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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Bus Pass Story

The Adjunct Detective
Michael Hammond


Legendary among road-weary part-time professors, adjuncts, Stu Hanagan, for more than a decade, rode public transportation from school to school, college and university, teaching composition and literature courses to predominantly ambivalent general education students.

Having recently completed a Tuesday morning writing course at Illinois State University at Chicago, Stu was uncomfortably wedged within an overflowing throng of riders aboard the slow-moving and long-delayed southbound 82 Kimball bus, struggling to stay on his feet while maintaining his limited personal space. His right hand firmly clutched the overhead railing, supporting his entire body weight, while his left hand barely maintained control of both of his bags, a lesson-note and grade book-stuffed brown leather briefcase and a discount grocery store shopping bag crammed to capacity with student essays. The print on the thick plastic bag, an anti-status symbol, had worn away so thoroughly after years of use that the Aldi’s store logo was no longer discernable. The volume on the Kimball bus was intolerably loud; waves of chaos sprung from every direction, as raucous high school students, finally set free from a long day of lessons, terrorized Stu’s every sense. A misfit amidst a sea of vital and rambunctious youths in loose-fitting coats, sweatshirts and jeans, the round-faced, red-haired academic stuck out like the sorest of thumbs, an overgrown Kew-pie doll stuffed into the old tan trench coat he seemed to wear every season.

Stu grew increasingly obsessed with the position of his thick-framed, wire-rim glasses, which slowly slid down his nose. He imagined worse case scenario after worse case scenario, most involving shattered lenses and an equally difficult bus ride to his optometrist’s office at the Harlem/Irving Plaza out on the edge of the city limits, not to mention the potential strain purchasing new glasses would have on his fragile budget, especially given one of his two fall-term courses at ISUC was cancelled due to budget cutbacks. His attention was somewhat mercifully diverted when a bouncy teenage girl stepped on his typically untied brown leather left shoe while pushing her way towards a group of friends congregated near the rear door of the bus. Adding to the offense, she shouted back to them, while mere inches from Stu’s ear, in a piercing voice loud enough to make him flinch. He briefly imagined revenge on the unsuspecting shoe stepper and all her peers, fantasizing about the moment of victory he would savor when they, new college freshmen, found themselves registered for one of his classes next fall. An unexpected but characteristic gurgling chuckle escaped, inspired, as usual, by one of his many privately amusing thoughts.

Stu’s brief moment of reverie was interrupted by a swift poke in the lower back. The culprit was the sharp, bony elbow of the wild-haired woman of about fifty nestled between him and an overstuffed shopping cart that she had inexplicably wedged into the crowded aisle. He shot a grimace over his shoulder but swiftly replaced it with a smile when he made brief contact with the woman’s cold gray eyes. With his glance just as quickly returned to his untied shoe, Stu’s thoughts then fell upon another recurring fear: the perils of making his way through the masses to get to the obstructed bus door to exit safely at his stop. A plethora of awkward yet seemingly unavoidable social incidents, no doubt, awaited him along the way. Not once in a lifetime filled with bus rides had he failed make his stop, but such unimportant practical realities never swayed him from his right to kvetch. Adding to his anxiety was the reality of an even more demanding than usual commute, as Stu had a late-afternoon job interview at a community college in a far-flung suburb, some two plus hours and several transportation changes away.

Before he could embark upon this uninspiring adventure, he had to fulfill his regular Tuesday mid-day obligation, lunch and grocery shopping with his mother, a retired high school English teacher. Their weekly shopping trip was of mutual benefit, as the use of Audrey Hanagan’s boat-size Oldsmobile, which was a dull and dismal shade of maroon, made it easier for him to get groceries back to his one-room apartment ironically located somewhere along the stretch of Kimball upon which he was currently stuck. In return, he helped his petite mother carry her shopping bags. Most importantly, he provided her with much insisted upon companionship.

