Last time we were in Vermont, because I wasn't driving, Bruce drove me into work and back - a round trip of at least an hour. Life would have been easier for everyone if I'd known about the 76 Middlebury bus.
I stumbled (metaphorically) over the bus service by accident this time round: Sharon happened to mention that she often took the bus to UVM from Hinesburg. I was instantly alert: could there be a bus that ran down Route7? Yes there was. It ran only twice each day, with an early start of 6.50am or 7.50am, returning at 4.40pm or 5.20pm. Riding on the bus has become one of the chief pleasures of my working day.
The bus lets me out just opposite the university and I walk to the Davis Center, collect a cup of tea from Henderson's cafe and sit by the window overlooking the view through town and out to the lake, taking a few minutes to think about my day.
But the 4.40pm evening bus is another proposition entirely. This bus is a community and the drive down Route 7 is a chance to catch up on news and discuss matters of concern, such as whether it is appropriate for the young bus driver to buy his girlfriend a heavy winter jacket as a Christmas present (this was discussed for several days, and you'll be pleased to hear that the consensus was Yes, because he bought her jewellery last year and she did, after all, need a heavy winter jacket).
There is a rigid hierarchy on the evening bus, and the undisputed Queen of the 76 Middlebury Bus is Leesa (not, as I heard her explain to someone else, spelled the way ordinary, boring people spell this name). Everyone, including the bus drivers, defers to Leesa. She has the last word on every controversial topic, settles all disputes, and manages difficult situations which occur on the bus. For the first month she rendered me invisible and inaudible: as a newcomer who is clearly "from away", I needed to understand my place. But once that was established she has occasionally deigned to speak, even smile, at me. I understand the magnanimity of these gestures and remain obediently in the background.
Leesa defends her territory: I have heard her say "If K sits in my seat again tonight I will kill her." I was very careful after that - who knows what other peccadilloes might invite dire punishment? But she's generous to her subjects: she brings in ointments for people's skin complaints and gave little Christmas gifts and organised cards for her favourite drivers. She directs the drivers to unscheduled stops when a 76 regular is visiting their auntie and needs to be picked up in an unusual place. She reserves her special scorn for the drivers who do not obey her instructions and has been known to organise boycotts of the bus on the days when her least favourite driver is rostered on.
Sometimes unexpected events upset the orderly ways of the bus. For example, there was the day a Drunk and Disoderly Passenger (DDP) got on the bus at Shelburne and started abusing driver and passengers alike. The young and inexperienced bus driver was unsure what to do. He rang Mission Control but they were no help, so the regulars worked together under Leesa's direction to solve the problem. This person could not be unceremoniously dumped off the bus since it was dark, below freezing, and in the middle of the countryside. So, the DDP was isolated at the back of the bus where he couldn't abuse the bus driver (all passengers moved forward, and four regulars were commissioned to form a seated boundary). Then another regular was commandeered to approach the DDP to find a contact who could be called on to pick him up from the side of the road - or, failing that, to acquire the DDP's mobile phone so that Leesa could ring through the contact list until she found someone to obey her instructions. Then the bus drew up at Charlotte, and we stopped and waited (much abuse from the back seat) until the embarrassed relative turned up and the now somewhat subdued DDP could be firmly frogmarched off the bus. As the bus drew away, we breathed a collective sigh of jubilation.
We talked about that for days.
Listening to conversations on the 76 bus, you learn a lot about what it means to be a Vermonter. The Poop Conversation is a case in point. One of the regulars who lives out near New Haven was finding poop on her driveway each morning. "It's about the size of human poop, and it's full of apples," she told the others. Much discussion ensued: could it be a coyote - or possibly a bear? The diets and habits of both possibilities were discussed at length, along with what could be done to deter such visitations, depending on the size and cunning of the creature. I thought this was hilarious, and told my friends from UVM about it. They smiled at me, puzzled but polite, waiting for the punchline, and I was momentarily at a loss. Then I realised: this was in no way an extraordinary conversation for people who live in the countryside in Vermont.
What I also learn, as I listen to the regulars on the 76 bus, is that they have - from my perspective - hard lives. Many of the women are elderly, still at work supporting husbands with disabilities or serious illnesses or helping out their children or extended family. They work long days, and they go home to be cooks and caregivers. When Theresa's sister died, she wasn't allowed a day off for the funeral and risked being fired if she took a day of unpaid leave. The only day they had off over Christmas was Christmas Day itself. They always ring their husbands on the way home and end their brief conversation each night with "I love you." I try to visualise these husbands, hoping they deserve this tireless love.
I took my last trip on the 76 bus last night. I didn't say goodbye to anyone. I'm "from away", and while I have been tolerated - kindly - in their domain, I'm not part of it. So I'm just slipping away. But my life has been enriched by travelling on the 76 Middlebury Bus.