Jonathan Richman has a great song called “You’re Crazy for Taking the Bus.”
It’s more of an ode to long-distance bus travel (which I do love), but it also comes to mind when I think of my affection for public transit, which centers around the bus. I feel like a lot of people utter that song title when considering my transportation habits. In fact, I only have a bus pass, not a subway pass, since my office is just one short bus ride away. This means that often, even when traveling between two locations along the same subway line, I will take the bus if I have the time to spare. I not only save $1.70 by doing so, but I get the pleasure of a bus ride.
But why do I like the bus so much? This question — and its answer — came to mind on Wednesday evening. I was attending a friend’s performance at 10PM, and I had a couple of hours to kill between dinner and then. I bummed around Harvard Square for a while but eventually decided just to get on the No. 1 bus, which would take me to the establishment in question. But as I approached the bar, I just stayed on the bus. In fact, I rode through Cambridge, past MIT, across the Mass. Ave. bridge, all the way to the Christian Science center.
In this instance, the bus served two purposes: one, I got to take advantage of some free time to ride one of the MBTA’s better bus routes into the city and back to visit one of my favorite spots (on a listless evening, seeing the Christian Science Center and the Boston skyline at night will perk you right up); two, I got to enjoy being ferried through Boston and Cambridge, taking in the people around me and the sights along the way.
The bus lets me down, it’s true. Like Saturday, when I stood outside in the cold and bracing wind waiting 30 minutes for a late bus to Davis Square. Or when humanity’s quirks and eccentricities extend beyond good people-watching fodder and either begin to annoy or cause discomfort. Or when it inevitably speeds past juuuuuust as I get to the stop. It’s for those reasons that I can understand why many people dismiss the bus as weird, dirty, not dependable, inconvenient, etc.
So, why does my love of the bus persist?
1. The aforementioned people- and city-watching. Sure, you can observe characters and assess people’s reading material and peer at your neighbor’s iPod and speculate wildly about the backstories of the people around you on any mode of transit. But the bus trumps the subway in my book mainly because you can see what’s happening beyond the vessel. No matter how familiar the route, I can still lose myself in gazing at storefronts and intersections and landmarks. Dark tunnels have nothing on the outside world.
2. Making the city bigger. One of my favorite routes is the No. 8, which I used to ride nearly its entire length from my workplace at JFK-UMass to Kenmore Square, because as a 22-23 year old, it provided a great look at the city beyond the Copleys and Faneuils. The bus also empowers me to go on epic urban adventures where, moreso than driving on the highway or riding the subway, it’s about the journey as much as it’s about the destination. I like having to do nothing more than pay attention to where I need to get off, and I can extend my reach beyond the spokes of the subway and get to some pretty cool places. And it’s not just about the MBTA. I take a certain amount of pride in conquering the above-ground public transit options of any city I visit. This year, I’ve done it in both Brussels and San Francisco. In the latter, I took the bus all the way from the Castro to the Golden Gate Bridge, which was almost as much fun as visiting the bridge itself.
3. The bus is my mobile office. It’s where I do a significant amount of my reading, music listening, web browsing (hooray for the Blackberry) and social planning. It’s amazing how much I can get done on the 10 minute bus ride to work.
4. A sociological exercise. If you get on the bus by yourself, you’re likely going to immerse yourself in some activity for the duration of your ride, whether it’s reading, reading e-mail, chatting on the phone or simply gazing out the window or getting lost in thought. Riding the bus is a very solitary experience. But at the same time, it’s also extremely communal. Yes, you’re having a private experience, but so are the 20 other people sharing this small confided space on wheels. Whether in passing or in greater depth, chances are you have sized one another up or at the very least taken note of each other’s presence. Think about “Lost.” That series addresses the question of what would happen if you somehow became inextricably bound up in the lives of the people with whom, by chance, you are sharing a transportation experience. It’s a fascinating idea. I admit to having thought, while riding the bus, about what would happen if I was suddenly thrust into a shared experience with my fellow passengers, a la “Speed.” Though hopefully with less Keanu Reeves.
5. A feeling of peace. Call me weird, but when I get on the bus — particularly when I am settling in for a ride of some duration — I am filled with a sense of calm. I feel fortunate for having an accessible, affordable means of crosstown transit, not to mention one that (most of the time) affords me a seat with a view and the time to catchup, daydream or nap. It feels like a luxury. Perhaps for someone like me, who sees public transit as more of a right than a privilege, it is dangerous to admit that. But spaces where we are allowed to be quiet and left to our own devices feel few and far between nowadays, and they should be treasured.
I was having dinner with a friend the other evening and was telling her about this post. (It was this same friend who found the above pin at a local vintage shop a couple of years ago and gave it to me as a gift.) She recalled how when she moved to Boston 15+ years ago, she liked it fine, but it was on the bus — watching the city unfold around her as she advanced toward her destination — that she fell in love with it. And that sums it up more perfectly than I ever could.