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The Bus Rider

Updated: Dec 3, 2021

October, 1963


City buses are like cranky old men. They groan when they move. They grumble coming to a stop. They wheeze and they cough.


I stood on the corner of 18th and First Avenue, looking west as the Route 29 bus lumbered toward me, feeling a bit grouchy myself. Coach Davis pushed us hard for day one of basketball workouts. And since the freshmen couldn't practice until the "B" team was done, and the "B" team had to wait until the varsity left the court, I was now heading home at 7 PM, using public transportation for the first time instead of the parish bus.


At least it was warm. I liked wearing nothing more than my uniform shirt this time of year, one of the positive things about my family’s recent move from Burlington, Vermont to Birmingham, Alabama.


The bus opened its doors. I stepped into it awkwardly, with textbooks wedged under one arm, and an oversized gym bag slung across my shoulder. The driver never looked up, but spoke quite clearly. "Push through. No standing here."


Confused by his comment, I turned to find a seat, and was greeted by a small crowd of standing passengers, pressed together tightly, holding on to overhead bars and backs of seats to counter the movement of the bus. Their faces showed tension, exhaustion, annoyance.


With a series of apologies —"Excuse me . . . pardon me, m'am . . . sorry"—I pushed my way into the pack, sliding gingerly past women with shopping bags, a trio of noisy teenagers, a couple staring vacantly at each other, a mom with two children clutching at her legs, and a short, angry-looking man in greasy garage overalls, carrying a tire iron in one hand.


I was perplexed. Why so many people at this time of day?


I broke through the cluster, looking for room to stand, and found myself staring at row after row of half-empty seats, each occupied by a solitary colored person.


I glanced toward the front of the bus, peering over the heads of Southern whites, looking for an official notice that I had heard about but never seen. My eyes were drawn to a blank rectangular space, lighter in shade than the paint around it. The bus company had removed the sign reading COLORED TO THE REAR.


With a shrug—it wasn't my business if people chose to stand when they could sit—I slipped into a seat to my left, next to a thin, older colored woman. I threw the gym bag at my feet, arranged textbooks on my lap. Then I looked up, directly into the turned heads of the standing crowd.


Surprise. Distaste. Disapproval. White people didn't sit next to colored people. Not on a Birmingham bus.


The guy in the overalls stared at me.


I met his eyes, then looked away, quickly opening my history book, turning pages, telling myself to read.


Across the aisle, an older colored man, sitting by himself, laughed softly and murmured something.


"Excuse me, sir," I asked. "Did you say something to me?"


"Not to you, son," he answered. "Just chatting with Granpappy."


I looked at the seats around him. No one remotely close to a grandfather figure in evidence.


I couldn't think of a response so I just nodded my head.


The bus rolled on for several blocks, then the man spoke again, this time directly to me, in a voice so rich it was like you were listening to a gospel preacher on Sunday radio.


"I was telling Granpappy that he was right—mebbe there is a first time for near ever thing."


I turned toward him.


"Apologies, young man," he said, meeting my gaze. " I shouldn't be botherin' y'all, talking out loud like some kind of old Negro crazy man." He paused, then continued. "Granpappy been passed on since nineteen thirty and two. But I still fill him in—time to time—when I see somethin' worth mentioning . . . "


I nodded a second time.


"Jefferson Dalrymple," the man said, extending his hand. "Folks call me Jeff."


I shook it. "Michael McQuade, Mr. Dalrymple. Everyone calls me Mickey."


"So tell me, Mickey," he said, "Did you ever witness anythin’ this silly? Big ol' group of white folks standing in a piggy bunch, just to avoid sitting next to a Negro . . . "


"I like sitting," I said, focusing on the man's face, trying to guess his age. His hair was snow white, a stark contrast to his shiny black skin. His eyes showed wrinkles at the corners that matched the wrinkles around his lips. He had a gap-toothed smile. He might have been fifty-five. Or seventy.


