On the Bus

On the Bus

(dedicated to Amelia, who likes buses too)

    A bus is a great big thing that picks you up, takes you places, then brings you back — cheaply. I’ve taken them all across the country, and I’ll tell you, you meet the most interesting people on bus trips, or you used to. Now, everyone looks down into their screen. A bus was a vehicle for one of my earliest realizations about cities. One summer while I was in high school, I took a bus trip to visit my older brother Jerry, who lived in Wisconsin. The route went through Chicago, then turned northward. I’d been in Denver, so I thought I knew what a really big city looks like. As we neared Chicago, we went past miles and miles of buildings, apartments, factories. The scene went on for an unusually long time, then I saw a sign by the road: Chicago city limits — miles. Wow. That’s a big difference in scale.
    I’ve been without a car for about seven months. I doubt most people who drive realize how blessed they are. All the years I had a car, I took it for granted. Need something? Jump in the car and go get it. Unfortunately, I live in what’s known as a food desert; the nearest supermarket is miles away. The only food nearby is in convenience stores, expensive and unhealthy. I have good neighbors but I’m not going to impose on them. Fortunately the two bus stops for either direction are across the street from each other, less than a block away. That’s a huge break. Carrying heavy bags with old, arthritic hands should be kept to a minimum. I’m also fortunate that I live in a large city with a good public transit system, and good for them. Good for us. I’ve used this bus system off and on for 25 years, and really appreciate it. There are links with other regional transit systems, and the city buses are in the midst of being converted to diesel-electric hybrids.
    The First Rule of Bus is: on nasty days the bus will never be on time. It’s like when you drop buttered toast, it always lands butter side down. Weather can be unpredictable, especially where I live in the Pacific Northwest, so it’s best to be prepared. You’ll also quickly notice the truth in the children’s song, that the wheels on the bus really do go round and round, all around the town. On a radio show once the host asked listeners where the ugly people are. By far, Walmart won, followed by the Laundromat and the bus. My building has a laundry room, and I won’t set foot in a Walmart for any reason, but it’s an unfair claim for bus people. There’s myself and a few others, but most riders are just regular folks of all walks of life. You do encounter crazy people on occasion, but there are transit police on hand at short notice. Many, if not most, passengers are low-income. This includes people with mental or physical problems. I always have a small paperback tucked into my jacket pocket; usually a collection of short stories.
    I hardly take a bus ride where I don’t see someone in a wheelchair. The ramp comes down to let them on or off. When they come on, the driver is trained to secure the chair easily. It’s all routine, I suppose, but when I see someone in a wheelchair, I’m grateful to have arthritic limbs, no matter how painful they can be. By the way, the signs reserving seating near the front aren’t for people in wheelchairs; they’re called “mobility aid users.”
    My big monthly shop is to Fred Meyer (I guess that’s Kroger back East). They have the best prices and a large garden & hardware selection. It takes four buses, though, two each way, and the longest walk is less than a block. My secondary trips are to Safeway, which I hate. Absurdly high prices, and the layout is confusing. It’s only a bus either way, but also a quarter mile walk to and from the store. Still I like going to Safeway for their apple fritters. Safeways have an excellent bakery, and from my experience must be standardized throughout at least the general area. Those fritters are heaven in your mouth, believe me.
    As a senior, the fare is only a dollar, but with no transfers. I was supposed to have a Senior Pass you need to get at the Bus Shop, but all the drivers waved me by, until one didn’t. She was a Nurse Ratchet type who said she could lose her job if she broke the rules. I was forced to agree, and paid the two bucks, and rode down to the Bus Shop. The fee is $3 a month, and the fare is a dollar. Somewhere in there was a two-hour free transfer, but it wasn’t made clear. So I get on the bus, flash my card, and pay my dollar. The driver said no, there’s no transfer. The next time I remembered to beep the card on the reader, then got out my dollar. No no, the driver said, you’ve already paid. I sat down, still confused about how this worked. Across the aisle a man in roughly his forties appeared to be developmentally disabled, as they say. He looked at me and said: “If you pay the dollar you don’t get a transfer. You have to beep you card on the reader. Then it takes a dollar out of your account and you get the transfer.” That guy just explained to me very clearly what two bus drivers couldn’t. I thanked him and said, “You know, I got a degree in college, but it wasn’t in mathematics.” We both laughed That scene made my whole day.
    The bus trips in themselves are fairly routine. There’s no talking anymore, as everyone has their face implanted in their glowing screens. When I had a car, once a month I made my big grocery run. I’d end up with three large fabric bags or more, and a gallon of milk. The rest of the month I’d make another small trip or two. Now I have to fill two large bags, one for each hand. So as I’m filling the cart, I’ve become acutely aware of both weight and volume as I go. I also have to keep on eye on the clock. A missed bus means a half hour wait (an hour on weekends, so I don’t shop then), and that stop has no bench Standing for half an hour does no favors for my old back. The whole thing is well-organized, and I have an eye for details. I always make a list because forgetting something crucial involves needless extra bus trips. I buy my milk at the convenience store for $5 a gallon. That’s a little high, but I’m happy to pay for the convenience, and the store is owned by a nice Korean family. I just finished my monthly Fred Meyer trip, four buses and all. It took only two hours, which means it cost a buck for the transportation. That works for me.
    Considering all the factors of price, walking, and proximity of bus stops, it’s a pretty good arrangement. I can’t complain about any of it. I can think of several other advantages of the bus. I’m never going to have to worry about a flat tire. I don’t have to be concerned about a breakdown, and how I’ll be able to afford to fix it. I’ll never have to go to another of those goddamned emission inspections, which are a total scam, anyway. I always had the worst luck with those things. All the while, diesel-fueled rigs are constantly belching out choking hydrocarbons all over the place. I’ll never be T-boned by some idiot who thinks he can text while driving. Or if I am T-boned, those buses can absorb a lot of impact. I never have to find a parking space. And most importantly, I’ll never, ever have to go out and scrape ice off another windshield.

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