Monday, February 10, 2014

Patricia Takes The Bus

Why, yes, I do! I do take the bus! Thanks for asking!

I take the bus a lot. I take a commuter bus back and forth to work. I take city buses around town wherever I am. I take the occasional long bus trip. At home in Toronto, I also take the subway -- but this post isn't about that, it's about the bus. Because for some reason the bus-in-itself, as distinct from trains, subways, "light rail," or what-have-you, seems to occupy a particular role in the social imaginary of North America -- a role probably best characterized as "No - no way am I taking the fucking bus."

But this isn't a post about how you should take the bus because it's eco-friendly and surprisingly pleasant and it will change the way you view the world and make you a better person -- though I actually believe all those things are all true. This post is just some things that happened to me and what I thought about them about while I was on the bus.

The main action place on a recent cross border bus trip. I often travel back and forth between Toronto and Buffalo. Here my commitment to the bus comes with an asterisk, because normally I do not cross the border on the bus: I take the bus to/from "near the border" and get a ride the rest of the way.

Presumably, the reason is obvious: crossing the border on the bus sucks. When you cross the border on the bus, everyone has to get off the bus, gather together all their luggage -- what they had with them on the bus and what they had stowed underneath -- get in line, speak with a border agent one by one, stand around 'til the bus gets inspected, put all their luggage back under the bus, get back on, then wait, and wait, and wait, while the last few problems get sorted out.

If you happen to be crossing from Canada into the US, you have to wait, in traffic, behind the cars that get backed up, before you can pull into the special bus lane -- this is just a completely pointless waste of time, designed, like so many things at the US border, to make you feel like a powerless bug who'll do anything to avoid getting stepped on.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago for various reasons I took the bus the whole way, crossing into Canada. I boarded at the Buffalo terminal, and as we approached the border five minutes later I had the usual range of grouchy misanthropic thoughts. Did people have to bring so much stuff with them? Why can't they follow the SIMPLE instructions to stay put 'til the driver comes to get us? Why don't people understand how to answer the fucking questions?

Pop quiz people: when a border guard says "So where are you headed?" or "How long are you staying?" in what circumstances is it appropriate to say "I'm not really sure, we're going to see how it goes?" Answer: NEVER. How the hell have you reached adulthood without learning that this is never, ever, the right answer -- least of all when it is actually THE TRUTH? Honestly, get it together.

I fumed as I waited and waited and listened to people stumble over unexpected questions like "What are you bringing back with you?" Gee, who'd have thought that issue might come up? Couldn't have seen that one coming, eh?

Eventually I was through the line, and since it was cold, we all smushed ourselves into the tiny post-question area instead of venturing outside. I started to get a better look at my fellow passengers. Some were quietly tending children, who were clearly worn out by having been on the bus since New York, many hours earlier. Many were speaking languages other than English. I overheard some people finishing up in line, and some were presenting visas -- meaning they were traveling from countries that the US and Canada make it difficult to enter from. One person seemed to be processing an actual entry document -- as in, entering Canada, to live, for the first time.

Huddled together with these people under the florescent lighting, my whole point of view suddenly shifted. I saw everyone through different eyes. These people seemed so admirable: taking their children for long bus rides, traveling to new places where they might not speak the language well, waiting patiently through our little ordeal to get back on the bus.

I exchanged a glance with a young woman and we craned our necks to see if we could tell whether the bus had been checked. It hadn't. We each registered identical mixed expressions of "this is taking forever" and "oh, well, it'll be over eventually." Finally someone said, "there it is," and we all ambled out together, sorted ourselves into the right organization for loading luggage and getting back on. Everyone got into the exact same seat they had had before -- no jostling for better position, no grumbling about the fact that the bus was packed. I watched some people help some other people put some heavy carry-ons up above the seats, and we were off.

And then I had my second shift in view. Not only was I OK with all these people, I actually was one of them. We were in it together, off to Toronto. If the bus was super-late we'd all be starving; if it broke down we'd all be in the same mess. None of those things happened. It was early evening; there wasn't much traffic; we zoomed into the city.

As I mulled over my emotional ups and downs, I remembered that this sort of experience happens to me on the bus all the time. Bus-taking is a deeply embodied experience of just being a person among other people.

Often when I take the bus to or from campus, I'm on the bus with a handful of other people like me, and a sea of students. On campus, I'm a prof: I have my own book-lined office, and when I speak in class, people are supposed to listen. It's a thing a person gets used to -- being in a position of special respect. But out there in line for the bus, I'm not special at all. I'm just 10th in a line of 30 - or, if it's Friday, 45th in a line of 70, all of us chilly and checking our phones for the time and trying to be patient.

It's a powerful reminder. You: just another person.

I've sometimes reflected on the fact that airplanes, even though they bundle people together and make them go through miseries, never induce the kind of fellow feeling that the bus does. I'm sure it has to do with complex things like class and the way air travel is branded and perceived and the way the miseries seem so stupid and avoidable and self-inflicted. But that's a post for another day.

Next time you want to avoid the "Hobbesian logic of a [traffic] jam," as Elizabeth Kolbert so eloquently put it, just do what I do. Take the bus. 

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