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My Christmas Commuter Caper

It was a perfectly lovely evening to get bus-jacked, I suppose. Since it was the day before Christmas Eve, I was in a particularly joyful and triumphant mood. The “Charlie Brown Christmas” soundtrack played softly on my iPod. It was snowing lightly and there was the perfect amount of crisp winter chill in the air.

MBTA_Bus_Route_1Unfortunately, there was a bit of chill on the bus as well. The heat didn’t seem to be working, which wouldn’t have been a big deal if the ride home had taken only its usual 30 minutes. However, the bus was crawling at a snail’s pace along Massachusetts Avenue.

It wasn’t that the traffic was that bad, it was just that driver was inching gingerly down the street … as if she were patrolling the streets of Cambridge for a Santa sighting. Of course, I was particularly eager to get home so that I could help my mom clean fish (one of the seven), as well as her house, for the Christmas Eve festivities.

I was just about to call my mother when I realized we had missed our right turn onto Beech Street. My first thought: I got on the wrong bus. I looked around in confusion. This was in fact the 96 to Medford Square, and there were plenty of other MBTA patrons who looked equally troubled. And yet, no one was saying or doing anything. The bystander effect was in … er … effect.

Well, I wasn’t going to sit around while we drove all over the Republic of Cambridge. Ain’t nobody got time for that. It was nearly Christmas Eve, and for Italian Americans, that is a bigger holiday than Christmas Day. Le pesce, il finocchio, le castagne … the feast was practically upon us and I needed to get home and help my mother!

I stood up and walked toward the front of the bus to the driver, who I didn’t recognize.

“Excuse me, you do know you missed the turn to Davis Square?”

“I did?”

“Uhhhh … yea huh.”

She sighed and cursed under her breath. “Do you know another way to Davis?”

“Me?”

“I don’t know this part of town.”

“Can you bang a U-ie in a bus? Is that even possible?”

“What?” She didn’t take her eyes off the road, but the look on her face was one of pure perplexity.

“Bang a U-ie … you know, make a U-turn?”

“No way.”

“I didn’t think so … okay, well I’m the LAST human on the planet who should be giving directions, but I know you can make a right up ahead and that should get us to Davis.”

“Will you stay up here and let me know when it’s time to turn?”

I was filled with a mixture of pity and ire. It was Christmas, I reminded myself, so I relented and decided to make small talk.

“Are you excited for Christmas?” I asked with a smile.

“No.”

“Oh.”

What a Scrooge.

We continued on in silence. Standing there made me realize how surprisingly similar this situation was to my favorite movie of all time: “Speed.” Except of course, there was no bomb on this bus. And we weren’t speeding. And there was no eye-candy cop with biceps of steel to save the day. Well actually … I hadn’t seen everyone who got on the bus … maybe there were some biceps back there. I made a mental note to check when I made my way back to my seat.

As we approached the turn, I said, “this is it … here on the right.”

“There is a sign that says no trucks.”

“Yeah, well, I think this is a time to break that rule. I won’t tell.”

“No. I can’t.”

As Scrooge passed the turn, I realized we were doomed. We were well on our way to Arlington and I hadn’t a clue where to go. From the whispering and grumbling I heard behind me, it seemed clear that my fellow passengers were getting restless. “Well that’s the only way I know how to get to Davis without banging a U-ie.”

“Well, what am I supposed to do?”

“Ahhhhh I don’t know … can you like, call someone? Phone a friend? Maybe radio this in to headquarters or something?”

“Yeah, okay.”

I stood there for a moment and waited for a “thank you.” I didn’t get one. I bit back a “Bah Humbug” and turned to return to my seat. I moved slowly so that I could check out the passengers. Sadly, there didn’t seem to be any Keanu look-alikes. Not even a Bruce Willis … which was really a shame. Meeting on a run-away bus would have been a GREAT story to tell our children. Or at the very least, the plot line for a FANTASTIC Lifetime network holiday film. I would call it, “The Christmas Commuter Caper” and I would be played by the charismatic and charming Sarah Michelle Geller. (Just go with it.)

“What is happening?” asked an older woman in the seat across from me. I recognized her; she was a regular like me. Short blond hair, always sported a fanny pack. We had probably commuted together on the 96 bus no less than 200 times, and yet we’d never spoken. I always thought she looked like a Judith.

“She’s lost. Anyone know how to get to Davis from here without banging a U-ie?” I was met with a sea of blank faces. Soon after, the driver announced in a weak voice that she was taking us to Alewife station and that we would be picked up by another bus upon arrival.

