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Taking Wing on the Bus Ride to Work

by on March 13, 2014 6:30 AM

I ride the bus to work, which is pretty tricky since I live in Bellefonte and my job as a night auditor in a downtown State College hotel begins at midnight.

Still, in what must be a stroke of fate, which I'll explain later, the XB bus leaves Bellefonte at 10:50 and arrives at 11:20 at a stop one block from the hotel.

The "B" in the CATA bus code I'm pretty sure stands for Bellefonte. What the X means, I have not a clue. Maybe "Way the heck out there in the exurbs."

Bus drivers come in all shapes, sizes and personalities: happy/cheerful/helpful all the way to silent/grumpy/rude. CATA folks trend toward the former but the rest can be forgiven. It has to be tough wheeling that big old sled around the city all day.

Or at night. I've never seen more than three persons on the 10:50 run, and sometimes I'm the only rider on board. This may sound strange but I like riding the bus. There's a chance to snooze a bit or read, but not before wadding in some ear plugs because the driver's playing Big Froggy 101 too loud.

State College is a relatively small town, I've discovered a group of riders who form a core, and relationships have developed between certain core members and the drivers. Listening to them talk is like eavesdropping on retirees having their morning coffee klatch at McDonald's.

To other riders, the earplugs may seem antisocial, but I like my peace and quiet and keep my distance from the CATA klatch. However, one night, soon after starting my present job, I got on the 10:50 XB and sat in one of the forward seats.

The driver started talking to me before I had a chance to insert my plugs. This had never happened to be before. Oh, no, I thought. A chatty driver. It's a long ride. I just awakened and didn't feel like talking. Plus I wanted to read and was not happy about having to spend another dull night at work. And there were no other riders on board to whom I could redirect this unwelcome display of friendliness.

But I'm too polite -- or chicken -- not to play along in these situations. She asked my name and I asked for hers. So Dana told me about her life. How she had worked at the State College Corning plant for years, building up seniority, waiting for the bliss of retirement, when they closed down, leaving her bereft, unemployed.

Or unemployable, Dana thought. At Corning, she stood on a production line, affixing this component to that, minute after minute, day after day, year after monotonous year. But it was stable and secure and she had succumb to the idea that this would be her life, until it was pulled away from under her feet.

In the time following her layoff, Dana got by somehow. But it hadn't been easy. How could it be? Then came the CATA offer and, that night, when I boarded her bus, she had completed her first solo run.

"I got my wings tonight," she told me, pleased as punch, as she drove that big bus down Benner Pike. She repeated, "I got my wings."

This made me think, not at that moment but afterward, because "getting my wings" had a secondary meaning for Dana. On its face, it said she'd made the grade, had become part of the crew, one of the gang. She belonged and that meant freedom from anxiety. On another level, getting her wings meant release from a deeper anxiety that being out of work can only produce, no matter if the job from which you were let go is dull, monotonous, repetitious.

I think Dana, like me, needed structure, somewhere to go and someplace where she could do meaningful work, and I hope she feels every day as exuberant and grateful for her employment. Though I'm not sure she will. But I remain hopeful.

Freelance writing is precarious by nature and I need some backup, a regular source of income. Hotel night audit work, which I'd done since grad school, was a perfect fit. It allowed me a steady income and time during the day to do interviews.

But like Dana, I'd been out of work for some time before I got my job at the hotel and, within a few weeks, I already hated to get up and go to work. I'd forgotten my anxiety and forgot my need to be occupied, to have structure. I couldn't remember how exhilarated I'd been when the call came from the hotel telling me I'd been hired.

The stroke of fate, mentioned earlier, is that both my truck and car had broken down and I needed public transportation to get to this job I needed so badly. Most hotels start graveyard shift at 11 p.m., but this one started at midnight, which meshed perfectly with the XB Bellefonte run.

I felt like I got my wings when that call came through but now too frequently I complain about my job. But we all do that, don't we? Until structure is taken away. Until the magician pulls the tablecloth from under our feet.

So I try to think of Dana's wings and that, perhaps, everything is fated and that we should never be afraid.

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Fulmer has been a writer and editor for more than 25 years. His fiction has appeared in a number of publications including The Hudson Review and Connecticut Review.
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March 13, 2014 6:00 AM
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