It’s early but the late fall evening is already dark and the sky is spitting tiny droplets of cold rain. The Broadway articulated bus is heading south, away from downtown. On this section of the route more passengers exit than enter the bus. People are heading home and the bus is in the process of emptying.
In the courtesy area behind the driver a man is sitting in his wheelchair facing the back. He is past retirement age. His hair and moustache are fully gray and he wears a heavy knit jacket and square dark rimmed glasses with rounded off corners. On the other side of the aisle in a double seat facing forward are two Aboriginal women. They may be a grandmother and a mother, the older wearing a heavy sweater and the younger dressed in a dark blue ski jacket. A child of two or three is sitting on the aisle facing seat ahead of them. The child is squirming. She whines, then cries out. For a moment she pauses, then cries again though not loud enough to be heard by the passengers in the back half of the bus. The man mutters a comment which even fewer people can hear. But the mother of the child hears. She turns her head toward the man.
“Don’t be telling my child to be quiet,” she says.
The man glances toward the woman. “Well, someone’s gotta say something if you’re not going to.”
The woman glares. “She’s just a baby. You don’t tell someone else’s baby to shut up.”
“I didn’t say ‘shut up’. I said ‘be quiet’.” He is patient, like a teacher directing a misguided student.
“She’s my baby. Don’t go telling her to be quiet. She’s just a baby.” The woman pulls the child onto her lap and to her chest. Then she rubs her daughter’s back, trying to sooth her. The grandmother does not participate in the discussion.
The man’s head is only turned slightly and he looks at the mother from the corner of his eyes. His body still faces toward the back. “She’s a baby, but there are other people on the bus and they don’t want to hear a crying baby.”
“Who are you, old man, to be telling me to shut my baby up? This is a bus. It’s not your house.”
The man is in no hurry, but he’s not done either. “I know this is a bus. A bus is a public place. Out of consideration for the other people in a public place, some people try to keep their children quiet.”
“Nobody else is complaining. Just you.” The child is quiet now but continues to squirm.
The bus pulls to a stop. The doors open and two people who have been standing at the doors leave. No one enters. The bus pulls away from the curb.
“No one else is saying anything but I’m sure some of them are thinking it,” the man says.
“How do you know what people are thinking? You reading their minds or something?”
The man takes a moment before answering. “No. People just want a quiet ride home. If you’re not going to be considerate so they can have that, then they’re going to be irritated too.”
“Just drop it,” whispers the woman sitting alone on the seat in front of the wheelchair. She could be his wife riding with him. She looks to be of a similar age and economic status, wearing casual winter wear that has seen more than one year. Her hair is curly and is probably artificially not gray like his. Instead it is deep brown. The bus has been emptying out and she is the only person who still sits close to him.
“There’s nothing to drop,” he replies.
The child is kneeling in the mother’s lap, now looking at the man too. The mother says, “You don’t stop harassing us I’m going to call my husband.”
“‘I’m not harassing you. I just asked you to try to keep your child quiet.”
The mother calls over her shoulder, “Robert, this guy is harassing us. Robert!”
Robert comes from the middle of the bus and stands in the aisle behind the grandmother. He is also Aboriginal and a little under six feet tall. His body is not muscular but heavyset. The expression on his face is serious, immobile, and his eyes are already fixed on the man.
“Robert, this guy is giving us a bad time, just because the baby was crying.”
“You giving my family a bad time?” he asks the man in the wheelchair.
“No, I was only asking her to keep the baby from crying.” The man does not meet Robert’s stare.
“You mess with my family, you’re messing with me.”
“I’m not messing with anybody.” He glances at Robert, then looks away again. “I just asked her to try to keep the baby quiet.”
“She’s just a baby,” says the wife.
“She’s just a baby,” repeats Robert.
“I know she’s just a baby. I was just asking her to try to keep her quiet.”
“No. You’re giving me a bad time because you want her to be quiet,” says the wife.
“I’m not giving anyone a bad time. I just asked you to try to keep her quiet.” The man glances from the mother to Robert, and then to the floor of the bus beside Robert’s feet.
“Outside,” says Robert. “Next stop, you and me, outside.”
The man gives Robert a sideways glance. “You’re going to beat up someone in a wheelchair?”
“You mess with my family, you mess with me, wheelchair or not.”
“I’m not trying to mess with anybody.”
“You and me, outside.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” the man replies, looking down the aisle again. “I’m just riding the bus.”
The bus arrives at the next stop. No one is waiting at the stop but the driver opens the door and keeps it open. “Hey, take it outside, off the bus. All of you,” he says. His words are clear but there is no overt emotion behind them. He is making a statement, not an order or a request.
The bus idles at the stop. All the other riders in the back are watching, listening. No one says anything. No one moves. Robert stares at the man in the wheelchair. The man keeps his eyes forward at the empty seat beside his own wife. The bus driver waits. The riders wait. A car passes in the left lane. Then another. No one says anything or does anything. The driver doesn’t repeat his statement. Instead he closes the door and pulls the bus back onto the street. The front area of the bus is in a standoff. Everyone’s position is clear, but no one does or says anything. No one moves. Even the child just watches.
The bell rings requesting the next stop. A middle aged woman in a fuzzy long coat moves forward to the doors and stands behind Robert. The bus stops. As the doors open the woman whispers, “Good on you. Standing up for your family. I saw it from back there.”
“Thank you,” Robert replies.
“Good on you,” the woman repeats.
“No one messes with my family.” The woman steps off the bus. The doors close. The bus pulls back onto the street.