To get home from work I take the number 6 bus from just outside Fountain Street Church. Often there are kids carrying miniature cellos being picked up from music lessons and people walking to and from the public library on the next block. I’ve seen the seasons’ change cast on the old office building across the street: in winter, grey dusk falling as the bus pulls up; now, finally, sunbeams and shadows.
Those of us who take the 6 after work from this stop have a mutual understanding of our relationship. We don’t talk. It would be an invasion of our relationship to attempt small talk, even to learn each other’s names. We enjoy our nods of acknowledgment, tolerate each other’s time-killing habits (mine include twirling a hair elastic round and round on my finger), and shift together in anticipation at the off-tone beeping the bus makes as it rounds the corner widely to avoid the perpetual construction fence that intrudes into the street (the fence hasn’t budged since August, when I started working downtown). The spell’s always broken when some newcomer to the stop tries to start a conversation with one of us; we all shift uncomfortably and give each other looks. Newbies don’t know how it works. We, coexisting, fellow riders in our harmonious waiting, silently commiserating over how late the bus is today, not that it’s anything new or unexpected.
Because here’s the thing about the Rapid’s number 6. I’m not sure it has ever come on time.
Has it come late? Almost every time I’ve ever taken it. Has it come early? Of course it has—if it’s not late, why would it be on time? That would be far too reasonable. It’s arrived early (and consequently screwed me over) enough times that I’ve been frightened into getting there five minutes before the bus is scheduled, every time.
The Rapid has let me down so many times, yet I keep coming back for more. This is starting to sound like a bad pop song about someone’s boyfriend, my apologies. One notable time was the night I was invited to attend a dinner at President LeRoy’s mansion, a somewhat formal affair and certainly an honor, and the bus was a full forty minutes late. The only reason I managed to be on time was that I had attempted to leave nearly an hour before the dinner started, in case something like the bus being forty minutes late happened.
Why does one put up with such frustrations, such fickleness, such utter disregard for timetables? And how—how—could one love such a flawed and inconvenient system of transportation?
It could be the natural fondness that develops out of sheer exposure to something, day after day, the familiarity that slips somehow into love. That has something to do with it, as do the memories and feelings associated with taking the bus—the feeling of being enveloped by heated air after freezing out in the snow, the memories of countless sudokus and crosswords done on the way to or from Calvin, the relief of knowing that once I’ve made it on the bus, the day is really, finally over, and it’s finally okay to rest.
But I think for me it might also be about control. There’s a different kind of freedom that comes from relinquishing the control I typically hoard with a tight fist in other areas of my life. When I’m on the bus, I’m truly relaxed in a way I never am when I drive. And it’s not just about handing over the responsibility for the safety of every human hurtling around in metal hunks in your vehicle and on the street around you. I can watch Grand Rapids go by out of the windows, listen to the news on my phone, read a book, do a crossword. I can be still.
Americans use public transit significantly less than their counterparts in other developed countries. Compounding the geographical challenges of the Great American Sprawl is a culture built around cars and the personal, individual freedom cars afford.
Ultimately it’s my theory that taking the bus requires a relinquishing of control that I think Americans have trouble getting used to. Especially out here in the Midwest, where the dream of a house in the suburbs and a fully-customizable private life where we pick and choose our communities is still alive and kicking. The car epitomizes freedom and individuality, probably why receiving a car on one’s sixteenth birthday is still cited as a rite of passage for American teenagers, even if it isn’t the norm for most families. Convenience and comfort come first. With a car, you come and go as you please, never dependent on anyone else, never inconvenienced by the existence of people different from yourself. That autonomy is clearly attractive and often incredibly valuable.
Yet. On the bus you can’t help but encounter those who exist around you in the city. You can’t ignore the person in the wheelchair—your bus will be delayed five minutes to lower a special ramp for them to board the bus and then to strap them securely in place once they’ve boarded. You might be late for something because of the delay—you might feel annoyance or frustration.
But then you remember that the person in a wheelchair has to live all of life “delayed,” in a way—every task taking longer than it might for others with different physical capabilities. Asking people to wait for you, constantly, must feel like a burden. I know when I have to ask for things it feels like one.
Riding the bus requires a release of control. The person using a wheelchair has the priority now; whatever my plans were, they can wait. We’re both riding the same bus, and we’ll get there when we get there.
This is turning into a rendition of “We’re All In This Together” very quickly. Not what I meant to say about the bus, in the least; certainly riding the bus isn’t a chorus of “Kumbaya” every day, or ever. I’ve been hit on more than a few times, once at seven in the morning by a drunk man fresh off of his night shift at the Sara Lee bread factory. I don’t argue that the bus brings people closer together; if it did, as a socially anxious introvert, I would stay away. Rather, it allows me to coexist in mutual respect with people I never otherwise would.
I could pontificate on the environmental benefits of riding the bus, of course. The first time I rode the Rapid was on one of my sixth grade environmental school’s field trips; I still remember my mom reminding me about the two quarters we had to bring to school that day to pay the fare. But I’m not here to preach, and I’m well aware that most people ride the bus because they can’t afford otherwise, myself included. To make it out like I love the bus because I’m some self-sacrificing environmentalist would be inauthentic.
But I do love the Rapid. For all its flaws, it has carried me into and out of the best and worst days of college and these strange months post-graduation. Its presence is constant, however unreliable it may be. Its lateness has become almost soothing to me. My bus ride is a ritual that I repeat, day after day, watching the city and its people change, enter, and exit. I’ll be the first to say that the Rapid’s service is questionable at best. But I’ll always love it.
Carolyn Muyskens is a 2017 graduate of Calvin’s English department. She is working as a research assistant studying news media trends and as an assistant at a law firm. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.