Conflicting Interpretations of a Misplaced Nickle

Society is certainly nor at its best during the evening commute, especially in San Francisco where the busses are always overcrowded and running behind. All this and the warm ocean air can lead to grumpy passengers and operators.

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Fiction by Brett Coker
Illustrations by Alison Colby


I was commuting on public transit from San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District to Berkeley at the time, and the ride was about an hour and 15 minutes each way. Take the N-Judah streetcar from the Sunset to downtown San Francisco, then catch the Richmond BART across the Bay and get off at Berkeley. Sometimes, on returning to the city after work, I would take the N-Judah back home, but from 5 to 7 p.m. the streetcars were usually jam-packed with people just getting off work. Most of these people were pretty short-tempered and aggressive this time of day, having just had their asses kicked around a cubicle for eight or nine hours.

On this particular day I was exhausted. I was working for a telemarketing company -- they preferred the term "telefundraising" -- that raised money for various non-profit leftist political organizations. I had been making phone calls all day long, shaking down affluent liberals with guilty consciences for a fly-by-night organization that claimed to make prosthetic limbs for kids maimed by land mines in Guatemala. A year later, the head of the organization was busted for embezzling funds. The story I heard was that the Feds simply marched into his office one day. A secretary tried to stop them, but they flashed their badges and kept right on walking, just like FBI agents on television. The boss had a hooker sitting on his lap. On his desk sat a hand mirror with two symmetrical lines of coke. He asked the Feds if he could finish up. One of them stuck a gun to his temple and told him to "get the hell out of the chair pretty boy." They didn’t bust the hooker, but she didn’t get paid either. A guy who claimed to know the hooker told me this story.

Anyhow, I didn’t want to deal with the N on this particular night, so I walked upstairs from the BART station to catch the 71. The 71 ran west down Market street and branched off through the Haight. But on this particular night, even the 71 was jammed to the gills. Not only did everyone on the bus look like they had been kicked in the ass, but they also had that hungry look, like they didn’t get a lunch break. As for the driver of our little Comfort Inn on wheels, he was surly, as usual. I got on and paid my fare, but there were so many people pinned tightly against one another, I couldn't get past the yellow line that protected the driver from rolling anarchy.

"Step behind the yellow line," the driver snapped at me.

"I can't," I said, "there's no room."

"You people are going to have to move back," the driver yelled at the space above our heads.

There were a few grumbles. Then a voice from the back of the bus screamed:

"If we move back any farther, we'll be on the next bus!"

Everyone laughed. Even the driver smiled, and for a brief moment the tension of the night was broken. But it returned just as quickly. The bus was about 15 minutes behind schedule, and several of the riders made a point of complaining about this as they boarded. The driver responded to each of these complaints in the same monotonous tone: "Its because every time someone gets on the bus and complains, it holds us up a few minutes longer. Step behind the yellow line, please."

The scolded rider would squeeze down the aisle, looking to the rest of us for compassion, solidarity. But most would just stare out the window or give the offending rider a dirty look, as if to say, "You really are the source of this delay, you know." No one dared take up the rider’s lonely crusade. It required far too much concentration and effort this time of day. And so another wedge was driven between a rider and his fellow passengers.

Every now and then, a rider felt a need to assert his dignity by launching into a nasty exchange with another rider over some petty offense.

"Could you please not lean over me?"

"The bus is crowded, I can't help it."

"Well just lean back a little. You smell bad."

"Hey, I'm no bum. I showered this morning."

"Well apparently it has worn off."

"Fuck you, pal!"

"Fuck you!!"

"You wanna get off at the next stop and settle this?"

"Screw you, I'm not getting off in this neighborhood."

Sometimes another rider would get involved, telling them both to shut up. This would inevitably lead to yet another provocation. Eventually, one of them would get off at his stop, but as the bus pulled away, instead of walking home, he would just stand there at the curb, glaring through the window as if to say, "Get off the bus, I dare you."

Monday through Friday from 5 to 7 p.m., society was in its most fragile state.

At Market and Haight, a line of people got on the bus. The last one to board was a young man in his twenties with dyed, jet-black hair, long sideburns, an earring stuck through his eyebrow, and a biker jacket with an old Hooker Headers logo. He was taking a long time to pay his fare, digging to the bottom of his pocket for change. The bus driver refused to leave until the fare was fully paid. People began yelling, some at the rider, some at the bus driver. The young man finally dumped a handful of change into the meter, but a nickel missed the slot and fell onto the rubber mat that ran along the floor. The young man bent down to pick it up.

"Uh-uh" the bus driver said. "Anything falls on the floor is the property of the bus company."

"But I'm just gonna put it into the meter."

"Nope. Leave it alone."

"But it’s part of my fare."

"I said leave it alone!"