"Granpappy woulda swallowed his chew tabacca at this," he said, gesturing with his head. "Makes no sense. And no sense is nonsense." He chuckled.


"Shut up, old man."


The command came out of nowhere, and I flinched, like you do when a lightning bolt strikes too close.


The speaker was the guy with the tire iron.


"Shut your nigger mouth."


My heart started to pound.


Mr. Dalrymple visibly stiffened. "Excuse me," he said. "I'll lower my voice."


If this was intended to defuse the situation, it failed. I watched the white man's hand grip the tire iron, and he lifted it slightly. "Not another word, nigger."


I glanced around the bus, searching for someone who could intervene if necessary. No likely candidates. The driver was too far forward to have heard. The woman with two kids pulled the younger one closer to her body. Others in earshot looked down at their feet.


"We were just talking," I said.


The man turned to me. "Shut up yourself, nigger lover," he said.


I felt every feature on my face freeze.


From the corner of my eye, I noticed Mr. Dalrymple stand up—I hadn't realized he was such a large man. He stepped into the aisle, a full head taller than the white man with the tire iron, who immediately took a small step backwards.


"Sit down, nigger," the man said.


"I believe you've made that right near impossible," Mr. Dalrymple replied. "Too late for that." He faced the man head on.


"Don’t move. Don't come at me, boy." The man brandished the tire iron, but retreated another half step.


The bus screeched to a halt. "What's going on?" yelled the driver, turning around.


Mr. Dalrymple scratched his chin, absentmindedly, as if he were considering a puzzle to be solved. Then he spoke to the man with the tire iron as calmly as if he were asking a stranger for directions to the bathroom.


"Here's the way it is," Mr. Dalrymple said. "See, you're all upset that you're standing . . . and we're sitting . . . and you don't like that. And mebbe you think us colored folks on this bus are like freedom riders. Now freedom riders are brave people, but that's not us. We're just everyday folks, heading for home. And now . . . now you're threatening me . . . you're threatening this whole bus . . . "


"And see,” he continued, “that's what I don't think is right, you threatening or mebbe even hurting somebody just cause you're mad."


"Listen to me, nigger. . . "


"HAD ENOUGH OF LISTENING!”


The words exploded violently from Mr. Dalrymple. They reverberated off the walls and windows of the bus.


The man's head jerked, as if he’d been slapped.


Mr. Dalrymple glanced left and right at the other passengers. He breathed in deeply, then lowered the volume of his voice.


"I'm afraid you have to leave,” he said. “That way," he gestured, pointing to the rear exit. Backing into the space between two seats, Mr. Dalrymple cleared the aisle.


The man glared, red-faced, but did not move.


Over the heads of two women, I saw the bus driver. He'd risen from his seat, but watched in silence.


The man passed the tire iron from his right hand to his left.


Mr. Dalrymple stood quietly. Erect, composed.


Beads of sweat appeared on the man's forehead.


More seconds passed. Mr. Dalrymple waited.


Then, abruptly, the man snarled, "You goddamn niggers are a waste of my time."


He spat on the floor, then walked rapidly to the rear exit of the bus. The door whooshed as it opened. He disappeared into the darkness.


It wasn't like in the movies. There was no spontaneous reaction. No one applauded.


Mr. Dalrymple took his seat. I tried to catch his eye, but he stared straight ahead, lips moving soundlessly. I thought maybe he was telling Granpappy what had just happened.


The silence was broken by the driver’s voice. “Hold on, folks, we’re moving.”


As the bus accelerated, the woman with the kids pushed them toward seats behind me, one on each side of the aisle.


Then she took another seat, next to a young colored girl.


The Route 29 bus continued on its way.


Copyright ©2016 Mike Diccicco






This short short story, The Bus Rider, was awarded 5th place recognition in the 16th Annual Writer’s Digest national competition. The contest drew over 6700 entries with each story limited to a maximum of 1500 words.

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