It’s not that the bus has never let me down. It’s hard to forgive that one particular bus driver last winter who blew past without stopping while I was waiting at night in a blizzard with snow creeping over the tops of my shoes. Or the bus that left my teenaged daughter stranded downtown when she stayed a bit too long at the mall and like Cinderella’s coach at midnight the 15-minute bus schedule converted to a once-per-hour pumpkin at 7p.m. There are the many times I’ve watched my bus pull away while I’m stranded by traffic on the wrong side of the street, and more than a few times a scheduled bus simply failed to show up.
Then there was the annoying incident last summer when I bought summer youth passes for both of my kids intending to leave the car in the driveway and teach them all kinds of virtuous public transit lessons about independence, social justice, preserving air quality and all that. The first day we stood waiting at the bus stop we watched the bus approach and then turn the corner right before it was supposed to pick us up. Turns out our street was closing for construction, and so far the bus had been on detour for five months and counting. The nearest bus stop to my house is currently four blocks away.
As far as aggravation and annoyance, it’s not like my car is innocent. Recently I drove to campus for an early meeting only to find all of the parking lots blocked off for football tailgating. I not only missed my meeting, I got so frustrated by the chaotic traffic situation I ended up driving home and taking the bus back to work.
Then there was the time I got rear-ended on my way to a Scandinavian dance party. There I was, anticipating the pleasure of eating Swedish meatballs with lingonberries and dancing to accordion music and instead I spent the next month dealing with insurance and car repairs. The reputation of cars for being convenient is not entirely well-deserved.
If all you want to do is go from point A to point B in the least amount of time I have to agree that driving a car is generally superior to taking the bus. However, as the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says, “When we are driving, we tend to think of arriving, and we sacrifice the journey for the sake of the arrival.” I don’t think of myself as a very Zen person but I still think Thich Nhat Hanh is onto something. Even though I care about reducing air pollution, I don’t ride the bus because I’m a good person—I ride the bus because very often the quality of the journey is better.
But in order to enjoy buses, first I had to learn the right way to ride the bus. It’s a mistake to think of a bus as kind of a large inconvenient car that doesn’t go when or where you want. The best way to think about bus riding is as an aid to walking.
I learned this from a friend who used the bus for her exercise routine. She would ride the bus to work and then jog home in the evening.
I’m don’t like to run, but I do like to walk and I find that if I leave my house a bit early I can get to a bus stop about a mile away on the other side of Liberty Park. In the morning the pond is full of mallards, Canada geese and California gulls, but I’ve also seen exotic birds there like coots, cormorants, pelicans, Cooper’s hawks, once a wild turkey and one winter a bald eagle hung out by the lake for several months. There is a vending machine on the Tracy Aviary fence where I can put in a quarter and get a handful of duck food to toss to the birds, and behind the fence there is a magical flock of bright yellow sun conures. The path through the park has a colonnade of enormous old cottonwoods, and then there is a lovely shady bench to sit on to wait for the bus. So remember your Thoreau: “I have learned that the swiftest traveler is he that goes afoot.”
But Thoreau didn’t allow that riding transit might be a pleasure in and of itself. Little kids adore buses. It’s better than Lagoon, blowing dandelions at the bus stop, putting money in the fare box, chatting with other passengers, pulling the bell to request a stop. When my kids were small, one particular bus driver would play the Sponge Bob Squarepants theme on the intercom to make them smile.
But to ride the bus properly (and particularly with kids) it’s important to identify high-quality bus stops. Walk extra to get there if you have to. Some bus stops ruin your day because they are too close to busy roads, or exposed to hot sun, or there is no place to sit, or they are littered with trash or inhabited by creepy looking people. On the other hand, some bus stops are delightful. Particularly the ones near coffee shops. Particularly if I get there early enough to go in and get a cup of coffee to go. Even better if I happen to run into a friend and decide to sit down and have a cup of coffee while I wait for the next bus.
For a lot of people, waiting seems to be the biggest obstacle with buses. It’s easy to get impatient just sitting there. The trick is to stitch together those little scraps of time into a beautiful quilt.
Thich Nhat Hanh suggests meditation, but I like to read poetry. I get most of my poetry books from the library. I find that poems are just right for bus reading, not only because most poems are short, but because good poems bear multiple readings.
Poetry and buses go well together in another way, too, because as former Poet Laureate Billy Collins says, “The trouble with poetry is that it encourages the writing of more poetry.” I’m guilty. I compose poems in my head while I’m walking and jot them down in a little notebook when I get to the bus stop. Thanks to walking and riding the bus, some of my poems have even been published, and since you asked I’ll interject with a nonfiction poem about a transcendent bus incident that happened nearly 30 years ago when I was a grad student in Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh Bus Stop
A mid-summer evening
I’m late getting home
antsy for the number sixty-one
twenty minutes wait at least
according to the schedule
when a frowsy woman
in a pilled plaid coat
far too warm for the season
shuffles up to the bus stop
plops down her heavy shopping bags
just when I’m thinking
this is the kind of bag lady
you encounter on public transit
Would you like a beer?
And I say,
Yes, thank you. I would love a beer.
She hands me a can of Iron City
warm as dishwater
it foams like hand soap when I
pop the tab
we sit there on the bench
drinking from open containers
Can I read you my poems?
And since I am drinking her beer
what can I say?
Please do, I would love to hear
She pulls out a spiral bound notebook
cursive lines scrawled in pencil
reads to me in a sing-song tone
like my mother reading a
until the bus comes.
I know, I know. I sound more than a bit entitled and pretentious going on like this about the poetry of bus riding. Some people don’t have options and they have to put up with all the inconvenience of buses; I have a car so I can opt out any time I want.
However, with the population of the Salt Lake City metro area growing, we’ve come to a point where people with cars need to stop exercising their privilege of driving everywhere or else none of us will be able to breathe.
That may make riding the bus sound like an unpleasant sacrifice for the public good. However, I’m here to tell you that once I learned the right way to ride a bus, I sometimes feel a bit cheated when I have to drive my car to work. I get there faster, but I miss the birds, the trees, the coffee, the little kids and the poetry.
Amy Brunvand is a librarian at the J. Willard Marriott Library where she specializes in government information. Her favorite UTA bus route is the #17 which passes Salt Lake Community College, Westminster College and the University of Utah and has a particularly academic vibe.