THE BUS RIDE©
A Short Story by Maribeth Shanley
When I was nine years old, my oldest brother, Jake, and I boarded a city bus in Pensacola, Florida. It was Jake’s and my first day of school at St. Michael’s Parish school, located in the city of Pensacola.
Our real parish was St. John’s located only a few miles from our new house; but it was the middle of the school year, and St. John’s was filled up for grades 4 and 5. We would have to attend St. Michael’s for the rest of the year.
Because St. Michael’s was so far away, we had to ride our bicycles about two miles to another house which sat on a main street where the city bus stopped every day. That house belonged to a man who worked with my father.
My dad was an officer in the U.S. Navy. Dad had been transferred from Quonset Point Naval Air Station in Rhode Island to the Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida. It was the first major move from where my brother, two sisters and I were born and lived all of our lives. I remember how hard it was to leave the only home any of us ever knew.
Merritt Road, in East Providence was where all of our friends lived. My best friends, Jeannie and Cathy lived there. The rocks, slant tree, woods, and dairy farm were there.
The rocks was a huge mountain of really big rocks. Jeannie, Cathy and I loved climbing the rocks. It felt like we lived in a castle where we could look out over the lands. Our favorite thing to do was have tea parties on the rocks. There was one very big flat top rock that became our table. We sat on smaller rocks that surrounded the table. Of course, we didn’t drink tea. We drank cherry Kool-Aid and ate cookies. It was lots of fun.
The slant tree was a tree that grew sideways in a meadow just behind the house that sat across from my house. The tree belonged to Bay View Academy, so it became ours 'cuz no one at Bay View cared about the tree or about us climbing it. I loved that tree. When I was sitting or standing high up on it, the tree took me to mysterious places in my mind. The tree felt safe. When I sat on the tree with Jeannie and Cathy, we often jumped to the ground. We liked being dare devils, just like riding our bicycles down the street with no hands or feet. We’d yell, “Look ma, no hands or feet!”
The woods sat in back of Cathy’s house and in back of the rocks. It was dark back in there where a well was covered with boards that were nailed together. It took all three of us to move the boards away from the well. Then, there was the dairy farm.
The dairy farm, located at the end of a dirt lane, sat on the other side of our backyard fence. Sometimes we’d see men dressed like farmers walking around the farm. Mostly though, we only saw cows, lots of cows that mooed loudly all day long. Sometimes, a sick cow would cry all day and all night. I felt so sad for the cow; but I was just a kid and didn’t know what to do for the poor cow.
The best thing about the dairy farm was the entertainment it gave all of us kids.
Our neighborhood was small. There were probably about 20 houses from the top of the street that began at Pawtucket Avenue, ran flat then dropped down a long, steep hill to the very bottom, ending in a cul-de-sac. There were lots of kids in the neighborhood; and we knew everyone. Our house and the barn were located half way down Merritt Road and the dirt lane for the barn, only the dirt lane ended at the barn.
It was tons of fun when the cows would get loose. That happened a lot. The cows would walk around our neighborhood. Because our house was the first place the cows would walk, they’d knock down our fence and wind up in our back yard. From there, they’d walk through our yard and out into the street and into other people’s yards. When that would happen our moms would scuttle us into our houses so we could watch from the safe side of our windows as our mothers, brooms in hand, corralled the cows back into their barnyard. It was fun watching our moms chase the cows. It was like watching a movie with a bunch of Charlie Chaplin’s with brooms.
Whether it was spring, summer, winter or fall, I loved living on Merritt Road. I remember how every winter, I could always tell when spring was just around the corner. There was a special smell in the air. Spring was my favorite season, but so was winter.
Ever since I remember, it snowed a lot in Rhode Island. Our street was perfect for sledding. In fact, all our parents worked it out with the city to have them leave half of our street ripe for sledding. The plows would blade off the entire street, but only sand one half of it. We all had American Flyers which we’d turn upside down and soap the rungs so they wouldn't get stuck going downhill. The soap made the rungs slick!
