I commuted to Calvin by bicycle, back in those college days of vehiclelessness. But during a rainstorm, or when I had a little extra time, or when the temperature dropped too far below freezing for my West Coast blood, I would ride the bus. I would stand on the sidewalk and board The Rapid 6, in all its $0.50 student-discounted glory.
Nothing much happened on the bus.
One time, the driver asked if I went to Calvin, and we talked about Christianity for most of that six a.m. ride, at least until another passenger boarded and made me feel self-conscious about shouting halfway across the bus. Other times, I’d see someone from a year ago—an old suitemate, or a past rock-climbing partner—and we’d sit together and catch up. We had to. The bus forced a choice: the ritual of smalltalk, or the tabooed admittance that neither of us really cared that much about the other. Those meetings were allowed exceptions to the norm of public transit.
I spent most of my bus rides reading, or staring out the window, or pretending not to people-watch. Or I’d eavesdrop on that one weird guy who refused to stop pestering the other passengers.
“Cold as hell today, isn’t it?”
Someone would nod reluctantly.
“Anyone hear about that new bar? That one across the river? I think it’s gonna be something else, you know what I mean? Come on! Someone’s gotta know about it. Hey, buddy, you hear about that place?”
When I moved to Washington D.C., I downgraded from bicycling to walking, but I also upgraded from the bus to the subway, so I suppose it came out a wash. The D.C. Metro made the Rapid look like a meet-and-greet.
You don’t talk to people on the Metro. You don’t talk to coworkers, you don’t talk to friends, and you especially don’t talk to strangers. Talking is the mark of the tourist. And people hate tourists. It was a slick system, quick and efficient and important, especially those 8 a.m. rides to Congressional Office Buildings. Suits and skirts smashed together in a sardine silence.
I have a few memories of those rides, but all out of proportion to the time I spent there. Time on the subway was dead time. Waking up. Prepping for a meeting. Waiting for arrival.
Jump forward another fifteen-some months, to 2014, and I’m spending three weeks back in Michigan for a batch of summer weddings. Sans car or bicycle, I’m a regular Rapid-rider again. A regular, graduated Rapid-rider charged $1.50 a trip. My routine, though, stayed the same.
Sit quietly. Avoid eye contact. Wait.
I almost missed the bus one of those days. I was moving slow, hauling three weeks worth of clothing and camping gear in my hiking backpack, pushing the upper bounds of its 65 liter capacity. Slow, sweaty going.
The driver waited as I wrestled my wallet out of my pocket and struggled into the bus. My pack hit the door and wedged me stuck. I ended up carrying it in front of me, sixty pounds and awkward, banging against seats and apologizing as I stumbled down the aisle.
I was searching for an empty seat, a double-spaced place for my backpack and me. I could see a few single seats over the top of my pack, buffer zones between rider and world, but no easy place to stuff sixty pounds of backpack and a hundred fifty pounds of person.
“Excuse me?” a woman said. She sat right beside me, but I could barely see her; my backpack blocked all but the top of her headscarf. “You could sit here?” She budged closer to the window.
The bus rolled forward and I sat down. I hauled my backpack onto my lap. Face to fabric; tent on legs. The thing still blocked half the aisle.
“Are you camping?” the woman asked.
“A little bit. Staying with friends, but some camping, too.”
“You have a lot of things.” She giggled.
“Way too much. I’m sorry about taking up all your space…”
“No, no. It is not a problem.”
Someone tugged my sleeve—someone on the other side of my backpack. I twisted my body so I could see. A middle-aged homeless man was grinning at me, or at least a middle-aged man who looked homeless.
“I used to hike, you know,” he said. “I hiked all over.”
“All over. You wouldn’t believe the places I been.”
“Tell me a few.”
“All over the country. I live here now. Got stuck, you know?”
And then I noticed another man in the seat behind me. Middle-aged, too, but very much not homeless. Clipped hair, trimmed beard. A stiff button-up despite the heat. The man caught my eye and nodded.
“I live down by Fuller,” the homeless man said. “You know Billy’s? Billy’s Lounge?”
And then the man in the button-up was talking, too, telling me about his cross-country trip on a motorcycle, in which he slept in a tent and toured every state in the continental U.S. He had worked as a pilot for Alaska Airlines before and after that trip, until the hours forced a career change. Or maybe it was Delta. I was caught in conversation with the woman and the homeless man and the pilot, and it was real conversation, not polite small talk to pass the time, and I was turning from one to the other beneath my backpack, trying to keep track of all of them, and my backpack still stuck halfway into the aisle.
That happened half a year ago, and since then, I can count my public transportation experiences on my fingers. A few ferry rides between Southworth and Fauntleroy. A fistful of light rail trips into Seattle. That’s it.
When I ride the light rail, I avoid eye contact, and on the ferry, I hunt for unoccupied tables. Let the others have their space. It’s polite after all, to obey the silence. So I put on my headphones and look at my lap, and for the next half hour, I wait.
NPR called Josh “a modern-day Jack Kerouac” after he wrote about his 7,000-mile, no-money hitchhiking journey through the United States. Since hitchhiking, he’s found homes in the Pacific Northwest, the Episcopal Church, and the post calvin. He builds websites as the director of Branded Look LLC. Josh’s writing has appeared in places such as The Emerson Review, Front Porch Review, and Perspectives.