Thanking Mr. Reilly For Miles Spent
Published: December 20, 2007
My brother and I used to take the Public Service bus to get to high school. The school was in Newark, about a 40-minute ride from Montclair, where we grew up. The buses back then were not as sleek as they are these days. The windows were much smaller, and the greens and grays of the buses were not kept as shiny. But it seems to me that they had a homier feel to them, a used and worn feel to them. The seats were softer, slightly indented by so many thousands upon thousands of unknown and forever anonymous fannies. The ads that lined the ceiling were more local and not as cosmic as today’s bus ads. And there was a nice familiar wheeze to the buses back then. I could hear the wheeze from blocks away, giving me enough time to take a few more drags on my cigarette and scramble in line to board the bus.
We took the number 60 bus, which came down tree-lined Park Street and then turned onto Bloomfield Avenue, the main street that passed through several towns, and headed on down to Newark. The bus came at roughly 7:05 every morning, and Mr. Reilly was our bus driver. He looked quite old back then. But a lot of perhaps younger folks looked older then. He was small and had a tanned, leathery face. There was to him a wizened look. He kind of looked how the bus sounded. He wore the typical bus driver hat, which was very well worn and had a Public Service emblem on it, right above the little green sunshade. Mr. Reilly hunched over the large steering wheel as he drove, as if to get a better look at what lay ahead down the road. The steering wheel of the bus was large, and he gripped both sides as if he had to do that to keep the bus on the ground. I do not think that I ever heard him say a word. He just looked up and nodded to each person getting on the bus, eyeing your hand to see if you had the proper ticket or money. I do not remember him ever looking directly at me, but I do remember his small eyes in a mirror that hung off the top of the large window directly in front of him. We sat in the rear of the bus, and every so often I would look to see if he was watching what we were up to and nine out of ten times my eyes met his.
I cannot say it was a fond or endearing look that I saw in his eyes. It was more of a beady, watchful squint, something like that of an old tired snake. But there was a tired friendliness to him, as quiet as he was. I think that he had seen a lot over the years.
I can remember a few people who got on the bus every day, and I remember where they got on. There was a lady who boarded in Bloomfield and she was very severe looking. Everything about her seemed strained and taut. She was encrusted with heavy make-up and wore her hair in a tight bun that sat on her head like a hard bread roll. Her pursed lips were a deep red, and her face was heavily powdered. She often had a little wisp of powder on her lips. I could not tell if it was sugar from a doughnut or freshly applied talc. She never looked at anyone once she sat down and almost immediately opened a paperback novel and no matter what happened around her, she never looked up from that book. I can still see her reeling back and forth as the bus rolled down Bloomfield Avenue, never once taking her eyes off the page.
There was a man who sat near us in the back of the bus. He always headed straight for the rear seats and usually found one near the back door. That was the area where we sat. He always smelled like fish and wore the same clothes every day—brown, baggy and oversized corduroy pants, brown shoes and an old, worn green jacket. His hair was thick and oily and combed straight back. He always had a stubble of growth on his face, as if he had last shaved the afternoon before. I imagined that he worked in a factory in Newark and lived alone somewhere in Montclair. He boarded the bus in an affluent section of the town, and that made me wonder even more as to where he came from. Funny thing was that I saw him about five years ago on the bus, going the same way. He could not have had the same clothes that he wore 30 years ago, but he still favored brown pants and brown shoes. He had a different jacket on. He still had that fishy odor to him.
Just inside the Newark line there boarded a woman who was so pretty. She was then in her early 30s and had a European look to her. She dressed very simply and wore her blond hair neatly brushed, with a part. It hung just down to the collar of her coat, and she had a habit of brushing away what she thought might have been little flecks of dandruff, but I never saw any. Her hands were soft looking. She had a small scar on her left cheek. She never wore make-up and had a morning puffiness to her face, as if she had woken up just a short time before getting on the bus. She always looked worried or hurt, perhaps melancholic, and yet I thought that everything about her made her beautiful, even whatever pain she may have had difficulty hiding. She seemed so human to me.
And so it was, for four years. We had a lot of fun in the back of the bus and got in trouble for our antics more than once, when annoyed passengers called the school office and filed a complaint. Whereas they were more tolerant of smoking in those days, we did cross the line when we opened a can of marbles and let them roll hither and yon down the aisle. A few times there were fistfights, and they created a panic, too. But the worst was when Bogey Murray set the back seat of the bus on fire. It was a cold day, and he later said that he needed warmth.
