There's a Santiago city bus that rolls to the end of its route a block from my house. I greet the driver whenever I get on to go home late at night, knowing that it will probably be just him and me by the time the bus sighs to a stop at the end of the line.
Earlier this month, I climbed on board at about midnight, said hi to the driver and settled in for the ride home. As we approached the home stretch, I realized that the only other remaining passenger was a middle-aged man in stocking feet gesturing to an invisible antagonist seated across from him. I began to feel uneasy at the prospect of being dropped off on a dark corner with a guy so very likely under the influence of something and was considering asking the bus driver's assistant to walk me to my door.
Meanwhile, the shoeless man was becoming disconcerted himself, apparently having discovered that the bus was not taking him where he wanted to go. He shouted up to the driver to ask if the route included his destination.
It was after the assistant told him it didn't that the real excitement began. When the shoeless man demanded to know why he hadn't been told, the assistant retorted that the route was on the sign in the front window. The confrontation that ensued involved the assistant brandishing said sign and Mr. Stocking Feet jumping the turnstile and making menacingly for the front. Luckily for the assistant, a group of cops were standing on the corner just outside, and the driver had only to open the door and deliver the wayward passenger into their waiting arms. As we rolled away down the street, I saw the ousted man pointing to his feet, as if protesting, "But Officer, I lost my shoes!"
This and other experiences have led me to believe that being a Transantiago driver is about as thankless a job as one can get. It's not uncommon to witness passengers -- and sober ones at that -- hurling their accumulated frustrations at whatever chofer happens to be behind the wheel. They press the stop button repeatedly, shout and bang on the side of the bus if the driver refuses to let them off between stops. I've seen more than one driver insulted simply for sticking to the rules of his or her job.
When a passenger's latent rage detonates, the shrapnel doesn't just fly up toward the steering wheel. Inter-passenger abuse usually takes the subtle and even subconscious form of pushing and territoriality. Sometimes, though, it's more patent, such as the time a passenger chewed me out for being in his way as he got off the Metro, apparently not having noticed that I was struggling to stay on my feet as a human tidal wave bore down on me on its way for the doors.
It would be easy to claim that the frustrations of public transportation tend to bring out the worst in people. But I've also seen them bring out the best. Passengers are quick to offer their seats to pregnant women, the elderly and people with disabilities. I've had an elderly woman help hoist me into a seat on the bus and have had numerous people offer to carry my bag in their laps. One morning, the woman sitting across from me noticed I was struggling to keep my eyes open and taught me a Metro-friendly relaxation technique involving deep breathing and curling my toes. And as I may or may not have mentioned on this blog before, I still hang out with a friend I met on a Santiago bus more than four years ago.
So while tensions can boil over when dozens of strangers pack themselves into a sardine tin on wheels, the door is open for kindness as well. I sometimes feel a strange solidarity with the people in my Metro car, as if we would all have each other's backs if someone from another wagon decided to take us on. After all, we're all in this together.
Oh, and speaking of the guy with no shoes, I once saw a young, almost certainly foreign woman get on the bus completely barefoot. I would not have wanted to be the person who did her next pedicure.
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