Oblivious on the Bus: My 911 Story

A bus in Rochester is never a silent thing; more than just the engines roar as those big, blue boxes make their way from point to point across Monroe County. It is not exactly a roadhouse on wheels, but its full of gossiping women, chatting men and bus regulars bellowing orders to the rookie bus driver. There are also those who, like myself, prefer to blend into their respective seats, absorbing themselves in their books or thoughts until they can make their way off the bus. We silent few always seem to be in the minority, or perhaps that is just my impression.

But not on this day. On this particular day, I was entirely sure that I was on some different kind of bus filled with some different kind of folk than those with whom I’d grown somewhat resentfully familiar in my travels around Rochester. On this day, walking up the stairs of the bus felt like walking down the stairs of a pool: into rising pressure and a remarkable lack of sound beyond the rushing of blood in my ears.

As the bus rolled along, the somehow-muted roar of the engine; the moment’s gear-shifting hesitation; the elephant sigh of air breaks seemed to intensify, not diminish, the silence. Everything moved in a kind of syrupy slow motion and where people normally leaned in and out to speak to one another, they now moved only when a bump in the road forced them to, rocking back and forth briefly like so many potted trees bound for some unnamed office hallway. The thickness of the air felt like a collective concentration – even meditation – on some focal point to which I was not attuned; each person stared out the window motionless, not at the fleeting landscape, but at some distant and singularly personal object which never seemed to leave their view.

It might have made sense to ask someone what was going on. But at the time, it seemed better to let what was surely just an odd moment pass.

My unemployment insurance appointment for that morning had been at 9am. Bus schedules being what they are, that meant I’d been out since about 7am. I’d not seen a single television set all morning. By the time I would arrive home about 10:30 to realize what had happened, it would all be over. I would be standing in front of my little 13″ television set with my mouth agape, trying to process it without success.

In the meanwhile, around 9:30am, just after the second plane crash, I was standing on Waring Rd and waiting for a bus to take me home to another boring day of unemployment. There was supposed to have been a job fair that day at the War Memorial, but that wasn’t supposed to be till 1pm or so. My tie was getting tight around my neck and it was beginning to look like it might be a hot day, standing exposed on the opposite side of the street from the squat little strip mall that the UI office occupied. It had occurred to me neither that the interviewers seemed even less interested than normal in reviewing my job search history, nor that the office was completely empty when they ushered us all out the door.

I didn’t think of any of it until hours later, when I realized that the banal reality I thought I was moving through had changed forever without my knowledge.  And in those hours after, between the bouts of panic and astonishment, I felt an oblique Generation X kind of guilt. Guilt that I had seen Video Killed the Radio Star in its MTV debut; guilt that I’d watched O.J. Simpson’s low-speed chase; guilt that I’d watched Van Halen’s pathetic public breakup; guilt that after watching all these useless television moments, believing somehow that I was involved, I’d been absent the one time something really important happened. And that somehow, this time, I wasn’t involved.

By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.