And Now, For My Next Trick, I'll Need a Volunteer / by Courtney Mehlhaff

On Friday morning, my bus stopped at a railroad crossing.  The gate was down, the lights were flashing, this is not anything new.  What was new was this:  there was no train.  No train in sight, no heavily-graffitied cars rolling past at a snail's pace, not even a rumbling in the distance.

So there we were.  Waiting.  The bus driver radioed in about our predicament, and we continued to wait, watching a line of cars and trucks steadily grow across the tracks.  

"I'm sorry, but we have to wait here until this gate is fixed."  The driver was a small woman with a badass streak.  Two days before, a woman running late had risked being hit by a car to cross the street and then darted in front of the bus in an attempt to catch it.  By way of an admonishment (or punishment) the driver had simply glared through the side door and driven off without her.  Definitely no-nonsense.

I was happy for the explanation, however.  I'm always grateful to drivers who dare to actually use those speakers to give the passengers reasons for delays and alternate routes.  Two weeks ago I was asleep on the way home and didn't see that a traffic accident up ahead was causing us to re-route and backtrack. Consequently, I woke up in a panic, looking out at an industrial parking lot and assuming I'd taken the 5:15 to Murderville by mistake.

Another five minutes went by. Still no train. I don't think I can fully convey how long ten minutes is when you're sitting stationary on a bus that should already have picked up 20 more people and be on its way into downtown.  Well, it's not an hour stuck on an icy on-ramp to I-94, but that's another story for another time.

Let me just say that the waiting was not a problem for me personally.  If my iPod is fully charged, I have no problem sitting and staring out a window, lost in my thoughts. During the next couple songs, the cars that had been queued up across from us and behind us began to realize that they, too, could be here all day if they didn't take matters into their own hands, and began snaking around the gates.

Suddenly the bus driver stood up.  "I can't cross these tracks, or I might lose my job."

In my head I thought, "OK, but which one of us is going to say anything?  We just want to get to work.  I promise, if I'm grilled down at the Metro Transit station, I'll deny everything.  Even if they good-cop/bad-cop me, I won't squeal!"

She continued, "I need someone to spot me so I can back up."

Immediately, this man and woman, who at first appeared to be a couple but later turned out didn't even know each other, stood up and volunteered.  They then exchanged a few quick confirmations with the driver of appropriate hand signals, as if they were amateur traffic cops secretly waiting for their big chance or Eagle scouts looking for the perfect opportunity to earn their transit badges, before barreling off the bus into the street.

Now, I'm not an expert on this kind of thing, but doesn't it seem that sending two passengers out into the middle of mid-morning traffic, on a narrow road coated with ice and snow, to guide the bus two blocks in reverse and through a stoplight (so we could turn and take a route that circumvented the malfunctioning gate) is slightly more dangerous to their safety than rolling forward 30 feet across the tracks when clearly there is no imminent danger?  Again, not an expert ... I'm just saying.

Logic aside, we managed to make the turn amid comparatively few angry horn blasts, and the man and woman hopped back on board, none the worse for wear.  I shouted "Nice job!"  I couldn't help myself. The driver promised them free ride tickets.  I actually thought applause might have been in order. 

But then again, I think applause is always in order when you've witnessed something a bit out of the ordinary.  Or put your life at risk so that strangers can punch in on time and have yet another interesting story to tell over lunch.  And in a blog.