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Mystery riders

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on November 29, 2020

ILLUSTRATION: MANJULA PADMANABHAN

My new life as a Gallery Gal has been greatly enhanced by the FLEX Shuttle that conveys me to and from the gallery. It’s been several weeks since I first began riding on this plump grey van with the word FLEX printed on either side.

The name stands for “flexible”: A bus with a flexible route. For the price of one dollar, customers who book a day in advance can be collected and dropped off at locations of their choice. Initially, I couldn’t believe that there was a solution to the problem of being a non-driver in a highly mobile culture, where everyone learns to drive almost as soon as they can walk. I feared that getting to and from the gallery would either cost me a fortune in taxi fares or result in friends dreading the call from me, asking to be collected.

The Shuttle has some limitations. Not only must I call 24 hours in advance, I must also remember that the bookings can’t be made on weekends or holidays. If I want to leave home on a Monday, I must book on a Friday. If there’s a long weekend, then, well, you get the idea: Further struggles for the little grey cells. But the benefit to me greatly outweighs the drawbacks. One of the advantages is that there are hardly any other passengers using the service. In these Covid-19-flavoured times, that’s a real relief.

Everyone has to wear masks, including the driver. So even when there are other travellers, it’s like belonging to a secret society of complete strangers, whom we only know as obscured faces. We nod our hellos to one another if we meet more than once. The other day, on my way home from the gallery, one such co-passenger is curious about the brightly-lit building from which I’ve been collected. He’s a tall young man, with mocha brown skin and dark blue face-mask. He expresses an interest in art and then we both admire the spectacular sunset arching overhead. I give him a postcard from the gallery, and say, “Drop by sometime!”

A week later, Emma and I are setting up a corner of the main gallery for the Gift Shop, for the holiday season. There’s a broad range of arts and crafts on display. Bright West African textiles, Haitian beaten-metal wall décor, bees-wax candles, ceramic tree-ornaments, mirrors embedded in swirling chunks of wood, a herd of clay dinosaurs, jewellery made from sea glass and silver. There’s a lot to arrange, and we spend the whole afternoon at it, admiring the merchandise.

There’s a knock on our glass door and a familiar voice asks if we’re open. When I look up, I recognise the blue face mask: My FLEX Shuttle buddy! I feel thrilled to have reeled in a customer. We invite him to look around even though we’re closed for the day. Masked and unrecognisable as we are, we’re all smiling, warmed by the energy of Art.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

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Published on November 29, 2020
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