Saturday, December 6, 2008

Riding the bus

Last week we were in Syracuse for Thanksgiving and a belated three way birthday party with my dear friends Harmon Hoff and EveAnn Shwartz at their home, Maple Avenue Farm near Earlville. There was no blog entry last week but here's another glimpse of everyday life in St. Louis for your enjoyment.

During my first week on the job I learned that Social Security buys a bus pass on request for all employees. To my pleasant surprise your government is actually doing something concrete to slow global warming. Any US government employee can ride the bus or light rail for free, but there is no subsidy for those who drive. All the other judges drive to work and park in the building garage at the cost of $130 per month. I live only 2.5 miles from the office, on a bus line. I decided on the bus.

As in most big cities, learning the St. Louis bus routes and schedules was a real challenge at first. Eventually I settled into a fairly efficient pattern: leave the house no later than 6:15 am, walk two blocks to the #10 bus stop on Gravois, wait from 0 – 5 minutes, ride about 15 minutes, walk a block to the office and arrive at 6:35, give or take a few minutes. The homeward trip is about the same but takes about 25 minutes due to more frequent stops to pick up and discharge passengers.

Every day I anticipate the moment when the #10 bus rounds the corner onto Market St., the main drag downtown. Framed in the windshield is the Gateway Arch, the sunrise and the Old Courthouse centered between the gleaming stainless steel legs of the Arch. It's become my weathervane and inspiration.

The bus talks. As the doors open to admit passengers the bus says, in a pleasant female voice, “Good morning, #10 Gravois to downtown.” Every time someone pulls the cord she says, “Stop requested.” At key stops she announces the stop and lists the connecting buses. There is a certain squeaky sweetness in her voice as she chirps, “Market and Tenth Street.”

On winter mornings the passengers huddle wrapped in heavy coats and scarves, hoods up, listening to iPods. In the afternoon they talk. It's quite common for passengers to greet the driver and sincerely thank him or her on exiting the bus, a habit I've adopted. Many of the afternoon bus drivers are big talkers, razzing passers-by and riders. One of the first cool days a short heavy-set black woman climbed on wearing a brand new puffy pure white down coat. She looked like a marshmallow with legs. The driver kidded her, “Hey, woman, you looking way too warm.” She sat near the driver who kept asking her if she were warm enough. She refused to unzip the coat. Everyone else on the bus was in shirtsleeves or a light jacket. Finally he asked her why she didn't buy a matching down hat. “Can't eat no hat,” she shot back.

One warm fall day a guy in coveralls hooked his bike to the front of the bus and got on carrying a clear plastic bag full of clothes. “Man, you sure smell like fish,” the driver commented. “Yea, well, see I work at the fish meal factory on 4th and can't figure how to get the smell off. I put my work clothes in this here bag, but I still stink like fish guts.” His concern for the noses of his fellow riders sparked a bus wide discussion on how to defeat fish oil with bleach, lemon juice, baking soda, pine soap and more that lasted until he got off and wheeled away into the twilight.

Merry decided to ride the #10 one day but before paying her fare asked the driver if the bus went up GraVOIS with the accent on the second syllable. We did know the “ois” was pronounced “oy”. “What?” She said it again. “Where?” “Where are you going?” Merry was getting exasperated. “Up GRAVois, GRAVois” in a very gravely voice. For the rest of the short ride he occasionally growled, not quite under his breath, “GRAVois.” Merry laughed for days.

I've come to genuinely like the bus commute. Perhaps the best thing about riding the bus is the chance it gives me to observe the working people of St. Louis. They are janitors, factory workers, chambermaids, waitresses, office clerks, high school kids, homeless people and one ALJ. The bus riders are from all races. The vast majority on the #10 are black, but there is a wide variety of other races including hispanic, asian, near eastern and white. We ride together. I know that most commuters are still stuck in their cars, but it does me good to feel a part of the minority who rides the bus.

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