I am in awe of the Egged bus drivers, in part because of their ability to multi-task on a superhuman level. It is a given that they can drive a bus, often one handed, and keep at least one eye on the traffic, both pedestrian and vehicular. While doing that, they make change for people who pay cash. Riders can buy 1, 10, or 20 trips or even a monthly pass on boarding the bus. The driver also watches the back of the bus, to make sure the people who board at the back pass their money forward, or come up to pay in person. And of course, at every stop the driver surveys the bus shelter and the entering passengers for any sign of security threat.
One morning Allen and I waited for a bus on Herzl Boulevard. An older woman was also waiting there. Her friend arrived, they started talking, and walked off together. A few minutes later, I realized she had left one of her shopping bags. Just then, our bus drove up. As we boarded, the driver asked if the bag on the bench belonged to us. We shook our heads, and as he pulled away from the curb into the traffic, and made change for Allen, he picked up his phone. I have a feeling the police arrived at that stop before we got to the next one.
Israeli bus drivers must also have 100% perfect depth perception, especially in Jerusalem where many streets are narrow, curved, steep, or all three at once. I am not the only passenger who holds her breath (as if that will help?) on some routes when the driver navigates a double length bus around a corner between parked cars a few inches away.
Of course, narrow streets can have advantages as well. I often ride a bus up Agrippas Street, which was probably built when a traffic jam consisted of two donkey carts trying pass each other. We passed another bus going down the street (literally up and down: uphill versus downhill). The other bus driver opened his window, spoke to my driver, and handed him something. It have been change, because my driver gave him something in return.
Allen was once riding a bus which stopped unexpectedly in the middle of a block in front of a coffee shop. The driver waved his hand and someone ran from shop and handed him a bottle of juice through the open window.
Once a bus has pulled away from its official stop, the driver will not reopen the doors. It does not matter if he had only closed the door half a second earlier or if the bus has moved only a few inches. Not for an elderly person or someone pushing a baby stroller. Not even if he had been able to watch in his mirror the person run two blocks to catch up. It’s not a matter of lack of friendliness–it’s the law. A bus driver may not open the bus doors except at designated bus stops.
One morning, just as my bus started to move, a young Hasid banged on the door, to no avail. When the bus stopped at the traffic light half a block away, we saw the young man running at full speed across the street, his hand on his head to keep his black hat from flying off. His long coattails were flapping and his curled brown shoulder length payot (side curls) streamed behind him as he ran. Near the end of the next block, the bus passed him.
“There’s no way he’s going to make this bus,” I thought. But in the third block, as we navigated around a stopped delivery van, he passed us again, still running as fast as he could. When he had to slow down to cross another street, we again pulled ahead.
However, when the bus pulled up to the bus stop shelter a block later, he ran up and climbed aboard.
“I didn’t think he was going to make it,” said Sivia, sitting next to me. “I guess those long legs of his made the difference.”
I nodded agreement. We both knew neither of us could have run down a bus in four blocks.
Israeli bus drivers are capable of kindness on their routes as well. One evening an elderly woman struggled to climb aboard and almost fell into the driver’s lap. He refused to take her money, or move the bus, until she was safely seated in the front row.
My friend Ayala told me about her ride to Hebrew class one morning. She saw a boy, about seven or eight years old run to catch the bus before it pulled away from the stop. He climbed the steps, panting for breath and told the driver that Ima was coming and could he please wait for her? The bus driver waited, and a few moments later his mother dragged her baby stroller aboard the bus. The boy then got off and continued his walk to school while mother and baby sibling rode to their destination.
One evening a woman boarded the bus holding a full shopping bag and a purse in one hand and a paper cup of coffee in the other. The bus started. She put her cup down on the ledge that separates the driver from the passengers and fumbled in purse to find her money. The driver glanced at her, then picked up the cup and held it in his left hand as he steered the bus with his right hand. At the next traffic light, she held out a bill to him. He exchanged the cup for the money and gave her the change. She made her way to a seat and sat there drinking coffee for the rest of her trip.
The bus drivers all wear perfectly pressed blue shirts, a shade I will forever identify as “Egged blue.” But the strict code is relaxed when it comes to bus decoration. The drivers seem to have permission to personalize their vehicles. Many buses sport a photo or two of a wife (or girl friend?) and children at the bottom of the windshield. Often some memento dangles from one of the rear view mirrors. One intercity bus sported a tall smiling green stuffed frog, wrapped around one of the rear view mirrors. The frog’s head rested on the top of the mirror, and his legs dangled below it. Three small bows, red, beige, and yellow, were clipped to its right leg, and a pacifier dangled on a beaded chain from its left leg. The sight of it made me smile; I suppose it gave the driver even more pleasure.
We frequently traveled on the 371 between Jerusalem and Givat Ze’ev. One driver had turned his bus into a veritable shrine for the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team. Yellow and black striped banners surrounded the windshield and back windows and pennants were attached to the ceiling. The driver even sat on a Beitar blanket draped over his seat. Several smaller team tokens hung from the mirrors. I pitied any fan of the Maccabi rival team who found himself forced to spend 45 minutes traveling on this particular bus.