Friday, July 16, 2010

Riding on a bus

Before I was old enough to drive, I took the bus everywhere. We lived in a little country town called Sissonville in southern West Virginia. The big town was Charleston, about 15 or so minutes away. My parents had a print shop and were usually in town. So in the summer, I was either going to be stranded or I could take the bus into Charleston.
Because I had a kind of base of operations in the guise of my parents' print shop, I felt pretty comfortable going downtown by myself. I had a summer bus pass so I could ride up and back as much as I wanted.


When I rode the bus into town, I spent a lot of time in the library. The main branch of the Kanawha County Public Library in downtown Charleston is a huge stone building. From the outside, it looks like a courthouse or museum. It’s just a magnificent old structure. I would spend hours reading books of all different types. I think there were three or four floors worth of books there. In the summer it was always cool and quiet.

Next to the library was a little nook with a tobacco shop, a tailor and a place called the Arcade News and Book store. It was a neat little place that had an entire wall full of magazines as well as a great selection of books.

Of course in those days, downtown Charleston was a thriving place with four department stores (Montgomery Ward, Sears, JC Penney and Stone & Thomas) and a lot of other shops so there were plenty of options if I got tired of books. There were a couple of record stores, one of which was called Budget Tapes & Records. They had a great music selection and a lot of drug paraphernalia, which was lost on me as a younger person. There also were at least two “real” movie theaters rather than the multiplexes they have now. These were the kind with big marquees and balconies.

It felt like a lot of freedom to walk around town unaccompanied, going wherever I wanted back then. I loved it, despite being periodically accosted by strange men trying to sell me pot.

The bus, though not as convenient as driving, was the next best thing to having a car for someone as young as I was. I continued to use it regularly up until I got my license. One of my favorite high school memories took place on a bus ride between Sissonville and Charleston.

I was in 10th grade and was part of our school’s production of Fiddler on the Roof. One of the girls playing one of the main female roles was a senior named Tonja Horn. I didn’t know her very well. Most of the lead parts were filled by people in the choir, of which I was a member, so I knew those kids. She wasn't in the choir, despite having an absolutely beautiful voice. The play was a joint effort between the choir director and the drama teacher, so there was bound to be some political maneuvering involved. I seem to recall the drama teacher being annoyed with so many choir people getting the big parts, despite the fact that in our small school there was a significant cross over between the two groups. Tonja was in the drama club and was a fantastic singer, so she made the cut.

During all the rehearsals and after school time, we kind of got to know each another. I had a minor role. My character had a name, Avrum the Bookseller, but only one or two lines. Mostly I served to fill out the crowd and chorus scenes. So I had a lot of time to socialize and hang around with my fellow cast members which was how I got to know Tonja.

Before I knew what was going on, I developed a huge crush on her. Because she was a senior and I have incredibly low self esteem, I never made a move. After all, what would she want with a lowly sophomore anyway? Nevertheless, I pined from afar and enjoyed our times talking and laughing at rehearsal and occasionally before school and at lunchtime.

One day, I was on the bus headed for town and was thinking about her. I knew approximately where she lived and knew that it was on the bus route, but not the exact location. I was kind of daydreaming about her thinking how cool it would be if she rode the bus, but realizing that a girl of 18 was bound to have a driver’s license.

The brakes hissed as the bus pulled to a stop to admit another passenger. I looked up just in time to see Tonja board. She wore the expression everyone has when they get on the bus with a bunch of strangers: Kind of a desperate searching for a place that isn’t (a) next to a weirdo and (b) not too far in the back, where most weirdos like to gather.

Funnily enough, I was sitting in the back alone, sans weirdos unless you count me, when she spotted me. I caught the flash of recognition as I waved tentatively to her. Then the biggest smile I had ever seen spread across her face. She came to the back and sat with me for the rest of the ride into town.
I wish I could remember what we talked about, but it’s lost to me now. What I do recall is that for me, the bus was the best place in the world that afternoon.

1 comment:

Old Man C said...

When I was a sophomore I had a bit of a crush on a junior in choir but, like you, figured I'd never have a chance. Cut to the next school year at our fall choir retreat up in the mountains, add one sappy Lionel Richie tune, and we were walking hand in hand back to the cabins. It took until our first date (for which she drove) for me to make any real moves and to this day I can't ever taste peppermint without thinking of making out with Valerie Quay. Ah, good times...