Running on Bus Time

I’ve got seven quarters jingling in my pocket and only a few minutes left to wait. Standing in the bus shelter, beneath the yellow flag numbered Route #1, I keep my eyes peeled for the green-lit approach of the bus. Finally it pulls up with a whuff of exhaust, sighs to a stop next to me. The doors hiss open and I enter, dropping my clinking quarters into the machine. Taking the transfer slip from the driver’s hand, I smile a thank you and find a seat. I clutch the rails above me as the bus lurches into motion once more.

Soft pink lights illuminate the inside of the bus, shining off the faces of men and women sitting there: A toddler wailing and flailing in his stroller, his mother snapping sharply for him to shut up. A man who struggles with his massive black umbrella, finally folding it and shoving it under his seat. A group of teenage girls, sharing the latest school gossip. A boy in the back with earphones playing so loud that the profanity-laced lyrics are audible from the driver’s seat.

And then there’s me, sitting by the window near the middle. My seatmate gives me a smoky grin; I smile back and settle into my seat. I catch the smell of cigarette smoke and sweat from the passengers around me but I don’t mind. We slow to a stop at a red light, and I hardly even notice. In a car I might have taken that red light as a personal insult. But I’m not in charge of this route today. I’m on bus time now—no longer at work, not yet at home. Nothing to do but wait, and be in transit: watch the raindrops blend into each other on the window, watch the blurry buildings go past. Watch the city go by, one yellow bus stop after another.

*          *          *

I’ll admit it. I don’t own a car (never have, come to think of it) and my waterlogged, beat-up bus book is my constant companion. I’m a bus girl. And I shouldn’t be ashamed to say that. After all, the media’s trying to get us all to be bus people these days. Between global warming and rising gas prices, there have never been more reasons why public transportation—which here in Tacoma means the bus, and only the bus—is a preferable way to travel.

But truth be told, I don’t ride the bus to save the planet. I just like traveling on bus time. My friends don’t understand why I’d rather get on a bus than ask for a ride. It takes so much longer. The routes are too indirect. I can drive you there in half the time. Why would anyone choose the bus over a car?

It’s an adjustment, to be sure. On bus time, journeys start and end on the quarter hour, no matter what. Bus time can speed up, as you sprint after a bus that’s about to take off—or slow down, as the bus slowly kneels with a hydraulic sigh so that a wheelchair-bound passenger can come aboard. Especially for the punctuality-challenged, it may be hard to catch up to the new rhythm. But once you’re aboard, the bus takes care of you, all the way to the end of the journey. I trust the timetables in my bus book; the times stated inside are the times I’ll arrive (or close enough at least). So I can stop watching the clock and getting anxious about my destination. Bus time is time for me to relax, without the constant pressure of driving and navigating. Instead I can spend that time with a book, catching up on homework, or simply staring out the window.

*          *          *

There are cities, in this country and abroad, that have figured out how to let their hearts beat on bus time. Or train time, as the case may be. I recently spent four months in London, and even though I spent entire weekends exploring the city, I couldn’t draw you a street map to save my life. Instead I had a Tube map imprinted on my mind—an abstract tangle of multicolored lines, twisting and interconnecting like a maze of pipes. My memories of landmarks are shaded with the color of the underground train I took to get there: Piccadilly blue, Metropolitan purple, Jubilee grey. And the whole city, in some sense, is red—the red of the bendy or double-decker buses that ran through the streets, signs in the window shining yellow-green to announce their destination.

After a while, I forgot how other systems of navigation even worked. I would stare at a road sign in puzzlement. Why was that arrow pointing left to Camden? To get to Camden you had to turn right and continue to the Tube station, walk down two long hallways and three flights of stairs, catch the right train (Northern black). That was the right way to get to Camden. Didn’t everyone know?

When I got back to the States, my parents lent me a car for a couple of weeks, and I’ll confess—it was a relief. The arrows of the road signs had meaning again. Back behind the wheel, I could go wherever I wanted to go, whenever I wanted to. I didn’t have to map out any complicated transfers or remember which train line connected where. I could work off my own timetable again.