The boys in the neighborhood would spend an entire morning building an ice ramp they’d hose down with water from a neighbor’s outside spigot. Once the ramp was frozen solid and smooth, we’d aim our sleds, fly up into the air, and smash down on the other side of the road. Boy, if you were on the bottom of a long sled with a couple of kids on top of you, you, the pilot, would get a huge belly smack when the sled hit the ground. Sometimes, the kids on top would fall off when we hit the other side. That was the only advantage of being the pilot. You kept going all the way down to the bottom of the hill.
I was nine years old when Dad was transferred. I didn’t know any other life except the one I had and loved on Merritt Road. I had no idea how lonely I would become in Pensacola. I wasn’t used to having to make friends because I grew up with all my friends. It was hard.
My grandma lived with us then. For me, Grandma was larger than life. She worked as head seamstress at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Providence. Grandma was a fiercely independent woman. I never understood why she felt so independent that she would never take any guff from my father until I grew up and began my own career. She felt independent because she was.
About a year after I was born, she sold her house on Landor Street in Providence, R.I., giving all her profits to her daughter, my mother, so Mom and Dad could buy their own house on Merritt Rd. Nevertheless, she remained independent because she was making her own way in the world. Because of her economic freedom, if she chose, she could have moved out of my parents’ home in order to remain totally independent. But things didn’t turn out like that for her. She made the terrible decision to move to Pensacola with us. She left everything and everyone back in Rhode Island. I wish she hadn’t
of done that, but back then, that’s what women did. A woman like Grandma could be independent, but not totally and not really.
Grandma was a kind person and she loved her grandchildren. I suspect that’s why she moved in with Mom and Dad. It was the late 1940’s, a period in history that didn’t look too kindly on independent women. After all, a woman’s place was in the home having and raising children. For women like my grandma, her place was with her daughter, son-in-law and grandkids. Her sister, my Auntie, lived up the street on Merritt Road with her son, daughter-in-law and grandkids. It was just the way it was back then. But, even though it was, it didn’t stop Grandma from asserting her independence with my father who never liked Grandma. Dad used to call Grandma uppity. As a woman, she didn’t know her place and certainly didn’t cow-tow to anyone, especially a bully-man like Dad. I loved Grandma for her assertiveness. She became a role model for me as I grew into a woman. I think it was my Grandma who first inspired me to become economically independent so no man could own me like my dad thought he owned Mom and later Grandma.
Grandma used to take me to downtown Providence on the city bus. Sometimes we’d go shopping at the department stores and sometimes we’d go to a movie. Before going back home, Grandma would always stop at Woolworths where we would sit on the shiny metal stools with bright red leather seats. The stools were stuck to the floor. We’d order coffee cabinets (kind of like a coffee ice cream milkshake) and sometimes we’d also have a piece of pie. When we were finished, Grandma would always get me into a straw sucking contest. Usually no one was around when we’d have our contest because, as Grandma explained, it wasn’t polite to suck on a straw when the glass was empty. But, when no one was close by, we’d suck away and I’d always win. I wonder if Grandma let me win on purpose?
Once we were finished at Woolworths, Grandma would stop by the candy counter and buy several white bags full of candy. She called them bags of smiles. My favorite smile was the bridge mix, especially the ones with the pink and white cream in the middle. Although I was the only child Grandma took into the city, she always thought about my brother and two sisters. So, when she bought three more bags, she always bought an assortment of my brother’s and sisters’ favorite flavors. Grandma was kind like that.
When we would leave Woolworths, we walked a little ways to the bus stop. Grandma always knew when the right bus was about to come because we’d only have to wait a little while. Then, we’d get on the bus and walk all the way to the back of the bus and sit on the long seat with the brown leather covering it. Grandma knew I loved that seat because I could look out three windows at everything we passed by.
Life with my Grandma was fun. She always made me feel happy and loved. But, like her independence those feelings of love and happiness wouldn’t last.
It wasn’t long after we moved to Pensacola that Grandma got sick. I think the shock of being torn from the only home she ever knew, Rhode Island, and the independent life she had and all her friends and relatives was too much for her. She had a stroke.
