As the bus we’re on passes the Catholic church at Sunset and Cherokee, a young man sitting next to me crosses himself. It’s a common expression of piety I’ve seen often, but this time, for some reason, it sets me to thinking: Could one construct a “religion of the bus”?
Like most religions, the religion of the bus requires faith and patience, particularly at the bus stop. Indeed, the bus stop teaches the value of faith, which is what sustains you when things aren’t working out the way you want them to. The bus hasn’t come … still hasn’t come … surely, it will arrive, sometime. In this respect, the religion of the bus is superior to many others since its devotees, unlike those of other belief systems, are almost always rewarded, eventually. Even in Los Angeles, a bus does come.
The religion of the bus presents the same paradoxes found in other religions. One devotee waits 40 minutes. Then, a second person wanders up and has to suffer no more than a minute of waiting before the coming of the bus. Why is he rewarded so quickly? Why is his faith not tested? In religion, this phenomenon is called a “mystery” and celebrated as evidence that the deity in question is so great as to be beyond mere human understanding
Compassion is an element to some degree or another in most religions and it is certainly present in the religion of the bus. Indeed, it is striking how often compassion is manifested by the members of our congregations. It is not at all unusual to see younger members give up their seats to the elderly and infirm. I have never seen this done with any affectation of piety, as an act in any way separate from the ordinary tone and custom of practical life. Some critics of religion assert that this compassion arises out of general human decency and socialization, but surely it depends on there being a religion of the bus.
Compassion is literally built into the religion of the bus. All the buses in Los Angeles and, I suspect, most other cities are specially equipped to aid the disabled and ailing. When it is needed, the driver activates a system that replaces the steps leading up into the bus with a ramp. Seats at the front of the bus can be flipped back to provide space for wheelchairs and scooters.
One day, a man waiting to board asks for the ramp, even though he’s on his feet. He uses a walker, not a wheelchair, but he is barely able to lift his feet from the ground as he shuffles up the ramp. A small oxygen tank is attached to the walker, with a breathing line that runs to his nostrils.
He sags into a seat near me and I’m able to get a good look at him. Although his face is obscured by a graying beard and he has a cap pulled low, it is apparent that he is in fact not an old man but barely out of his 30s.
He rides in silence for a few moments, looking out the window, then turns and tries to establish communion through conversation with a rider across the aisle. “The traffic has gotten so much worse since I first came here. I came here almost 20 years ago.”
The other man nods, evidently not much interested in the observation but acknowledging the communication.
The man with the walker continues. “I used to be a driver myself,” he says, “and then I got this cancer.”
This interests the other man. He asks what kind of cancer.
“Bladder,” says the old/young one.
A number of people, it turns out, have heard all this because there’s a sudden solemnity in the air. We all know how serious this is, but the man has something to add, something he’s anxious to tell us. What he says is: “Until I got cancer, I never rode the bus. I never talked to people.” I wonder how many times he’s initiated this conversation, made this profession of his devotion. He seems at peace, cheerful and so pleased to have this news to share. Would he find any greater comfort in a more conventional congregation, in a church, a mosque, a temple?
The religion of the bus does have its limitations. It doesn’t presume to offer a vision of what happens to riders when they leave the bus and go on to their separate, particular destinies. Perhaps this is the greatest virtue of the religion of the bus, that it does not presume to speak of that which it does not know.
Thomas Fuchs has spent much of his career writing television documentaries, drama and non-fiction. His fiction and personal essays have been published in a number of magazines, including Rosebud, Ashe: the Journal of Experimental Spirituality, The Redwood Coast Review and Harrington Gay Men’s Literary Quarterly, and in anthologies, including Silent Voices IV, Sleeping With Snakes, and The Big Book of Bizarro. His novella, “Digby’s Hollywood Story,” was recently published by Roundfire Books. Visit his website at thomasfuchswrites.com.