Oliver Cross: Why life’s wrong turns frequently turn out right

A sense of common purpose helped to create the NHS in 1948.
A sense of common purpose helped to create the NHS in 1948.
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I WAS pottering around on the very interesting American podcast site Radiotopia this week, when I came across a true story which may hold lessons for us all.

In 1947 a New York bus driver called William Cimillo, a responsible, 38-year-old family man who had driven on routes around the Bronx for 17 years, decided that instead of turning left out of the bus depot he would turn right, change the destination sign on his bus from ‘Subway’ to ‘Special’ and see where it took him.

Which was to Washington DC, which he had never visited before, then on to Florida, 1,300 miles from the Bronx. There, he spent nearly all his remaining money on hopeless racehorses before phoning his bus company managers and asking them to please send him 50 dollars.

Instead, they sent the police, who charged him with stealing a bus, a grand larceny potentially incurring many years in prison, even though he told the officers “I didn’t steal it, they let me take it.”

A driver was hired to take the bus back to New York, with Cimillo handcuffed inside it, but along the way, it became clear that the hired driver was unfamiliar with the controls, so Cimillo was un-handcuffed and drove the bus back himself, being welcomed in the Bronx by cheering crowds who had heard his story and found it inspiring.

His colleagues opened a fund to pay his legal costs but the case never came to court, presumably because the authorities knew better than to take on such a popular figure. Incredibly, Cimillo was given his job back and spent the rest of his working life sticking to prescribed bus routes because, he said, “You tell someone a joke the second time and it’s not so funny.”

The story, retold with great panache on Radiotopia, which specialises, rather like Radio 4’s The Listening Project, on the lives of ordinary people without confusing the word ‘ordinary’ for ‘dull’, discovered a downside to the creation of a folk hero. Cimillo’s son, a boy at the time, spoke on the podcast of his nightmarish anxiety in the days following his father’s disappearance and was clearly unwilling to treat the episode as an amusing escapade. Irresponsibility and family life don’t mix.

Another lesson of the story is that you shouldn’t try this sort of thing yourself – well, not under current conditions. In 1947 the world had just emerged from a war in which creative recklessness helped to bring victory, but a modern Cimillio would find himself assailed by managers and accountants telling him that there is no place for unconventional behaviour in a world where the foot-soldier classes must keep their heads down, so that their noses are nearer to the grindstone, in order to maximise corporate profits.

The idea of working class heroes – of everyday people striking out and doing remarkable things – is also out of favour. In 1947, young girls queued in their hundreds to catch buses driven by William Cimillo; now it’s an appearance on reality TV and a good agent, rather than a bold deed, which is likely to create queues – a disappointing development for those who appreciate spontaneity.

In the immediate post-war era, when the NHS was founded, there was also a 
sense, built up through common danger, of common purpose. Americans, like Britons, could take pleasure 
in seeing someone do something they would have liked to have done themselves if only they had only had the courage.

The story attracts people who have had it up to here 
with their present job and dream of doing something different. The trouble is that it requires a vigorous labour market to make this a practical option.

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