About mid-way through his normally brief commute, Stu spotted, weaving slowly from the rear of the bus, one of the four adjuncts with whom he had until quite recently shared a relatively small office. Donning a spiffy murky red and black-pinstriped thrift store suit, the exceedingly short instructor possessed a neatly cropped head of brownish gray hair and a thick, fluffy moustache. Joseph Rabodo was known to most of his students as Mr. Roboto, a fact he was rather fortunately unaware of, not that he would have understood the reference to a cheesy song by the Chicago classic rock group Styx. Stu was secretly perturbed by Rabodo’s wont to force his basic writing class, largely populated with non-native English speakers, to read Plato, Shakespeare and Homer. Stu was also annoyed by Rabodo’s frequent references to his glory days teaching at the University of Chicago, which he felt made little sense given his less than lofty position as part-timer at a status-less state university. Having vanquished the increasingly hyperactive mob between them, Rabodo, as was his practice, stopped exceedingly close to Stu, close enough to bump the Aldi bag with his left leg. Rabodo’s pants pocket jingled as if full of change. In this already abrasive atmosphere, a social obstacle of the most daunting variety, as Rabodo most certainly qualified, was more than Stu could tolerate. His exit-related apprehension painfully escalated. Stu checked his watch to discover that he needed to be at his mother’s five minutes ago.
"Stu, my friend, have you heard the news?"
"Uh, the news? What news?"
"Ah," Rabodo dubiously sighed before proceeding with the peculiar air of calculated erudition that seemed to fill his every sentence, "I assume you have yet to be informed of our esteemed chairperson’s most recent decision."
"Well," Stu chortled, "she doesn’t usually consult me on most matters."
"Strange. I’m given the impression that you have the ear of the chair."

The insinuation irritated Stu, who took a deep breath and attempted to mask his anger with a polite, if curt, response, "What would give you that impression?"
"How soon we forget. Perhaps I can refresh your memory. At the start of our current term, the two of you held a conversation about . . . what was the exact terminology used . . . the ‘cluttered’ nature of our office space, which apparently left a distinct impression."
"Oh, she passed me in the hall one day and asked if it was comfortable having four part-timers in one office. I do believe I said it was cluttered, which as we both know, was an extreme understatement."

Stu strained his neck to see out the bus window, unable to identify the location amongst a bevy of anonymous trees. "Did we pass Lawrence?" he muttered to no one in particular, as with the bus now filled far past capacity, it was too loud for Stu to hear the stops called over the speakers. Meanwhile, a large, handsome and masculine teen in a bulky red coat clumsily forced his way down the aisle, exchanging increasingly heated words with a female his age, who had nestled between Stu and Rabodo on her path through the bus. She was tall enough to shout back accusations of infidelity right over the head of Stu’s now former office mate, as her view of her male counterpart was unobstructed by the diminutive academic. Stu struggled to overcome the obstacle she in turn created, shifting his weight to wrap his head around the young woman’s frame, "I didn’t exactly complain . . . I mean, we gripe all the time about how little space we have. I just answered her . . ."
The teenage male’s husky, deep-throat yell drowned out Stu’s defensive stammering, "I’ve got enough authority figures in my life without you repressing me!"
"What’s that Poindexter?" she laughed. "Not all of us are in AP English."
"Quit your bickering, girl," he blasted, flinging a red athletic headband that matched both his coat and the over-sized basketball jersey that flowed from under the coat nearly to his knees. The headband overshot its target, instead hitting Stu in the head and hanging on his face until he twitched his nose thoroughly enough to let it drop to the floor. Otherwise unbothered, Stu instinctively checked to make sure his glasses were still in place.

