Jackie Ruth, my best friend, and I were students at the Morris Winchefsky Yiddesheh Shul two days a week after regular Anglo school. We were small, patient children, able to entertain ourselves with word games and spelling quizzes while we waited for the 104 bus to lumber its brown self around the corner of Monkland Avenue and carry us to class.
In Shul, we learned to read and write Yiddish words, from right to left, and speak in a dying tongue.
The class consisted of 8 boys and girls, and everyone was called by a Yiddish name that was different from his or her Anglo name. We bent over our exercise books with care, forming the unfamiliar Hebrew-like letters that aren't quite Hebrew, adding this lexicon to what we already knew of French and English, the two official languages of Quebec.
Later, returning home on the 104, we quietly sang a little song (Gayen mir Shpatzeeren) while around us swirled the glottal stops and wide open vowels of a dozen other languages that we had yet to learn, that we had yet to dream of.
The year I entered Monkland High School, the 104 became more than a bus to me. It was a magical ferry from dull home to exciting school corridors, and everything – EVERYTHING – depended on how good your hair and eyeliner looked when you boarded that bus. The 104 was where I had first morning glimpses of the cute boys who lived in my neighborhood and my end-of-the-day glimpses, which were fatally important because if someone was going to ask you out, getting-off-the-bus-time was when it happened.
Three classes of boys rode the 104. There were the band members who lugged around instrument cases; the exceptionally smart guys like Stanley Godlovitch who could not only excel at math, but also WRITE; and the middle-of-the-road but absolutely GORGEOUS boys who made you hold your breath for fear of saying anything less than sparkling. Hard as it might be for Americans to believe, it was the uncool boys -- the ones with flunking grades and greased down hair -- who drove cars to school.
I saw my first dead person on the 104 bus. Madame Louise Chevalle was the landlady over three short, shitty-brown apartment buildings that formed a U-shape at the corner of Fielding and Montclair Streets, and she was a pinch-faced, almost-bald bitch of a hag, notorious for crowding new immigrants in, at exhorbitant prices.
The buildings were hot in summer and ice cold in winter, and more than half the electrical circuits hadn't worked since Louis St. Laurent was prime minister (think Truman-Eisenhower). If a tenant fell behind on the rent, Mme. Chevalle would send her three sons in to "correct the problem."
On Jan. 14, 1967, the coldest day in recorded history, the 7:45 a.m. 104 bus pulled up to its Montclair stop where the good Mme. Chevalle lay flat on her ass on a sheet of frozen blood for all us riders to see.
Police investigations later showed 17 knife wounds in her back and neck, many of them made by different blades,but the perp or perps were never found as no one in that U-shaped hell-hole had heard or seen a single thing.
He was nondescript in every way except one: his penis was out of his pants and standing at attention right there on the 104 bus!
What on Christ’s home planet was the man thinking?
And how come I was the only rider who saw it?
Later, between Latin and history, I told Annie Shapiro about it. She said that I should stop looking at men’s crotches if I didn’t want to see flashers.
“They’re everywhere,” Annie said nonchalantly, as if men routinely opened their overcoats to just air out their genitals, to just treat them to a nice, warming blast of bus fumes for health’s sake, to just share a special moment with a confused-looking school girl in her navy-and-white uniform and be burned into her memory bank, forever.
Eventually, like rivers to the sea, all city buses ended up at The Forum, which was okay by most Montrealers, since that's where the hockey games were played.
One evening, and I don't remember how, I was in possession of a ticket to go watch Les Canadiens play the Boston Bruins. I rode the 104 downtown to the terminus when an urge took me to a bar next to the hockey rink.
The 104 bus driver was taking his dinner break in there, too, and I realized with a jolt that I had been riding his very bus throughout my childhood and high school years, and now I was old enough to go sit in his lap and legally cadge a drink.
I wanted to stand before him and say,'You drove me to music lessons and Yiddish school and to every day of high school, and I laughed and cried on your bus, which makes me almost your own child.'
But his eyes were dull and his uniform had a wet-wool-sour smell, so I let him be and took my story elsewhere.
My mother rides the 104 bus, her 90-year old body bent into a question mark by rheumatoid arthritis. She lives alone now, taking buses to her many doctor appointments: the one for her heart condition, the one for her deafness, the one she talks to about her depression.
She has not yet asked if she can live with me, has not said the words, “I cannot remember what I am supposed to do, today, or how to do it,” which she will say eventually. She is still fending for herself with a kind of courage specific to the very elderly, carrying her groceries on the 104, her footing not so sure and her bones as hollow as a bird's.
On the day that my mother gives up her independence, she rides the 104 one last time to pick up her medical records, a stack of files that require their own suitcase when we journey to America.
Now, many years later, I hold onto a small red leather change purse of my mother’s in which there is one Loonie, a safety pin and a senior’s bus ticket.
* A Loonie is the Canadian one dollar coin with a picture of a loon on it.