Back then, doctors didn’t know a lot about strokes, so she never got better. It was so painful for me when she got sick because she could never remember who I was. She loved me so much before, now she didn’t seem to love anything. She was just always sad. Her stroke gave Dad a reason to treat her like the garbage he always considered her to be; and, believe me, he did a good job at that. I hated the way he treated Grandma. She didn’t deserve to be treated like that.
Grandma had a hard time walking. Mom and Dad would always ask us kids to help her. I never minded helping her 'cuz I loved her so much. My heart just broke in two when she got sick. She was the only friend I had left in the world and she didn’t even remember that she was my friend.
As long as I live, I will never, ever forget that first bus ride into Pensacola. Jake and I boarded the bus and paid our fair with the quarters our parents gave us. Jake sat right behind the bus driver. He liked being up where all the action was. I looked down the aisle to the back of the bus, saw no one sitting on my favorite seat and walked all the way back and sat down. It was great because I had a clear view left, right and in back. I was so busy watching all the new sites that I didn’t even know the bus had stopped.
The bus driver stopped the bus to let a new passenger on. It was an old lady with a wire shopping cart. I remember how she walked right past all the empty seats up front and sat down in the seat right behind the middle door. I thought, she must like sitting in the back too.
I was having a great time on the bus. I was smiling at all the people that were in the back with me. Most of the people on the bus that morning liked sitting in the back too. Maybe their grandmas used to take them into the city on the bus and that’s where they sat.
I was looking out the windows and, since my legs were too short to touch the floor, I was swinging them back and forth. That’s when Jake walked back to tell me that I wasn’t supposed to sit in the back. He told me I had to come up front.
“No!” I told him. “I like it back here. This is my favorite seat; and, besides, you can’t tell me what to do because you’re not my father.”
That was that. Jake turned around and walked back up front. I was expecting for the bus to start moving again but it didn’t.
Suddenly, the two doors of the bus swung open. They swung so hard that it sounded like thunder inside the bus. Then, the tall, skinny, white headed bus driver got out of his seat, stood in the middle of the isle, pointed a long skinny, crooked finger at the back of the bus and screamed, “You!”
I looked around at all the other people trying to figure out who he was screaming at.
Then he screamed again, “You, little girl in the back! You get up here to the front of the bus and sit with your brother right now.”
He was pointing and screaming at me! I must have felt pretty brave because I told him I liked sitting back there. But that only made him yell louder.
“If you don’t march yourself up here right now, I am going to put both you and your brother off this bus right here.”
From the tone of his voice, I could tell he was really mad at me. So, I looked out the window and realized that I didn’t have any idea where right here was. Plus, if he put us off the bus, we wouldn’t have any way to call our mom to tell her we were put off the bus. So, I got up and walked to the front of the bus and sat down next to Jake. That’s all I remember. I don’t remember anything else about the ride and I don’t even remember if that nasty bus driver said anything else to me. I just knew I was scared and that I didn’t want to get into trouble because I was the cause of Jake and me getting kicked off the bus.
It wasn’t long after that bus ride that I began to realize why I wasn’t supposed to sit in the back of the bus. I soon learned that only black people (we called them colored people back then) were supposed to sit in the back. Even if there were lots of empty seats up front on the driver’s side of the middle door, they weren’t allowed to sit in those empty seats. Instead, the seats would remain empty the entire time while so many black people, mostly older women, had to stand. I used to look at the faces of some of those women. I could tell that their feet hurt and the start and stop of the bus made them lose their balance. I remember this little, white headed black woman had a really hard time standing. I wanted to give her my seat, but I wasn’t allowed to be kind to her. I just knew whatever was going on was wrong. It stunk like a skunk!
Soon, too, I began to realize that the bus wasn’t the only place black people were treated badly. It happened everywhere!
Black women and girls couldn’t even pee in the same public bathroom I would pee at. That’s cuz there were four bathrooms in all the department stores. There was a men’s room and a women’s room. Then, there was a colored men’s room and a colored women’s room; and, like the bus I wasn’t allowed to pee in them. Not only that, but black people couldn’t even drink water from the same water fountain I drank from. There were always two water fountains, one for whites and one for coloreds. I used to think it was stupid to put up two water fountains when only one was needed. Same thing for the bathrooms. Geez, the stupid stores could have sold a lot more goodies if they didn’t take up so much space with four bathrooms rather than two and two water fountains instead of just one.