Twenty minutes later, we were still stuck in traffic on Route 16, my feet were frozen, and despite the distinct feeling of hangry creeping up on me (hungry + angry = hangry) I had become friends with some of the bus passengers, including a concerned Judith, a calm visually-impaired young woman named Lucy (also a regular), and a woman who was visiting from Utah whose name I still hadn’t caught. She worked for American Express and was staying at the Hyatt near my apartment. We were all headed to historic Medford Square … the birthplace of Jingle Bells, as I liked to remind people.

Upon arriving at Alewife Station, Scrooge informed us that a bus should be arriving any minute to pick us up. But after standing around for 20 minutes, it was unclear if our rescue ride was ever going to show. We were now 90 minutes into our eight-mile commute home. I turned to Judith, Lucy and Utah and told them I was going to take the T to Davis and grab a bus there. They seemed apprehensive, but elected to join me. We agreed that it was better than standing around doing nothing in the eerily quiet no-man’s land of Alewife.

Judith slowly guided Lucy through the station. We were being particularly careful since the snow had left things a little slippery. Fifteen minutes later, we were finally sitting on a redline Train on our way to Davis Square, when the question was asked. If you are like me (dark hair, olive complexion) you get the question as well.

“Danielle, where are you from?” inquired Judith.

“Stoneham. How about you?” My response was met with a brief pause. I knew what she was getting at, but I refused to make it easy for her.

“No … I mean where are you from from?”

“Where do you think I’m from?” I had come to like this game and was always interested in people’s guesses.

“I’ve always thought you were Indian,” responded Judith.

Utah piped up as well, “Ahhh, well I just met you, but I thought you were either Latin American or Portuguese.”

“Nope. I’m Italian. 100 percent.”

“But you don’t look Italian. You look Indian.”

“Yeah … I get that a lot.”

And I do. I was once invited to a colleague’s house for dinner. As she ladled a scoop of chicken curry over my rice, she said, “Tell me, Danielle, does this remind you of your mother’s home cooking?” But I digress …

Two hours deep into our commute home, and we were a team now. Judith, Lucy, Utah and the racially ambiguous girl. We emerged from the train to find it was still snowing. If we weren’t so miserable, I imagine we would have thought it was beautiful. We were tired, cold, and I, for one, was ready to eat my left arm. I needed a Christmas miracle.

After a few moments, I thought our miracle had arrived as I spotted a bus turning onto College Avenue … and it was … oh my goodness … a 96! And yet, it was slowly passing us by without stopping. I started frantically waving my hands around to catch the driver’s attention. It took me a moment to realize the bus was empty and … Scrooge was behind the wheel! Yes, the very same! What are the odds? The irony of the situation was too much to bear and I began shaking my fist at the moon while yelling out obscenities in Italian.

“Well I guess you really are Italian,” said an equally frustrated Judith.

Utah began explaining the situation to Lucy, who was wondering why I was swearing like an Italian sailor. The dejected ladies looked at me; I had somehow become the de facto leader of our little group, and Judith was my No 2. Just as I was about to suggest calling a cab, a bus arrived. It was toasty warm inside and we traveled peacefully to Medford Square. Well, peacefully might be pushing it; there was a drunk on the bus who was singing the Dradel song on repeat. The four of us didn’t say much; we didn’t need to. Together, we had been through something, and words just weren’t necessary. It was either that, or we had so little in common that we were sitting in an awkward silence, while I hummed along to Dradel. I like to think it was the former.

By the time I made it to my parents’ house in Stoneham, the fish was already cleaned and prepped. My mom made me a frittata and I regaled her and my dad with the whole bus-jacking saga: Scrooge, my cadre of travelers, and my handsome reward (a $50 American Express Card that Utah insisted I accept in exchange for helping her home.)

My mom asked me how I was planning to pay it forward. “Honestly, I haven’t given it any thought. I spent the whole ride here formulating my angry letter to the MBTA. I think I am going to open it with a quote from “Speed” … what do you think?”

“That’s how you can pay it forward!”

“Eh? Come again?”

“It was clearly the woman’s first day on the job, Daniela. Don’t write a letter of complaint. Give her a break. Channel your Christmas spirit!”

“I lost it somewhere between Alewife and Davis Station.”

“Daniela!”

And there it was. With one word — my name — my mother could guilt me into doing the right thing.

“Okay fine! I won’t write an angry letter!”

“Brava. Now … do you want to watch a Christmas movie with me?”

“Yes! I’m in the mood for ‘Planes, Trains, and Automobiles’ … anyone else?

About Danielle Festino

Danielle was born and raised in Stoneham, now resides in Medford, and has roots in Puglia. In 2004, she graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in International Relations and Italian Studies. She is passionate about telling stories and hopes to provide a glimpse into what it means to grow up Italian-American.