All Aboard The 44: How to spend your 21st birthday


I spent my 21st birthday learning to drive a bus. In the preceding week people would ask how I was going to celebrate possibly the most arbitrary and over-celebrated anniversary of the number of years I’ve managed to keep myself alive through sheer fluke and petulance. When I told people of my plans, they would respond excitably with only the slightest hint of pity.

Turning 21 throws up all sorts of problems. A series of quarter life crises have manifested themselves sporadically throughout my day-to-day life as I relentlessly surge towards adulthood: The realisation that large swathes of professional footballers are younger than you is a bitter pill to swallow. Not to mention, thanks to gifts from my family, I now for the first time in my life own and wear a watch, and keep receipts and cards in a wallet, instead of letting them slowly bend to unusability in the right pocket of my jeans.

Not to be ungrateful, but I was slightly sickened at how excited I was to receive these items. Next I’ll be at Homebase comparing horsepower stats on lawnmowers and leaving comments on Amazon purchases in a bid to stamp some meaning on an otherwise pitiful existence.

Back to the bus. As I slipped the handbrake down and ten tons of steel and distastefully carpeted seats started rolling towards a brick wall, all of my apprehension about scratching another notch onto the bed post of life disappeared. In that moment I was in control. As I gently caressed this monstrous yet elegant creature around the perimeter of what can only generously be called a bus depot, I knew that everything was going to be okay.

Physically driving a bus is actually far easier than I thought, watching the drivers navigate the double-decker behemoths through my hometown of London has always impressed me. But the gears are automatic, and although being considerably heavier than a car, the steering is gentler and less severe. A serenity seems to exist for driving buses that does not for cars.

A couple of friends had tagged along to witness the ridiculousness that was bound to unfold, and to their delight they got to ride along in the back. Due to my inexhaustible generosity I also let them ride for free. Thankfully they refrained from relentlessly ringing the bell as I rolled the bus around the depot for the assigned three laps, but they did take the opportunity of having access to the supervising professional bus driver, and barraged him with every single question they could think of concerning the life of buses and their captains.

The most revealing was the uncovering of the smiles and waves that bus drivers share when they pass each other, going separate ways on the same route. Obviously some of the drivers know each other, but in York especially, it is just the done thing – a sign of respect – to acknowledge your fellow driver. The drivers are often given sweets as passengers become regulars, and the job is refreshingly varied as some drivers we talked to had come from previous, more monotonous employment. Even though you may drive similar routes every week, the people you meet are always different, it’s positive interactions with other people that drivers savour the most.

Jumping forward to when I returned home, checking my Twitter brought up a tweet from Unibus offering me a drivers job after university. Maybe it wont be that long until I too can wave at my colleagues as I pass them on my route and collect sweets from my friendly passengers.

I had just received Advanced Training after all.
I had just received Advanced Training after all.

It is important to note that I was not alone at the depot, there was someone else. His name was Riaz, a small man slightly overdressed for the occasion, who told me that he had left his home in Blackburn at 5:30am to arrive in York so that he could share in the same privilege as me. The privilege that I had taken for granted, using this opportunity selfishly as a chance to blow off steam and unburden myself from the troubles of getting older, whereas Riaz was triumphant, exhibiting his love for public transportation in public, not shackled by the same mental foibles as me.

Dressed in his suit, he would have been more appropriately attired standing at an altar, but in that moment, the marriage between human emotion and clarity of thought as we took it in turns to drive that bus was something we shared. In that moment that fate had decided to bring Riaz and I together, he knew me and I knew him. Who knows what he’s doing right now, but we will both never forget the morning that we got to drive that bus.