A life-changing bus driving gig

Craig Davidson is a promising fiction writer in 2008 (recently published) with a well-reviewed book of short stories and a set of supportive friends and family members. Further success, however, eludes him. He encounters, if not Job-like calamities, events that change his life for the worse. His agent and his American publisher are so unenthusiastic about his forthcoming novel that they both sever business ties with him. A novel, published in Canada, sells poorly. Depressed and downhearted he turns briefly to drink and over the counter sleeping aids. The struggles that marked his early attempts at becoming a writer seem to be returning with a vengeance. Davidson doesn’t gloss over this isolated, troubled phase, but it is not until he dares to enter an entirely new community that the heart of his memoir, Precious Cargo, truly begins.

Since teaching or conducting creative writing workshops aren’t options, Davidson applies for a number of less-than-prestigious positions – including worm harvester. He leaves a library job after becoming embroiled in a dispute over who was authorized to water a ficus plant. Eventually he finds himself responding to a cheap-looking mailbox flyer looking to recruit school bus drivers.

Nestled in a dumpy industrial neighbourhood in north Calgary the school bus driver hiring centre compares unfavourably to libraries and publishing houses. Initially the university-educated and semi-successful writer finds it hard not to sneer at “ample-bottomed Jordache-clad entities . . . [that] gather before the final school bell to exchange photographs of their grandchildren and cats, smoke absurdly long mentholated cigarettes . . . and carp about sciatica, lumbago, varicose veins . . .” and so on.

Acclimatized to his fate by being hired, trained and actually getting to know some of his colleagues, he settles into trying to make the best of his situation. As fate would decree he’s assigned to driving a bussette – often referred to much-less-charitably as the short bus. His precious cargo manifest includes passengers with autism, cerebral palsy and something he had never heard of: Fragile X. Syndrome.

He finds himself googling “disabled” – trying to get a feel for what he is to face – ultimately concluding, “There were so many tiers and gradients to the term. And I’d never properly considered any of them.”

Shortly thereafter in the narrative, these passengers take on human faces. Enter Vincent, a hulking Grade 12er who “talks funny” and knows absolutely everything about Star Wars . . . “absooolllluuutely!” Oliver’s next, with “protuberant ears and a vaguely elongated face.” He’s a snappy dresser, a nonstop talker, an inveterate BSer and afflicted with Fragile X Syndrome. Symptoms often include mild to moderate intellectual disability. Then there’s Nadja: mysteriously nice almost all the time who dresses in pink from head to foot every single day. Gavin, extremely taciturn, speaks not a word for days on end, if you don’t count the soulfulness in his eyes.

Last on this short list, but far from least is Jake: recently bereaved of his loving mother in a tragic accident, permanently challenged by cerebral palsy and wheelchair bound for life. His steely resolve to surmount any obstacle is exemplified by his attempts at piloting his wheelchair “like a fighter pilot banking his jet into a tactical turn.” A deep male friendship of trust, care, and respect takes shape between Jake and the author.

Davidson expertly weaves engaging personality traits with the harsh realities of what being classified as disabled means to his charges. In fact, the author’s novelistic skills serve him well in bringing these human beings to life on the page. Overt sentimentality is kept to a minimum. Gentle and self-deprecating humour leaven the proceedings.

No particular agenda (philosophical or religious) is brought forward by this account. The author’s words in a prologue/disclaimer at the book’s beginning may best describe its intent: “What’s important is who they were, and are; and who I was and became. I hope I have managed to be faithful to the experience we shared.” It’s an experience that speaks to the worth, value and dignity of every human being, and worth sharing beyond bus 3077.

  • Tom Konyndyk’s working life has encompassed editing, proofreading, copy-writing and technical writing. Nowadays when he isn’t relaxing with a good book he operates White Rabbit Books, a mostly used book store in Georgetown, Ont.

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