To make my way around New York City, I first find a place to stand still. Sometimes my feet can feel the rumble of subways underneath, and yet I resist walking to the station a few blocks away. I hold out, even as other people give up and walk or flag down a passing cab. I stand cross-armed in the whiteness after a blizzard. I keep company with doormen idling under the heat lamps of sidewalk canopies. In July, I lean against bodega windows and whistle karaoke classics.
A bus stop is stillness by which everything passes: the hurried steps of cell-phone gabbers, carts pushed by homeless men wearing dusty parkas in the summer, mounted policemen, snapshooting tourists. I firmly grip my MetroCard, ready to extend my arm out, because I sometimes get paranoid that drivers won’t see me and will keep on driving. My caution is needless. Once I step into this indeterminate zone, usually marked by a simple sign-topped pole, I’m not just another person with some fly-by business on the sidewalk. I’m a bus rider.
That’s not to say that I don’t take the subway. I do, nearly every day. But if I can have my choice, and the need to scurry to an appointment isn’t there, I take the bus. That preference makes me an odd minority—in the restless city, the subway’s boogie-woogie virtues dominate. Speak of the bus, and people sometimes look at you funny. The idea of it appears so deviant, even downright sociopathic; many New Yorkers see their own destinies as having as express a route to promised stations as the subway’s. The subway burrows into the dark when it can, bypassing all that could get in the way of its singular arterial purpose. Its courses never waver from the barest skeletal outline of the city; as far as the subway goes, the rest can be left blank. No extra attention shall be spared to those waiting in wheelchairs or walkers. In Manhattan, the subway says, let them take cabs. In the outer boroughs, it says, that ain’t my problem, buddy.
Familiar sights include the 60-foot articulated buses sculling across crosstown routes, their accordion-like torsos allowing for turns.Buses are more magnanimous. If signaled, they’ll stop at every other block and exchange a humble amount of the delivered for a small band of the eagerly collected. Hydraulics make it possible for some buses to genuflect to the curb for those who have trouble stepping up. Many are equipped with backdoor ramps that fold and unfold like steel origami to pick up the old or disabled. Where the subways stop, buses reach further; for many of the city’s two million daily bus riders, it’s the bus or nothing. Just take a look at the bus maps’ intimidating confluence of colors, numbers, and lines, all 244 of them. Long circuitries cross and shoot straight and make loops, with routes spreading across the city like netting. No neighborhood’s left an island. A bus map recalls less minimalist art than intricate handicraft, something like weavings from a loom. Staring at one, I’m reminded of a Pueblo Indian creation myth that speaks of a place before places, where a Spider Woman spins her threads across the corners of the nascent universe so that all things could be connected together. Where buses go, so goes the city.
I must say again that I’m just a rider. I don’t hang out at bus depots or voice enthusiasms on transit bulletin boards. I don’t pretend to know much about all the various models and years in the MTA’s fleet. All I know is what I ride.
The buses I know best are about 40 feet long and eight feet wide, and have a rounded front cabin with a curved windshield. The Metropolitan Transit Authority brought in more than 1,300 of these RTS-06s between 1996 and 1999. Scanning the far horizon of a busy thoroughfare like Broadway or Atlantic Avenue, you’d see pods of them languidly surge forward in the traffic, one after the other. Other familiar sights include the 60-foot articulated buses sculling across crosstown routes in Manhattan and the Bronx, their accordion-like torsos allowing for turns. During year-end holidays, mothballed ancients are brought back to life. Old bi-colored Flxible Co. and GMC buses dating from the 1950s and 1960s once again take to 42nd St. and other routes, their interiors adorned with reprinted vintage advertising and their chrome-rimmed seats polished to a new shine. They sometimes pass futuristic-looking hybrids recently released into the wild. Practically battery-operated, the gentle behemoths glide through the traffic, barely making a noise in their wake. I’m happy to ride any of these buses, as long as they have what I’ve come to expect: large, magnificent windows.
The first time I rode a New York City bus, I wasn’t yet a New Yorker. A friend had left the city for holiday break, and I flew in from college in North Carolina to stay in his Upper East Side apartment while he was gone. The M15 provided an easy ride down 2nd Avenue to the East Village, and I could take the same route back, my canvas bag filled with finds from The Strand and Japanese junk food from Sunrise Mart. Along the way, I took in views of this unreal city from the bus window, as if I were skimming over a reef in a glass-bottomed boat.
