When my children were small one of our favourite songs to sing was “Wheels on the Bus.” I even remember it from when I was little.
My kids grew up in a small town, so they could only imagine what it might feel like to ride on a bus, but since I’d spent a year living in a city when I was in Grade 2, riding the bus was a regular part of my existence. I even took trips alone that no parent would allow today.
I love the jostling that happens on a big-city bus route, and the challenge to stay upright during turns or when the driver unexpectedly puts on the brakes. On one Ottawa morning in January I found myself standing on a crowded bus in the midst of the early commute. When someone got off, a woman who took up a little more than her own seat motioned for me sit down beside her. I was sandwiched in between her and a skinny weathered man with a sharp face.
The woman said she was from Haiti, and her robust presence took up as much room as her girth. She launched into a spirited conversation, only snippets of which I could understand given her pronounced accent. All I could do was nod and smile as she spoke with gusto, punctuating her story with laughter and the occasional elbow to my ribs, as though we shared an inside joke.
I was disappointed when she got off. The thin man on the other side of me asked where I was from, and when I said Saskatchewan, he said he was originally from Manitoba, but had been through Saskatchewan some years ago. “I hated it. Nothing to see.” I was going to express my sympathy for his blindness, but I didn’t want to provoke another negative response, so I kept my feelings to myself.
If you enjoy people watching, there is no better place than the bus. Even better, though, is watching people on the bus watching a baby. During my January trip to Ottawa, I would take the 3 p.m. bus from home to pick up my now 17-month-old granddaughter Anissa at the Montessori school where she goes when her parents are at work.
It was the same routine every day. After I reached the school I’d pack Anissa into her stroller and walk over to the bus stop a block away. My granddaughter loves the bus. When she sees it coming down the street, she throws her arms into the air: “Bus! Bus!” Seats fold up at the front to allow for a stroller, and when manoeuvred into the space, Anissa faces the rest of the riders.
On the first trip with her, and every one thereafter, I noticed immediately how people instinctively looked at her. On the bus Anissa smiles at everyone. She is a conductor, her hands waving in the air, commanding the attention of her orchestra of commuters.
Some are reserved and speak to her softly. Sotto voce. Elderly people are particularly attentive, speaking to Anissa in the flowing cantabile of those who know the score most intimately, because they have been practicing it for years.
One man was so attuned to his conductor that he actually called out, from a few rows back, to ask if I was her grandmother and then shared comments about his own grandchild, which I could barely hear above the roar of the engine. During a red light he got out of his seat to show me a picture of her on his phone. In a multicultural, multigenerational environment, “baby,” as well as music, is the universal language.
“Tween” girls in the commuter orchestra were the most dynamic, leaning close to Anissa with staccato questions and exclamations. “She’s so cute!” was the refrain.
As is the case with any orchestra, some players don’t pay attention or are easily distracted — especially those with their phones. They’re always the ones who miss the beat.
When Anissa wants “more” — more of anything — she says, “encore!” I could imagine the players on the bus, now spectators as we exited, wishing for an “encore” from this joyful little one who has the power to hold a diverse audience in rapt attention with only a wave and a smile.
“ . . . and a little child shall lead them” (Is 11:6). If only such harmony among people could last longer than a city bus ride.