In Manhattan, rich people ride buses and subways, right alongside you and me. In Bloomberg’s world, this means that mass transit has to work – because those are his people – so, in Manhattan, it does. The buses are sleek, long, come frequently and go everywhere. The drivers generally know what they’re doing and are even somewhat nice to customers at times. As they should be – you never know who might be watching.
Staten Island, on the other hand, is America – everybody is supposed to have a car. Riding the bus is riding the wrong side of apartheid. You are poor and meaningless or you wouldn’t be here.
The buses are old rattletraps that lurch and bounce and bang so hard at every ripple in the road that you can’t talk on your phone even with headphones. Buses routinely arrive seven to nine minutes off the schedule, unless you live near the couple of stops where the inspectors lurk.
The drivers skip stops, ‘forget’ to open the back door when there’s a crowd of people trying to get out, drive away as customers run after them banging on the side of the bus and generally treat you like something on the bottom of their shoe. Understand that New York is all about winners and losers and you will appreciate that being on the bottom of a bus driver’s shoe is an achievement and one to be avoided if at all possible.
Yesterday, we get off the ferry expecting to find a bus waiting. Most Staten Island buses are synchronized to the ferry. In this case, we wait ten minutes for one to arrive, once everyone else has long gone.
No, this isn’t him…
One of the men waiting on line (naturally, right next to me) has his headphones on and is singing along. Not real obnoxiously at first, although his voice isn’t great unless you like the sound of bourbon. As time went on, he gets louder and louder. Being smart, resourceful New Yorkers, we all roll our eyes and continue to ignore him.
With the bus running late, naturally there are people lined up all along the route, so the bus is packed after about five stops, with twenty-five or so to go. So the bus starts skipping stops here and there, driving right by people who’ve been waiting for half an hour or more and now will wait half an hour more. No room.
A woman gets on early in the trip with a baby stroller and a really sweet-looking child of maybe three months. Signs all over the bus say strollers must be collapsed inside the bus. She manages somehow to push the stroller through the crowd to the rear door and leaves it there, taking a seat someone charitably gives her in the row behind. The door, being a modern creation full of self-awareness, begins to speak: ‘Please step away from the rear door.’ It repeats this message every ten seconds as we wend our way through the northern end of Staten Island. At some point, I hear a passenger ask her if she can’t fold up the stroller and she says ‘Yes, of course’ in a sweet tone of voice and proceeds to leave it untouched.
The two people crushed up against me have a conversation:
-That sounds like a good job. Why don’t you apply for that?
-I think I’m afraid of heights. Well, no – actually, I’m afraid of falling from heights. You know, you bend over and take a look and – no, I guess I am afraid of heights, now that I think about it.
By now, we’re about halfway across the island and the singer has been singing the entire trip from his throne at the back of the bus. And finally, he gets what he wants: somebody asks him to turn down the volume. If there was any room on the bus to duck, you’d see the whole busload of people bending in the opposite direction. You know what’s coming. The singer lets out a strain of invective that would honor a defrocked priest, all about his right to express himself and the other guy’s sad taste in music, ending in a repeated chant of ‘Sh*t or Get Off the Pot! Sh*t or Get Off the Pot!’
Passengers wisely ignoring everything around them…
The driver, smart enough to not get involved in the singer’s argument, now announces over the PA (loudly): ‘Please move the stroller away from the rear door.’ Because the message is still sounding: ‘Please step away from the rear door’ every ten seconds. Maybe this woman doesn’t take orders from inanimate objects. She ignores the PA as well.
The singer’s argument quickly devolves to ‘What’re you lookin’ at?!’ and things return to normal or what passes for it.
Three blocks later, a bunch of people get off and you can actually see the front of the bus. The driver gets out of his seat, stands with hands on hips and yells, ‘Lady, fold up that stroller! Now!’ and waits, staring, until the woman hands her baby to the friend sitting next to her (who knew she had a friend?), gets up reluctantly (and slowly) and folds up the carriage, placing it on the other side of the aisle. The door is satisfied; it stops speaking. The driver returns to his seat and we move on.
Conversation over my head:
-Is that a dalmation?
-With the woman jogging?
-I think it’s a retriever – no, maybe that’s a pointer. But he looks like he’s saying ‘Can we go home now?’, doesn’t he?
And then it’s 9:36 and I reach my stop, calm and refreshed and ready to start my day at work…