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[whitespace] Gas Pump The Boy on The Bus

Everything I needed to know in life I learned while riding public transportation

By Andrew MacFarland

YEAH, YEAH, GAS is $2 a gallon. So what? I don't feel sorry for you people. You should have thought about a little organization called OPEC before you bought that Ford Navigator. And now, as you pump your skim-milk latte allowance (plus tips) into your gas tank each week, I have two words of advice for you: PUBLIC TRANSIT.

I've ridden public transit everywhere from Moscow to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Over the past seven years, I've been a regular user of Caltrain, BART, the Muni and the Santa Clara County Transit Authority. Yes, it can be a pain in the ass at times. Yes, timeliness is not a public transit virtue. But I still can't fathom why someone would rather gas up their massive four-wheel drive, crank up a Dave Matthews CD and battle traffic day after day after day when they could let someone else do all the work for them.

Basically, I think it's a class thing. A native Californian from San Jose once told me that taking the bus would have been social suicide when she was growing up. Poor people take the bus. I could launch into a diatribe about class divisions in California, but I won't bother. I don't ride public transit to show my solidarity with the masses. I don't do it to help the environment. I don't even do it because I hate cars. In fact, I love them.

After all, I grew up in Flint, Michigan--"The Vehicle City" of Roger & Me fame--and my first car was my grandma's Buick Electra 225. Official color, as listed in the owner's manual: Bamboo Cream.

I've taken some road trips that would make OPEC officials high-five one another. How about Little Rock, Ark., to Jacksonville, Fla., with stops in Columbia, Mo.; Lincoln, Neb.; Bozeman, Mont.; Seattle; San Francisco; and Detroit in between? I once drove straight through from Charlevoix, in northern Michigan, to St. Augustine, in northern Florida, because I was too broke to stay in a motel and too scared to sleep in a rest stop. I had just finished reading Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.

Quite simply, I ride public transit because I hate commuting. And because I live in San Francisco and work in Santa Clara, it's either take public transit or drive Highways 101 or 280, two stretches of congested road that would make Richard Petty swear off cars.

Besides, I find public transit an endless source of excitement and entertainment. Polypro-wearing, Nike-toting, adventure-sport enthusiasts may turn to rock climbing or extreme skiing or mountain rollerblading to make themselves feel alive. I simply get on a bus or a train.

Rules of the Road

I STARTED THE public transit thing in second grade, and I'm not talking about a quaint yellow school bus. My mom would wake me up before she left for work at 6am. My brothers and sisters were away at college, so I was on my own at that point. She would also set the alarm on the stove before she left to let me know when it was time to head for school. When the stove went off, I'd lock up the house and ride my imitation Sting Ray about 15 blocks to a friend's house, where I stored it during the day. The weather had to be pretty bad before I'd walk rather than ride my bike, even in the winter. I'd then catch the Dupont Street bus for the 20-minute ride to St. Mike's near downtown Flint.

This was a city bus, mind you, not a romper room on wheels. There were a few other kids from school, but it was largely "working class" adults on their way to work--or, more accurately for Flint, not-working-class adults on their way to the unemployment office. Some of the passengers defied easy categorization.

It was here that I learned some of the truisms of public transit:

1) People who have already started drinking by 6:45 in the morning, or haven't stopped hitting the Boone's Farm from the night before, often use public transit (including, I suspect, some of the drivers).

2) The vast majority of individuals who mumble to themselves or speak a language no one else understands often use public transit.

3) There is always one person on public transit who prefers to sit next to you, regardless of how many empty seats there are elsewhere.

4) Body odor is a badge of honor on public transit.

5) Never lean your head against the window, seat or armrest of a public transit vehicle because several hundred people had the idea before you did.

6) There is always one person on public transit who feels compelled to carry on an in-depth conversation with the driver/conductor.

7) Complete strangers on public transit tell you things you wouldn't tell your therapist.

8) You will be asked for money, advice or directions at least once by a fellow passenger on public transit. You will also be given unsolicited advice: "Look at the ass on her," for example.

9) Always carry correct change.

10) Don't be in a hurry.

By the time I reached high school, the bus was still an occasional necessity for me, and many other high school kids who still lived in Flint. The only difference was that I had to take the Dupont Street line north to Powers Catholic Central instead of south toward downtown.

The bus hadn't changed much over the years. It was the same clientele, but the percentage of jobless/drunk passengers had risen dramatically. Because I was older, I now got hit up for change a lot more often.

