Old Man Potter, the Ahab of Bus Drivers

A quick note: I wrote this a few years ago for a creative writing class. Most of it is true, although I did take some small plot liberties as my memory isn’t as vibrant as I remember it to be. For instance, I cannot recall our bus driver’s actual name. Potter will have to suffice, simply because it fits.

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It was May, 1987. The school year was drawing it’s last terminal breaths, and I could sense the summer peeking it’s head around the corner at me, taunting me. She was whispering sweet and sunny promises to me, like the joy of July afternoons spent tubing down at Turkey Hen, with a six pack of soda and an ice cold watermelon in tow. She promised mornings spent at the round laundromat downtown, chucking quarters stolen from my dad into the Donkey Kong machine. There would be summer cookouts on the lake, trips to Styx River Water World. If I could make it through just a few more trips to school and back, I would be home free.

The bus smelled foul, as it usual. It wasn’t a stench hell bent on raping one’s nostrils, but a muddy odor akin to old bananas and burning rubber. The humid Florida sky had opened up and the sound of the fat, heavy rain reverberated on the aluminum roof. Countless streams of water made  random journeys down the sliding window on my right.  At fourteen, I had grown enough to see over the back of the large, green vinyl covered seats in front of me.  I looked to the front of the bus, catching the jiggling reflection of Old Man Potter in the fish eye mirror mounted above the windshield.

Potter’s gaze was intently focused on the shortened road ahead of him. His 68 year old bony frame was hunched over the vehicle’s massive steering wheel as if he were the captain of a storm-battered schooner, fighting the waves of an unsettled sea. Beneath his over sized trucker hat and bottle-cap glasses, I could barely make out his pug-like visage, the leathery features somewhat resembling those of William S. Burroughs. Despite the uncanny likeness to the liberal beat author, Old Man Potter was a different animal; old school. It was not uncommon to overhear Potter unleashing a tirade towards one of the many black students that were bussed on our route. He had no second thoughts about peppering his statements with slurs like “niggers”, “porch monkeys” or “jiggaboos”.  Dr. King may have had a dream some 23 years ago, but small southern towns like CrestviBusew were full of geezers like Potter, who either never got the message or were just too set in their bigoted worldview to care.

I looked away from Potter and over at my friend, Jamal, who was hunched down two seats ahead of me and across the aisle. He glanced back, motioning for me to come sit with him. He held up a green Trapper Keeper and slowly pulled out a corner of what looked like a weathered and well-read magazine. It took me less than a second to register what I was peeking at, as the visible “OY” quickly gave it away. In the Reagan years, 14 year old boys had to go to great lengths to ascertain pornography. Lacking Google to hunt up perverse keywords or on-demand cable services to deliver instant images of naked women to hormone-influenced teenage boys, a friend with a nudie-mag was a friend indeed.

I glanced back up at the old bus driver, to make sure he wasn’t watching. One of Old Man Potter’s cardinal rules was that we could never get up and move to another seat while the bus was moving. Punishment for such a thoughtless action was swift and severe. Potter would glare at you from his throne, call you out by your last name, and point to the seat behind him. We called it the retard seat, because Tommy, the strange kid with Down’s Syndrome from Walnut Street would always sit there. No one wanted to sit in the retard seat. Potter knew that, and reserved it for dishing out his punishment.

The bus hummed along and Potter still seemed preoccupied with the weather. With a quick twist, I grabbed my backpack and made a dash for Jamal and that green Trapper Keeper full of delightful things children my age shouldn’t know about. I could only imagine the heavenly creatures that would grace the pages of that well worn Playboy. Oh, what wonderful joys!

I slid cautiously into Jamal’s seat, eager to take a look at the magazine. I thought I had made it without being spotted.

“Let’s see it!” I whispered, “I can’t believe you got one. Did you steal it from your brother’s collection?”

    Jamal didn’t answer. He was transfixed on something in the front of the bus.. I traced an imaginary line from Jamal’s pie-saucer eyes to the fish eye mirror.  There he was, staring back at us with a face full of rage and lips trembling with anger. I half imagined his over sized hat popping off his head, a steam whistle shooting out of his skull cap and blowing an alarm, as if we were in some nightmarish Bugs Bunny cartoon.

    The bus screeched to a vibrating halt. Save the hum of the engine idling, we heard nothing but silence for what seemed like a decade.

    “Dallons….” he rasped, sounding like two packs a day, “Get up here! Now! Bring your little nigger friend too!” He glared at us in the mirror, pointing at the retard bench.

    “NOW!”

    Again silence. The other children stared at us, as if we had just been sentenced to walk the green mile. I heard gasps, then chuckles.. Jamal looked down at his folder, the magazine still sticking out of it. Tears had began to make their way down his cheeks and dripped off his lips. Randy turned around from the seat in front of us and pointed.

    “Crybaby! Hahaha!”

    I stood up slowly, gazing sullenly at the floor but then focusing directly on Old Man Potter. This was my time. This was my moment. I could stand up to this old coot. Who was he to break my friend down like this?

    “No.” I said, “I’m not going up there. I did nothing wrong.”

Again, silence.

    “I saw you jump out of your chair!” he stammered, “You KNOW the rules!”

I stared straight ahead. He seemed stunned and confused that I had the courage to refuse him, to stand up to him. He turned around in his seat and angrily cranked the old bus to life.

    “I’m turning around and going back to the school. We’ll just see what the principal has to say about this, youngin’” Potter clamored. He was steaming like a kettle whistle on a hot flame.

With a grunt, he shoved the bus in gear and proceeded to head back to Crestview High.

I knew what was coming wouldn’t be good. I would get the belt or that God-awful paddle with holes in it. I would likely have to ride with my parents for a week or two, or maybe even take a dreaded taxi. I’m sure the other kids were not too pleased about spending an extra half hour on the bus either. Truth is, it felt good. I don’t know if I was justified or I had been misguidedly grasping for a chance to express my own sort of civil disobedience. Maybe I just wanted to put that backwards old man in his place just once. Whatever punishment I had coming to me, it was well worth it.

Summer was just around the corner.

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