Tilt.” She felt utterly mortified, but would coax more coins out of her father as he downed his fourth Heineken.

 

With every glass bottle finished, her father said, “Another dead soldier,” slapping the bar counter for emphasis. By the end of the night, it seemed like an entire platoon had met its maker.

Nina played pinball enough until the urge to go the bathroom became nearly unbearable and forced her to do a dance in place.

“Ready, Beef Stew?” her father said holding his hand out. Three squeezes in quick succession from him, a tactile gesture meaning, “I love you,” and four squeezes back from Nina. “I love you more.”

Leaving the bar, they began the walk home. His singing at the end of the night made her a little embarrassed. Unlike the daytime ballads, these renditions were decidedly off-key and punctuated with exaggerated hand movements.

Her dad was not as good at averting the cracks in the sidewalk on the journey home as she was; in fact he seemed to find them all.

Still the night belonged to them.

It was on one of those nights; Nina realized how proud she was to be a bus driver’s daughter. Their life together was poetic.

“Watch your step, sir.”

 

The author Andrea Della Monica is a Brooklyn native who grew up observing the characters who made up her tight-knit community. A journalist, a mom, a pet sitter all describe the inquisitive Della Monica. She is working on a collection of personal essays for a memoir to be published in 2015. She enjoys reading and contemplating nature in her get away in Massachusetts.

 

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