The red-coated teen stopped to fetch the accessory as he bullied his way past the adjuncts to resume his argument. Once the quarreling couple cleared the area, Stu noticed Rabodo had transformed into something resembling a sawed-off vampire, his beady brown eyes blazing with animosity. Little buds of spittle embedded upon the right corner of his lips as his rant continued. "Stuart, one can only assume that when an officer of the faculty union mentions the cluttered conditions of their office space and a few scant days later, a veteran professor with University of Chicago credentials is so unceremoniously asked, nay ordered, to vacate the premises of an office he inhabited for over seven years, that perhaps the day of organized labor has not yet gone gently into that good night!" Holding his index finger in the air as if to indicate ‘one minute,’ Stu’s focus once again drifted towards the back door of the bus. "With all due respect, Professor Hanagan!" Rabodo exclaimed.
His attention reclaimed, Stu’s head twirled back around. "What is this about anyway, Joseph? What’s the news?"
Rabodo sighed an anguished sigh. "Earlier today, our chairperson visited me in my new office space, a glorified bullpen populated by graduate assistants and student aides, to inform me that my assignment for the spring term had been reduced to a grand total of zero courses!"

Stu felt a twinge of concern, even camaraderie. These were tough time for part-time faculty, who were offered little to no protection from the cold-hearted bureaucratic bottom line. When cuts came, they were the first to go and the last to know.
"Yes," Rabodo huffed, his intensity increasing with each passing word, the beads of spittle now violently and unpredictably projecting outward. "My only class canned, under more than dubious circumstances, according to rationale sketchy at best. And here I am, among the most senior of part-time composition faculty, more senior than even you, I dare say." The implicit threat in his message most certainly registered. Rabodo took a deep breath and lowered his voice for emphasis. "Alas, while I may have rubbed shoulders with the best and the brightest at the University of Chicago, I’ve never had the privilege of hobnobbing with Union President Ronald T. Forrest, the bloated buffoon. I guess I don’t possess the caliber of clout that you do."

"Clout? Are you serious?" Stu’s composure finally flew the coup. His voice rose even louder simply to climb above the din of the closely contained crowd, cracking under the strain, as it was prone to do in those rare circumstances in which careful efforts to keep his real emotions under wraps failed. "Sure, I’ll talk to Ron for you, but you should know that all my union position means is that I have to endure mind-numbing meeting after mind-numbing meeting, where blowhard professors ramble on, disregarding the scant few words I happen to get in edgewise, meanwhile putting my very job at risk with the administration." A deep breath punctuated his rant. His voice splintered into a high-pitched squeal as he added a final question. "Do you realize that the last person to hold my office got fired?"

Rabodo opened his mouth to reply but was upstaged by the frenzied caterwauling of the woman with the shopping cart. "My pass! My bus pass! Someone stole my monthly pass!" Her hands desperately scanned the pockets of her coat, shirt and pants. "It’s gone. It was stolen." The woman turned about to face a tall young man with even taller hair wearing a long and tattered gray coat and thick plastic-rimmed glasses. Though he appeared to be in his late teens, it was questionable as to whether or not he was still in high school. Her cold gray eyes grew wide and stern. "It cost $75! $75!" She began to nod slowly, repeatedly. "Yes. Yes. It was you. You took it. When you brushed up against me, not even saying excuse me."

With his hearing shielded by his mp3 player, the young man was initially oblivious to her accusations, a glazed look about his face. Finally taking notice of her emphatic gesturing, he ripped the buds from his ears and began to understand the charges against him. "Lady," he replied, shaking his head and shrugging his fragile-looking shoulders, "You’re crazy."
"Let me check your pockets," she said, reaching to handle the young man.
"No way." He squirmed to avoid her clutches, his torso swaying back and forth while his hands retained grasp of the overhead railing.

Rabodo unexpectedly wormed his way between the two, maneuvering with even superior control of the railings, shifting hands deftly like a child with talent on the monkey bars. "This happened right in my line of sight, and I can at minimum confirm the heart of this woman’s story. You did graze this woman, young man."
"So? In case you didn’t notice, this bus is pretty freakin’ crowded. Did you see me take her damn pass?" The edginess of his voice and demeanor betrayed the fragility advertised by his long, thin and delicate, almost feminine, features.
"No need to get foul. However, no, I cannot say I did. May I ask your name young man?"
"Brandon."
"OK, Brandon." Rabodo turned to face the accuser. "Madam, where do you normally keep your pass?"
"Right here," she answered, pointing to a wide and deep pocket on the front right side of a battered blue pea coat that had more than a few hand-sewn patches strewn across its exterior.
"Well," Rabodo speculated while twirling the ends of his moustache, "certainly the young man would have had access to the pocket as he passed by."
"That doesn’t prove anything," the accused shot back, appearing more anxious and agitated with each passing moment.
"A little defensive, don’t you say?" mumbled the woman, somewhat over Rabodo’s shoulder.

