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Bus Ride Home Essay

Lately, I like to ride the bus. I don’t mean the double-decker tourist buses that, half empty, warily circle the city, like dazed displaced troop carriers, or the long-distance buses that come sighing into the Port Authority Terminal, where it is eternally 3 a.m. and everyone looks exhausted before the journey starts, or even the yellow-and-blacks that still delicately deliver children from downtown to uptown at eight in the morning. I mean the ordinary city buses, those vaguely purposeless-looking, bulbous-faced, blue-and-bone M2s and 3s and 4s and 5s that chug up and down the avenues and along the cross streets, wheezing and whining, all day and night.

For twenty-odd years in New York, I never rode the bus at all—not, at least, after a single, traumatic bus experience. On the very first day I visited Manhattan, in the anxious (though, looking back, mostly unfrightened) summer of 1978—the summer when Jimmy Carter turned down the air-conditioning all over town—I got on a bus outside the Metropolitan Museum, saw that the fare was fifty cents, and, with the unquenchable cheerfulness of the visiting Canadian, proudly pulled out a dollar bill—an American dollar bill—folded it up neatly, stuffed the dollar in the fare box, two fares, and looked up, expecting the driver to beam at my efficiency. I will never forget his look of disbelief and disgust, mingled, I think, with a certain renewed awe at the enormities that out-of-towners were capable of.

From that day on, I don’t think I ever rode another bus. I suppose I must have; transportational logic says that I must have—there must be a crosstown M86 or an uptown limited in there somewhere—but, if I did, I don’t know when. Even if I had been on a bus, I don’t think I would recall it. Bus-blindness is a standard New York illness; of all the regularities of life here, the bus is the least celebrated, the least inclined to tug at the heart, or be made into a symbol of our condition. The taxi has its checkered lore, the subway its legend, the limo a certain Michael Douglas-in-“Wall Street” icon quality—but if there is a memorable bus scene in literature, or an unforgettable moment in a movie that takes place on a New York City bus, I have not found it. (If you Google New York buses in movie scenes, you end up with a bus-enthusiasts’ site and a shot of a New York City bus from a Sylvester Stallone movie called “Driven,” and this bus turns out to be dressed up like a Chicago city bus, and filmed on location in Toronto.) There is nothing about buses that makes them intrinsically symbol-repellent: the London bus has a poetry as rich as the Tube’s—there is Mary Poppins, there is Mrs. Dalloway. In Paris, Pascal rides the bus, Zazie rides the Métro, and that is, evenly, that. But as a symbolic repository the New York City bus does not exist. The only significant symbolic figure that the New York bus has had is Ralph Kramden, and what he symbolizes about the bus is that being stuck in one is in itself one more form of comic frustration and disappointment; the New York City bus might best be described by saying that it is exactly the kind of institution that would have Ralph Kramden as its significant symbolic figure.

If you had asked me why I avoided the bus, I suppose I would have said that the bus was for old people—or that taking the bus was one step short of not actually living in New York at all, and that if you stayed on the bus long enough it would take you right out of town. Riding the bus was one of those activities, like going to Radio City, that was in New York but not really of it. My mother-in-law rode the bus when she came to New York to visit, and that, I thought, said whom the bus was made for: elegant older women who didn’t mind travelling forty-five minutes every morning to visit their grandchildren.

And then I didn’t ride the bus because I loved the subway so. Compared with the vivid and evil and lurid subway, the bus seemed a drab bourgeois necessity—Shirley Booth to the subway’s Tallulah Bankhead. When I began to ride the subway, particularly in the late seventies and early eighties, it was both grander and stranger than a newcomer can imagine now. The graffiti, for one thing, were both more sordid inside—all those “tags”—and more beautiful outside. When the wild-style cars came roaring into a station, they were as exciting and shimmering as Frank Stella birds. The air-conditioning was a lot spottier, too, and sometimes the windows were open, driving the stale and fetid air around in an illusion of cooling. When the air-conditioning worked, it was worse. You walked from steam bath to refrigerator, a change like a change of continents, and your perspiration seemed to freeze within your shirt, a phenomenon previously known only to Antarctic explorers.

