by Sean Gill
Originally published in:
Yarver, Kimberly, ed. An Oral History of the Borough War. Incognito Publishing, New York, 2058. Used by permission.
Born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania in 1973, Victor Walker drove a bus for New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority from 2017 to 2032. In August 2024, at the close of the Borough War, he and dozens of other drivers were conscripted for a specialized task: the ferrying of former prisoners and other refugees from the city to secret locations in New Jersey. We met with him in March 2054 at Scorchy’s, a neighborhood bar in Mariners Harbor, Staten Island. At the age of 81, he remains in the workforce, employed as a barback at Scorchy’s. Today is his day off and he leisurely enjoys a drink: scotch and Bailey’s, warmed in the bar microwave for thirty seconds. Though his hair is a dusty white, he could easily be mistaken for a man in his 50s.
I used to be an accountant, you know, for a HGD Mineral, one of the oldest coal operations in the country. Course, they went out of business in 2015. That was when I moved to New York. By that I mean I was living here in Staten Island, but I was working in New York. I seen a lot of things in New York. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere, I think.
I wasn’t passionate about numbers, but that accounting job was probably the best I ever had. You’re young and dumb and don’t know how good you have it. Got married at 19, gained a little weight after high school, you know… all downhill after that. [laughs]
At the end of the good times and the beginning of the bad, I was driving a bus in the city. You saw a whole lot of things on the bus. Kids acting the fool, working men had a hard day and wanted to take it out on the bus, men outta work had a hard month and wanted to take it out on the bus. There were a lot of bad vibrations bouncing around that old bus around six. It was so thick you felt like you could grab a piece of it out of the air and stick it in your pocket for later. Then there were those kids, screaming, always screaming, and you could never tell just what was going on until it was too late. You heard a loud noise and it put you on edge. The difference between “fun” fun, cruel fun, and a situation was real slim sometimes. But driving became pure muscle-memory after a while: same shit, different day, you know. “It is what it is.”
In August, the NYPD came calling. They came to us when they wanted the dirty stuff, the dirty transpo, you know. [laughs] Every job that came along. They put five to ten guards on each bus. I don’t know why it was scarier when they had the automatic rifles, but it was. It didn’t matter really, cause it killed you just the same.
I always used to think––what if one of ’em snapped? [makes a gun gesture with his hands] Rat-a-tat. Hamburger.
We didn’t know what to make of it at first. NYPD said we had to make runs into New Jersey. I had about an hour’s training. SOPs in case of riot. “Don’t worry about it, it’s under control,” said the cops, and they patted their guns like proud parents.
We were picking ’em up from Department stores on 5th Ave. They were using them as holding facilities. Some kinda deal they’d worked out with the owners, I don’t know. Anyway, a single file of sad-looking people came out, getting waved onto my bus by the cops. “Hurry up, look alive, don’t drag your feet,” they said. The cops were tossing ’em around and beating ’em and stuff. Some of ’em were missing limbs, messed up real bad. That was a strange, sorry-ass sight, that long line of people marching out of a fancy joint like that. Heads down, eyes front. They weren’t even looking out the window. I felt bad. At first, I tried to look ’em in the eye, say “hello.” Later, you stopped looking.
At first, it was straight to Camden. An hour and forty-minute ride. We dropped ’em and came straight back. Three loads in a day… about eleven hours. I was getting time and half, too. Some of ’em talked to the cops once in a while. “Where we goin’?” Cops said, “Shut up.” In Camden, they tossed their asses off the bus and drove ’em like cattle. “What now?” somebody’d say. “Fuck you,” said the cops. “You got off easy…”
It didn’t take long to see what was happening. I was working transpo for New York’s Most Unwanted. These folks were getting dumped in the armpit of Jersey with nothing but the clothes on their back.
We were talking about… fifty a trip, three trips per day, so one-fifty souls per day, per bus. There were about forty other buses doing the same thing so… six thousand a day. And this went on for months. That was half a million people we were dumping off the damn bus.
You didn’t feel like you had a choice. I was driving folks and dropping ’em off. I didn’t really take stock in that “following orders” thing. You couldn’t make chicken salad out of chickenshit. But what got me was my youngest. He was twenty. That’s the age where you start getting ideas about how the world works and how you could fix it, if only they’d let you. He was working at a Modell’s, but they weren’t paying him enough, so he was living with us. One day he found out what I’d been doing, this time and a half with the NYPD. My oldest didn’t care, but my youngest had a strong feeling about what was going on in Brooklyn and the Bronx. He came to me and said, “You’re no better than the men who steered the slave ships.” That cut pretty deep. For the better part of my life, I had three mouths to feed. Had to put ’em first, you know? Shit, I was selling blood plasma for a while there, just for the extra two grand a year. So I said, “Son, the food you eat, the roof on your head, the clothes on your back––where do you think it comes from? It’s my blood, my aching back, my sore ass. You’ve got some big ideas in that head of yours, but it’s my time and a half that keeps that stomach from growling. And trust me, when your head starts feuding with your stomach, your head don’t stand a chance.” That hushed him right up. But as soon as I said it, I realized I’d become my own father. They say it happens to everyone.
I had strong feelings about the war, but it was hard to keep up. I spent all day getting mad about my job. I was supposed to work nights, too, doing research and getting mad about all this other stuff? Finding new things to get mad about? Life’s too short.
A few weeks in, the fashion stores were all emptied out. I thought my overtime was done with, but the next day they sent me across the bridge and into Brooklyn. I had no idea what to expect. I was looking at some raggedy, raggedy folks. I felt bad for ’em, fenced in and waiting for the bus. The cops had ’em standing around in pens, like animals on a farm. Before they got on my bus, the cops sprayed ’em down, and dusted ’em up. It helped with the smell some. Cops said the powder was for delousing. I can taste it in the back of my throat, even now.
Those trips from Brooklyn were shorter, for the most part. Camden was filling up, and we were hearing there was a lot of violence. The refugees set up their own camps, and the locals were coming in and messing with ’em. Setting tents on fire, robbing ’em, real nasty stuff. The milk of human kindness was all dried up. Thank God all I had to do was drive.
All this time, I was the good little bus driver they wanted me to be. Cause for all I knew, on the last trip they were planning on dumping my ass out there in the sticks.
We were dropping ’em in places for the poorest of the poor. Paterson, Passaic, Fort Dix, Newark, East Orange. We were dropping ’em in places that made Staten Island look like Beverly Hills. Those days dragged all kinds of ass. Twelve to fourteen hours a day sitting on my rump. The wife bought me one of those pillows, one that looked like a donut, on account of some medical troubles. Aw man, I got dogged pretty bad for that. The cops started calling me “Dainty-Cheeks Walker.” Only reason they knew my name was Walker, was cause it was stitched to my shirt. But that was lucky. It was good to be the butt of the joke. When you had a gang of idiots packing serious heat, it was important that when they saw you, they smiled. You became lovable and non-threatening to ’em.
There’s a jackal inside almost every man. You’ve got to hide that jackal away. I was a smart guy. An accountant, once upon a time. After a while, you started to feel like you were acting a part, almost. I’ve caught myself doing it a little with you even, and I like you. [laughs] And that’s how you survive this life. Put that in your book.
Sean Gill is a Brooklyn-based writer and filmmaker who has contributed to The Iowa Review, McSweeney’s, Brooklyn Rail, and Joyland. He is the recipient of the 2016 Sonora Review Fiction Prize, the 2017 River Styx Micro-Fiction Prize, and The Cincinnati Review’s 2018 Robert and Adele Schiff Award.