by Frank Diamond
Clouds lay low across the February afternoon as the K bus finally lumbers over the hill on 66th Avenue. I step out onto the curb so the driver can’t miss me, and the engine belches as the bus rocks to a stop and the door unfolds. Funky public transport heat rolls out over me in the freezing weather like incense, but I don’t mind the smell. I welcome the warmth. The scattering of passengers I can see as I step up and peek over the rail waver in the dim light — shadows on their shadowy way. “Hey Little Man!” The bus driver nearly shouts and I start, almost losing my balance on the top step. I lower my head as I drop coins into the fare box. “Can’t say hello?” I stammer a greeting. “Put some juice into that, Little Man!” “Hello!” I croak — puberty deciding to take that very moment to make a long-distance call to say that it’s on its way. I will turn 11-years old in a couple of months. He laughs at what must be the most awkward greeting since Judas kissed Jesus. I don’t differentiate by age when it comes to grownups, except for the very old and those about 18 or so (in other words, within eyeshot); two demographics separated by the vast category of in-betweeners. Only later did I determine that the bus driver must have been about 23 or so, with skin the color of my old beaten baseball mitt. A close-cropped Afro rebels around the edges of his bus driver’s cap. Energy charges out from him and he seems in constant motion even though he’s moored to his seat with both hands gripping the wheel. As the bus bumps off again, I grab-bar my way to the back, parking my bony butt and red face into the very last seat to look dejectedly out the window at the streets I’d so recently been feral-ing about in. “Cornbread 1967” adorns the wall of an apartment building that we pass. Good old Cornbread. It might be a new year, but he wants us to know that he’s still working. It would be years be-fore the words “graffiti” and “art” would be used in the same sentence. Now, it’s just vandalism. Earlier that day, I’d taken the K to my old neighborhood in the West Oak Lane section of Philadelphia to hang with friends, but found that the drift had already begun. I felt like a visitor. They’d stepped back emotionally — as if my parents’ decision to move to the Lawncrest section had been my betrayal — and our horsing around didn’t last long because two of my buddies went home due to the cold and the remaining one pissed off his mother and she called him inside, grounding him for the rest of the day or until I left, whichever came first. “But Johnny came all the way down by bus!” my friend protests. “Yeah, well, Johnny can take that bus right back home, too,” she says, giving me the stink-eye. I wait on Opal Street for a while for the mother to relent, or the deserters to return, or for other old friends to happen by. Wind cuts through my flimsy spring coat and my under layers — two T-shirts that I’d outgrown — aren't much of a backup, either. I am freezing. I clutch the collar of my jacket with red chapped hands, sometimes lifting the clench to my mouth to blow warmth in there. Involuntary shivers rattle my teeth. My eyes tear and the shifting of my weight from foot to foot becomes a little dance on the sidewalk. Finally I give up, deciding to drag my mopey ass back to Lawncrest. Public transportation affords opportunities galore to meet eccentrics. In my rides on city buses, trolleys, the subway, and the Frankford El, I would see — as Sinatra sang — puppets, paupers, pirates, poets, pawns, and a guy who swore he was a king. The entire stanza, and more. Also hoodlums and heroes. A man who would walk from one end of a train car to another and back again during his entire ride from fear of sitting, and a woman who al-ways seemed to be knitting the same shawl. And so many people hiding behind newspapers. Decades before COVID-19, I once spotted a passenger wearing a surgical face mask. She looked strange, and garnered stares. Today, of course, no one notices. And every once in a while I’d meet someone who’d lift my spirits at just the moment that such affirmation helped to close emotional childhood wounds. Somehow they’d say just the right words, or display a benevolent quirk that directly addressed what troubled me. And then, a few stops down the line, they’d exit from my life forever. I call this type of entity an angien — an angel-alien. As the bus bumps along toward my stop, the Sears Tower Building on Roosevelt Boulevard, the driver starts singing. He begins with “Amazing Grace,” then goes on to Motown and sprinkles in a bit of Elvis, the Beatles, Tony Bennett, Fats Waller, Nat King Cole and some one-hit wonders. Not entire songs — this is a suite. No one can pinpoint who coined the phrase “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” But I can’t really de-scribe how this bus driver’s performance echoes throughout the mobile chamber like unfettered grace. You have to hear it, experience it. His voice transcends the grubbiness of hard-scrabble, as if the bus had suddenly sprouted sails and we cruise the seas. The rule about writing — “show don’t tell” — just doesn’t apply. I can only tell how in these minutes the burdens of our everydays recede into