La Grand’Route: Waiting for the Bus

Photo Source lees bus pics | CC BY 2.0

But just try to understand that it was a pure accident; as much an accident as if he had been run over by a bus while crossing the street.

– Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent

Well, I’ll be riding on the bus till I Cadillac.

– ZZ Top, ‘Waitin’ for the Bus’

In his seminal historical survey of Yorkshire public transport, West Riding Bus Schedules and Their Makers, 1830-1980, John Boocock recounts the following story, overheard on the 576 to Leeds Road: I was playing out on one of the trees and slipped. A broken branch put me eye out and I ran home to Dad screaming my head off. We waited half an hour for the 622 to Shipley Hospital. It’s the only time I ever knew it to be late. All of the history of class and public transportation is contained in this account.

Three Propositions:

(1) The bus is midway between locomtive and tram.

(2) The life of buses is distinct from the life of trains.

(3) Bus-time is made of the tension between waiting and walking.

Bus routes are wayward, especially in gridiron cities. This is has very little to do with congestion and bottlenecks, property development or public space. Bus timetables are planned and go awry, as if the very act of making them demanded it.  The nature of buses is modern Flying Dutchman.

The bus is cumbersome, intractable, a mule of machines. Buses even plot against each other, which shows their mercenary nature. For its many crimes of form and function, the city made the bus appear ever more ridiculous. This humiliation reached its pinnacle with the shameful, accordion-like midsection which joins two severed buses together like a Mad Max prop. What was once skulking and furious became a silly metal contraption fused by wheezing rubber flab. Now all accidents look like the fault of the miserable bus.

Bourgeois decency demands the death of public transportation, especially the utterly proletarian bus. The bus is synonymous with ‘late for work’ – thus, work stoppage follows every bus. After that, unemployment. Finally, the speeding train offers the ultimate obsolescence for passenger, worker and tenant. No one throws themselves in front of the bus anymore.

Bus seats have grown increasingly more plastic and comfortable, but also more infantile and less funhouse chrome. You feel as if you are sitting in a large, cushy bib. The symbiotic possibilities are obvious and probably part of a larger conspiracy.

A machine for coughing old men, hicks and degenerate races, old ladies with bags, the brown-paper morning dram… You catch a bus like you catch walking pneumonia. To the newly-urbanized techie, the bus is older than the wheel and more inscrutable than the zeppelin.

The bus is given to claustrophobia, but it does permit its passengers to modify its inner space. Bus riders may look physically smaller, but they are far less taciturn than the sardine packages you peer at on the El. You can hear better aboard the bus, if you happen to be a professor or a spy. Buses are also easier to steal than trains.

It is easy to memorize the relatively few train lines in even the largest city. If you know all the buses, you’ve a better brain than Wittgenstein. All timetables for public transportation are modernist masterpieces of dialectics, digression, and confusion, laid out in an obsessive symbolic economy. The bus-devotee adds up the parallel lines, skipping over the tedious gloss to get to the heart of the matter, which is Arrival and Departure. All of life is somewhere between those two points, whether vegetal or mammal. Speculation about curved time and the Beyond are confined to angry complaints and threats – but only if the bus is late. Like the Tao or Torah Scroll, the folded schedules project into the past and out to the future simultaneously. The Present is a static trust in the continuum of routine. Statues seen from light years away… long-deserted routes keeping time by extinct clocks, almost for pity’s sake.

A Picture: A little train at the end of a small track barely three blocks long. Used to transport small freight in a medium-sized factory complex. Overgrown grass, tracks sinking into the layers of asphalt, still air. You imagine or remember the small sound of the train’s bell. Everyone loves trains, as they should. All you have to do is look at the great songs written about them. We almost never sing about buses.

But people are more likely to sing onbuses than on trains, the Singing Brakeman aside. Luckily they tend to have great talent (the reason for this is that black churches are always on urban bus routes, while Bruce Springsteen plays out by the city limits). Even before the cellphone era, talking to yourself on public transportation didn’t raise an eyebrow. Only a novice cowers from the solitary jabberer, clutching his Michigan State pendant or his copy of The Baffler.

Morning bus reading is sometimes the only kind for the overworked free scholar. Tony Alamo’s ministry generously provided free (if puzzling) literature, if you left your dog-eared Dostoyevsky on the westbound.

The railway platform is a quay
A boat is coming to get me
From this hole, little hole where I make little holes
From this hole, this little hole where I make little holes
But the boat is sailing.