Rabodo appeared emboldened by his part in the drama, his posture sharpening, his voice gaining confidence. Observing him, Stu felt pangs of resentment, even anger. If Rabodo had assumed the role of prosecutor, Stu felt it only fair that someone play the part of defense council. "Excuse me," he interjected, addressing the young man. "Do you attend Von Stueben?"
"Yeah," he bristled. "What’s it to you?"
Stu’s eyes scrunched together as he scratched his scalp. "Well . . ." The bus came to a sudden stop causing those standing in the aisle to lurch forward. Stu very nearly lost his feet, barely keeping hold of his bags. The Aldi bag briskly struck the knee of a small, hunchy older man wearing pink sweats pants and holding in his lap a not-quite-the-same shade of pink backpack with rainbows and unicorns adorning the front. Stu did a double-take at the sight of the man whose every other feature and accessory, such as a round neatly shorn head, a gruff gray sweatshirt worn with no coat, and walking stick befitting his age, contradicted the image projected by the pink flourishes. Stu offered an apology, but the man gave no response save for a bright-eyed, contented smile.
"Why should we take his word on anything?" the would-be victim interjected.
"Son, would you mind showing us your school ID?" Stu requested.
Brandon sighed, rolling his eyes, but eventually complied, pulling a billfold from an inside pocket of his unbuttoned coat, taking out the ID card and handing it to Stu.
"Well," Stu proudly concluded, flashing the card to the other interested parties, "Von Stueben students receive reduced fare passes to ride the CTA. What reason would a high school student have to steal a monthly pass for adults?"
"To sell it. Probably for drugs."
"Oh, come on, lady," Brandon protested.
"Look at his eyes . . . and that hair . . . and that jacket!"
"Look at your eyes . . . and your hair . . . and your jacket!"
"Regardless of his purpose," Rabodo chimed in, "monthly passes are certain to have some value on the black market."

This time Stu couldn’t help but roll his eyes. "Do you mind if I take a look at that ID?" Brandon balked as Stu handed it over, but he couldn’t do much to intervene among the press of people. "Ah, hah!" Rabodo preened. "So much for young Brandon. Isn’t that right, Geoffrey Parker? That’s Geoffrey . . . with a G!"
Caught in a lie, Geoffrey’s face reddened.
"Arrest this boy! He stole my pass!"
"I’m afraid that might be in order," Rabodo affirmed.

Suddenly, the bus swerved to the curb, jarring all participants in this drama and eliciting a collective moan from the other weary riders. The driver, very clearly a large person, even whilst viewed seated, unbuckled his seat belt and slowly rose to his feet to reveal a mountain of a man of at least six-feet six inches and easily 300 pounds. Slightly out of breath from the task of transporting his sheer bulk through such a cramped space, he groaned and squeezed his way through crowd with great difficulty. Unable to proceed all the way to the discussants, he spoke with a booming, frustrated voice that easily projected the necessary distance. "OK, somebody give me the short version."
Everyone involved in the controversy went to speak, but Rabodo was quickest on the draw. "This lady claims that this young man has taken her monthly pass."
"He bumped me," she confirmed, pointing at the young man. "That’s when he grabbed it."
"He’s in high school," Stu countered. "He has no need for her pass."
"But he could be looking to pass the card on for profit," Rabodo offered, "and he lied about his name, which is Geoffrey . . . with a G."
The driver peered at Geoffrey and scolded him with a stern nod before addressing his accuser. "Where did you get on the bus, mam?"
"Bryn Mawr." It was one stop before Stu got on at Catalpa. "I was shopping at the Korean market—they have an ointment I need for my gout. No one else has it."
"Your ointment?" the youngster laughed, earning a dirty look from the woman.
"No one needs to know about your ointment, mam," the driver retorted. "Listen, I don’t have time for this. This bus is loaded, loud, and late, I’m just about to lose my mind up in here. Son, give it to me straight. Do you have the pass?
"No sir."
"He probably passed it on to one of his druggie buddies," said the woman, repeating the charge while looking away. The crack inspired a raised eyebrow from the driver.
"Fine. Did you take the pass?"
"Absolutely not . . . I think this lady is a bit nuts."
"That’s rather unnecessary," Rabodo scolded.
"This is unnecessary, man!" Geoffrey shouted. "This whole thing is messed up!"

