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Rachel Simon is an award-winning author and nationally known public speaker. She is best known for her critically acclaimed, bestselling memoir Riding the Bus with My Sister, which was adapted for a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie of the same name. The book has garnered numerous awards, and is a frequent and much beloved selection of many book clubs, school reading programs, and city-wide reads throughout the country. Simon is also the author of the bestselling novel The Story of Beautiful Girl.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"Wake up," my sister Beth says. "We won"t make the first bus."
At six a.m. on this winter morning, moonlight still bathes
her apartment. She"s already dressed: grape-juice-colored T-shirt and
pistachio shorts, with a purple Winnie-the-Pooh backpack slung over
her shoulder. I struggle awake and into my clothes: black sweater,
black leggings. Beth and I, both in our late thirties, were born
eleven months apart, but we are different in more than age. She owns
a wardrobe of blazingly bright colors and can leap out of bed before
dawn. She is also a woman with mental retardation.
I"ve come here to give Beth her holiday present: I"ve come to
ride the buses.
For six years, she has lived on her own. In her subsidized
apartment, a few blocks off the main avenue of a gritty, medium-sized
Pennsylvania city, each of her days could easily resemble the next —
she has a lot of time, having been laid off from her job busing
tables at a fast food restaurant. She has enough money to live on, as
a recipient of government assistance for people with disabilities.
But Beth also has something else: ingenuity.
This trait isn"t generally ascribed to people who live on the
periphery of society"s vision. Like indigent seniors, people with
untreated mental illness, and the homeless, Beth is someone many
people in the mainstream don"t think much about, or even see.
Six months after she moved to her fifth-floor apartment, she
realized that she was lonely, and had consumed all the episodes of
The Price Is Right and All My Children that she could tolerate. So
one day she decided to ride the buses. Not just to ride them the way
most of us do, and which her aides had trained her to do a few years
before. She wasn"t interested in something as ordinary as getting
from one location to another. She wanted to ride them her way.
It was, Beth recalls, October 18, 1993, when, for reasons she
cannot remember, she first picked her monthly bus pass off her coffee
table. Then she pressed the first-floor button in her high-rise
elevator, walked through the vestibule to the street, hailed a bus on
the corner, climbed the steps toward the driver, settled into a seat,
and looped through the city from dawn to dusk, trying out one run
after another, bus to bus to bus. Soon she was riding a dozen a day,
some for five minutes, others for hours, befriending drivers and
passengers as she wound through the narrow streets of the city and
its wreath of rolling hills. Within weeks she could navigate anywhere
within a ten-mile radius, and, by studying the shifting
constellations of characters and the schedules posted weekly in the
bus terminal, she could calculate who would be at precisely which
intersection at any moment of any day. She staked out friendships all
over the city, weaving her own traveling community.
Beth"s case manager had not suggested this, nor had Regis and
Kathie Lee, nor even Beth"s boyfriend. This idea was hers alone.
We hurry down Main Street, the moon setting behind the
buildings. My guide, whose fuzzy brown hair is still wet from her
morning bath, points out the identifying numbers on bus shelters, the
scowls of grouchy drivers. She wears no watch, telling time instead
by the buses.
We dart into the downtown McDonald"s, already, at six-thirty
a.m., filled with early risers: clusters of the elderly playing
cards, solitary office workers bent over newspapers. Beth orders
coffee, though she doesn"t drink coffee, palming out the eighty-four
cents before the server asks.
Then we bolt into the dawn, making a beeline for a bus
shelter. Head craned down the street, Beth giggles as she once did
when I took her to a Donny Osmond concert: thrilled, in her element.
She clutches her yellow radio and a tangle of key chains — twenty-
nine, by her count — Cookie Monster, smiley faces, peace signs, which
hold a total of two keys. She does a drumbeat on her laminated bus
pass, stickered 000001. Every month she renews it, arriving first in
line at the sales window. That sticker is her private coat of arms,
proof that she"s queen of these routes.
Our first bus draws up to the curb. The driver, Claude,
throws open his door as if welcoming us to his house. Beth clomps
aboard, arm thrust forward with the coffee. He takes the steaming
plastic cup, then thumbs four quarters into her hand. "Our
agreement," he explains to me.
