24 February 2009

I Take the Bus


I take the bus.

I didn't always. I was a subway man. Solely. Taxis on occasion when I could afford it. Buses I'd look at through the corner of my eye and wonder why anyone would suffer their slowness, their unwieldy maneuverings through choking traffic, their creeping uncoolness. I once worked in an office alongside a folksy man originally from Arkansas who refused to take the subway on principle. He took the bus to and from his home in the Village to work in Midtown, relishing the light and air. Subways were squalid holes in the ground to him. I thought he was a kook.

Not now. Now I tend to look askance at people who don't take buses, who don't even know what buses serve their area or what their routes are. A great part of living in New York is transit—being in transit and finding the best way to negotiate transit. If you only know the subway system, you're cheating yourself out of half your options. You're going to lose the war.

I began taking buses when I moved to Brooklyn. It started with a revelation one day as I was trying to figure out the easiest way to get from my house to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and realized I could do the trip in a straight shot, door to door, if I took the B71 along Union Street and Eastern Parkway. After that, I was hooked. Local buses could easily take me to Atlantic Avenue, BAM, Park Slope, the Brooklyn Museum, the South Slope. I became a regular on the (cursed) B61, B63, B75 and others.

Over the years, I even came to prefer the bus; if it seemed even a slightly easier commute, I would opt for a bus over the subway. I had nothing really against the subway. It was faster, there was no doubt. But the cars were more regularly crowded; seats were at a premium; the stations were filthy and depressing, and terribly hot in the summer; and people tended to behave more badly on the subway than they did on the bus. Buses were full of working people and mothers with children who minded their own business and looked out for others. Subways are home to a thousand loud-mouthed louts.

Moreover, you had to descend and ascend for the subway, and were robbed of sunshine and fresh air and scenery for the duration of your trip (except for the few strains of the subway system that travel overground.)

As I used the bus more often, I slowly began to realize that I had entered a parallel universe wholly in opposition to the American Way of Life. Successful Americans Don't Take the Bus—that was the silent message I started to perceive. It's a third-class form of transportation, way below personal vehicles, and still well under such travel modes as taxis, trains, and subways. When I mentioned the bus as a possible way to get somewhere to family and friends, they would furrow their brow and wrinkle their nose, as it suddenly detecting an unpleasant odor. The bus? Are things that bad for us?, they seemed to ask.

Looking back, I realized it had always been thus. Growing up, my family never took the bus. We didn't live in a particularly urban area, so it wasn't always an option. But for a number of years we dwelled in a fair-sized city with a decent bus system. Still, from the way my parents acted, you would never have known it. The idea was this: the bus was for poor people. If we used it, we would be allying ourselves with an undesirable social group. We would be failures. Buses were embarrassing. There was also some GOP political nonsense about how the bus system was a big waste of taxpayer money. This attitude has persisted to this day. Members of my family will not take a bus if you point a gun at their head. And I have had siblings who have lived one block from a bus stop.

I sometimes force people to take the bus. Recently, a friend visited me. I had to fight tooth and nail to get him to use the bus for a simple A-to-B journey. When he did, he said, "I've never had a good experience on a bus until today." My guess is he'd had few experience on a bus prior to that.

At this point, I'm a bit of a bus snob. If you've never partaken of the bus system, it seems to me, you haven't really fully experienced New York. On a bus, you see what lies in between the place you are and the place you want to get to. You see the neighborhoods change. You see street life. Moreover, the bus goes a lot of places that the subway system does not. Red Hook and City Island, for two examples among many.

I also take the bus as an subconscious political statement, for I hate Mayor Bloomberg's idea of New York as a "luxury city." Bloomberg, the SUV rider. Bloomberg, the fake subway enthusiast. You notice that Mayor Mike never touts the virtues of the bus system. He would never dirty the soles of his Bostonians by entering one.

Furthermore, I now think the bus fits with President Obama's call for The New Responsibility. Get over yourself; stop being selfish; stop being lazy; don't waste fossil fuels just to make things more convenient on yourself; teach your children how to use the bus; make mass transit a way of life. The bus. It's the noble way to travel.

19 comments:

Harpy said...

i too like the bus, more time to read the book I'm in love with.

neighborhood threat said...

I love the bus. There's the elusive Q39, that seems to follow my boyfriend and myself around. Some spring weekend day we are going to get on it at one end and ride it to the other, just because.

I remember when apartments were advertised as being "in the one fare zone!" back before Metrocard. The key was to be able to walk to the subway if you could. But you still knew the buses in your neighborhood no matter if it was Midwood or the Upper West Side.

When I lived on the LES the 2nd Avenue express bus was the fastest way to midtown east and the upper east side, by a long shot. But people would look so confused - "the bus"?

I have this conversation with folks regularly, especially newcomers to the city. They wrinkle up their noses and say something like "I've never taken the bus" when I suggest that they can take the train to X and then the bus to Y, or that the bus right outside goes here, here and here.

How can you be so proud of being so ignorant of the place you live?

Adam said...

It's funny because there isn't really this kind of anti-bus snobbery in England, where I'm from, or Paris, where I live. There are fantastic bus routes here, including the mythical number 29 route. It used to have an open air kind of terrace at the back, but they closed that off of course for 'health reasons'.

HK said...

I love the bus! (I'd never take a bus to someplace out of town, but in the city it's great.) And you left out the best reason: people talk to each other on the bus. I've met all kinds of people, including a guy I ended up dating for a while. There's nothing like those weird random chats with strangers to make you glad you live here.

