It’s the same at any bus stop or a shelter. Morning, noon, or night, we all turn our bodies in the same direction, eyes scanning the horizon for our bus.
Number 7 to downtown leaves from WCC. I get on at Glencoe Hills, headed for my job in Briarwood. As we near the corner of Packard and Platt, it suddenly hits me: when I took my first ride on the AATA forty-one years ago, this was where we got off. I was twelve years old, and my mother was taking me and my five-year-old sister to see her parents.
That bus was purple, the plastic seats were uncomfortable, and the air conditioning couldn’t keep up with a hot August day. When we got off, we stood in the sun a few long moments as mom quelled her anxiety and assured us that everything would be just fine. After a stop at Buster’s Market so mom could buy her pack of cigarettes and a bottle of pop for us, we walked to our grandparents’ small white house on Butternut, across the street from where they lived while raising eight children. My grandfather had built a little apartment on the back of their old house for my great-grandmother Bevency; she still lived there with her second husband, whom nobody would talk about. The houses are still there, but a Rite-Aid has taken Buster’s place.
The Number 7 makes twenty-four stops between where I get on and get off. As we turn down Packard, a few more people board. A young man with a short, frizzy Afro and a camouflage backpack tries to force-feed a dollar bill into the fare machine. The driver shows him how it’s done–you barely need to touch it. The fare machine hadn’t changed much over the years, but the fare has: now $1.50, it was 30c when I started riding the bus regularly in 1981.
I was an excited college freshman, taking the Number 3 to WCC. By then the hard plastic seats were padded, so when the bus went over bumps and hit potholes it no longer felt like a spanking.
After class one day I got on the wrong bus and found myself riding west down Huron River Dr. and onto Geddes. It was so pretty that I wanted to ask the driver to slow down so I could drink in the emerald green lawns speckled in yellow and purple flowers. Then I remembered this bus wouldn’t get me home, so I walked unsteadily up the aisle and asked for a transfer.
“Have to wait for me to come to a hub,” he said, and I wobbled back to my seat. Drivers had to concentrate to fill out a transfer back then, using a hole punch to indicate the bus number, the month and date, and the time the transfer would expire. Today the driver just pushes a button on the change machine, and it prints out a small card with all that information–unless the computer on one of the new buses dies and the old transfers come out of mothballs. I still love the Number 3–it gets me to my favorite places in Ann Arbor, including the parks along Geddes.
By now, Number 7 is rolling west on Eisenhower, past the townhouse where I used to live in Mill Creek and the Malletts Creek library. When I was in high school I was a bookworm, so my library card was well used. Since there were no cars in my family, the libraries were always a bus ride away. They still are; the main library and all the branches are on bus lines, so I ride the Ride when I want to check out a book, a CD, or a DVD, or take advantage of the free wi-fi.
When I began taking the bus regularly, most of the riders were blue-collar people: maids, waitresses, day laborers, fast food workers. They rode the bus because they couldn’t afford a car, and most of them didn’t want to talk to a stranger; it seemed like they felt stuck in their lives. But I always enjoyed the ride. I like people watching, so each trip was a little escape from the daily grind of school and work. I was glad, though, when the first Walkman came out and people started listening to their music on headphones instead of boom boxes–no more arguments when the driver asked a boarding passenger to turn the volume down.
In the 1990s the greens got on board, practicing what they preached by using public transportation. Now it’s a blend of blue collars, greens, and people who can’t afford to park downtown using the park-and-ride lots.
I watched all of these changes from the seat that on every bus I made my own: first forward-facing seat on the left behind the driver. Over forty-one years I have cried on the bus, slept on the bus, and been in accidents on the bus (both caused by drivers who somehow didn’t notice a vehicle three times their size).
I have met amazing people on the bus. The Number 4, Washtenaw, is my least favorite, because it’s always crowded. But for a while the trip was enlivened by a homeless black man who boarded downtown with his guitar, got off and played for a while at Arborland, then rode to Ypsi, played some more, and rode back to Ann Arbor. Mostly southern blues, but he’d even do some Elvis.
One claustrophobic trip on the Number 4, I sat next to a young Irishman wearing military fatigues. What started out as a friendly talk about our shared heritage escalated into his loud insistence that I join the IRA cause. When he stood up to ask his captive audience to vote on whether I should go to Ireland to fight, I pulled the signal cord and got off early. I was scared at the time but have laughed about it ever since.
One morning in the 1990s, a drunk boarded the Number 3 at the transit center on Fourth Ave. As soon as we pulled away he started to talk, rudely and loudly, to every female he saw, including me. Getting no response, he seemed to calm down, but as we neared the long stretch of empty fields past the VA Hospital, he got to his feet and starting spitting on people, trying to instigate a fight.
The driver, a petite blond woman in her early twenties, pulled the bus over. She called dispatch, assured us that the police and another bus were on their way, and got him off the bus. The police arrived and took him away–but not before he punched the driver so hard that we heard the thud as her head hit the side of the bus.
Security cameras were installed on some buses within a few weeks after that and in all of them before the year’s end. I think they helped with problem drivers, too. In my early years, there were a few who saw the bus as their personal make-out place or pickup spot; one even parked and left us to wait while he visited a girlfriend who lived on the Eisenhower route. But I’ve known fifty or so drivers over the years, and most, like that young woman, loved their jobs and took pride in their buses and the organization they worked for.
In forty-one years since that first ride, the stifling purple tin cans have been replaced by much more comfortable white hybrids running on biofuels. Instead of just Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority routes now run as far east as Ypsi Township and as far west as Chelsea.
I have seen it all and will probably see more before I finally get a car. To be honest, I really wish I had my driver’s license and good enough credit to buy a car. Why? Well, the only annoying thing about riding the bus, even my favorite buses, is the endless stops as we pick up and drop off other passengers.
But now we’re at my stop, Briarwood. Today’s bus story is coming to an end. It’s time to get back to my life in the real world.