Feral thugs and killer nerds rode the subway together, looking warily at one another. And yet there was something sublime about the subway. Although it was incidentally frightening, it was also systematically reassuring: it shouldn’t have worked; it had stopped working; and yet it worked—vandalized, brutalized, a canvas and a pissoir, it reliably took you wherever you wanted to go. It was a rumbling, sleepless, snorting animal presence underfoot, more a god to be appeased and admired than a thing that had been mastered by its owners. If the stations seemed, as people said, Dantesque, that was not simply because the subway was belowground, and a punishment, but also because it offered an architectural order that seemed to be free from any interfering human hand, running by itself in its own grim circles. It was religious in the narrow sense as well: terror and transportation were joined together, fear propelled you to a higher plane. (The taxis, an alternative if you had the money, were alarming then, too—a silent or determined driver in a T-shirt resting on a mat of beads and demanding, fifty blocks before your destination, which side of the street you wanted—without being at all sublime.)

Coming home in 2000 after five years abroad, I took it for granted that I would return to the subway and the taxi, only to be stunned by the transformation in them both. The subway, now graffiti free, with dully gleaming metal cars (though obviously made to be as resistant to vandalism as a prison), had recorded announcements, and for a while a picture of the station manager at every stop. It seemed obviously improved but somehow degraded, grimly utilitarian, intended to suggest the receding future vision of “RoboCop”: automatic voices encased in armor. The chaos was gone from inside the cabs, and held on only around them. After five years in Paris, where one phones for a cab or lines up in an orderly manner at a station, logically and fairly, I nearly wept tears of frustration at the anarchy of the street system—you waited for fifteen minutes and someone waltzed out into the middle of the block and stepped in front of you as a cab approached. (There is, of course, an implicit system of fair dealing in this—one block away is legitimate; the same corner is not—but I could no longer remember the rules, much less find the patience to practice them.)

And so the bus. Almost every day for the past year and a half, I’ve found myself taking a limited bus down an East Side avenue, and then, a few hours and frustrations later, taking it back uptown on the adjoining avenue. I stand or, in good hours, sit among the usual bus riders. The bus I find humane, in several ways. There is, first of all, the non-confrontational and yet collaborative nature of the seating. You look over people’s shoulders, closely, and yet only rarely look directly at them, face to face, as you must on the subway. There is a hierarchy of seating on the bus, far more articulate than that of the subway. There are seats you must give up to handicapped people, seats you ought to give up to handicapped people if you have any decency at all, and seats—the bumpy, exhaust-scented row in the very back—that you never have to give up to anyone, if you’re willing to sit there. (The reason for all those designated spaces is that law and propriety dictate that when someone in a wheelchair rolls up to a bus stop, the bus has to stop and let him on.) There is also on almost every New York bus a little single seat tucked in near the back door, which has the air of a dunce chair in a classroom. You can sit there, but you wouldn’t want to. Late at night, there is even a policy of optional stops. You ask the driver to stop the bus where you’re going and, if he can, he will.

The bus also has order, order as we know it from the fading patriarchal family, visible order kept by an irritable chief. The driver has not only control over his world but the delight of the exercise of arbitrary authority, like that of a French bureaucrat. Bus riders learn that, if your MetroCard turns out to be short fifty cents, the driver will look at you with distaste, tell you to find change from fellow-passengers (surprisingly, to a subway rider, people dig into their purses cheerfully), and, if this doesn’t work, will wearily wave you on back. You are included, fool though you are, and this often at the moment when the driver is ignoring the pounded fists and half-audible pleas for admission of the last few people who, running for the bus, arrived a second too late. The driver’s control of the back door is just as imperious. A red zone of acceptability exists around the bus stop, known only to the driver, who opens and closes the door as he senses the zone appearing and receding.

