Monday, February 28, 2011

I'm a bus person now

My car is currently on the disabled list with a problem that could be as minor as spark plugs ($) or as major as a fuel pump ($$$). And since I don't have the re$ource$ right now to have it taken to some place where a guy in coveralls with his name embroidered on the breast can throw it on a hydraulic lift and plug it into a diagnostic machine, I am sans auto.
That means for the time being, it looks like sometimes I'm going to have to ride the bus.
To some people, either those who live in relatively rural areas where there is no city transit or in a foreign country, where public transportation is so clean, efficient and ultra-modern that it simply doesn't make sense to own a car, that isn't going to seem like a big deal. Everybody else's skin is crawling right now. That's because there's a stigma to riding the bus. There shouldn't be; it's a public utility, meant to be used by taxpayers like myself. And I don't have any qualms about using city water or other amenities. But there's something about riding the bus that people find off-putting. If this applies to you, let me just assure you that many of your fears and trepidations are completely unfounded. Others, however, are spot on.
My first extended trip out and about on the bus system was Saturday, when I needed to fetch some dry cleaning. That's right, my first Saturday since July and a large chunk of it was devoted to retrieving clothes I need for work. I'm not sure if that's ironic or just shitty.

Oh, by all that is holy, just shut up.
Anyway, my shirts were ready after 5:00 but the cleaners (about four and a half miles away) close at 6:00 on Saturday and and all day on Sunday. This was a very narrow window and I had no other options; I had to use the bus.

THE SCHEDULE - Trying to decipher a public transportation system is like learning a new language. When you begin, there's a bunch of numbers and symbols that don't seem to mean anything and even if you think you have it somewhat figured out on paper, there's no telling for sure until you put it to practical use. For instance, upon my first glance at the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) schedule, it might as well have been a handicapping form for ostrich racing.

Can somebody just tell me what time I'm gonna get home, please?
The good news there is, like learning a foreign language, once you start using it and you see for yourself how things work, it starts to make sense. I wanted to make sure I had enough time to make the transfers from line to line (three each way; 36 to 34 to 1) so I got to my nearby bus stop around 3:30 to be safe. That was way too early. I know better now and won't make that mistake again. 

THE PEOPLE - You may not want to admit it aloud but probably the biggest thing that skeeves you out about riding the bus is the other people on the bus. It's okay, it doesn't make you a bad person, but you don't have to say it if you don't want to. Let me just state that it was, in fact, not like going to prison. I didn't have to challenge the toughest guy on the bus to a fight or befriend a gang to prove myself. Nobody tried to shank me and I didn't have to hide anything in my butt. I will say that I saw more people who look like real, live pirates on the bus in one day than anybody has seen on every float featured in the Gasparilla parade ever. Particularly the gentleman sitting across from me at one point who was missing a hand, had an earring, a bandanna, and if not full-blown scurvy, at least a wee touch o' the emphysema.

These bead-tossing poofs would soil their silken pantaloons if they ever had to ride the bus

Also, while sitting at a stop waiting to make one of the transfers, I overheard a couple of panhandlers (they were just sitting at the stop and didn't get on the bus) discussing the attributes and inherent perils of certain nearby intersections;
"You can not work that corner drunk because the median is too steep. You will fall off and you will be run over by a car. Hell, you run the risk of rolling an ankle stone-cold sober."
"Oscar did it drunk. He was wasted."
"Yeah, well, Oscar is always wasted."
It was not unlike listening to surfers discuss beaches in Hawaii.

THE RIDE - One of the things HART likes to play up in their attempts to market their services to potential riders is the lack of stress and it's true. There is no Road Rage when you're riding the bus. More like Road Sullen Resignation. Everybody just sits there and stares out their window with a look on their face that tells you they'd almost certainly rather be going somewhere other than where they're going to wind up. I guess circumstances beyond one's control is the #1 cause of how riders find themselves on buses. But the seats were comfortable, it was clean and the air conditioning worked like a champion. Plus there's an unusual, sweet-smell aroma that's unique to buses that I kind of like. I can't describe it beyond that and I know that sounds weird. I don't know if it's a deodorizing agent designed specifically for buses or the slow leak of potentially toxic exhaust fumes. Probably the second one.
No smoking, no food or beverages and no Etch-A-Sketches
PRACTICALITY - It took a while to get past my self-consciousness, which was most difficult while waiting for transfers. It's hard not to feel like the hundreds of cars speeding past are looking at you as you sit there like some knob on a bench and that somebody you know is sure to see you. I found myself muttering "whaddayoulookinat?" under my breath a lot. It also didn't help when I got off at one stop and found the reproachful gaze of these two waiting to greet me...
"Not so funny now is it, comedy boy?"
Once I got (mostly) over that, I found myself not hating it. For starters, the price is right; $3.50 for an all day pass (pennies more than a gallon of gas right now), which includes unlimited transfers for anywhere you want to go. And as I mentioned, the ride was comfortable. I even found myself contemplating the pros and cons of junking my stupid car and becoming a full-time bus person. Unfortunately, there were too many cons and not enough pros:
  • Weather would be a major concern, as many of the bus stops are not covered and there's considerable walking distance between most stops and actual destinations.
  • It's definitely not the fastest mode of transportation; I left my apartment at 3:30PM and returned with my dry cleaning, approximately a nine mile round trip, after 6. Granted, I admittedly left earlier than I needed to, but still.
  • It's not a very effective for running errands. I had thought about stopping at the grocery store after the cleaners but just dragging the shirts around was a pain (in spite of the respect I'm sure I got from the other passengers after getting on with them; "oh look at him, he's employed in a field that requires the wearing of a shirt!"). I couldn't even visualize lugging my dry cleaning around a grocery store with me, let alone climbing back on the bus with it plus a couple of bags of food so I scrapped that plan. And yes, that means aside from one bagel and a half can of spray cheese, I have zero food in my apartment right now. 
  • The schedule is not nocturnal-friendly and that's the big one for me. The last buses on Saturdays and Sundays stop running around 10:30PM and I typically get off from work after 10. Even if I caught one of the last buses leaving downtown, there's no way I'd make all my connections and I would end up stranded somewhere in West Tampa. And if I had any semblance of a social life (which, aside from the approximately three to four days a month I interact with human beings outside of work, I do not) it would result in an almost desperate need to hook up every time out:
"So just to be clear; you DO have a car, right?"


Florida Native Mom said...

Great post. I would say more about it but I gotta run to catch the bus .. .

Dawn Michelle Morgan said...

I agree! This post is great! I relied on buses when I lived in Seattle (and I was a bus driver, too). I'd also agree that the atmosphere on Tampa buses is not very friendly or even welcoming sometimes.