There’s a freedom about the car that I can’t deny. An individuality. What sort of car do you drive? Bumper stickers and window decals declare to the world what you stand for. The music that blares from your windows is hand-picked— your favorite radio station, perhaps, or a commute playlist from the iPod plugged into the dash. As for the routes you drive, you design them yourself, tailored to fit your own individual needs. The only stops are the ones you choose.

But then you hit that cursed red light. Or even worse—a traffic jam. Before you know it, your perfectly planned straight shot has been tangled up into a fifteen-mile-an-hour crawl, and you’re stuck watching all the other hundreds of cars drive by. No more illusions about a route untouched by the routes of others—totally within your control. Instead, you’re stuck at the mercy of the situation, inching along the choked freeway.

This isn’t to say that aboard a bus, you’d be immune to rush hour slowdowns or unexpected slowdowns. But being on a bus gives you more choices about how to use that extra time. Some on the bus might be listening to their own music on their own iPods. But they’re leaning back into their seats, relaxing, rather than feeling their blood pressure rising as they look for a gap in the traffic. Others are using the slowdown to get a head start on their work. I know students who use their commute to read textbooks, and professors who grade papers between stops. People catch up with their friends via cell phone, even though their loud voices sometimes drag other riders into the conversation. Of course there are the people checking their watches, flipping through the bus book to see if they’ve missed their connection. They might share your frustration—even if they voice it in a loud strident tone to the bus driver. On the bus you aren’t stuck in the traffic jam alone.

It’s those fellow travelers who are the reason my friends ask another question, one that I find harder to answer. You don’t know what sort of people you’ll meet on the bus, they say, in genuine fear for my safety. Are you sure you’ll be all right?

It’s harder to counter that objection because it’s true—savory and unsavory characters alike ride this bus. Sometimes they’ll ask for your number, ask which stop you’re going to, give you the “elevator eyes”—that gaze that travels up and down and stops at a certain floor. I can’t tell my friends that these people don’t exist, because I’ve met them countless times. Of course, I’ve also met friendly people, willing to strike up conversations or to give me advice on the quickest advice to take. But even the friendliest of my bus companions might make some a little nervous. They are soldiers, single mothers, people who don’t have a job, much less a car. They’re bus people too, but not necessarily by choice.

In the comfortable bubble of my hypothetical car, I wouldn’t have to confront the realization of what sort of city I live in. I could drive from Parkland to Redmond without needing to notice what happens every day on the streets. And I’m not saying that it’s comfortable. But escaping it isn’t what I want to do.

On the front leaf of the bus book, you’ll find a grid of downtown Tacoma, interlaced black streets reaching to the Sound on either side. Unlike the abstract pattern of the London tube map, you can see each bus route winding through the streets, next to everyday landmarks. It’s telling what places this map points out: The VA hospital. The unemployment office. “Affordable housing” complexes for senior citizens. Chances are, though, that there are also stops along these routes that are common on many people’s driving itineraries. Theatres, shopping malls, churches and parks. Schools of all shapes and sizes, from elementary schools to universities. And the same bus passes through all of them.

It would be a poor map indeed that consisted of just one line. One personally planned pathway that avoids all red lights and uncomfortable situations? Impossible to find. Rather, our routes interconnect with others, whether we admit it or not. Whether you trade in your keys for a bus pass or not—or whether you just ride the occasional shuttle bus through the streets of downtown—we can’t deny that we are connected, and that we are not in control.

Running on bus time means being willing to take a loop around the block to stop for someone else, or to stand for one bus ride so that someone else might have a seat. It means riding through discomfort, through delays. Running on bus time means being flexible in the way we draw our maps and write our timetables. And for these sacrifices, bus time gives us a gift or two. A few deep breaths on the commute home. A connection with the neighbors we might otherwise forget. And a different palette of colors in which to see the city.

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