April 10, 2004
Today's guest author is PCV Justin Leous
Small beads of sweat formed on the driver’s furrowed brow. It wasn’t even noon and it was his third trip of the day. Third trip down the same road he had traveled one thousand seven hundred and sixty-three times over the past year. The same winding road- unchanged in many ways since before the asphalt and cement had settled what seemed like an eternity ago. Houses standing in the same spot since he was a child. Back then, of course, it had been little more than a rugged dirt and gravel pathway. During the rainy season he would walk to school barefoot, pants rolled up around his knees. Upon arriving he and his soiled, shoeless classmates would rinse the caked mud off their feet and calves before slipping into proper foot attire. That tedious road.
But that was a lifetime ago. Now its speed bumps and potholes he could navigate blindfolded- yet his mind needed to stay focused. At any second a child, smiling and screaming with joy, could dart in front as he or she played with friends. Or perhaps one of the multitudes of dogs, chasing a butterfly or the scent of fresh food as it wafted through the warm air, would wander into the path of the vehicle. Less he forget about the habits of chickens and goats- disregarding traffic patterns, they crossed from one side to another with no thought of approaching masses of steal, plastic, glass and flesh.
Snaking across the mountainous topography that comprises the northern tip of the island, the road was simply a connection of hairpin turns, steep inclines and careful descents. Repetition had dulled both the challenge of the drive and the beauty of the views it afforded.
Fatigued with boredom yet attempting to maintain attention, he sped forward hoping to pick up a few more passengers, as each empty seat behind him was money he was not earning. More specifically, it was money he was not collecting for the owner of the bus- who charged the driver a handsome fee for the privilege of carting passengers up and down this conduit every day. It was money, dirty, greasy coins and ripped, crumpled bills, he was not gathering to pay this wealthy man so that he may sit in the worn driver’s chair for another month and restlessly commute to and from towns he had no interest in visiting. His steering wheel was worn smooth by years of rough, aggressive maneuvers across the capillary bed of roads that formed the labyrinthine network of the countryside. His precipitate habits on the road were occasionally checked by a near miss of some living or inanimate object that found itself in his path. Jerking the car away or standing on the break, adrenaline dumped into his veins – it would take an hour and two shots of rum to calm his nerves. For the next week he would drive deliberately and cautiously. Slowly rounding each turn, tuning out his music in favor of minding ever inch of that loathsome road.
The morning sun had risen early and was already asserting its prowess over the island as the temperature increased with each passing hour. During each hour trip the bus stopped no less that two dozen times to allow various passengers to climb aboard or disembark. At these brief respites from forward momentum the cooling breeze that normally cut through the moving transport halted and the air inside would grow stagnant and hot. Quickly, scents and odors of various hygienic habits would amalgamate into an almost toxic fetid fume. Sweet, overpowering colognes and perfumes mixed with the scent of coconut butter and stale tobacco and marijuana smoke. Added to this potpourri, repugnant hints of animal feces and human “pheromones” created olfactory accents one could not ignore. While never deigning to comment, the driver prayed for his cargo to be seated so he could escape the stench that shadowed him. At every stop, half the passengers disembarked to allow others to pass out of the cramped container. Old women, not nearly as nimble as the agile school children that scurried off, slowly lifted and positioned themselves out of the way- only to get immediately back on the bus with even more strain. Each stop would last at least a few minutes as passengers languidly shuffled themselves back into their tight seats. Yet to the driver these stops seemed much longer, especially as he felt his pores soaking in the thick, malodorous marinade is freight had created. Their casual movements frustrated the driver, who felt growing contempt for his party with each passing second the vehicle was not racing to its destination.
To help him pass the time and keep what might pass as a positive emotional outlook, the driver had commissioned a friend to compile a cassette tape with some of his favorite songs. Pressing the chipped “play” button, the 70’s hit “Oh What A Night” calmed his nerves as he reminisced about past lovers. His mind wandered back in time to casual flings and romantic evenings- conveniently forgetting the bouts of nervousness, self-doubt and confusion that had complicated, and even almost ruined, many of those affairs. Passengers, listening to the song through half a dozen tiny crackling speakers positioned around the interior of the bus, quietly gazed out the windows as a cataleptic mass. As Phil Collin’s “Just Another Day in Paradise” commenced, a young boy’s head began to bob with the honestly and passion only seen in those who dance to music and care not who is looking. The sad and chastising message of the song was lost on him as his body grooved to the soothing beats laid down by Phil Collin’s band.