The delayed passengers were losing patience. A stream of hisses and jeers flowed their way to the front of the bus.
"Where did you purchase your pass, mam?" Stu calmly quizzed, hoping to put matters back on track.
"At the Jewel, like I do every month."
"OK," he accepted. "I still buy mine at CTA headquarters downtown, which is right near one of the schools where I teach. My students, who I often meet here on the 82 Kimball, tell me I should purchase it online, but I don’t have a credit card. Joseph, where do you purchase yours?"
"Well, generally speaking, that is to stay on a normal month, I purchase mine at the grocery store, the one nearest my place of residence."
"What about this month?"
Rabodo took a measured look at Stu before responding in a flat, stern tone, "The same."
"I say the least we can do is chip in and give this poor woman some bus fare. Anybody have any quarters?" Stu shifted his eyes about before settling his glance to Rabodo. Stu nodded at his colleague, whose eyes blared yet again only to quickly dull.
"Not so fast," the driver reluctantly clarified. "I’ve got to fill out a report on this. We might have to call the cops."

Hearing mention of the police, Geoffrey bolted, attempting one extremely futile escape, only succeeding in plunging into the teen in the big red coat after tripping over his girlfriend. Geoffrey landed on the floor of the bus with a sickening splat. The chain reaction caused by the collision toppled a few riders and did much to escalate the hostility of the trapped masses. The intimidating teen in crimson clothing swore at Geoffrey, this time intentionally sticking to simple language, words no more than a few syllables, in hopes of sounding hard, "I’ll smash your face in. . .I’ll bust you up . . ." The shrill sound of his girlfriend’s laughter drew both his attention and his ire back to her. "What now?"
"You a fool, Tim. You a fool."

The driver sighed and then begrudgingly renewed his efforts to pass through the crowd, trudging his way forward until he towered over the young man sprawled across the floor. "That’s it. We’re going to have to contact the cops." He extended his right hand to the accused while reaching with his left for the walkie-talkie holstered on his belt.
With the crowd’s attention focused on the scene a few feet away, Stu pressed his chest very near Rabodo’s, and in one swift motion, fished the woman’s pass from his fellow instructor’s front coat pocket and let it drop to the ground before covering it with this untied left shoe.
"HQ?" the driver spoke into the receiver. "We’ll need a squad car to Kimball, a few blocks shy of Lawrence."

Stu very subtly shifted his shoe back and forth, in an effort to make the card appear trampled on before kicking the pass a few inches away. "I know this may sound so obvious as to be silly," Stu called out using a precociously innocent tone, "but did anybody bother to check the floor? Maybe she dropped it."
The driver’s face went blank, as he dropped the walkie-talkie away from his ear. "You gotta be shittin’ me," he sighed. "Nobody looked around? Damn!"
"Nope," Stu explained.
The driver shot a menacing look at Geoffrey. "Stay put, or I swear . . ." His chest heaved with each belabored breath as he dragged his mammoth frame back to the scene of the crime. Anybody see it?" He called to all within earshot.
"But he took it?" protested the victim.
"I concur. This is a wild goose chase," Rabodo complained, "a pointless delay. The young man has as much as confessed!" The devious comments inspired a scolding gaze from Stu, but Rabodo quickly averted his eyes.
"What is this?" called out the little man with the pink backpack as he collected the pass from the ground. He smiled widely, as before, while waving the small rectangular card in the air.
"I’ll be damned," cursed the driver while retrieving the pass. "Here you go, mam," he said with a sneer, immediately starting his way back to the driver’s seat, mumbling and muttering all the way.