Then she spins toward "her" seat — the premier spot on the
front sideways bench, catty-corner from his, so she"ll be as close to
him as possible. I sit beside her; as a suburbanite who relies on my
car and the occasional commuter train, it is my first time on a city
transit bus in years. We pull out, past working-class row houses, a
Christian lawn ornament store, a farmers" market, an abandoned candy
factory, Asian grocers. Short hair, just beginning to gray, fans out
from underneath Claude"s driver"s cap. Beth announces that he"s forty-
two, with a birthday coming soon. He laughs as she offers the exact
date and then explains how he likes to spend his birthdays. "She
remembers everything," he says.
He asks if she"ll change into her flip-flops should this
chilly day become as balmy as the forecast predicts. "If iz over
forty," she replies, "you know I will." He tells me they "jam" with
her radio when the bus is empty. "Real loud," she adds. They recall
some trouble with a rider months ago. "She was mean," Beth says
indignantly. Claude agrees, and recounts the altercation, in which a
passenger vehemently challenged his knowledge of upcoming stops, and
which culminated, after the malcontent had finally exited, in
Claude"s relief that Beth was sharing the ride — he had someone who
could sigh along with him.
Moments later, we pass Beth"s boyfriend on his bicycle. Also
an adult with mental retardation, Jesse has paused at a crosswalk,
his maple brown face pointing straight ahead, his blind left eye
looking milky in the light, sun glinting off the helmet Beth long ago
convinced him to wear. The decade they"ve been together is more than
a fourth of their lives. Claude picks up his intercom mike and calls
out, "Hello, Jesse!" Jesse looks over. We twist around in our seats,
and his mustached face brightens as we wave.
All day, when we mount Jacob"s bus, Estella"s, Rodolpho"s,
one driver after another greets Beth heartily. They tell me she helps
out: reminds them where to turn on runs they haven"t driven for a
while, teaches them the Top Ten songs on the radio, keeps them
abreast of schedule and personnel changes, and visits them in the
hospital when they"re sick. She assists her fellow passengers as
well, answering questions about how to reach their destinations,
sharing their consternation when the bus halts for double-parked
delivery trucks, carrying their third bag of groceries to the curb.
In return, many riders smile hello to her and ask how she"s
doing; many drivers are hospitable, even affectionate. Jacob asks if
she has gotten a new winter coat and if the homeless woman who
clashed with her last month has bothered her again. Jack slips her
money for soda. Bert squawks out songs, making her laugh at his
Not everyone is nice. Some drivers, I learn, call her "The
Pest." When they see Beth at a stop ahead, they cruise right by, gaze
glued to the road. Some riders warn them, crying out, "Keep going!"
when they spy her waiting on the curb, and, if she climbs on, they
bleat in her face, "Shut up! Go home!"
"I don"t care," she says and shrugs. When we were growing up,
I saw a twinge of anguish on her face whenever kids called her
poisonous names, and sometimes the hurt took hours to fade. Now I see
that, surrounded by friends, she regains her composure quickly.
That"s not all that has changed, I discover. Beth, once a
willful child who, like many willful children, felt most secure at
home, has grown into an extravagantly social and nonconforming adult,
one who creates camaraderie out of bus timetables, refuses to trouble
herself when people look askance at her — and, in a buoyant
refutation of the notion that mental retardation equals sluggishness,
zips about jauntily to her own inner beat. My sister (my sister! I
boast to myself) maneuvers through the world with the confidence of a
museum curator walking approvingly through her galleries, and, far
from bemoaning her otherness, she exults in it.
That afternoon, as I step to the curb and wave goodbye to her
through the bus window, I am pierced by a sudden memory, minted only
this morning. She was sailing her short, stout body across the street
toward McDonald"s, and I was scrambling behind. In the predawn
moonlight, as she chattered on about our labyrinthine itinerary, well
aware that there are few if any other people in this world devoted to
a calling of bell cords and exhaust fumes, she spontaneously threw
back her head and trumpeted, "I"m diffrent! I"m diffrent!" as if she
were hurling a challenge with all her might beyond the limits of the
In the course of my life, cars and trains and jets have whisked me to
wherever I wanted to go, and I was going places, I thought; I was
racing my way to becoming a Somebody. A Somebody who would live a Big
Life. What that meant exactly, I wasn"t sure. I just knew that I
longed to escape the restrictions of what I saw as a small life:
friends and a family and a safe, unobjectionable job that would pay
me a passably adequate income. Although this package encompassed just
the kind of existence many people I knew were utterly content with, I
wanted something more.
Then, in the winter of my thirty-ninth year, I boarded a bus
with my sister and discovered that I wanted broader and deeper
rewards than those I would find in the Big Life.