an ocean of beauty that we never knew existed. I can only tell about the transformative and restorative power of chords and notes delivered perfectly by a voice that strives for perfection. Time stops. The city disappears. Hope alights. No. No. This really doesn’t capture these moments. You need to hear it, not read about it. When the bus driver pauses, an old lady toward the front plaintively says: “Please don’t stop.” “My pleasure, ma’am!” Years later, I read that Mariah Carey could sing through five octaves and four notes in soprano. I still don’t quite know what that means and I certainly hadn’t a clue back then. “Range,” I may have thought about the bus driver. “This guy has range.” But would I? Back then? At 10? Or would it be simply: “This guy can sing.” The same lady who’d asked him to keep singing, a little bit later asserts: “You should be on the stage,” this time putting some feisty grandma oomph into it. “I’m trying, ma’am. Bet on that!” the bus driver responds to her, but not just to her, to the rest of his scattered audience, as well. Remember, he’s performing. “Don’t get me wrong. I am blessed to have a job. Thankful for it every day. But driving a bus; that’s temporary.” It is, too, because you know this man. You’ve sung along with him many times through the evolution of vinyl to tapes to discs to MTV to Napster straight on through to Spotify. His voice and the songs he wrote and produced flowed from platform to plat-form. He’d been one of the main architects of Phillysound, right up there with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. His recent death from COVID-19 made headlines. I do not reveal his identity (although you can possibly guess) partly out of respect and partly out of selfishness. This is my memory, my recollection, my snapshot. It belongs to me and me alone. I share, but only so much. He’s not one of my mysterious angiens, because he doesn’t completely disappear from my life. He is real. I know he goes on and I know to where he goes. He’s more like a saint, a designation that a couple of his ex-wives and former creative collaborators would probably dismiss with a laugh or a curse. But for me, he is. “Little Man!” he calls. I sink in my seat. “I can still see you! Come on up here!” The other few passengers had left, and it’s just me and this crazy singing bus driver. “Come on the up here, I say! I’m not singing any more. I need to rest it.” This was decades before arrests for child molestation went from making the occasional headline to becoming everyday news; years before the perniciousness of kiddie porn. And the acts of fallen priests and other pillars of society wouldn’t be uncovered for some time. Still, my parents taught me to beware of strangers and left the rest up to the imagination, and I have an active imagination. I reluctantly move down the aisle to the front seat crosswise from him, but am fully ready to dive out the window if something strange happens. I’d seen them do it on TV. “What’s your name?” I dodge, tell him: “I’m getting off at Sears. “That’s your name?” “Johnny.” “No, that’s not your name. It’s John. John means means strong. Johnny….” He does the so-so hand gesture. “So, John. Strong. That’s what you want to be and the first step to getting there is losing the -y.” I nod at this advice that would quickly embed itself into my biography. In my new neighborhood and throughout the rest of my life to this day, I would be known as John. Within a few years, even my mother stopped calling me Johnny. “So, John. What are you going to be?” I shrug. “You look sad, John. Why?” I shrug again. I can’t explain. “That’s cool.” Just then, a car cuts in front of him, forcing him to tap the brake. He dead-eyes the license plate.“Idiots,” he says. “Don’t grow up to be an idiot on the road, John. I mean when you’re driving.” “OK.” I think that Dad might have a driver’s license, but it would be years before anybody in the family could buy a car. I’d get my license at 22. I’d get my first car at 25. We’re city people at the mercy of public transportation. “You remind me of something, John.” “I do?” He said “something” not “someone.” I squirm. “Sometimes we miss seeing the thing that’s important in life,” he says. “You’re sad at the moment.” I begin a mumbled protest that he cuts short. “No, no, no,” he says. “It happens. This job? Me jockeying this tank all over Filth-y-del-phia. You get a feel for people. You interested in art?” I look at the floor, at the dried gum caulked into crevices, and pieces of tissue and crumpled newspaper. It’s the first time that question has been posed to me in such a direct way. In fact, I draw all the time with pen and pencil. It puts me in a sort of trance that I’ve come to relish. Each effort presents its own challenges, but challenges that run parallel to the development of innate skills. (This I figure out later.) My older siblings call this “goofing off,” which only makes me want goof off more. I’d become addicted. Years later I’d get an art scholarship. Years later there’d be gallery shows. Years later my work would be valued. In the limited circles of the art world, I’d get a name. Now, this sort of fame isn’t movie star, or rock-and-roll, or media personality