It is uniquely possible to overhear conversations on the bus. The other morning, for instance—a beautiful morning of our time, the sky blue, the alert orange, and the Times sports pages ominously upside down—a man behind me was trying to remember the names of popular Drake’s snacks from his childhood.

“What are those things? There were Ring-Dings and Drake’s cakes.”

“You mean Twinkies,” the man he was with said, with assurance. I couldn’t see either face, but their voices had the peaceable quarrelsomeness of those who have just passed from middle-aged to elderly.

“No, I don’t mean Twinkies,” he said angrily. “I mean them other things.”

Long pause. We couldn’t resist. “Devil Dogs,” someone said. “Devil Dogs.”

“Yes, thanks, Devil Dogs. How come you don’t ever see Devil Dogs these days?”

This is a typical bit of bus talk. (In a taxi you would stew on the issue all by yourself. The millionaire in his limo could ask the driver, I suppose, but he would be too embarrassed to answer. On the subway, no one would hear, in the first place; and if the words “Devil Dog” were said with enough emphasis to be heard, it would cause a panicked mass exodus.) On another morning, a man and a woman were riding together down Fifth Avenue and saw the new, comically twinned, comically misnamed AOL Time Warner Center—the Delusional States Building, as it will doubtless someday be known—come into view. (And those two towers rising, however plainly, have become a source of pride: somethings rising.) “That Trump,” the man said, chuckling. “He always does things in twos. Have you ever noticed how he always does things in twos?”

“I’ve noticed that. That’s his thing, his signature, doing two of everything.”

“Well, there he does it again. Two towers again.”

Sage nods. The fact that, as it occurred to me later, the towers are not by Trump, and that, in any case, Trump, in his long career, has never done two of anything, should not diminish the glory of this exchange. If you were on the subway, there would be nothing to look at; if you were in a limo, you would actually be Trump, building things, gloriously, in nonexistent pairs.

When I first started riding the bus, I mentioned it to people sheepishly, almost apologetically, as one might mention having had a new dental plate put in, or the advantages of low-fat yogurt—as one might mention something that, though not downright shameful, might still seem mildly embarrassing. But, to my surprise, almost everyone I talked to (and women, I think, in particular) turned out to feel the same way I do about the bus. “The bus lets you feel that you’re in control, or that someone’s in control,” one woman said to me, and another friend said flatly, “You can see what’s coming.” The bus feels safe. Of course, there is no reason for the bus to feel safe. (A friend from Jerusalem got on the bus with understandable watchfulness.) Yet we have decided to create in the city a kind of imaginary geography of fear and safety that will somehow make us safer from It—from the next attack, of course, from the Other Shoe, the Dreadful Thing that we all await.

I have thought about it a lot while I am riding the bus, and I have come to the conclusion that, while anxiety seeks out the company of excitement, fear seeks out the illusion of certainty. People tend to write these days about anxiety and fear as though they were equal, or anyway continuous, emotions, one blending into the other, but anyone who has felt them—and anyone who hasn’t felt them, at least a little, hasn’t been living in New York in the past year—knows that they are as distinct as a bus from a subway, as a Devil Dog from a Ring-Ding. Anxiety is the ordinary New York emotion. It is a form of energy, and clings, like ivy to a garden wall, to whatever is around to cling to, whether the object is nationalism or the Knicks or Lizzie Grubman, as readers of the New York Post recognize. At the height of the bubble, anxiety was all around us: the anxiety of keeping up, of not falling behind, of holding one’s place.

Fear, well earned or not, is a different thing. People who live with the higher kinds of fear—the ill, soldiers—live with it mostly by making structures of delusional domesticity. They try to create an illusion of safety, and of home. At Waterloo, soldiers welcomed the little signs of farm-keeping evident around them; in the dugouts of the Somme, every rat-ridden alley had a designation and every rat itself a pet name. The last time New Yorkers were genuinely afraid, as opposed to merely anxious, during the great crime wave of the sixties and mid-seventies, they responded in the same way: by constructing an elaborate, learn-it-by-heart geography of safe and unsafe enclaves, a map of safe rooms. The knowledge that the map could not truly protect you from what you feared then, any more than riding the bus can save you from it now, did not alter the need to have a map. People say that twentysomethings have sex out of fear—it is called terror sex—but twentysomethings have sex out of sex, and the adjective of the decade is always attached to it. In the eighties, they had safe sex, and in the nineties boom sex, and they will have sex-among-the-ruins, if it comes to that.

