Kristi’s Review: The Bus Stops Here is a short piece of humorous fiction with heart, in which the author, who I would ride the bus with any day, charmed me with descriptions of characters I’d like to meet.
The bus door opened and a middle-aged woman settled herself into the seat next to me. Suddenly she spoke in a rather loud voice, “I have three ex-husbands.” This was my first day on the bus. Her proclamation startled me. My eyebrows went up like a circus tent on opening day. She laughed, but I could not tell if she was laughing at me or just in general. “That’s quite a few,” I offered. “That’s two too many,” she quipped. I nodded my head wisely in agreement, then withdrew into my own reverie to contemplate the transportation choices I had made. Is a car like a husband? When I felt my old Honda no longer served me and our relationship cost more than the benefits, I gave it up. That is why I was riding the bus, sitting next to the lady with three ex-husbands.
I was nervous on the morning of my first ride. I clutched a recently-purchased, pale-green bus ticket in my hand and walked a block to a busy intersection to cross to the bus stop next to the cleaners. As the bus pulled up, I stood back to allow another person to enter before me, watching how things were done. She slipped a small piece of paper into a plastic bag hanging near the driver. What? I had a green ticket, was I to place the ticket there? I just decided to confess my ignorance, showed the driver my ticket and asked, “Where?” He indicated a contraption that had several mechanisms for sliding, feeding and delivering various methods of payment. Confused, I simply slipped the ticket into the paper money slot (noted by the picture of a dollar bill) and it was not thrown back at me in contempt. Hooray, I was on the bus.
The lady with the three ex-husbands was the only person who spoke to me that day. A few riders sat quietly, keeping to themselves, this ride a mere blip in their day as they made their way to the next destination. Many passengers seemed to know one another, extending greetings and bantering about jobs, family and which grocery stores had the best prices. Their comradery made me feel lonely, an outsider, an interloper in a foreign country.
I began coming into town on a daily basis to work out at the YWCA and later walk a few blocks to sit in my little rented desk space. I gradually became familiar with the cast of characters who were my regular companions on the eight am bus. I encountered another woman I would come to know as a regular rider. She was very tiny but spoke in a loud and belligerent voice to unknown recipients. I found her frightening and annoying. Waiting at the station for my ride home that day, I spotted her also waiting for the bus home. I decided to take a different route just to avoid her. I felt ashamed of this decision later, feeling certain that she was no threat to my safety. I decided to take my cue from the other occupants of the bus when determining whether any individual was someone to avoid. Unable to avoid the tiny, loud lady, I observed how she was received by my fellow passengers. Her voice was exceedingly loud and sometimes people quietly laughed at her blaring conversations. I realized one day that she was actually speaking to us, the other riders on the bus, without eye contact or expectation of a reply. I began to catch her eye when she boarded and I started to greet her. She responded in kind. I noticed that other regular passengers knew her well and also greeted her and occasionally responded to her wild chatter. The drivers treated her respectfully. I came to see her as a well-known fixture on my route, a sometimes sweet and sometimes belligerent person who was capable of making me smile and appreciate her quirky personality.
It quickly becomes clear to me that no one on the bus is of my socio-economic status. My contemporaries have cars or the means to take an Uber and have no desire to give collective travel a try. Bus passengers are mostly hard-working people, who for various reasons, have limited transportation options. Unlike me, they are not here because they choose to be but because they have to be. Once in a while, an individual who is clearly living the rough life will enter the bus. Bus fare is one dollar, an amount that is not insurmountable for those living on the street. This is a city where drug addicts, nomads and seriously disadvantaged individuals make their way across a day by whatever means available to them. When such an unfortunate enters the bus, there is a collective consciousness among us regular passengers that feels like a “there, by the grace of god” moment. I lock eyes with other women on the bus and understand their compassion for a passenger clearly suffering with drug addiction. Other times the stench of a street dweller drives us to open a window or to simply change seats for a less eye-stinging atmosphere. As long as you behave properly (no eating, drinking, cursing or harassing others) and you have the fare, you are welcome to ride.
