In the present, while parked at a stop for a few minutes, the zany bus driver Bert asks if it’s anyone’s birthday. The kids on the bus laugh, and Bert points to a young man named Domingo, who says that his birthday is coming up. Bert sings a goofy rendition of “Happy Birthday to You,” and everyone applauds. Bert tells Rachel that this is his creative way to make his passengers smile.
Like Bailey, Bert uses humor to entertain and connect his passengers. As a result of his efforts, his passengers momentarily turn from a disconnected cluster of individuals into a unified band of fellow travelers. This is similar to how the women on Estella’s bus all start talking about relationships at the same time—in both cases, the bus driver’s expertise at connecting people creates a special, communal experience for the passengers. However, Bert and Estella do it in different ways: Bert by talking and Estella by patiently listening.
Bert drove buses in New York for three decades, until he retired to Pennsylvania. Then, he got bored, so he decided to start driving part-time. He complains that the local passengers are “rude and crude,” especially to Beth. There are “people like Beth on every bus” in New York, Bert says, and everyone tolerates one another. But crazy things also happen—like the time a naked, mud-covered woman got on his bus at 2 a.m. in Staten Island. Another time, there was a woman wearing nothing but a bandanna. Bert declares that driving in New York taught him to find creative solutions to any problem. This reminds Rachel about how, as children, she and Beth used to play with the spider webs under their house.
Bert’s decision to keep driving after retirement shows that he truly loves his job. And his stories from New York present a version of the U.S. that’s very different from Pennsylvania—one that is more unpredictable, more varied, and more tolerant of difference. He clearly wishes that people treated Beth in Pennsylvania like they would in New York, but he also seems to believe that the best way for people to become more tolerant is simply by exposing themselves to more difference. Finally, like all the other drivers Rachel has met, Bert offers her a potential solution to her troubles. Namely, his emphasis on creatively solving problems speaks to Rachel’s doubts about how she should treat Beth, given that she has no “guide to being a good sister” that she can follow.
Bert starts talking to the audience in rhymes. He compliments an elderly woman, promises a little girl that the tooth fairy will visit her, and sings “Over the River and Through the Wood.” For the rest of the day, every time the bus reaches a stop, Bert tells Beth and Rachel a New York story. When kids threw bricks at his bus on Halloween, he learned that “the power to observe is the power to learn.” He also explains that, now that he’s older, he has compassion for elderly people who struggle to cross the street. Rachel writes down Bert’s wisdom in her journal, and the other passengers make fun of her for it.
Bert’s jolly riddles, songs, and stories again make it clear that he loves his job—and that he passes on his enjoyment to his passengers. He may not help these passengers solve their deepest problems, like Jacob and Estella do, but he certainly takes their minds off those problems for the duration of their ride. Meanwhile, his comments about “the power to observe” recall Tim’s ideas about the importance of details from the very beginning of the book. Of course, as a writer, Rachel’s job is to translate her observations into meaningful lessons—thus, when she notes down Bert’s ideas, she’s clearly implementing them, too.
The bus passes Jesse, who is riding his bike to the highway. This surprises Rachel, but Bert explains that everyone is used to seeing him. At the next stop, Bert talks about how a man once got on his bus between stops and beat up a passenger. Bert realized that he shouldn’t have picked the man up. He concludes that it’s important to improvise—like Jesse riding his bike on the highway. Then, Bert explains how kids try to climb out of the bus’s roof hatch on school trips, so drivers have to repeatedly tap on the breaks to prevent them from standing up.
Surely enough, right after Bert talks about the link between observation and learning, he demonstrates this link by turning Jesse’s bike ride into a teachable moment. Meanwhile, his anecdote about improvisation again underlines Rachel’s struggle to become more spontaneous, like Beth. After all, while she tends to rigidly plan and control her life, she knows that this approach won’t improve her relationship with Beth or help her overcome her fear of dating.
Everywhere he’s driven, Bert concludes, people are bored and depressed—but comedy and singing can make their day. Before driving off, he sings one more song: “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Beth and Rachel run off the bus. Bert gives Beth a thumbs-up and tells her to “do the right thing.” That evening, Rachel reminds Beth about how she used to love being tickled—and then Rachel tickles Beth for a half hour. Rachel feels totally comfortable with Beth, and the critical voice in her head has faded away.
Like Estella and Bailey, Bert knows that buses, the humblest of public spaces, can help fight Americans’ generalized sense of isolation and despair—so long as drivers take the opportunity to engage and connect with their riders. Rachel and Beth’s tickle session shows that they’re applying Bert’s lessons about spontaneity and playfulness to consciously fight their isolation. And when Rachel’s critical voice starts to fade, this shows that Bert was right: she must build a better relationship with Beth by embracing uncertainty and improvisation, rather than continuing to seek control.