That is the only time I remember Mr. Reilly stopping the bus and complaining to the supervisor, who was at his post in Montclair center.
We were thrown off the bus and got in a lot of trouble at school. We were allowed back on the number 60 bus the next day, and Mr. Reilly never said a word about the incident. Well, he never said a word anyway about anything. He just shook his head and glared at us as we boarded the bus.
Some time ago, an obituary in the New York Times caught my eye. A guy I went to high school with was killed riding a motorcycle in New York State. I immediately recognized his name. He used to board the bus near the Newark line. He was at one time the chief of surgery in a New York hospital. He was only 49 years old. I had not seen him since the day we graduated in June of 1966. I see his face in my mind’s eye as I knew him back then, friendly and warm. He had blond hair and blue eyes, and even back then we all knew that he was exceptionally bright. But it was his personality that so easily won people over to him. He became so successful, and now he is gone. His death saddened me, even though we never kept in touch. I wanted to write to his wife to express my condolences, but there was no mention of where she lived. His death made my mind wander back to those days, to him and others who seem so fresh in my mind, so fresh, as if we were together just yesterday riding the bus again.
I am sure Mr. Reilly, too, is gone now.
I wonder if there are buses in Paradise. Are there roads, and people in need of a ride to near and far places? Is there such a thing as travel? Does the pleasure of taking a trip and gazing peacefully out of a crystal window to vast realms of Paradise await us? I hope so. I hope there is the chance to people watch, to look with wonder at how different we all are. I hope that there is growth and movement and so many things that enchant us in this life, that for some folks seem to provide a touch of heaven right here on earth.
Mr. Reilly, can you hear me? I am older now and do not move much from this monastery. Oh, we move around quite a lot during the day. But we do not travel much out of the cloister. I don’t mind. I kind of travel a lot in my head and heart here, back and forth in time and memory.
I think back on those many days when you drove the bus, when you drove us and we drove you crazy. I want to apologize for that. Dorothy Day believed that prayer was powerful enough to change even the past. So, I pray this day for the you and us that were back then. Maybe just one little prayer saved you a bump or two on the road to Newark, on your ultimate way to Paradise. I hope so. I mean that.
Mr. Reilly, it is Christmas and my Dad is gone two years now. I am sure the two of you never met in this life. My Dad would like you, and I am sure that you would like him. He worked in New York back then and took the train every day, not far from where you picked us up.
My brother died right before graduation. You may have heard about it since the car accident happened just about a block from where you picked us up on Park Street every morning, and everyone was talking about that accident for weeks. I heard people talk about it on the bus, when you drove the bus past the tree that the car slammed into.
Do you drive a bus up there? If you do, keep a lookout for two young men who look very much alike. I am sure that they will be sitting together, catching up on old times. They would love to meet you. Pull over and give them a ride, showing them the best that Paradise has to offer. Someone who came from there said that there are many mansions, so there must be places, such nice places, places to go and a need to somehow get there.
There must be such wide streets in Paradise, Mr. Reilly, because there are so many people who have wanted their whole lives to reach Paradise and settle in for the long haul. They may like to take their time and walk.
When I, too, get there, I will look for you. Perhaps we will even be neighbors on a tree-lined street, like Park Street.
We can catch up on things.
Oh, and Mr. Reilly, just one more thing. Some day, you will be driving by, and you may see a young pretty woman, with dark hair and blue eyes. That’s my Mom. She does quite well with new situations, but on that day she may need just a bit of help. Tell her you’ve been in touch with all she loves, and she’ll like that and know just what you mean. She’ll be anxious to start a new life with those she loved and missed while here. She and Dad gave us a touch of Paradise while here, with the way they loved us and each other. They probably never realized while they were here how good it all was. They gave us life, fed us, clothed us, watched us all the way, and it went so fast, so very fast. Maybe you can tell her, Mr. Reilly, how good it was. She will worry about that.
Yes, it is good and has been good. It sometimes takes me time to realize that, to look back and see that it has always been that way.
God manages to get us all where we need to go, like you did, Mr. Reilly.
And I thought so little of it all back then. So I thank you again and ask that you remember me in your travels up there. Thanks for all those miles, those times we traveled this life together and did not think much about what all that meant and how good and truly sacred it was and is. I send my love and prayers and deep gratitude to you, Mr. Reilly, to the man you were and the man you now are.
A blessed Christmas to you, Mr. Reilly.
Father James Stephen Behrens, OCSO, is a monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. His new book, “Portraits of Grace: Images and Words From the Monastery of the Holy Spirit,” is available at www.trappist.net.