Giving thanks for public transit — weirdos and all
We said farewell to Nadine on an unassuming August morning, my brother and I, standing there on the curb as the tow truck hauled away the little blue Toyota that had taken me across the country to California in 2005. I thought I’d be sad to give up the car that I’ve driven for the better part of a decade, but the truth was, I was really excited to start taking the bus again.
Most of the press about public transportation focuses on its efficiency, its reduced cost, and its reduced environmental footprint. But that’s not why I love it. Nope, the reason I prefer public transit to just about any other motorized way around is one that, to my mind, doesn’t get nearly enough play: Riding the bus or the train is fun as hell, you guys.
I know, I sound like I’ve lost my mind. Crowded buses and commuter trains are, in the contemporary imagination, the opposite of fun, but if you’re stuck in one you can at least have a friendly chat with a stranger — an impossibility in car traffic. Sure, sometimes you might have to endure the Commute of A Thousand Smells, and every now and then there’s some crazy person ranting at the bus driver about space travel, but hey, God made earbuds for a reason, right?
Although public transportation is more often thought of as a chore than something to be actually enjoyed, my advice to would-be riders is to embrace the experience headphone-free. Block out the rest of the world, and you miss out on the amazing, random — and, yes, fun — experiences that can only be had when you’re forced to endure strangers.
Once, a drunken gentleman, inspired by my kelly green polo shirt, serenaded my friends and me with an Irish ballad. Another time, riding the L-Taraval in San Francisco, a cellist and guitarist entered the Muni train at separate stops, began chatting, and struck up an impromptu concert. Another rider busted out a harmonica, some began to dance, and when it came time for the cellist to get off, the entire train car burst into applause.
I’ve flirted with cute 19-year-old boys who, as I tweeted afterward, inspired me to start a book titled, Extremely Old and Incredibly Flattered (someday, I’ll actually finish it); turned down marriage proposals from toothless old men; and received compliments for shirts and shoes and toenail polish. Once, after sprinting down the block to catch my morning ride, I was told by a bus driver that I run fast — marking the only time anyone has ever complimented my speed at something other than eating a sandwich.
Drivers may have to contend with road rage, but if any facet of my commute sends me to therapy, it will probably be my bloated Bus Ego.
Ah, but doubters will counter, it’s hard to haul stuff on public transit — to which I say, only if you are unimaginative. I’ve carried my share of groceries, of course, but also a Craigslist-procured record player, mini-fridges (plural), and, once, a full-sized office chair. (More than one fellow passenger cracked, “You brought your own seat!”) Another time, I packed a new car battery for Nadine into a suitcase and took it to my brother’s by train, giggling at the irony the whole way through the Transbay Tube.
Sometimes taking public transportation has even helped me to procure more stuff, as when I stumbled upon a bag full of records at my morning bus stop. Building my collection of vinyl without having to overpay a hipster for the privilege? Sign me up!
But it’s the personal connections made on public transit that can be most significant. As I took the bus to my first day on the job at Rebuilding Together Oakland, filled with the usual new-job-jitters, a woman sitting next to me asked about one of my tattoos — a small hammer on my right wrist. I explained that I’d gotten it after working with Habitat for Humanity, commemorating my time there. She had never worked with Habitat, but she told me about a similar organization, called Christmas in April — which had subsequently been renamed Rebuilding Together. After such a serendipitous coincidence, how could I go into my first day anything less than confident?
More recently, I befriended an elderly Asian woman on my way to the airport. I was heading back to Cleveland for my cousin’s wedding, I told her, and she, a classical music junkie, asked if I enjoyed the Cleveland Orchestra. We chatted all the way to her stop. Two weeks ago, we caught a Baroque chamber music concert together in Berkeley, and we have plans to hit up more performances in the future.
My favorite memory comes from early 2009, when I’d just returned to the Bay Area after a truly miserable year of unemployment and homelessness. As I exited the train in downtown San Francisco, fare inspectors were checking for proof of payment, and when I showed my stub, the gentleman in the Muni hat said a strange and remarkable thing: “You have a determined forehead,” he told me, asking where I worked.
At the time I was still unemployed, Craigslisting and sending out resumes for hours on end. I had an interview the next day and in my spare time I wrote jokes on napkins, gradually working up the courage to stand before a microphone and an audience to test them out. I’m looking for a job, I told him, and he smiled.
“You’ll get the right one,” he said. “You are the type of person who can achieve whatever you put your mind to. I can tell.”
There was a line growing behind me, there in Civic Center Station, and so I moved on with a grateful smile; the next day I aced my interview and got the job, and one week later I performed standup comedy for the first time, fortified with alcohol but sober enough to recognize that people were laughing, that my jokes were landing, that I was, in fact, achieving exactly what I’d put my mind — my determined forehead — to.
I’d probably have rebuilt my life from its 2008 nadir regardless. But whether it’s provided entertainment, or companionship, or just a ride, public transit has made the process a whole lot easier and more enjoyable. I’ve figured out the secret that slavish devotion to car-based convenience hides from so many: Any bus can be a party bus, if you approach it with the right attitude.