Respect the Baritone

I live in a Bus Neighborhood. All subway lines are too far away to make walking an option, so if you want to get anywhere and you don’t want the trip to last 3 hours, the bus is mandatory. The buses that serve the neighborhood are always overcrowded at rush hour, because they’re the only ticket in and out. When a bus arrives at a stop, no matter how packed it is already, people claw their way on as if it’s the last helicopter out of Saigon, because there’s something both terrifying and humiliating about getting left behind by a bus. Watching it chug away from the curb, engulfing you in its exhaust, telling you that you’re not good enough for the bus.

Last week, on one brutally hot afternoon, I emerged from a subway station and jogged toward my usual bus stop. The bus stop isn’t immediately visible when I get above ground, and it’s also on the other side of a very busy street, which always presents the infuriating possibility of arriving just in time to see my bus leaving me behind. That did not happen this time, but what did happen was almost as enraging. As I neared the queue for the bus, a guy chugging toward it in the opposite direction cut into the line a split second before I could assert my I-Am-Here-ness.

Of course, I had the fear that this guy would be The Cutoff, that one last passenger after which the bus driver slams the door shut and moves on. How many passengers can get onto a bus is left to the driver’s discretion. Some drivers let people occupy every molecule of available space, while others rigidly enforce the “stay behind the white line rule,” and this guy arriving just ahead of me made me worry the next bus to arrive would fall into the latter category. But getting beaten to the punch in the bus line was more galling because the man who did it to me was lugging a baritone.

You’re probably familiar with the baritone if you ever played in school band. They’re like tubas that were blasted with a shrink ray. They’re made primarily for marching bands or kids who can’t make the full tuba commitment. Baritones are technically portable, but this man was planning on bringing this thing onto a crowded bus, where sardine-can conditions make handbags deadly weapons. Adding further desperation to his overall mien, the baritone was beaten up, dinged and tarnished, with several sizable dents in the bell. This was a baritone that had been down a few dirt roads.

Initially, I was furious. How inconsiderate was this guy? He didn’t even have a case for the thing, just cradled it against his chest like a huge, brassy child, the enormous, injured bell barely clearing his head. Given a jam-packed bus, crappy road conditions, and the typical skills and safety of an MTA bus driver, he could actually kill someone with this thing.

But then, I began to soften a little, because it occurred to me that no one in their right mind would bring a baritone onto a bus if they had any choice in the matter. I realized that I probably hadn’t seen a baritone since high school, and had a wave of Band Geek nostalgia. And I wondered, where had he been playing this thing, and why? It’s gotta be rough trying to make a living as a working baritone player these days.

The bus pulled up and was, of course, already well full. The line slowly pushed its way inside. The Baritone Man somehow managed to fish a Metrocard out of a pocket, then turned to see the bus’s standing room already completely occupied. By now, I’d done a complete 180 with my feelings. I pitied him. Here it was, a scorching, muggy summer day, and this man was trying to bring an enormous blunt brass instrument onto a jam-packed bus where the AC is being overwhelmed by the sheer mass of sweaty, angry humanity on it. This, I figured, will not end well.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. The aisle between the seats is usually an impenetrable thicket of shopping bags and hate, but for Baritone Man, it parted like the Red Sea. The passengers willingly–gladly, even–moved to allow him to move toward the back. Not only that, but once he reached the back of the bus, someone offered him a seat. And there he sat, comfortable and unperturbed, for at least the duration of my trip. When my stop arrived, there he still was, baritone nestled in his lap, happy as a clam. It was one of the most endearing, yet weird, things I’ve ever seen in my life.

In all my years living in New York, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone offer a bus seat to anyone else, no matter how elderly, infirm, or feeble they were. When my wife was pregnant, you couldn’t have made someone give up their seat for her with a million dollars and a shotgun. There is a certain mentality that takes over when you ride the bus, which essentially boils down to This is horrible, so we’re all gonna be horrible to each other here.

I used to think nothing could pierce the flinty Darwinian shell of the New York bus passenger. Now I know better. If you want to melt the collective heart of an angry, sweaty MTA bus, bring your baritone.

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