I have come to the realization that many of the country’s problems could be solved if people opened a history book and learned about the past. Just imagine what would happen.
We would be exposed to less nonsense about concentration camps, climate change, and the census. The media, shamed by ideological grandstanding on both sides, would return to the who-what-where-when journalism of Walter Cronkite. Twitter would shut down. YouTube would declare bankruptcy and reorganize itself as a franchise of self-repair tire shops.
I’m a dreamer, you say? Well, I’m not the only one.
Enter, stage left (literally), William Cimillo. Cimillo used to drive the BX15 bus from Fordham Plaza in the Bronx to East 125th Street in Harlem and then back again. One morning in the spring of 1947, instead of turning right from the bus depot to start his day, he turned left. Later, he explained that after sixteen years of driving the same route, he wanted to try “something different.”
Cimillo drove his No. 1310 bus across the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey, where he ate breakfast. Afterward, he drove south to Washington DC, where he parked outside the White House. He told an inquisitive policeman that he was waiting for union officials who were in a meeting with the President. In Virginia, he picked up a sailor headed to South Carolina. Cimillo drove him there.
Then, upon seeing a billboard promoting Florida, no doubt with pictures of oranges, Camillo decided to keep going.
He was finally arrested in Hollywood, Florida, but by then he had become an international sensation, even landing a spot on the popular Faye Emerson Show (listen below) and inspiring, according to some, the Ralph Kramden character of The Honeymooners, which became a 1950s icon.
I bring this up, because the BX15 route still exists. I took it recently from Fordham Plaza to East 125th Street, where I caught the M60 select bus to LaGuardia Airport.
I watched the driver and imagined Cimillo with his jovial face and easy manner turning the bus around and taking us to Jersey. How would the passengers have reacted, I wondered? Would they have gotten behind Cimillo in solidarity? Surely, some would have wanted to alight at the next stop. But would they have realized that in doing so they would be surrendering to the kind of techno-industrial rat race that most of them spent their lives complaining about?
Cimillo, in my mind, was both saint and sinner, prophet and purloiner, a figure who, like Julius Caesar, acted on instinct and stepped across the Rubicon, although in this case the Rubicon was the Hudson River. Once beyond it, Cimillo expected to lose his job. The irony is that not only did he keep it, but the city dropped all charges against him.
The man ought to have a plastic statuette on the dashboard of each BX15 bus in his honor, I thought.
What are the lessons to be learned from Cimillo’s flight to the Sunshine State, especially in light of history?
First, the drive to break away from monotony and seek “something different” is an innate characteristic of human beings that cannot be suppressed. We were designed for something better than machine work. Put simply, we are not machines. We have arrived at a point in history when machines have gotten much better at machine work than we are. Hopefully, they will not surpass us at human work. I have faith that they won’t, because I believe that the mind and brain are distinct. Machines may have brains, but will they ever develop minds?
Secondly, understanding the past gives us more control over the present. Sitting on the BX15 and knowing about Cimillo put the frustration of riding the bus into perspective. How? It freed me from the narrow view that saw only traffic, noise, a crowded aisle, and the numbed faces of passengers. It gave the experience depth beyond what was seen or heard. This is what knowledge does. It transports us from the immediate to the eternal.
Finally, sitting there in the swerving bus, I realized that Cimillo was the Prodigal Son. He took his inheritance in the form of bus No. 1310 and left home. He squandered his money and reputation, returning in handcuffs. The city acted as the father in the parable, giving him his job back.
In the end, knowing history helps us get real. The Uyghurs are in concentration camps. The climate change debate has devolved into religious fanaticism. The citizenship question is tied directly to future political campaigns. Meanwhile, millions of people in Hong Kong are pleading for foreign intervention. Who would ever have thought that possible?
Maybe William Cimillo.
Images and audio file from Radio Diaries. This post is dedicated to Joe Bradley, busman extraordinaire. If there were a Ralph Kramden Award, he would get it.