Rather have been right than regain an item she couldn’t afford to lose, the woman railed against the outcome, shrieking in denial. Once the shock settled, her hysterical resistance softened to red-faced shame. "I’ve never done this before," she shared weakly, regretfully, fighting back tears.
"These crowded buses are pretty stressful," Stu sympathetically replied. "I lose at least one winter hat per week. Thank goodness they are only a few dollars at Walgreen’s. Hats are one item I’m not all that comfortable picking up at the Village Discount Outlet."
"I’m more of a Unique Thrift Store gal," she blew her nose into a well-worn hanky. "Village is cramped and too messy for my taste . . . not to mention the awful smell."
Slightly jilted, Stu crinkled his lips and pretended to look out the window.

Without uttering a word, Rabodo followed Stu off the bus once it finally arrived Lawrence Avenue, despite the fact that Stu was heading for the westbound Lawrence bus stop, which was across the street from the Brown Line station where Rabodo needed to board a downtown bound train. Faintly, he finally asked, "How did you know?"
"The change. For bus fair," Stu answered, initially engaging his colleague with eye contact before quickly disengaging. "Nobody has that many quarters in their pocket unless they’re also hauling a load of laundry. If you’re paying for the bus with change, you clearly don’t have a monthly pass of your own, despite your claims to the contrary. Given that they cut your course load this term and all your classes next term, you may not even be able to afford one. Lastly, there are only two stops where someone catches the 82 Kimball after leaving our building: at Catalpa, where I got on, or at Bryn Mawr, where the woman got on. Since you weren’t there at Catalpa with me, you must have boarded at Bryn Mawr, meaning you had an opportunity to snatch her pass before I ever spotted you on the bus, probably soon after the two of you boarded, as it couldn’t have been before since she obviously used the pass to get on."
"But how did you know I put it in my coat pocket?"
"Somewhat of a lucky guess. It was either there or in your pants, and clearly I had no hope to reach into those pockets without attracting attention."

An extended pause fell between them, something that struck Stu as a first in all his dealings with his talkative colleague. "Don’t assume I did it for you," Stu explained without acknowledging the small but steady feeling of something remotely close to guilt that also influenced his actions. "Some innocent high school kid was about to get hassled by the cops. Besides, having to stand witness to the crime would have destroyed any chance I had of getting to the suburbs for this stupid interview."
"Um, yes," Rabodo uncharacteristically sputtered, "The thing is . . . do . . . do you recall the series of missing staplers in our . . . my former and your current office?" Finally regaining his sense of linguistic command, he continued without waiting for a reply. "The truth is I have, shall we say, a bit of a problem, dating back to my stay at the University of Chicago when I discovered the pure, unadulterated pleasure of pilfering Plato from the campus bookstore."

Stu, who had expected an apology not a confession, resumed his fallback stare at his now both untied shoes. Rabodo regretfully sighed, "There is nothing to fear, however, as the ISUC English Department bullpen has but one stapler, stored at a common desk where every item smaller than the paper cutter is secured by a metal chain!"
"Mother’s groceries won’t carry themselves," Stu nervously interrupted, uncertain how to respond to Rabodo’s revelation. With no bus in sight, he began to once again cross the street, walking away from the bus stop, as it was only a slightly more than ten minute walk to his destination. As before, Rabodo gave chase. "I’d say I’ll see you around the office but apparently not anymore," Stu explained without looking back. The awkward attempt at a farewell was not intended as rude but was no doubt received that way. Stu realized his mistake and stopped to face Rabodo. "Sorry," Stu shrugged. "You know what I mean."
"I do," Rabodo solemnly concluded, finally allowing Stu to escape without pursuit.

© Michael Hammond April 2009
michaeljhammond at yahoo.com

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