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Real life … on a bus ride in Tucson

It was the day of the big game. I scurried around my hotel room, quickly gathering everything I needed to properly cover Belmont and Wisconsin. Laptop, charger, pen, notepad, wallet, press pass. Check, check, check …

I walked out into the dry heat of Tucson to wait for the bus. The Belmont contingency was staying at a hotel near the airport. The bus was my only cheap ticket into town, even though I’d arrived with more than a hundred fellow students, athletes and staff on a chartered flight from Nashville.

The Bruins weren’t playing until later that night, but my pass allowed me access to the first two games of the day. When in Tucson, I guess.

The bus pulled up and I stepped on. I told the driver I needed to go downtown, and just as he pointed out that I was on the wrong bus, the doors closed and he pulled away.

“These folks in Arizona, they don’t tell ya how to get from A to B. They say ya gotta go down this corner, up this street, over there. Nothing like New York City,” he said in a heavy Brooklyn accent.

No matter. He’d get me where I needed to go. I sat down. Several advertisements loomed overhead—half of them in Spanish. “Di No A La Drogas.” But the population of Tucson is 41.6 percent Hispanic, according to the 2010 Census. The poverty rate hovers around 20 percent, the highest of any city in Arizona and well above the 14 percent national rate.

And I’m just the standard white male from North Carolina, a senior at a private university, and the biggest concern in my life is where—not if—I will work after graduation.

So there I was, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with an older black man wearing a suit. A younger woman, also dressed for work, tapped away at her cell phone. We drove past trailer parks and dilapidated business centers. A Hispanic woman in a McDonald’s uniform boarded.

“Aw, c’mon, where’s my McDouble today?” the driver chuckled. The woman smiled but didn’t answer.

After a while, the bus driver told me to get off at the next stop, cross the street, walk down a block and pick up another bus. I did. But when I arrived, there were three marked stops—a Bermuda Triangle of confusion.

A dark-skinned woman approached me with a 40-ounce bottle in a brown paper bag. She told me the 1-Route would take me downtown. Eventually, a scruffy, middle-aged white man joined us. The two of them shared pills from a small orange prescription bottle.

Midday was approaching and the sun was brutal. The bus arrived; again I was told that I was on the wrong route—again after the bus was in motion.

But I bargained with the driver this time. “You get me to walking distance of McKale Center, I’ll take it,” I said.

Ten weeks ago, President Barack Obama delivered a powerful speech at McKale in the wake of a parking lot shooting Jan. 8 that killed six people and wounded 13 others.

“The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better in our private lives — to be better friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents,” Obama said.

Lives had changed, and life had continued. Cars filled the streets. The sounds of bouncing basketballs and cheering fans would soon fill the same air as Obama’s poignant words did.

I stared out the windows at the mountains that flank the city and dwarf the handful of high-rises in the skyline. Tucson is in the Sonoran Desert. It’s flat, open. Your surroundings are always apparent.

About halfway through the route, the bus driver fired a mechanism to lower the bus and rolled out a ramp for a young woman in a wheelchair. Her long blonde hair fell across a pretty face.

The man accompanying her was older, in his 40s and decked out in dark jeans and a muscle T-shirt. His sunglasses had “Jesus” and crosses etched into them, his arms were dotted with tattoos — barbed wire, someone’s initials, a quote about pain.

He gently situated the wheelchair, then knelt beside it, right across from me. His hand caressed her skin, from her cheek down to her legs. He chattered loudly about his ambiguous job and how he was continually getting screwed. The young woman stared blankly out the window.

Then, our bus rounded a corner and the man got excited.

“Baby, look! You see that house over there? The one with the truck outside? I used to live there about 20 years ago,” he said. She didn’t respond. She was no more than 20, maybe 22 years old.

“Lived there with my buddy, Frank, and this other guy. One time, the other guy was late on his rent payment, so me and Frank took care of it, if you know what I mean.

“He came home one night and we jumped him. I stuffed a dirty rag down his throat, while Frank kicked the crap out of him. We could have killed him, you know. Stupid bastard.”

His companion looked uneasy, but she managed to force a half-smile. Her gaze was still fastened on the window and the landscape beyond.

In Tucson, you can’t hide from anything. There are no hills and no shadows. If only you could reach those mountains looming in the distance.

The bus came to an abrupt stop. The driver told me he’d taken me as far as he could. I worked my way around the young woman’s wheelchair and bounded down the steps, back into the sun.

It was time to watch some basketball.

Pierce Greenberg, Vision sports editor, is a senior journalism major.

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