Friday, June 25
Shadow

A Story About Tim Duncan – The Ringer

I want to tell you a story about a taco, and also tell you a thing about Tim Duncan. First, though, let me tell you about a bus.

My father drove a city bus in San Antonio for 34 years. It’s the only job I can remember him ever having. It’s a part of the memory package I have for him in my head. The attire changes—there was a period of time when his uniform was brown-based (dark brown pants and a tan short-sleeve button-up shirt); and there was a period of time when his uniform was blue-based (dark blue pants and a light blue short-sleeve button-up shirt); and also there was even a very brief period when he was allowed to wear jeans to work—but the job is always the same. It’s him and the bus. For decades, literally. And well over a million miles, literally.

For a few months in the mid-’90s, his route took him through the neighborhood where we lived. It was an excellent time for me. I was very proud. I’d be outside with my friends and we’d be playing basketball or football or participating in unsanctioned boxing matches in someone’s front yard and the bus would cruise by and someone would go, “Look! It’s Shea’s dad!” Then we’d watch for a second as he rode by. It was the closest I ever got to being Neighborhood Famous.

Sometimes, on a summer day when things worked out exactly right, we’d catch the bus and ride around with him for 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes during the afternoon. He taught me all kinds of stuff about the bus, and about bus driving.

For example, experienced bus drivers do this thing where, when they’re gonna turn a corner in an area that has a lot of foot traffic, they’ll tap the horn. Just one little bap. Real quick. Bap. Not enough that you get the full strength of the horn, which is very loud and intimidating, but enough that you can hear it. Bap. They do it as a way to announce the bus to people who might not be looking for it.

Or another thing: Did you know that buses have kill switches on them? They do. It’s a security measure. There are occasional stops on a route where the driver will have, say, a four- or five-minute break. And when that happens, the driver might want to step off the bus for a minute. And when they do that, they like to leave the bus running. Which is why you need the kill switch. It’s this one tiny thing that, if you don’t know where it is and you don’t know that you have to push it, then the bus won’t go anywhere or do anything. You can sit in that driver’s seat and mash on the gas all you want. But nothing will happen. It won’t move an inch.

Or another thing: The primary bus garage in San Antonio is downtown. And so if you’re driving that first shift in the morning, what you have to do is you have to go to the garage, clock in, get your bus, and then head to your route from there. But your shift (usually) won’t take you back to the garage at the end. What’ll (usually) happen is your shift will end with you dropped off at a park and ride, at which point another driver will take over your bus. And so then you have to catch a series of buses to get back to the garage, which is a wildly inconvenient way to end your day.

There’s a hack to the system, though. What the drivers do is they partner up with another driver. They find out ahead of time who is scheduled to relieve them at the park and ride. And then they make an arrangement: The driver who is getting relieved will take the person’s car who’s just relieved them and drive it back to the garage. Then they’ll park it there and leave the keys in a designated place. And so, rather than catch the various buses back to the garage (which can take upward of an hour and a half) the driver who was relieved gets to drive himself back to the garage, which is where he parked his car that morning when he got to work (it might take 15 minutes to drive yourself from the park and ride to the garage). So the relieved driver gets to get home much faster, and the other driver, who drove his car to the park and ride to start his shift, knows that his car will be waiting for him when he takes the bus back to the garage that night.

There are many, many more things like that; tricks for handling unruly passengers, tricks for navigating tricky intersections, tricks for making the best use of your 12-minute-long lunch break.

When I was tiny, I always thought it was just so cool to see my dad in complete control of a several-tons-heavy mega vehicle. He was, best I could tell as a 9-year-old, on the exact same level as the people who had a relationship with Optimus Prime from Transformers. As I grew older, though, I realized how much more impressive it was that he was in complete control of the human element of the job. A neighborhood bus is its own nuanced, complicated little galaxy, and he was the lord ruler of his. A week or two into a new route, he’d already know the people who regularly rode his bus, and he’d know their rhythms, and he’d know all the right things to say and do with everyone and all the right things to say and do in any given situation.

I remember one morning I was on the bus with him and it was, maybe, 9 a.m. and I was sitting there in a seat a couple rows behind him. He pulled up to a stop, hit the brakes, opened the door, and welcomed the two or three passengers who were there waiting for the bus. This older man got on and said hello to my dad. My dad said hello back. And then the older man said, “You got something for me today?” And my dad replied back, “Yes, I do.” And the older man smiled. And then my dad reached into a white paper bag, pulled out something, and handed it to him. The older man walked to his seat, sat down, and opened the thing my dad had given him. It was a breakfast taco.

My dad explained to me that any time he knew he was gonna be on a route for several months, he’d do a thing once every few weeks where he’d stop at the taco spot near our house, buy $20 or so worth of the $1 breakfast tacos, then give them to the people who regularly rode his bus. Then he said something close to, “Sometimes the people will take the tacos. Other times, they won’t. But they always remember that I offered them.” Then he closed the doors and drove off. Then he said something close to, “They never leave their trash on the bus.” To which I said something close to, “Huh?” To which he said something close to, “If they accepted one of the tacos, they never leave the trash. That foil that it comes wrapped in—they always throw it away.”

I never forgot that. I didn’t fully understand the lesson he was trying to teach me in that moment, but I don’t think I was fully supposed to. I think it was supposed to sit in my brain, its time-delay fuse waiting to detonate until I was an adult. But I understand it now. And I understand that so much of the way he has existed in my life—his profound work ethic; the pride he carries in doing even the tiniest thing; his empathy; the way he always shows up—was meant to operate that same way; that one day I would become a father and understand why he did (does) things the way he did (does) things.

Tim Duncan will be officially inducted into the Hall of Fame on Saturday. He is my favorite basketball player of all time. And each big post-career thing that has happened with Tim Duncan, I’ve written about it. And each time that I have, my dad has been a bigger and bigger piece of the article. The first one was the article that I wrote when Timmy retired, which started off with a quick anecdote in it about my dad reacting to the first title win in Spurs franchise history. The second one was the article that I wrote after my dad and I attended Timmy’s jersey retirement in San Antonio, which looked back at a lifetime of experiencing Spurs games with my dad.

And now there’s this one.

The last piece of the trilogy.

Which is pretty much all about my dad.

Just like earlier, I don’t know exactly what that means yet. But I’m sure I will eventually.

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