The boy was late for school, but in Grenada it seems children can never really be late for school- there is always some valid excuse for not arriving “on time.” Dressed in a crisp short sleeve button down and faded blue slacks, he could have passed for a student at a small Catholic grammar school in North Buffalo, NY. Yet in truth, such a place would seem as close as Mars to his version of reality. He had spent the morning tidying the family garden and sweeping the wooden planks that formed the floor of his three-room house. Afterward, he washed his face and slipped on the school uniform he had taken off the evening before and carefully rested on one of two broken chairs in the kitchen. In his shirt he smelled last night’s dinner- slightly burned stewed chicken with curry. His pants had the slight scent of his brother who sat on them after coming in from a friendly football game just before diner was served- if there was any doubt, the smell that stained the boy’s pants was proof his brother had not bathed in days.
With the beginning of Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual To Be Loved By Anyone” the young boy became disinterested in music and allowed his head to bob freely with the bumps and turns the bus encountered. With a smile plastered on his face, he resembled a human-sized dashboard ornament. His body remained statuesque, while his head listlessly hung above his shoulders.
A Rastafarian of 40ish years began to mumble along with the music. Shaking his head, his graying tattered dreadlocks danced around his face. As the song progressed, his confidence rose- along with his voice. Before long he was harmonizing with Tom Jones- belting out line after line of the song. Eyes shut tightly; he was transported to the stages of Vegas- crooning with full orchestral accompaniment to countless cheering women. He hardly missed a beat as “Man, I Feel Like a Woman” followed on the cassette. Passengers smiled as he sang the refrain. With his sincerity and emotion, few could doubt that he meant the words he sang. If a music agent had been on the bus, a deal for millions would have been struck by lunchtime.
This entertainment provided some relief for the passengers as they waited to reach their destinations. The random collection of quasi-catchy songs assisted by the jovial amateur vocalist had created a lightness that seldom manifested itself on rides such as this. Yet to the driver, this childish behavior was not only ruining his enjoyment of the music, but also preventing him from concentrating on the road. That tedious, loathsome road.
In the distance, mountain ranges slowly drifted on the horizon. Smooth ridges and jagged peaks of green were revealed and concealed by the varying foliage that formed an occasionally broken canopy above the driver’s path. As he sped along, flowers of myriad color and plants made up of brightly painted succulent leaves darted past. Houses, with families calling and waving, came into focus only to disappear before one could return the salutations. Within minutes his trip would be over as the bus reached the terminus of his route. His mind raced to calculate his “take” from the morning’s collection of fares as he tried to decide how many more trips he would need to make that day. Taking his eyes off the road for a second, he looked in his rearview mirror and quickly scanned his passengers. In the back seat, wedged between a sleeping old man reeking of last night’s rum and a young mother with her newborn reeking of this morning’s “accident,” sat a stranger. “Wha HE doin’ heh?,” the driver asked himself. “F’I wuz he, I’d be im ‘Merica makin’ da’ BIG cash.”
The stranger patiently sat in his cramped seat trying to avoid inhaling the stench that seemed to billow from either side of him. Like the driver, he had grown tired of a monotony that left him wanting so much more. Suffering through days, weeks then months of boredom had driven him through the gauntlet of self-doubt, frustration and despair- through which he emerged sitting in the back of a rusting bus with the strangest sense of satisfaction and hope.
“What an amazing route to drive every day,” the stranger thought to himself as he looked at the tropical Eden that blurred across his field of vision. He noted the contrast between the natural rich, bountiful seen out his window and the drab, uninspired buildings that line the roads back home.
“Wish I wuz driv’im Amerca. DAT’d be d’ life,” thought the driver as he punched the accelerator.
Dreaming of and escaping from differing visions of paradise and prison, the driver and stranger quietly anticipated the final stop of the morning.