At the time, I thought I had my life under control. In
addition to having published several books, I was teaching college as
well as holding classes for private students, writing free-lance
commentary for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and hosting events at a
bookstore. I adored everything I did, which is more than many of my
acquaintances could say.
But, though I wouldn"t confess it to myself, I worked all the
time. Seven days a week, from the minute I threw off the covers at
seven a.m. until I disintegrated back inside them at one a.m., I
leapt like a hare through my schedule: Write article ? Grade student
papers ? Interview newspaper subject ? Book author for store signing
? Teach private class ? Take notes for next novel ? Eat ? Crash.
My life, I told myself, bore little resemblance to the lives
of workers in corporate America. After all, I made my own schedule
and wore comfy leggings and sweaters at my desk, saving the A-line
skirts and blazers and lipstick until I drove out to class or the
bookstore. To unwind, I took vigorous walks whenever I pleased,
keeping my five-foot build lean and fit. But who was I kidding? I was
like most of my peers: hyperbusy, hypercritical, hyperventilating.
As a result, I bricked in all the spaces in my week when I
might have seen friends, and so it followed that I lost many of them.
I lost my opportunity to indulge in almost all leisure activities as
well: no movies or plays, and, though I continued to purchase new
novels and routinely carted home any intriguing texts I found on
the "Take Me" shelf at school, dust settled on the pages like snow,
as I had time to read few books beyond those I needed for my work.
But perhaps the greatest forfeit was love. I"d had a few awkward
dinner dates in the four years since my longtime live-in romance had
come to a mutually tearful and reluctant end, and even those strained
opportunities had petered out. Alone in my apartment in the
Philadelphia suburbs, dining at my desk most nights, I occasionally
browsed the personal ads. But then I"d open my datebook, remember
that I had no time to meet for coffee, and turn back to my work.
This had not always been me. Until I found myself single, my
evenings had been filled with dinner parties and art openings and
reading groups and two-hour phone calls with my girlfriends. That is,
when my nights weren"t already occupied by relaxed conversations on
the sofa with my boyfriend, Sam, where we"d go on about books and
politics and the seductive lure of the Big Life, our exchanges
interrupted only when he"d get up to flip through his voluminous
record collection, then set the needle on recordings by, maybe, Miles
Davis, or the English folk musician Nick Drake. I don"t know when
things stopped working for us; I just know that when he asked me to
marry him I could not bring myself to make the commitment. Finally,
in a blur of grief and regret, convinced I should let him move on
with his life, I left. I took only my necessities — computer, desk,
and clothes — and camped out in one cheap rented room after another
while I tried to make sense of my life, and of what seemed to be a
stony heart. It didn"t help that for years I had subsisted on Sam"s
architect"s salary, plus my writing jobs, and now, in one of those
unnerving coincidences of fate, they suddenly dried up. Those first
few months on my own, I was so lonely and broke that my stomach would
seize up during the night and I"d wake on my air mattress, clinging
to a pillow, and lie awake until morning. During the day, catching my
reflection in my computer screen and seeing only failure, I"d feel my
face tighten with terror.
Finally, I accepted a job at a bookstore, and, as luck would
have it, started publishing at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Then,
marveling at the dollar signs sprouting in my check register and
discovering that with each newspaper column and wave of bookstore
applause I felt myself on my way to the Big Life, I accepted
positions teaching as well. I rented an apartment and purchased a
bona fide bed, but did not acquire a stereo or TV, as I hadn"t missed
either enough to replace it. And I worked. I worked until I was so
exhausted I fell back asleep easily when I woke during the night. I
worked until I forgot I was lonely, until I could not conceive of any
I hadn"t seen Beth in a couple of years. We stayed in touch
through letters; once a week I"d scratch out a card, and in return
she"d cascade fifteen back. Her letters consisted of two or three
multicapitalized sentences sprawling down the page, sprinkled with
periods, which she"d then fold into envelopes flamboyantly tattooed
with stickers and addressed in fall-off-the-paper print. I relished
finding these treats populating my mailbox, whole colonies arriving
in a single day. In Magic Marker scrawl, they gossiped about our
younger brother (I aM Glad that.Max got a new rED car. when he Came
with his kids. good) and older sister (Laura sentMe. a gift Thing for
WAlmart), educated me about the latest Top Ten (Do you. like In Sinks
I want you back. I do), and revised my knowledge of Jesse"s athletic
achievements (Jesse did do that big race. WoW). Best of all, they
climaxed in a spunky declaration that defied the world"s cliché of
her as an uncomplicated half-wit, signed as they were, "Cool Beth."
But when I phoned...
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