Elizabeth said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. Not one single person seems to understand why someone at the age of 33 in decent shape, with a busy life, makes so much extra time for the bus. I've been likened to an old bag lady. You summed it up perfectly!

joy said...

If this were FB, I would click on the silly thumbs-up icon that means "joy likes this."

Seriously the best post I've read about riding the bus in NYC.

I, too, love the bus. It's just a more civilized way to travel, if you have the time (and sometimes, even when you don't).

I will say that sometimes, the crazies ride the bus, and then you're actually stuck for a longer period of time with them. You know the ones - the ones who don't move all the way to the back of a crowded bus, the ones who yell when you bump into them, the ones who feel like chatting, the ones who wear the tin-foil-lined cardboard backpacks with a makeshift tin-foiled satellite dish on top.

Still, I love the bus system here. It's the best way to actually SEE New York!

ironrailsironweights said...

Suburban commuter buses, such as the ones from New Jersey into the Port Authority, don't seem to have any low-class stigma.

Peter

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Harpy, Neighborhood Threat, Elizabeth, HK, Joy: Thanks so much. I'm glad people feel the same way I do. I almost didn't write this post for fear of sounding nutty (or nuttier than I am), or that people just wouldn't care.

Therese Cox said...

B61s aren't cursed, they just travel in pairs. That way, after you've waited 45 minutes for one to show up, you can gasp with pleasure and say, "Look! There's not one - there's TWO!"

I enjoyed this post. The bit about wait time did call to mind an Onion headline from several years ago that I particularly liked:

"Transit Authority Pledges To Double Number Of Out-Of-Service Buses By 2006"

Jill said...

I also prefer the bus. It seems when I get on a subway I nearly wind up in a fist fight with someone, or at least a shoving match. That never happens on the bus.

The bus pictured is the Q60, which used to be part of the Green Line (and the bus was green too), and ran down Queens Blvd, over the bridge, ending at 59th (or 60th?) St. and 1st Ave. On weekends it was our primary way to get into the city. I have many memories waiting on that corner of 60th & 1st for what seemd like hours to go home. People ALWAYS stood in a neat line while waiting, no cutting, no huddling. It was quite orderly.

Carol Gardens said...

I love the bus as well. Even the erratic B61 with its eccentric regulars. I have also taken the scenic coastal Amtrak route between San Francisco and Los Angeles. That's an extreme case of inefficient travel (time-wise). It caters to those who appreciate views, rotating chairs, dining cars, and car games with strangers. As I recall, it took about 11 hours!

joy said...

Ooooh, don't get me started on Amtrak. When it comes train versus plane? I'll pick the train every time. Even when it's Amtrak, there's something much more romantic to train travel. Of course, it helps that I can spend $2 to get to Penn, versus the hassle of LGA/EWR/JFK.

Emily said...

I've always been anxious about buses -- they can go anywhere. You never know where they might take a sudden detour. The stops don't have the blinking unmissability of subway stops. It seems plausible that I could get on a Brooklyn bus and wind up in Bay Ridge without any idea of how I'd arrived or how to get home. But I work in Canarsie, and once you hit the very end of the line on the L train you have to get on the b42 to get down to where I work. Once I've taken a bus that many times, become intimate with it -- then I can trust it.

cara said...

How insane is it that there is NO bus that can take you from Brooklyn into Manhattan? None. It's inexplicable.
That is when I would most want to use the bus (I walk or drive around Brooklyn, but rarely drive into Manhattan during the day). The subway is the only option for that trip, and the subway is always depressing.
They did try a Brooklyn-Manhattan bus run once, 10 or more years ago. You could take it from the Heights (Cadman Plaza) to Park Row in Manhattan. It made sense. But they discontinued it very shortly for lack of ridership, without even giving it a chance, it seemed to me.

Nenya said...

I've never lived in New York City (and in fact hadn't realized there *was* a bus system there--though now I think I should have known!), but I love the bus. There isn't really one in the town I've lived in for the last few years, but my once-and-future hometown has a lovely public transit system, all buses. There seems in that town to be less of a stigma for bus riding, perhaps because a lot of college students use it. But in any case, this article encapsulates nicely what I love about taking the bus. There's something really neat about the whole experience.

Julie said...

I had the same experience when I lived in Paris for a year. The metro is wonderful, but once I started taking the bus it was like a new world. I loved seeing the city from the windows of a bus, and I came to avoid the metro as much as possible.

Thanks for this beautiful tribute to busses!

Marie said...

I live in NJ and take a bus into NYC everyday. My coworkers think it is atrocious that I suffer that indignity by choice. However, there are several inches of snow on the ground and I got to work early today. Hmm, guess the bus is great after all...

billstewart said...

My mom used to take streetcars when she was a kid, back when streetcars still existed; I vaguely remember the last ones we had in Delaware, and the San Francisco MUNI electric busses are pretty similar. And most of Europe didn't rip out their trams the way the US did.
I've taken commuter trains from NJ into NYC and commuted by train to San Francisco for years - the long-distance bus was less comfortable, and would get caught in all the same traffic jams as if I were driving, so it was seldom worthwhile. But once you get to the big city, sure, busses are fine if they go where you want when you want and aren't way late.

The Reaper said...

Your damned right the B61 is cursed. I curse it every day!

There is one very annoying facet of any bus ride that you don't get on the subway system - cell phones. On a train you can change cars at the next stop if someone is making a racket, but on a bus there's no place to hide.

I enjoy the buses at night when there's no traffic and few passengers. During rush hours I avoid them at all costs.

BTW, great blog you've got here!