I learned to hate the South. I was a little girl, but I knew in my heart that it was wrong to treat people like that. If my grandma was still well instead of sick, she would have told the bus driver to go straight to hell. I just know she would have, then she and I could have sat in the back on our favorite seat. But she was sick and didn’t even know where she lived. I had to do what the stupid bus driver told me to do because he was an adult, and I was always taught to do what adults told me to do, no matter what they said. I hated the South and I hated that stupid, mean bus driver with the ugly, crooked finger.
I learned a lot living in the South. I remember the story in the newspaper about a baby that was killed by fire ants. Mom read us the story.
The baby was asleep in her crib. The baby’s mom went next door to a neighbor’s house for a few minutes to borrow something. When she came back home, her baby was covered with fire ants and wasn’t crying because she was already dead. It was one of the saddest stories I ever heard. What was even sadder was the reason the fire ants got in her crib. The family’s house had no floor. The house was built on the dirt ground and there was a huge fire ant hill discovered in the house. That poor mother lost her baby girl because she couldn’t afford to put a floor in her house. They might as well have lived outside. It was just a very sad story that has stuck with me all my life. To make things even worse, I remember the day we drove past the house where the baby died.
As we drove by, I recognized the area. The bus that I nearly got Jake and I kicked off had stopped right across the street from the house where the lady lost her baby girl because she couldn’t afford a wood floor.
I think living in the South and all its rotten lessons actually made me a kinder person.
That first year at St. Michaels, I remember a little blonde headed girl named Linda. I don’t know how I knew this, but I knew she was poor. One day, we were drawing and I needed to erase a line I drew. Linda was sitting right next to me. I looked everywhere for an eraser but couldn’t find one. She had an eraser. I remember her eraser. She was so proud of that brown eraser. She treated it like her brand new doll. I now know it was because Linda was poor that she was so proud of her brand new eraser. She let me use it, and I guess I pressed down too hard, cuz I broke it in two. Linda cried because I broke her shiny, brand new special eraser. I also remember how bad I felt.
We all wore uniforms to school. I had two brand new blue jumpers and white blouses. My brown shoes were also new. Linda wore the same blue jumper and white blouse but her’s was old and worn. Her white blouse wasn’t even white anymore. It was more of a yellow stained color and her shoes were old and had holes in the bottom so that, when it rained, her socks got wet. It was this little girl’s eraser that I broke; and my heart broke for her at the same time. I felt so bad that I begged my mom to buy me an eraser just like the one I broke so I could give it to Linda. Mom did. I remember how happy that eraser made Linda. I think we were friends for the rest of that school year because, of all the kids in my class, she’s the only one I remember.
At the same time all of this was happening I remember becoming very withdrawn. I began to feel isolated in my own house. My grandma didn’t know who I was and would call me by every name except Samantha or my nickname, Sam for short. My parents had so many kids that they couldn’t pay attention to all of us at once. I counted on my grandma; but, when she got sick, I couldn’t count on her anymore. When she was well, I could talk about anything and everything with her, but now, I couldn’t. I wanted to talk to her and tell her about the bus driver and about the baby that died. I wanted to ask her about the black people. I wanted to ask why they were treated so meanly, but I didn’t because I knew she would never understand what I was talking about. So, I became very lonely. Yet, maybe being alone made me think more about things. Maybe watching what was going on in the South made me grow up while I was there.
I think about those three years we lived in the South. I think watching the way the black people were treated really got to me, because, as I grew up, I knew in my heart to never, ever treat a black person like that. I was sad that I lost my grandma to her stroke; but I was even sadder about what was being done to all the black people who lived in the South.
I overheard Dad and Mom talking about living there. I don’t think Mom liked it very much. When Dad wasn’t around, she would sometimes say, “Two more years and then we can get out of here.” I hoped Mom was right. I just wanted to move away from there as soon as we could. Maybe we could move back to Rhode Island. Now that would’ve been great!