On the bus one morning in March, the bus driver Jacob points Rachel ahead to a hill. He explains that, in the past, the old buses weren’t powerful enough to climb the hill unless some people got out and walked. That made it easy to see who was selfless—it was whoever agreed to walk.
Just like Tim, Jacob will help Rachel appreciate a virtue she didn’t fully understand before—in this case, charity. In turn, Tim’s wisdom will help her make sense of her past, her isolation, and her relationship with Beth.
Rachel has returned to ride with Beth about ten days after her previous visit. Beth found her a safe place to park, and the winter is already fading. Jacob drives so smoothly that Rachel scarcely notices when they’re moving and when they’re stopped.
The slowly fading winter and Jacob’s smooth, imperceptible braking both symbolize the cyclical, gradual nature of change. In turn, these details foreshadow the slow, steady progress that both Rachel and Beth make on their journeys through life during their year together.
Beth complains about Gus, a bus driver who’s mean to her, but Jacob says that Gus is just grouchy because he’s had a very hard life—just like another driver who just died, and was always mean to Beth. In fact, when Beth sent him a card in the hospital, he was delighted. Beth blushes when Jacob insists that she’s a good person who loves everyone.
Jacob has taught Beth to dispel conflict through empathy. This works because people who mistreat others are often just acting out their own inner turmoil. This principle foreshadows the next scene and Rachel’s reflections on her own family conflicts, which she realizes stem from their own trauma. Her decision to embrace Beth, like Beth’s decision to embrace Gus, embodies the healing power of love.
Then, an elderly woman loudly complains that the bus just entered Zone 1, which Beth’s bus pass doesn’t cover. She insists that Beth should be thrown off the bus for “cheating the system.” After a few minutes, Jacob tells Beth to show the woman her bus pass: it says “Zone 1.” Later, after the woman leaves, Jacob tells Rachel that “nothing bothers Beth,” even if some of the elderly passengers are mean to her.
The old woman’s tirade demonstrates how people often take their personal frustrations and resentment out on Beth because her disability and eccentric, nonconformist lifestyle make her an easy target. Yet Beth’s pass proves that she truly does belong on the bus. This affirms that the bus remains the ultimate inclusive space, where everyone is welcome and equal (including the elderly and disabled).
Beth plays with some kids on the bus—they sing and clap together, and the kids see that she’s more fun and accepting than other grown-ups. Rachel envies Beth’s ability to connect with children, and Jacob comments that Beth always knows who’s trustworthy. But they disagree about how to deal with trouble: Beth believes in revenge (or “an eye for an eye”), while Jacob believes in mercy (or the Golden Rule). He jokes that while Beth annoys some drivers, she helps him learn to be more patient and selfless. Beth hears this and smiles as she plays with the kids.
Beth’s immediate connection with the children demonstrates another unexpected advantage of her developmental disability. Yet she also clearly isn’t as selfless or generous as Jacob. Indeed, the reader must analyze Jacob’s comments about Beth through the lens of his worldview. He’s not saying that Beth is a role model for patience and selflessness—instead, he’s saying that he has to be patient and selfless in order to deal with her impatience and selfishness. Through this comment, Jacob models for Rachel how to treat Beth with generosity and understanding—even when her behavior is harmful and inappropriate.
Later, as they wait for a train to pass, Beth comments that Jacob once died. Jacob explains that he used to be a serious alcoholic. He got hepatitis B, and one day, he fell asleep on his couch and ended up in a three-week coma. He barely managed to get a liver transplant, and his heart briefly stopped during the procedure. When he woke up, he completely lost his memory, but everything around him suddenly looked unbelievably beautiful. He felt like he was in heaven, or a state of “total purity.” Things started going right in his life. He started reading the Bible and working to improve himself.
Just like Tim, Jacob has learned his values through his life experiences. His story shows how such experiences—especially deep personal crises—often provide the best motivation for people to change. Yet throughout the rest of the book, as Rachel struggles to do something about her own loneliness and Beth’s bad habits, she will also look for other, less painful routes to change. Namely, she will explore whether love, forgiveness, and support are enough to get people to change.
Jacob says that he is so grateful that someone donated their liver to him—which is the ultimate act of selflessness. The train passes, and he drives ahead; he tells Beth that his near-death experience is why he believes in the Golden Rule. But Beth says that she still isn’t convinced—and that she needs to use the bathroom. Jacob promises that he’ll convince her eventually, and he lets her and Rachel off the bus.
Beth’s comments show that she doesn’t yet value selflessness as much as Jacob. Yet Jacob’s story shows that he only became selfless after someone else’s selflessness saved his life. This conversation foreshadows Rachel’s attempts to change Beth in the second half of the book. Namely, she will try to help Beth become more generous and patient by modeling generosity and patience for her.