What we have out of fear is not sex, or any other anxiety-energized activity, but stillness. It’s said that people in the city are nicer now, or more coöperative, and I suppose this is true. But it is true for reasons that are not themselves entirely nice. The motivation of this niceness is less rectitude and reform than just plain old-fashioned fright. There are no atheists in foxholes, but there are no religious arguments in foxholes, either. The fear we feel isn’t as immediate or as real as the fear soldiers feel. But our response is the same. These structures of delusional domesticity are the mainstay of the lives of many of us in New York now. The bus, a permanently running dinner party among friends, a fiction of family for a dollar-fifty, a Starbucks on wheels, is the rolling image of the thing we dream of now as much as we wanted the Broadband Pipe to wash away our sins three years ago, and that is the Safe Room. For the first time, the bus has something to symbolize.

On the bus the other morning, the worst regularly scheduled thing that can happen on the bus happened. A guy in a wheelchair held things up for three minutes—no time at all, really, but an eternity on television, or in the subway, or, usually, in the city. As bus riders know, buses are equipped to stop and, by lowering a clever elevator device, let a wheelchair-bound rider board the bus. This, though a civic mitzvah, involves a sequence where the driver locks the front door, works the elevator at the rear door, hoists up the wheelchair on the lift, and then folds up the designated seats to give the wheelchair man room (it is nearly always a man). There is something artisanal, handmade about it—the lock, the voyage, working the elevator—in which a municipal employee is reduced, or raised, to a valet.

“It’s the lame and the halt on the bus,” one woman said.

“What’s the difference between the lame and the halt?”

“The lame are, like, lame, and the halt, halt.”

“You mean the halt don’t walk.”

“I mean they halt. But they halt because they’re lame.”

It is the kind of conversation—discursive, word-sensitive—that is possible on the bus right now, and nowhere else. I keep meaning to look up the difference. ♦

Although I take public transportation all the time when I’m in New York, I hadn't been on a Milwaukee bus since I got my driver's license at 16.  But half a century later, I’m old enough to get a discounted fare again, so when work took me downtown on a regular basis last winter, I decided to bury my old prejudices and take the bus. 

That was when I discovered the zen of riding the bus. 

Riding the bus is an entirely different experience from driving. You don’t have to keep an eye out for potholes or pedestrians, you don’t have to wonder why your car is making that funny noise, and except for your choice of a seat, things are completely out of your control, so you might as well just relax and enjoy the ride.

Once you leave the house, you are either going to get to the bus stop before the bus comes, or you aren’t.  If you miss it, you just have to wait for the next one.  Once aboard, nothing you can do can make it go any faster.  Relinquishing control is not easy after a lifetime behind the wheel, but I adapted surprisingly quickly.

The morning buses in Milwaukee come fairly frequently.  The evening buses are another story entirely.  They don’t seem to adhere to any particular schedule, and standing at the bus stop, there was nothing I could do to make my bus show up.  I found that I needed to adopt a totally different attitude, reminding myself, like a mantra, “It is out of my hands.”  So once on board, I would read, or I might doze a bit-- not recommended when you’re the driver-- or just watch people watch the "street theater" for its entertainment value.  

What entertainment? There was the guy who looked like Santa Claus out of season, long white hair and beard, huge belly-- but rather unwashed looking, someone I was particularly glad was sitting across from me rather than beside me. 

There was another man, as wide as he was tall, who got on every morning and rode just three stops.  Why, I wondered, hadn’t it occurred to him to walk those seven blocks and burn those calories? 