– Serge Gainsbourg, ‘Lle poinçonneur des Lilas’

The bus conductor has vanished. The driver is now alone. Being a bus driver is one of the most extraordinary professions on earth. No sea captain ever bore such a burden – not even Shackleton. As a linguist and raconteur, everyone falls silent before the driver. As a navigator, Xeng He is second-rate in comparison; and as a diplomat and psychologist, no name is even worth mentioning. There is a book called Memoir of a Bus Driver, by Larry Gnass. Although I haven’t read it, I am certain that it is one of the greatest books ever written.

If one bus passes you by, the next will certainly stop for you. If you are destitute, you can usually luck out on a free ride. The city bus driver knows he cannot rely on inept transport cops or the murderous municipal kind for help. For once, the watchdogs of the state are indifferent and remote. The bus driver shadows himself.

The bus route is a parallel state, a shadow Shōgunate which operates by improvisation and parody. It can be deadly too, like the Shōgun’s rootless ronin.

Rosa Parks’ particular genius was to choose the bus that fateful day, and not a fountain or a diner counter or a train. She commandeered the bus from the white oppressor without lifting a finger and forced the bus, the operator and the very route itself to follow her. Finally, she seized control of the cops when she refused to stand up for them. By changing the timetable, she showed her perfection over a society that is unable to control its own forward motion.

The brutality of mechanized isolation and increasing fares have produced the socialism of the strange community of passengers, shuttled along in clouds of toxic unknowing, aboard a medium for shipwrecks. The bus is the Pequod for the fearful landlubber, for the sailor too long from the sea. Because of this, the hovercraft was doomed to failure.

There is not enough space here to speak of the legendary Greyhound.

“The local bus stop proved to be fertile ground for local artistic experimentation in the Soviet period, and was built seemingly without design restrictions or budgetary concerns. The result is an astonishing variety of styles and types across the region, from the strictest Brutalism to exuberant whimsy.”

Soviet Bus Stops, by Christopher Herwig

The bus networks of the suburbs are a bleak mystery. Machines move along dead roads, directed like poltergeist tanks over an arid world without sidewalks. The suburban bus cancels itself out every time it completes its moribund circuit. Unlike the Möbius strip of city transporters, it doesn’t so much return as appear.

Subida al Cielo: Latin American buses are the greatest rides on earth, especially if you’re on the roof. If you want to know a city, its politics, its geography and its labyrinths, its vast boulevards and its coded alleys, then you must take the bus. Even Mexico City will yield up some of its secrets before the ever-modest bus.

From the bus window, you see yourself and others in multiple impositions over the landscape. This little bit of reverie on the way to work is almost as good as your smoke when you get off.

“Wizzo izzay izzle, in da za zouble dizuch.” – Frankie Smith

The bus is a masterpiece of polyphony, a secret college which outdoes the greatest musicians and polyglots in the space of a single stop. Short snatches of speech weave together seamlessly: Polish, Urdu, Korean, Lakota, Cantonese, Kurdish, Kiswahili, and every other language under the sun. And forget John Cage: a deathly quiet bus makes you truly understand the absence of speech and the prisons of articulation.

The book, the headphones, the iphone and the laptop are the opium of public transportation. And these trinkets are not even a target for thieves anymore, which is a real shame. But it does prove that the saturation point for commodity gizmos has finally been reached.

The elderly stare straight out, thinking of anything as decades’ changes rise up in the glass and absent companions are replaced by strangers in the next seat. ‘I ran into him on the bus yesterday’ is a phrase that will soon be less than an echo. Signs of a relentless class war resolved: it was a rout, a bus that doesn’t run anymore.

The NYC Port Authority bus terminal transcends space and time. It is all points from here to Paradise, from the stork to the Ferryman to the end of the line. Consider the following true story, from the book on Yorkshire transport cited above: “I was standing on the corner of 6th Avenue and Bleecker in Manhattan when a large red double decker tourist bus drove by… the destination on the front said ‘Holbeck’, a part of Leeds I used to stare out at from my window in Belle Vue House, many years before. I wondered if it would take me there for about 75p if I got on, but it didn’t stop.”

In Hong Kong, futuristic double-deckers speed from stop to stop on a dime. Not a second is wasted. The older routes, using much smaller and older buses for much smaller and older people, still operate with vigor. These forceful little buses are cheaper to ride and driven with true style, weaving in and out of the cars, keeping to the third road, defiant in the glare of the latest technologies. They also operate out of the city, where public transport has not yet been squeezed into a glut and fiberglass hasn’t completely replaced rusty metals. Down country roads and back to Chunking Mansions – they would have let you off at the gates of the now-vanished Kowloon City. I like to imagine that a young Bruce Lee waited for one of these old diesels, on the way to study with the great Ip Man at his studio in 利達街.

Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.