It was in high school that I briefly turned against public transit. Lots of kids had cars, especially the ones who lived in white-bread suburbs like Flushing and Grand Blanc. (It's bad enough to live in a place called Flint, but how would you like to live in a place called Flushing?) Plus, I was now old enough to realize bad things might happen to you on the bus or waiting for the bus or getting off the bus. Unemployment, crime and the rat population were battling for supremacy in Flint, and there were no "good" neighborhoods anywhere near the Dupont Street line anymore.

I began to betray my bus-riding roots by begging for rides from friends and acquaintances. I was even a passive participant in a favorite pastime--mocking bus riders. Ricky Eddington and Troy Eggleston lived near me in Flint, and we all played basketball. (Yes, they were black and talented; yes, I was white and considered a "scrappy defensive player.") Ricky, being older, drove a pretty nice Regal equipped with an impressive tape deck. On the occasions when Troy and I managed to catch a ride with Ricky, we would roll out of the high school lot, windows down in the middle of the winter, blasting The Gap Band or Patrice Rushen or Yarbrough & Peeples. The Mass Transit Authority (MTA) stop was right next to the exit, and there were usually a few desperate souls freezing their asses off waiting for the bus.

Ricky would slow to a crawl as he passed the stop, lean out the window and yell, "MTA muthafucka! Get your ass on that bus!" Because Troy and I were only sophomores, we were slumping as low as possible in our seats to avoid being spotted by someone who would retaliate against us. Besides, for reasons I couldn't fathom at the time, teachers sometimes rode the bus.

The lesson I learned is that public transit is always there for you, flaws and all, regardless of how badly you treat it. In our transient world of computers that are obsolete before you figure out how to use them (and girlfriends that leave you before you figure out you were being used), it's nice to know you have something large and solid you can depend on. Unless, of course, you need to be somewhere on time.

Saab Story

I RODE THE METRO and city buses in Washington, D.C., during college, and when I wrote for a local paper a few years later. The Metro was smooth, sleek and boringly efficient. The only problem was that it closed so early that it was unsuitable for getting home late at night in a drunken stupor.

The district buses were more exciting. They had the annoying habit of "running hot" rather than arriving late. I came to realize that an early bus that departs without waiting is much more vexing than a late one. I was bitched out by my editor in front of the entire staff because I showed up late for one story meeting after my bus rumbled past my stop five minutes early. I speculated that the drivers got a longer break back at the yard if they showed up early.

My fondest memory of D.C. buses came when an overly aggressive driver angled himself into an impossibly tight squeeze at a crowded Georgetown corner. Attempting to make a right turn from one narrow street to another, we trapped ourselves by coming within inches of parked cars on all sides. A Saab Turbo parked in a red zone was the cause of all our problems. We started backing up, turning an inch, going forward, turning an inch, backing up ... think of Mike Myers trying to turn his little cart around in Austin Powers.

The situation was bad enough, but it was worsened by the fact that there were 10 to 15 developmentally disabled passengers on the bus. After about 20 minutes of rocking, they were just as bus sick as the rest of us and none too happy. As tempers flared, I overheard the following exchange in the seat behind me.

"Hit driver."

"No, Jimmy. It's OK."

"Hit driver!"

"Calm down, Jimmy. We're fine."

"Kill driver."

"Jimmy, stop. We're all right."

"Kill driver!"

"Jimmy ..."


(This was punctuated by Jimmy punching the back of my seat, George Foreman style.)

The driver, who had worked up a sweat while working his way through every profanity in his impressive bus-driver's repertoire, responded by shouting: "I need quiet to pull this off, goddammit!"

Jimmy was briefly silenced, and we miraculously made the turn, which had appeared to be a geometric impossibility only minutes earlier. OK, so the bus scraped the paint off the offending Saab in the process, but no one on board seemed to care, especially Jimmy and the bus driver.

There was a real sense of community on that bus that day. Not the fake "community" would-be spiritualists with stock options are always searching for in the pages of Utne Reader. I'm talking about accepting people, despite their flaws, for who they are. When the driver sideswiped the Saab, we all sideswiped the Saab--me, Jimmy and all the other tired commuters. I was late for work and needed a chiropractor thanks to Jimmy's repeated uppercuts, but we could all feel satisfied that we had inconvenienced the law-breaking owner of an expensive Swedish import.

Who says there's no justice in the world?