Then there was the woman who talked-- loudly-- on her phone for most of one ride.  Whoever was on the other end couldn't possibly have been saying anything, because this woman never stopped to breathe. But I can tell you a lot about her, including the fact that she makes $9.50 an hour.  I guess people on cell phones forget that they're out in public.  Or perhaps they are so comfortable on the bus that they don't realize they aren't at home.

Most people on the bus are quiet and respectful of others.  A lot of them text, and some of them answer their phones but keep the conversations low volume and brief.  Many people listen to i-pods though earphones-- the days of Star Trek IV, when Mr. Spock had to use a Vulcan nerve pinch to get another passenger to shut off his boom box are long gone.   

One woman did have an argument-- over the course of many blocks-- with her mother on her cell phone. Then, apparently upset by it, she left her phone behind her when she disembarked. (Another passenger handed it to the driver).

There is a sign in the front of each bus that says that the front seven seats, most of which face sideways, must be vacated for seniors and the handicapped.  Being a senior now, I usually sit in those seats, because I like to exit from the front.   

That’s because the new buses "kneel" at the front.  They make a beeping noise while the driver lowers the steps so you can climb aboard more easily.  If you are there with a scooter or wheelchair, the driver can flip a ramp out after the bus kneels, and you can ride right on.

Most people vacated the front seats when they saw someone with a cane or white hair headed towards them.  But one morning I discovered that even seniors aren’t always privileged.  Those side-facing seats at the front fold up, so that people on handicapped scooters can park them there.  When they board, the bus driver asks anyone sitting there to move, then raises the seat, lets the person park the scooter in the now-empty space, and then anchors the scooter with a mini seat belt located near the floor.   Once, when there were two scooters on the bus at the same time, both side-facing seats had to be flipped up, and those of us who normally sat in front had to find places elsewhere on the bus. 

If you are so inclined, you can ride your bike to the bus stop and take it with you to your destination. There is a rack on the front of the bus where bikes can be secured.  Up to two bikes can be stored there. If you can’t get your bike into the rack, the driver will come out and help you. 

I noticed that people sometimes get on the bus with numerous packages, obviously having been shopping. Often they get on with grocery bags.  Indeed, the bus driver on the number 10 route actually calls out "Pick'n Save" rather than the street names when he gets to Humboldt and Garfield, where a large grocery store by that name is located. 

People with babies and collapsible strollers ride the bus, as do those with young children in tow, or with slightly older ones who race to get the seat of their choice.  On my route, several mornings a week, a boy of about eleven or twelve would get on, juggling his violin and backpack while holding the hand of a much younger boy who looked so much like him that it had to be his little brother.  Sometimes there was another boy with them, about the little brother’s age, both of them carrying backpacks and sometimes dragging a cloth grocery bag as well.  The older boy did yeoman service shepherding them onto the bus, through the ride, and off the bus-- with all their gear-- at their stop. 

Decades ago, when last I rode the bus regularly, I don’t remember people thanking the bus driver as they got off, but everyone seems to do that now. Most bus drivers are very polite and considerate. So you thank them as you leave, and they tell you to have a nice day or evening.  I like that exchange.  It makes you feel good.  When was the last time commuting by car did that?  

On snowy days last winter, the bus was a cozy island of people commiserating about the weather.  When it is dark outside as you board or get off, the bus feels like an island in the darkness, a kind of refuge from the world. 

When the days became longer and it was still light when I left downtown, I discovered that my bus crossed the river twice-- at Water and Wisconsin and again at Humboldt. I think the Milwaukee County Transit System should have water buses-- in Venice, they call that a vaporetto. You could ride up the river and transfer at the points the bus route crosses it.  I think it could be a tourist attraction, and in a warm winter like the one we had this year, it could probably operate throughout the year. Or perhaps, to allow for the weather, it could be scheduled only during the months when Daylight Savings Time was in effect, the way the downtown trolley only operates during summer months. 

I think it would be great to commute on a water bus on the river. It would be a different kind of zen, but it would put nice parentheses around your work day.  Come to think of it, so does the bus. 

Essayist Ellen Kozak on the zen of the city bus

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