The young man looked at the bus driver in disbelief, his mouth hanging open as if he were waiting for the driver to throw a peanut into it. He looked back at the rest of us riders to see if we could believe what was happening. Again, we all just stared out the window or looked disgusted. Finally, he said, "Fine!" and dumped the rest of the change into the meter and began pushing his way through the aisle.

"Hold on. You're a nickel short," the driver told him.


"You're a nickel short on your fare."

"That's because a nickel fell on the floor."

The young man pointed to the shiny nickel balanced on its edge against the base of the meter.

"That's not part of the fare. Fare is only what goes into the meter."

"I only had a dollar in change."

"Then you're going to have to get off the bus."

"Look, you got your nickel. It’s right there on the floor."

"That’s not part of the fare."

"Well let me put it into the meter then," and the young man started to bend down and pick it up.

The driver warned him: "You keep your hands off that nickel. It belongs to the bus company. Now either you’re going to need another nickel or you’re going to have to get off this bus. Hurry up, you’re keeping the other riders waiting."

A few riders grumbled. One woman offered the man a nickel, but he refused it.

"No. That’s my nickel right there on the ground. You got your dollar, driver, now let’s go."

"Look here. This bus ain’t going nowhere till you pay your fare. We can sit here all night." And with that, the bus driver sat back and folded his arms, like a child refusing a spoonful of cough syrup.

This set the rest of us off. A few people took the kid’s side and told the driver to be reasonable and let him ride. A few others told the young man to either take the woman’s nickel or get off the bus. Some people were laughing. A man at the back of the bus, the same one who had yelled earlier, shouted, "I want to get the fuck home!" The woman with the nickel got up in frustration and started to put the coin into the meter, but the bus driver covered it with his beefy hand.

"Uh-uh. He’s got to pay his own fare. If you want to give him the nickel so he can put it in, that’s fine, but he’s got to put it in himself."

"I don’t believe this," she said, exasperated beyond belief.

Finally the young man had had enough.

"Why are you being such a prick?" he asked the driver.

"What?!" The bus driver turned around a shot the young man a threatening look. "What did you call me?"

"A prick. You’re being a prick."

"That’s it!" The bus driver removed his seat belt and crawled out of his seat. "Everybody off the bus!"

We all began looking incredulously at one another. Expressions of disbelief floated through the air.


"What the hell is going on?"

"Is he serious?"

"Did he say to get off?"

"I said everybody off! Now!" The driver pointed at the door.
"What are you going to do?" a woman asked.

"I’m going to kick his ass," the bus driver responded, pointing his finger at the young man. At that moment, everyone’s eyes turned to the youth, as if our pariah had been chosen.

"Come on now," the driver continued, "another bus will be along any minute for you folks."

The young man looked at the driver, then at us riders, then back at the driver. His mouth formed an upside-down horseshoe.

"Let’s go you prick!" he yelled, and jumped off the bus.

Pretty soon everybody started filing off in disbelief. The driver exited last and walked over to where the young man was standing, a small, knotted tree separating them like a veteran referee. Most of us stood around not quite believing what was going on. A few riders took a deep interest in the two men and formed an arc around them. At first the two belligerents just circled each other like a couple of gamecocks, pecking the air with insults. Then, out of nowhere, the young man threw a punch that grazed the driver’s left ear.

The kid was quick, but inaccurate. The driver got him into a headlock and threw him up against the tree, then pulled the kid’s leather jacket over his head so he couldn’t move his arms. The kid flailed around for a few seconds, looking like Houdini in one of his straight-jacket escapes. Finally, the driver threw a punch that caught the kid between his neck and shoulder. The kid collapsed like a stack of nickels.

"Shouldn’t we try to stop this?" one man asked in horror.

"There’s a pay phone," a woman said, "maybe we should call the cops."

Our civic duty was interrupted by the sight of another 71 pulling up, and instead of calling the cops, some of us began boarding the bus. The driver of this bus asked what was going on and a few of us told him. To our surprise, he didn’t get out and try to stop the fight or radio his dispatcher.

"It’s Roy," he said. "This happens about once a month with Roy. Everybody on. Show’s over."

The doors closed and the bus pulled off. I looked out the window. A few riders, the ones who formed the semi-circle, had stayed behind to watch the fight to its end. The belligerent driver was still standing over the young man, taunting him to get up. By then the riders who had stayed behind were also joining in with the taunts, as if they were sitting ringside. As the scene receded into the distance, I thought I saw money change hands.

Those of us who had witnessed this strange scene exchanged excited exclamations with one another and explained to the two or three passengers who were already on the bus when it pulled up what we had just witnessed. But pretty soon everyone was lost once again in their magazines, their books, their thoughts. The bus wasn’t as crowded as before, since some of the riders had stayed behind. I even managed to get myself a seat.

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