The Franklin, New Hampshire Chronicles

The Senior bus pulled up to the front of our apartment building at exactly 8:55 AM, just as the text had promised. I had my two dollars ready to hand to the driver, but they used a hand motion behind a plexiglass divider to swish me on, mumbling something about not taking cash during COVID, but I could mail a check as a donation if I wanted to – but nobody does…

Most of the seats were taken, and I was happy to plunk into the empty seat just behind the driver, thinking I would just listen to the hum of conversation behind me. I was noticing the New England drawl, trying to decern how it was different from a Southern drawl, or the New Jersey accent that still rears itself when I’m tired or angry. The words spoken behind me, muffled by masks, my impaired hearing, and the sound of the bus, were further softened with dropped consonants and drawn-out A’s and endings.

My mind wandered to thoughts of how dialects evolve and what they imply about the residents of different areas. Is the distinctive variation in rhythm, slang and pronunciation, a result of the general outlook of the people of an area? Does it evolve deliberately to form a sort of tribal “tell” to identify outsiders?  Did the sing-song Italian of Bari evolve because the Bari people have a musical outlook on life? The spell of this reverie was broken by the beep-beep-beep of the bus going in reverse.

The driver had positioned us so he could back into the driveway of a once-grand house bedecked with crenelated parapets, porches, and round additions jutting out on all sides. What was formerly a magnificent estate was now divided into apartments. Our bus was now completely perpendicular to the narrow road – blocking both lanes. I could hear the crunch of tires going into a mound of frozen snow. The driver pulled forward to adjust his approach, seemingly without concern for vehicles slamming into our sides. My worried glace down the road allayed my fear – cars from both directions were stopped, waiting for us. Impressive politeness!

We navigated the narrow opening between the mailbox and the snow pile and backed right up to the side door. An elderly woman managed the stairs to the bus as carefully as I had previously and made her way past people who seemed to know her, acknowledging their greetings with a quiet grunt. The next stop was an apartment complex where the units were staggered, looking more like individual homes. A bearded man not wearing a mask got on and settled in a seat somewhere behind me. The driver said something about needing to wear a mask and the man grumbled about COVID being a joke, but came forward to accept the mask the driver held out for him. I don’t know if he actually put it on.

What followed was a tirade from him that one might expect in a state where the motto is Live Free or Die. I decided not to take the bait. But I wanted to say that although I’d been fully vaccinated, I wore my mask to protect him. I wanted to tell him that not only have over half-a-million people died from this virus but millions who survived, like myself, were suffering long-term effects. I let a feisty woman somewhere in the back of the bus argue with him – in her own New Hampshire way. The man who sat opposite me, who looked very much like he could be the twin of the Beat Poet Laureate I know in San Diego, and sounded like him too, shook his head and mumbled something indiscernible. The discussion seemed to end with Bearded Man stating that he wasn’t worried about dying – he had life insurance and nobody needed him anyway.

Other voices began another conversation where at some point Bearded Man stated that he had grown kids – the oldest being in her 40s and the youngest being 20. There was a pause. Maybe everyone was creating a scenario in their imaginations of what had resulted in a twenty-year spread in Bearded Man’s offspring. Bearded Man squashed our more creative thoughts. “I got nine kids!” he announced, “All daughters!” And he must have been a good father, he concluded, since none of them got pregnant in their teens.

Good thing I was in the front of the bus so no one could see me clenching my gloved fists. How very sad that a man with nine daughters should think no one needs him. And that his judge of successful parenting was preventing his daughters from teenage pregnancy (or so he believed).

But I was too tired to engage, even in a compassionate way. It had taken hours to finally fall asleep in our (temporary – oh please God) basement apartment the night before. Based on the flump, flump, flump coming from the apartment above us, I could only imagine a warren of giant rabbits, all named Thumper, living above us. And they were all engaged in a rabbit-jazzercize class that stretched on for hours. At some point, when I was just slipping into sleep, a heard a loud crash off to my right and opened my eyes to see the outline of a cat hanging from the window sill!

