Monday, June 27, 2011

How We Learned to Love The Things That Suck: Slow Ride

You know what I used to love, and what now sucks? Taking the bus. For a number of reasons and not just the obvious.

Where I grew up in the Bay Area if you were a kid you actually COULD take the bus to the movies or to the mall or an audition or rehearsal as I used to. I doubt if that would be possible now. I don't know that I would let my own kids ride the bus, even in the relative safety of my current community. But it was a different time (and there hadn't been a 24 hour news cycle to make it seem like hundreds of thousands of children were being kidnapped each year) and so we felt it to be a bit of freedom to hop on the bus and take the nearly one hour ride+walk to our town's nearest movie theater or wherever. Inevitably we'd see two or three, get out of the theater after dark and someone would have to call a mom to come pick us up. Mom's couldn't be bothered to drive their kids places, even on weekends, when I grew up, when they could just as easily shove a couple bucks in your hand and tell you to take the bus.

But even beyond freedom it was a great learning ground. Since the Bay Area is a large and diverse population one could always count on great people watching. My friends and I engaged in something you might call people speculating. Convinced we can know a lot about a person by the way they look, human beings have always made lots of decisions about the value and interest of a person on that basis. We just did it out loud (not loud enough so they could hear of course) to each other on the back of the bus. Not satisfied with the realistic for long, our speculations soon diverged into the wild and implausible. Consequently, my childhood bus rides were populated with Russian spies, embezzlers on the lamb, and any manner of wealthy and/or mentally impaired eccentrics.

In my later teen and college years I too often reverted to "someday I'll have a car" thoughts to have much fun on those rides. But I always observed people. Everyone does the visual sweep upon stepping on the platform - see who's on, who to avoid, who to sit next to. In the Bay Area, generally people were too occupied talking to companions, or tired from work, or sleeping, to notice or care who came on. I would make mental commentary on who looked weary, or sad, or happy and wonder intensely what had just happened in their life to make them so.

In those years, particularly in college, I would even venture to take the bus (and BART) home late at night. A whole 'nother drunk and/or high, on for the night homeless, just going to or coming from an underpaying hard scrabble late shift would be on board. Occasionally there was a scuffle, some "what you lookin' at" would erupt but I had the young-with-my-whole-life-ahead-of-me-and-nothing-could-go-wrong bravado propping me up. I felt like one of them in a way and yet not. Always conscientious of being a white girl in a minority world, I didn't swish or flaunt or try to appear too affluent or happy - sometimes I would adopt a sad countenance to ward off potential advances of any sort if the compartment had just that right mood where it felt slightly dangerous. I rode with the confidence and air of someone who was not so different from everyone else deep down inside but sure that I was destined for greatness, to succeed, to make things happen.

Flash forward some 20 years and taking the bus is a whole different experience. When my husband lost his job in February we also lost our second car - a company car. We'd been juggling kid drop offs to school with my work and errands pretty successfully until gas prices started rising. I realized that the 10 mile drop off and pick up to my work was costing us nearly $10 to accomplish. We were filling up the tank twice a week - unheard of previously - and with prices over $4 and one less job in our pockets, it was painful. So it is not like I made the decision unwillingly.

But it is a whole different time, and place. After all, the me-me-me 80s and earn-earn-earn 90s and spend-spend-spend aughts have passed us by, leaving in their wake a recession, but also a general attitude about ourselves as a society that now no longer squares. "We're number one" does not resonate exactly the same way with the unemployed or underemployed as it used to. Economic factors do have an influence on attitude and on how we perceive ourselves and others. And in Southern California as well, there is a force of opinion that blasts "You don't have a car!!!" when one steps on the bus.

What is similar is that I am, generally, though the numbers are smaller, still one of the only white faces on the bus. What is new are cellphones and mobile devices, and the solitariness that comes with them. If no one looks up to see who is coming on the bus it is probably because of the despair of the long slog (our valley is geographically huge with few and far between bus routes which means lots of transfers, waiting, and walking in high heat and wind) but just as likely that they have their face stuck in their cellphone or are talking (way too loudly) on it. One tries not to seep to that place but I often find myself, face stuck in Kindle, just as bad. No more the long sweep to see who's conversation I might overhear - there are rarely people traveling together and when they are they are usually silent - nor do I search for a place in the back so I can watch people unperceived as I used to. Now I just quickly find the nearest place in the front, put my head down, enjoy the airconditioning because it will be soon time to get out and walk the 1/4 mile to work in the heat. There were always the people who couldn't afford a car, or the car in the shop people, on the bus in the Bay Area. But there were also the "I'm doing this for the environment" people too. But So Cal does not so readily cotton to idealism.

I am just like everyone else too, still. I am underemployed, struggling to get by, deeply debt leveraged (though mine is student loan debt primarily) with little chance of ever getting out. My prospects of better employment seem just as dire as my companions on public transportation even though I am highly educated. The difference 20 years has afforded me is experience. My experience of the feeling "this year things will happen for me" in my 20s not really being true then, or my 30s, and now half way through my 40s. Though I still remain hopeful, and believe in possibilities, and my own abilities, I am no longer under the misapprehension that that is enough for "things to happen". I now know that sometimes life, the world, the universe, for a reason you may never know, just doesn't notice you or your talents or potential or rewards you for it. That even when you know for sure and follow your passion, you still can be just another rider on the bus.