International Incident

WHEN I MOVED to Paris in 1987, I gladly purchased a Carte Orange. A Carte Orange is, well, an orange card with your photo on it that gets you into the Metro trains and onto all the city buses. You simply show it to bus drivers, and you run a reusable detachable ticket--a Carte Coupon--through the turnstile to get into the Metro. As I made friends, I quickly learned that most young and/or poor people like myself don't actually pay to update their cards each month.

The bus drivers never scrutinized the card to see whether it was up-to-date, anyway. One friend simply flashed a dog-eared orange postcard as he hustled onto the bus each day. The only thing you had to worry about was the occasional random inspection by the transit patrol. Whenever the transit toadies boarded the bus I took each morning, everyone under the age of 25, myself included, mysteriously jumped up and decided to immediately exit the bus by the back door. This was a tricky proposition when the bus was moving.

One incident that confirmed for me that all the stories Americans tell about snotty Parisians just weren't true came when I was caught daydreaming on a bus during an inspection. I snapped out of it in time to see the inspector (who did, indeed, look snotty) making his way toward me, the only youngster on a bus crowded with older, well-off passengers. (Unlike California, people with money actually take the bus in Paris.) We were in heavy traffic, so the back door was out of the question. I was wondering how embarrassing this encounter would be and how I was going to pay the fine when the sharply dressed elderly woman next to me nudged my elbow. I turned, and she smiled as she pressed her ticket into my hand. They never checked older passengers. The inspector arrived. "Billet?" I showed him my neighbor's ticket. He frowned and got off the bus at the next stop.

Now if public transit can bring together a well-off Parisian doyenne and a young, freeloading American with stolen batteries in his Walkman, what can't it do? Maybe if we could get Bill Clinton and Ken Starr on a bus together we could turn this country around. At the very least, they'd both be late for work and that could be seen as positive, right?

Ultimately, the transit gods punished me for my transgressions. I was returning home on the Metro one evening after a weeklong stint as an extra in the movie Frantic starring Harrison Ford. (I got the job through my girlfriend, who promptly dumped me for one of the lighting technicians working on the film.) Somehow, I ended up riding the Metro after shooting one day with the dialogue coach for Emmanuelle Seigner, now director Roman Polanski's wife. We pulled into a stop just in time for the car to fill with tear gas wafting through the station. The doors closed, sealing the gas inside, and we went on our merry way. The dialogue coach, who was in her late 50s, seemed blissfully unaffected. "Why's everybody coughing?" she asked.

I was considering a self-applied tracheotomy at the moment, so I had trouble answering. There's a reason it's called tear gas, you know. I was having a good cry; my lungs were on fire; and the chances of barfing were pretty good. I managed to open my mouth and let out a low groan. She probably thought I was an aspiring actor engaged in some sort of bizarre method-acting exercise. She smiled and went back to reading her book, oblivious.

Public transit karma isn't always instant, but someday it comes around. Like all things related to public transit, it's just gonna take a while.

Riding in Style

I REMEMBER GASSING UP my Buick Electra for the first time around 1983. I was giddy with the notion that I could drive around Flint without taking the bus. The tank in the 225 could have been buried under a Shell station and used as an emergency reservoir during a gas run. When the bill topped $25, it dawned on me that having my own car wasn't all it was cracked up to be. I could ride the bus for three months on the price of a single tank.

I got the same feeling recently when I filled up my Toyota Camry and broke the $25 barrier. I couldn't help making the comparison: At least the Buick offered me true style for the price of filling it with a small lake of gas. It had "Keynote Cloth-and-Vinyl Bench Seats" and a 370 horsepower 455-4 V8 engine with a three-speed Turbo-Hydramatic 400 automatic transmission. The back seat had more than three feet of head and leg room. As the owners manual bragged, "In luxury motoring, there is no alternative."

The Camry, on the other hand, is a ... Camry. It's perhaps the most boring, indistinct car ever made. I'm paying 25 bucks to feed this?

But wait a minute. This gas is going to last a long time because I'll be taking Caltrain to work in the morning, luxuriating in the brown vinyl seats, listening in on cell phone conversations, watching people pretend to work on laptops and pitying adults humiliating themselves as they try to lay down on the seats.

This time, I'm a little older and a little wiser. I know that public transit is there for me when I need it, always willing to welcome me back like the prodigal son. And no, I don't mind the wait.

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From the April 20-26, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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