Our building is a restored brick mill and the windows are set back from the inside walls by at least a foot. This feature will be wonderful when we finally move to the first floor where the windows reach down to a couple of feet from the floor. But here, the sill is five feet high and our cat, eager to watch what is going on outside his new domain, has been studying them since we moved in. The problem, as he has discovered, but needs to prove out on every window, is that, while he can easily jump the five feet to the sill, it is painted with smooth semi-gloss paint and slopes downward at what looks to be a 45-degree angle. There’s nothing for a cat to grab onto and gravity is his nemesis. Every attempt has resulted in his desperate attempt to stay put but inevitably sliding down to the floor. So what I saw when I first opened my eyes was his last grasp on the edge of the window sill before dropping to the baseboard heating. How humiliating for our poor cat to try this over and over again, only to fail basic Cat Climbing 101!

So, seeing his dark silhouette against the white wall, his hanging cat image imprinted itself in my brain and combined with the giant rabbit warren already imagined into existence, to brew a nightmare of cat and rabbit horrors. Nightmares that woke me, over and over again, and resumed with escalating horror each time I fell back to sleep.

Well, back to the senior bus.

We arrived at the Market Basket and the driver announced they would be back at 10:40. I checked my phone and calculated that I had a leisurely 1 ½ hours to shop. I didn’t need much – this was more of a diversionary outing than a mission to fill our larder. I was happy to see the sign that masks were required, but some people were wearing their masks under their chins – including Bearded Man. There were decals on the floor indicating alternating aisles you could go down or not, but no one seemed to be paying attention.

I was delighted to see brands on the shelves that I hadn’t seen since I left New Jersey. And an abundance of Italian food – even pastina! I had to keep reminding myself that I could only buy what I could carry back on the bus.

I was thinking I would make tacos with the leftover turkey fajitas I had made the previous night, so I headed to the aisle with Mexican food. Half of the aisle was pre-packaged El Paso taco kits with those crispy folded shells most people on the East Coast think of when they think of tacos. Sixteen years in San Diego, married to a Chicano, has made me a taco connoisseur (or snob?) and I was about to cry when I couldn’t find fresh corn tortillas. I did eventually find them in another aisle, but when I toasted them (in a frying pan – ugh, someone please tell me how to toast tortillas on an electric stove!) they were clearly not the corn tortillas we know and love in California! So Italian food – yes! Mexican food – not so good.

My shopping complete, I sat on the bench outside the front of the store with my four bags, waiting for the bus. Bearded Man came out and lit up a cigarette. Store Man came out and told him he had to move. Bearded Man once again brought on his Live Free or Die routine, moved a bit further away, and lit up again, saying, “So shoot me!”

When I got back on the bus, the front seat I’d been in before was already occupied. Everyone else seemed to be in their previous spots so I slid into the open seat behind Poet Twin. By the end of the trip, I had figured out most passenger’s names but never had the inclination to divulge mine. There were two Mary’s – one was a Mary Ann and one was a Mary Ellen, who was sitting opposite me. As I was getting into my seat she told me she liked my hat. It’s a really silly knit hat that has octopus legs hanging down around it and bobbly eyes and a head added to the top. Happy to have a neutral, friendly excuse for a conversation, I thanked her and explained that I was inspired to buy it after seeing the movie, My Octopus Teacher.

Turns out that wasn’t such a safe conversation after all. She assumed it was a cartoon and hadn’t heard of it. “Oh, it’s on Netflix,” I replied. “It’s a really lovely story.”

Well now everyone was into the conversation, based on the false premise that the octopus movie was a children’s cartoon. Someone said they can’t afford Netflix, but she watched Sponge Bob Square Pants on free TV. Then someone else chimed in about another cartoon show they liked. Then Bearded Man made a snide remark about people who watch cartoons…

And that’s how the ride home went with me not saying another word and reminding myself that this is what our education system and poverty and poor nutrition produces. I am so fortunate to have been born in a time when my father could support our large family on his salary, and my parents, although first-generation immigrants, were educated and taught us to think critically and didn’t buy junk food… There but for the grace of good fortune, go I.