When I worked at UC I took the No. 51 bus to my Oakland home nearly every day. It was often a ride of surprises.
Many days, the Bus Poet rode the same No. 51 bus as I did. He was usually unkempt and shabbily dressed, but had a friendly smile I didn’t see on most of the other riders. He usually had his transistor radio with him and during football and baseball season, he sat on the bus seat holding the radio up to his ear.
I watched him as he listened with great concentration. At some cue we couldn’t hear, his eyes would light up. With a grin of delight, and in a voice that could be heard all through the bus, he’d announce game scores or spectacular plays. Sometimes he rebroadcast news programs as he heard them. His voice was soft but resonant, with plenty of volume.
But what I liked best was his poetry. He seemed to compose his poems on the spot. They covered a wide variety of topics. After several years, I still remember one about a woman who was carrying a bunch of balloons down the sidewalk. When he recited these poems in his pleasant voice, it gave a certain charm to the ride home after a long day.
One day, the only open seat on the bus was next to a regular rider, a plain-looking, middle-aged UCB staffer who always read during her trip.
The Bus Poet hesitated in the aisle before he sat down beside her. He looked like he didn’t want to disturb her. Or maybe he was afraid she’d sneer at his worn clothing. Whatever the reason, he eased into the seat and kept his eyes straight ahead. She sat so absorbed in her book I thought she wasn’t aware of him. He hesitated as he took the seat, his eyes focused straight ahead.
After a bit he glanced over at his seatmate, head still bowed over her reading, oblivious to the world. His eyes skittered away, then glanced back, and this time they lingered. Regarding her one more time, he seemed to settle something for himself and his entire body sank into his seat as he relaxed and turned his head to give the bus full of passengers one of his beautiful smiles. Eyes shining, he began in a voice the entire bus could hear,
This woman sits beside me just as nice as can be.
I don’t know her, she don’t know me.
But Cupid send your arrow to her heart and set it free,
So we can love each other happily.”
My fellow riders and I all smiled to ourselves but lowered our gazes. We dared not make eye contact for fear of bursting out in laughter.
The object of the poetic tribute sat there unmoving, totally engrossed in her reading and not acknowledging in any way that she had heard. When the bus came to her stop she rang the buzzer and got off.
The Bus Poet remained in his seat, still smiling, and the rest of the passengers all waited to see what would happen when the next person sat down beside him.