At 6 a.m., Beth and Rachel are standing on a corner, watching buses drive past. Beth tells Rachel all about each bus driver. Then, their bus arrives. The driver is Tim, a good-humored, bookish 40-something whom Beth calls “Happy Timmy” and other bus drivers call the “Professor.” He gleefully greets Beth, who sits at “her throne”—the single seat on his right, which gives her a view of the whole bus.
Beth’s passionate monologues about the bus drivers’ lives again show how her bus-riding vocation satisfies her needs for belonging, connection, and novelty. Specifically, it does so by embedding her in a broader network of people who know and care about her. Rachel describes Beth’s seat as a “throne” in order to emphasize how, on the buses, she matters and knows exactly where she belongs.
Tim affectionately teases Beth about her habit of riding empty routes and knowledge about all the bus drivers. He even calls her “the town crier.” When he says that the sunrise reminds him of Earth’s long history, stretching back to the Precambrian period, Beth jokes about his taste for long words. They tell Rachel how an elderly woman once got angry with Beth for taking the best seat, and Tim tells Beth how figures like Eleanor Roosevelt and Mahatma Gandhi demonstrate the value of kindness.
Tim’s teasing shows that he and Beth have developed a close friendship, while his nickname for her—“the town crier”—shows how her famous bus-riding has given her a prominent place in her local community. Meanwhile, with his thoughtful lectures about natural history and kindness, Tim defies Rachel’s expectations about the kind of people who are likely to drive buses for a living. This shows Rachel that her prejudices have cut her off from other people, and that her assumptions about Beth’s life were totally wrong. Bus-riding is far more enriching and satisfying than Rachel ever imagined.
Rachel notes that she usually simplifies her sentences for Beth, but she starts wondering if, like Tim, she should use her usual complicated vocabulary instead, which helps Beth learn. She calls Tim “personable,” and Beth agrees: he’s “cool,” which is the highest compliment in “Beth-speak.” Beth appreciates that Tim loves his job and always smiles.
Tim’s complex, academic speeches lead Rachel to rethink her previous assumptions about Beth’s intellectual capacities. He reminds her that she can help Beth learn and grow, and that it’s entirely possible to translate between her own sophisticated vocabulary and Beth’s “Beth-speak.”
During a brief layover along his route, Tim tells Rachel about his past: he always loved learning and wanted to become a historian, archaeologist, or photographer. But he ended up dropping out of school and driving the bus instead, to support his family. He loves how his job gives him a window into the details of people’s lives and lets him see how the city slowly changes over time. Rachel looks at the multicolored drawing of a face that Beth has just finished.
Tim helps Rachel see richness and depth in things she used to see as flat and uninteresting—including his and his passengers’ lives. Of course, this echoes the way that Rachel has learned to see the richness and depth in Beth’s life by riding the buses with her. In fact, this process of digging into others’ stories and pulling out the most compelling parts is the core of Rachel’s vocation as a writer (and, as she has learned, Tim’s vocation as a bus driver).
Passengers start boarding the bus, and Tim greets each by name. Rachel tries to pay attention to the details: their faces and speech, the bus’s sounds and ads. As Beth and Tim chat about different kinds of buses and an injured driver, Rachel starts to wonder whether the intellectual Tim can really be happy in such an ordinary job.
As the passengers board, Rachel momentarily tries to view the world from Tim’s perspective. By paying attention to all sorts of details that she would otherwise take for granted, she begins to grasp how a job as mundane and repetitive as bus driving can become intellectually stimulating. While she doesn’t entirely understand Tim’s profession yet, she does gain respect for it, which helps her connect to him, Beth, and the other drivers she will meet over the following months.
Then, an elderly passenger named Norma tells Tim and Beth that today would be her anniversary. She and other passengers share memories of their youth, when the city was full of stores, factories, and theaters. Norma describes meeting her husband at the old park, and Rachel tries to imagine the scene. Meanwhile, a handsome man invites Rachel to go dancing with him. He asks where she’s headed, and she explains that she’s following her sister, Beth.
In addition to showing how rich and deep ordinary people’s life stories are, Norma’s memories point to the underlying socioeconomic conditions that have transformed Beth’s formerly industrial Rust Belt town since the mid-20th century. Namely, deindustrialization has turned the formerly vibrant town into a husk of what it used to be. Economic decline has particularly threatened the communal spaces and institutions that used to tie the community together—like the stores, factories, and theaters that Norma describes. Buses are among the few such public spaces left, and this helps explain why Beth spends her days riding them.
The passengers disembark, until only Rachel, Beth, and Tim are left. While the bus waits for passengers at the mall, Tim tells Rachel that his job isn’t about driving—it’s about meeting people and hearing their stories. Just like history and archaeology, it’s a way to learn about the past and see all of life’s rich detail. At the end of the day, Rachel drives home to Philadelphia, and Beth sends her two letters: one thanking her for visiting and one explaining that, on their drive, Tim saw Jesse on his new bike. When she receives this letter, Rachel marvels at Tim’s eye for detail and wonders where he learned it.
Meeting Tim has helped Rachel bridge the gap between herself and Beth. Because his temperament and interests are similar to Rachel’s, but he lives his life on the buses alongside Beth, he shows Rachel how her world can coexist with Beth’s on the buses. In fact, Tim’s comments about the passengers he meets show why the buses are so special: they’re the ultimate inclusive space, where absolutely everyone can belong. This helps explain why Beth is so drawn to them: she belongs on the buses just as much as anyone else, including the non-disabled people who have so often excluded her from their world.