In the Victorian era, theatrical panoramas became a popular form of mass entertainment, the 3-D IMAX of its time. Novelty-seekers stepped onto specially built platforms to immerse themselves in scrolling views of far-away cities, some as long as 300 feet. Bus windows are live panoramas of my city. I’ve lived in New York for more than a decade, and I still think myself a tourist. When I feel too anchored, I sometimes catch a comet—I hop on an unfamiliar bus, knowing only its general heading, and if I get lost, I look for one on its way back to terra cognita. It doesn’t matter if I’m comet-riding or on a regular bus route I’ve taken hundreds of times, I’ll find a window seat and press my brow against the glass and watch the mad carnevale flow by.
When a bus line you love dies, you lose both ingrained patterns and place. You feel confused, the way a migratory animal might when it finds its age-old route destroyed.In fall, I’m riding through Greenwich Village, and zombies wandering from the Halloween Parade are banging on the windows. In spring, it’s the season of proms, and teenage girls are trying to flash me from the sunroof of a stretched Hummer limousine heading toward the Holland Tunnel. I pass by Midtown bag-snatchers being chased by indefatigable, middle-aged men. Through an open window, faintly salted air blows against my face on City Island. I’m following with my eyes what appears to be 500 Hasidic men running along a South Williamsburg street toward a destination unknowable to me. Over time, I gaze on the rise and fall of businesses I’ll never have patronized, the madhouse restaurants and hopeful storefronts that eventually perish and sit empty save for a “For Lease” sign until someone else prospects there again. The term “Gotham” came from a 16th-century book depicting the absurd populace of a Nottinghamshire village. From the bus, I can survey how closely this Gotham has stayed true to its old reputed essence.
Nothing I’m witness to would impress a driver, though. “I’ve seen worse,” they say and brush off the goings-ons outside. I sometimes take the bus late at night, and it’ll be me and a driver sitting up front by ourselves. Conversations turn confessional. Drivers can go all day saying not much more than “All right, you have a good day, now” or “See ya, guy” to riders thanking them on the way out. I get on the bus and can, with a casual remark, uncork torrents. Life histories and genealogies unfurl before me. I’m privy to the details about baby-mamas in New Jersey and estranged families in the Bronx. I receive unsolicited tips on the Dominican Republic about the best girls for hire, and get asked to dispense career advice that’ll be passed on to sons and nephews. One driver came to see me as a bouncing board for what to do with his pension—the last stop to end all last stops. When’s the time to hang up the keys for good? Five years from now? Ten? He lays down the payout scenarios and yells at me to convince me of the one he’s certain is his best option. Enough of all this. It’ll be daily soaks in the backyard hot tub from then until the day he dies.
Forward we ride in uncertain times. Because of the economic downturn and subsequent unemployment, New Yorkers recently found less of a reason to go anywhere. In 2009, there were nearly 64 million fewer bus trips than the previous year, about a three-percent drop. The revenue shortfall has lead to cuts across the entire bus system. Many lines will be rerouted this summer, with 37 others eliminated and hundreds of bus workers laid off. Frequent riders of discontinued lines like the B37 or the M6 must now walk farther to get to the nearest buses. Some of these stranded souls have taken to the streets in protest, but the MTA’s plan is unlikely to change. Their frustrations are not unreasonable. A friend laments the loss of bus lines to Prospect Park from her neighborhood: “Goodbye Grand Army Plaza…Goodbye Little League baseball.”
When a bus line you love dies, you lose both ingrained patterns and place. You feel confused and upheaved, the way a migratory animal might when it finds its age-old route dammed or destroyed.
Other changes are also afoot. The MTA’s recently appointed chairman made his mark revamping London’s transit system and plans to import many of the same high-tech gadgetry to New York. Soon dedicated bus lanes could clear the way for buses to hustle unhindered through a busy avenue, and there might be RFID fare cards that charge riders different fares, depending on when they take the bus. Even now, satellite antennae are whispering the movements of buses all over the city. At bus shelters on 34th Street in Manhattan, riders can already check LED arrival countdown clocks reputed to be accurate to within 30 seconds. I welcome any of these innovations as I would any well-intentioned effort by humanity to guess or control chaos—those ambitions to control storms or divine the occasion of earthquakes. Good luck.
In 2007, some Harvard mathematicians published an equation that playfully attempts to answer the question of whether you ought to keep walking along the route of a tardy bus or wait for the next bus to arrive. I knew the answer even before I dusted off my college-level calculus and dug into their paper. You align your body in a comfortable standing posture. You make peace with all the tremors and tides of the city’s streets. You wait. The bus comes. It always does.