“The whole reason for this is just to go on a bus.”
-Cooper Reep, 10
The heartchamber of the city, the place where all the blood condenses and is forced through valves into the arteries and veins of the town; that’s how I explained it to my son, Cooper. We were looking for the soul of the tropical city. It’s a night soul, I hinted, when the night workers come out. I’m looking for the energy flows; what makes up our city’s unique character. I want to ride a full bus. I don’t want an empty, hollow machine like I see rolling around the suburbs. I want to be with uniforms, going or coming, doesn’t matter, not the Lexus-borne royalty of Orlando. Yet royalty of a sort entered the bus on that hot summer night.
He’s done buses, trains, boats, trucks, and cars here and in many other cities; Cooper gets it. Lynx Central Station’s food place was a stanky waste of a greasepit; so we ransacked the vending machine for a Dr. Pepper and some Mentos, doing a science experiment while we waited for the 50. The first man I asked, a large benchridden guy with a long, sad face, shook his head. “It’s late,” he moaned. So right away, we were doomed. He just sat there…and then, up snaked the 50, a long, articulated beast of a bus with a bellows in the middle, sliding up into the slot under the high canopy of the station. The Mentos lent the Dr. Pepper a minty taste; Cooper added more, and we each had a swig and got on. The night of the tropical city lay ahead.
But we backed off, re-doomed as this driver was taking a break. Then along came another 50, pouring forth cooks, waiters, cleaners, still in their uniforms from the parks and hotels. We boarded along with a few other street oddities for the long ride down to Orlando’s big engines of escapism, the theme parks. It was an abnormal, gigantic swerver, with a sloping nose and ruffled curtain in the hinged middle. It slithered like a worm-bus, impossible to turn in the tighter, older roads of this city, made for the wide open curves of Interstate 4.
Tropical blues and yellows adorned its snout and its sides, some kind of advertisement graphic; the metal and gray plastic inside was brutal and dumpy by contrast. Even more doomed were we, like being inside of a robotic ventricle pimped out for a party, looking in vain for more people to pump into its hard, hollow chamber.
Cooper was engrossed in his minecraft videos, so I talked to Judy. Tough and petite, with long brown-and-gray hair, Judy’s green eyes and face were open, but had a hardness about them. She looked about fifty, but could have been younger. “Been working at Disney for twenty-five years,” she said. “Third shift pays more, a lot more, like a dollar more an hour.” She’s a veteran bus rider, and had a few choice words about the whole deal.
“Ain’t no schedule. The 50 is lousy, sometimes I have to get my husband or sister to take me, it is so unpredictable. Once I had to take a cab,” she said, with special emphasis furrowing her brow about the cost. “I live off Michigan, and take the 107 or the 48 to get here.” She rode on, looking at her phone for a while as we rolled down I-4. “I leave at 630 to get to my shift by 10.” Judy, one of the riders of the night, doomed to spend half her waking hours riding the thing to get to her mops and her vacuums. Is this the soul of the night, I wondered?
Cooper looked up and asked her his question. “Is this bus steam powered?” he inquired. Judy shook her head, no it was not. But a loud hissing sound spat from the back, so he then speculated “electric?” Judy shook her head and went back to her phone. It’s no use.
I wanted to penetrate into the mouse’s dark heart, so we got off at the Transportation and Ticket Center. It’s off to the side for the little people, you know, the bus riders, not to be mixed with the cardriving aristocracy of this world. We ventured into Downtown Disney, walking the boardwalk, thronging like a New York sidewalk, tasting the sultry night air. Cooper counted the number of gift shops. At about 930, we flipflopped our way back into the bus trip thing to get home.
At the far end of Cirque de Soleil, these inside-out umbrella canopies spring out of the ground, and we found the next 50 just pulling up. Mounting the bus, we found ourselves again on an empty. Back to the Transportation center, the driver rested while we joined a bouquet of passengers under the orange glow of streetlights. Fireworks popped far away in the humid, misty night.
A few more stops got us a fully loaded night bus, now that’s what I’m talking about. The violet-white inside lights gleamed off sweaty foreheads. It greened faces and turned eyes into dark, wrinkled plums of exhaustion. These people were going home.
Brian, in chef’s toque and nametag, sat stoically a few rows back. Did the dinners he cooked tonight flow through his mind? A Haitian woman murmured creole into her cell phone, folding bright purple and pink girl’s garments on her lap, and smoothing them into a bag. A few rows back, a lively monologue in Hindi: a young man, with dark hair and the caramel skin of Goa, earnestly diatribed an older gentleman with silvery short hair and glasses, who grinned stupidly at his seat partner’s rant. He looked daft, hardly listening; his mind a million miles away.
In “The Man Without Qualities,” Robert Musil’s protagonist, Ulrich, complained that people should wear uniforms distinctive to each profession, in order to create a visual, legible hierarchy for our hopelessly fluid, devolving society. Well, Ulrich should have ridden Orlando’s night bus from Disney, because it’s all here. Houseman, cashier, waiter and pool attendant: all have uniforms, some have nametags. It’s easy to see who does what on this bus. There ain’t an aristo amongst us, and we slopped deep into the hot, black night, un-tagged and out of uniform.
It was over for Cooper; he yawned and I too felt a dullness creep over me as I knocked knees with a guy wearing an embroidered hotel logo on his dark gray shirt. He paid no attention, working a video game with heavy-lidded persistence. The mood of the bus was grim and dark; it was an exhausted, day-end droop of a crowd. Girls bickered in the back. A radio played.
Then, just before I-drive, the bus stoppedand the interior lights flashed on. Arising up the steps came a tall, gaunt African-American man in a spotless black uniform, his wife’s beautiful black face hovering over her kitchen whites following close behind. They undoubtedly worked at one of the nicer hotels, judging from the tailoring of their uniforms. Workers, yes: but a grace in their bearing elevated them.
His collar was almost clerical, but black like the rest of his shirt and trousers, his finely boned face set just above it, mouth slack but closed, barely able to keep his fatigue inside. His wife’s high cheekbones under deep, dark eyes give her a decidedly front-of-house look; she would be excellent with guests, I thought, but she may not be employed in this fashion. Her uniform was that of a cook’s assistant. Eyes set with dignity and downright elegance suddenly made the rest of us slovenly, even lowly. In their presence we descended into purgatory on the bottom of the bus.
Their gait balanced against the raunchy lurch of the driver’s transmission, and they took the last two seats that faced sideways about halfway down the front half of this worm-bus, like a pair of thrones saved by the ordinary riders for these nobles. As they sat, they maintained a steady gaze over the crowd. The woman glanced briefly at Cooper, a lanky boy who stood out, trying to blend in. Here was a bus full of workers, the producers of this city, and there scrunched a little white kid staring out the window at the lights of the late night of the city, far from home.
Their eyes studied the bus, avoiding other eyes, but not in deference – their heads did not bow, their shoulders remained high – but regally swept the humanity sprawled akimbo. Doom lifted; we felt somehow absolved. The bus quieted, tightened up, and the driver steered back up I-4. Cooper and I debussed at Lynx Central Station at midnight.
The mysterious royal couple went the opposite way, and we shambled across the pavement back towards our car. It was a night spent inside the chambers of the travelling heart of the city; they emptied, filled, and emptied again. This tropical city is made of the silent prettifiers, fixers, and toilers of our hotels and theme parks, so that the world can come to Orlando and experience delight and an uplifted spirit. Somehow, the king and the queen of the night bestowed their presence on the 50 on that particular run. Their monarchy over that rolling atrium of metal was subtly acknowledged by the rest of the riders, and when they descended into that Orlando night, they took with them the soul of the tropical city.