In the summer of 2008, Craig Davidson was at a low point in his life. Having been hailed as “one to watch” thanks to his debut short-story collection, Rust and Bone, expectations were high for his debut novel. But when The Fighter appeared in 2006, it flopped, selling fewer than 1,000 copies. (His U.S. publisher, upon reading the manuscript, opted not to publish it at all, despite having already paid out an advance.) It seemed Davidson was a has-been without ever becoming a going concern.
Depressed, broke, and living in Calgary, Davidson was subsisting on no-name instant oatmeal when he answered a Bus Drivers Wanted flyer that had been stuffed in his mailbox. Turns out Davidson was a pretty good bus driver, and when it came time to pick a route, he had only a moment of hesitation before agreeing to transport a group of kids with special needs ranging from autism to cerebral palsy.
It’s a decision, made seemingly on the fly, that has had lasting repercussions. What began simply as a means of earning money ended up being a transformative experience that led Davidson to re-evaluate his life, his work, and the way society treats people with physical and cognitive disabilities. Precious Cargo (an expansion of the author’s 2013 National Magazine Award–winning article) chronicles that journey, and it is a thoroughly entertaining, heartfelt glimpse into the life of a writer known more for crafting scenes of bloody mayhem and testosterone-fuelled violence than philosophical ponderings and self-reflection.
Davidson sets up his narrative with a bit of backstory, which concisely and effectively provides readers with a real sense of where his head was at the time. He also delves into his own childhood, describing how, as a chubby orange-haired kid with no discernable talent, he’d discovered that taking on the persona of class clown saved him the majority of scorn from his peers. That need to entertain – equal parts exhilarating and exhausting – followed Davidson into his career as a writer, where he could elicit the same responses on the page as he did in person, with fewer pratfalls. That talent would also serve him well as a bus driver, especially given the kids he was ferrying around.
Those kids – Nadja, Oliver, Gavin, Vincent, and Jake – are presented as truly delightful, even when they’re having bad days. With the exception of Gavin – largely non-verbal due to autism – the youngsters joke, laugh, tell stories, and bond with each other and with Davidson. Being on a “short bus” is not a chore for them, but a choice: it’s their safe haven away from the crap they must endure in the world. In short order, Davidson becomes not just their chauffeur, but their champion and chief defender, stopping the bus to confront idiots making “retard” jokes or laughing at the kids on the bus, though after one particularly ridiculous encounter, he realizes that the kids are all right – they don’t need him to defend them because they’ve been doing it for themselves all of their lives.
Beyond providing shape and substance to Davidson’s days, his school bus charges also open his eyes to bigger issues: the dangers of perception and preconceived notions; how the expression of those preconceptions is often well-intentioned, but infuriating to the recipient; how, despite what our parents tell us, bad things do happen to good people (and vice versa), and while it’s not fair, we can do nothing more than make the best of the hand we’re dealt. Davidson touches more than once on the notion of wanting more, of a desire to lead a “bigger life,” to always strive for greater things. In essence, he’s afraid of being ordinary. Spending time each school day for months in the company of kids who will never be ordinary by society’s standards makes him realize how extraordinary they really are. He also recognizes in them a similar need to tell stories, to stretch their existences beyond the bounds of whatever limitations they’re facing.
The friendship between Davidson and Jake – a boy rendered quadriplegic by cerebral palsy – is particularly touching, and forms a large part of the narrative. “A sixteen-year-old and his bus driver palling around – sometimes I’d step back and ask myself, was it a little weird?” writes Davidson. “And the reassuring answer was: Sure, but people fall together in all sorts of odd ways. And the truth was, Jake and I got along like bandits.”
Precious Cargo is the best kind of memoir: light-hearted despite its often serious content, erudite, eye opening, and thought provoking. It’s also damned funny.