One rainy, cold morning, I met a young man waiting for the bus at my stop. We began to speak and he informed me that he was on parole and was heading to the courthouse. (Newsline: Woman robbed at bus stop). Then we were joined by another young man, also a parolee (make that: Woman strangled and robbed at bus stop). These two proceeded to hold a conversation about their various crimes and parole experiences and showed off the electronic tracking devices around their ankles. This is how I discovered that there was a half-way house one block over on the street behind mine. (Could not wait to get home with that news.) When the bus pulled up to the stop, each man stepped back to allow me to enter first. I got the feeling that these young people were not psychopaths. They had manners, spoke civilly with me and were working towards straightening out the mess they had made of their lives by committing a crime. Over the course of our daily trips, my two new friends, on their way to work or school, hailed other young men on the bus and conversed openly about their experiences in the criminal justice system. Through their conversations with each other on the bus ride (which sounds like eavesdropping, but come on, it’s a bus), I could see that they were all supportive of one another and encouraging each other to keep up the good work and progress they were making. I now enjoy their greetings to me and hearing about their accomplishments and setbacks.
Asheville has a car culture and people do not ride the bus if they do not have to. I was shocked at this as Asheville prides itself for its green living. Taking the bus is not one of the things people choose to do to promote the green. I asked a few people in my social set if they ever took the bus. They looked perplexed as if I’d asked if they had ever driven a backhoe! Taking the bus was simply something that had never occurred to them. But, to their credit, two women asked me to guide them in the process. I’m changing the city of Asheville!! (For the good…mostly for the good).
As the city grows, plans are being made to improve the motorways to accommodate the increase in vehicles and expanding motor traffic. Money is being spent to improve the bus terminal and add a bus which can connect Asheville to a train depot for those of us who are increasingly attracted to train travel. (Take that, airports!) As the city expands in population, the bus service does not follow suit. There are routes which cover the city, though at a limited capacity. All of the buses run once per hour. It feels like a mighty long wait if a bus or connection is missed, making me late for work or an appointment or worse, someone gets to the good treadmill before I can get there.
I think the area transportation division should hire me as their spokesperson. (Change for the good, mostly! could be my motto). I would love to get more people on the bus. I have been enjoying my travels. I have met people, avoided the downtown parking nightmares and saved a ton of money by taking the bus. If the city would expand service to two runs per hour, it would help get people interested in taking public transportation. This is the Catch 22. They would expand bus service if more people were riding and more people would ride if they would expand the service. A public transit promotion is just the type of creative outlet that would bring out the Broadway producer in me. Auditions for PSAs coming soon!
One great advantage to taking the bus is the founding of friendships. You can’t do that in your car. I met Bruce shortly before I became a regular passenger, at the bus stop near my home. He is a man with an outgoing personality and as a frequent rider, knows nearly all the regulars. His endorsement of me, through our many lively discussions, has led to a less-guarded acceptance of me by some of the other passengers. One day when I met Bruce on the bus, he was drunk (by his own candid admission). His friend had died, he explained, and he’d had a few. From time to time now Bruce arrives drunk, always apologizing for his state. But sober Bruce rarely talks about it. He wants to know how I am doing, how the job search is progressing, have I found a grocery store with good prices. He brings me into his community, one of cheerful greetings and of companionable commiserations. Life is joyful and painful whoever you are and by whatever means of transportation you take.
Exploring a new city can be daunting. It can also be exciting and fun. My daily meet and greet with these transit companions feels like a life-affirming ritual. We speak or not, we laugh or relate telepathically, we feel the pulse of the living city. By taking the bus, I have found a new community within a community, traveling a path that builds connections which make for a fuller, richer life, one ride at a time.
Save the planet–take the bus,
Kristi encouraged me to join the church ukulele group when she described it as “we play ukuleles and sometimes swear.” I knew we would get along. I love her kids. She is a thorough editor and often has encouraging words.