fame — for which I am glad. Unless you know art, you do not know me. Taking a page from Van Gogh, I sign my work simply “John,” which at first enraged some critics who accused me of preten-tiousness. Now, the bus driver launches into a monologue. “That famous painting of Icarus falling into the sea? Dutch artist named Pieter Bruegel? Icarus is Greek mythology. He and Pops, they’re escaping from … from….” He taps his forehead with two fingers, then glances at me, slaps his hand back on the wheel. “They’re escaping from someplace, doesn’t matter where.” Pause. “Wait! Crete! Just came to me. Crete. They’re escaping from Crete. But Icarus, see, he doesn’t listen to Pops and flies too close to the sun and the wax holding his wings together melts and he falls in-to the sea. Dead. That should be the main event but in the painting by this cat Bruegel, it happens in a little bitty corner of the canvas. You can barely see Icarus’s legs in the tiny splash. What would have made it even more lifelike, if you will” — this said with a mischievous grin — “would be to have the fall take place off-canvas. Completely. “Then taking it in a modern, but predictable, step further” — another grin, he just can’t help himself — “present something gussied up with just blue and white pigment knifed on there; something you could imagine hanging on MOMA’s walls. MOMA—that’s the Museum of Modern Art. It’s in New York City. You follow me?” No, not at all, but I am mesmerized nonetheless. I’ve never heard anybody talk this way about art. I mean, I suppose, in the back of my gray pudding of protein, carbohydrates and salts shooting off electrical zaps like a Tommy gun, I know that people somewhere talk about things like this — whatever this was. “Are you…,” I start to ask. “Go on!” “An artist?” “Matter of fact, I am,” he declares. “But not that kind. See this?” He pulls a pocket notepad out of a door pouch. “This is my art.” I say nothing and my obvious confusion makes him laugh. And a note about that laugh: It’s infectious and outrageous and nearly musical; an inner-city ode to joy. It pulls everyone in. Everyone except my dejected 10-year-old self who only feels more confused. “That’s OK, Little Man,” he says. “I write poems. And some-times I turn the poems into songs. And sometimes I keep them poems. Whenever something occurs to me, I write it down. I used to think ‘I’ll just remember it’ but that didn’t happen. Probably won’t get me anywhere but what the hell? Sorry, I meant to say what the heck.” This time I’m the one who laughs. Does he think I’ve been raised by nuns? “Hell, yes,” I say. “My main Little Man!” he says, holding out his hand. I slide him five. When the Sears Tower looms, the bus driver puts the notepad on the dashboard and writes with one hand, steers with the other. He rips out the page and hands it across to me. “Here,” he says. I quickly stuff it my pocket, sensing that it might trigger some emotional reaction. Not now. No way. “Goodbye, John,” he says, as I step onto the curb, but the bus doesn’t immediately pull out. He’s not finished yet. “And John?” he calls. “Yeah?” “You are going to have a blessed life.” I sense that this brief encounter would always stay with me. It would stay with me even if my saint hadn’t gone on to become rich and famous. I glance up at the Sears Tower, and spot the first few breakthroughs of light signaling a change in weather. The overcast moves onward. The sun starts asserting itself. I would never again see most of my friends from the old neighborhood, except for a few who’d go to the same high school as me. We’d occasionally pass in the crowded corridors and pretend not to know one another; a tacit agreement that we’d become different people. You don’t know how much I hate to end this story on a religious note but, unfortunately, that’s the way it ends. Why unfortunately? Well, when I was 23, my first serious girlfriend died and I decided that God can’t exist. But atheism doesn’t sit well with my nature, a nature that detects spiritual movements, a plane beyond the material. So, I’ve come to believe that God might exist, but it doesn’t really matter. What good’s a God who allows so much suffering? If God exists, he’s not much interested in us. Now the Devil? How can you look at this troubled world without concluding that he exists? And, unfortunately, he’s very much interested. I watch as the bus maneuvers about the wild circular intersection of Roosevelt Boulevard and Adams Avenue. Watch until I can’t see it anymore. Then — and you knew this was coming — I take out the note he’d given me, uncrumple it, read. It says: “Luke 1-63: ‘His name is John.’”
Frank Diamond’s poem, “Labor Day,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize Award. His short stories have appeared in the Madras Mag, Reverential Magazine, the Fictional Cafe, Empty Sink Publishing, the Zodiac Review, the Fredericksburg Literary and Arts Review, October Hill Magazine, Sincerely Magazine, among many other publications. He has had poetry published in Burrow Press Review, shufPoetry, Whimsical Poet, Charles Carter Literary Magazine, Scarlet Leaf Review, Philadelphia Stories, Fox Chase Review, among many other publications. He lives in Langhorne, Pa.