The Magic Bus

By Deborah Churchman
Sunday, May 28, 2006

What began as a three-hour trip to Charlottesville was transformed by the Explainer, the Soother, the Yuppie and the Omigods into an odyssey worthy of Homer

I MET THE EXPLAINER at the District's main bus station, where I was trying to catch the three-hour ride to Charlottesville to visit my son. The bus company says it is dedicated to providing transportation at an affordable price. I'm a big supporter of public transportation. I'm also, you know, broke. It seemed like a good fit.

Then the power outage happened. About two seconds after I walked into the station, all the lights, computers and ticket machines went dark. A construction worker nearby, someone would say later, had chopped through some main artery of D.C.'s grid, and the electricity had gone down in an eight-block area. Uh-oh -- my ticket was on my credit card. No current, no ticket. No ticket, no ride? I worried.

I spoke with a woman behind the ticket counter who, when I walked up, was discussing her daughter's prom dress with a fellow employee. We all had a long conversation about the differences between raising boys and raising girls. It was commiserative. The consensus was that girls are more complicated, but boys can be difficult, too. At the end, they told me that if I gave the driver my license or a credit card or something, I could ride the bus and just get the ticket at the next stop. This was different from, say, discussions I've had with security guards at Dulles International Airport. I went to stand in line.

My round-trip bus ticket between Washington and Charlottesville cost $42 -- more than half a day's wages for someone making $10 per hour. It would probably cost you less than that to pay for the gas in a car, should you happen to own a working car and have a legal driver's license. Round trip on the train is more than twice as much as the bus, and round trip on a plane is at least three times that figure, if you pay full price.

So most people in this country wishing to go from one urban area to another just drive there; if it's really far, they go by plane. Bus ridership amounts to less than 3 percent of long-distance passenger travel. It's the basement sofa of transportation -- a little lumpy, maybe a little grubby, but more than serviceable for the job at hand.

Me, I don't like to drive. I've also owned any number of actual, worse-for-the-wear basement sofas. That makes me a good candidate for the Bus Crowd, a group that, according to ridership surveys, is more likely to be female and minority, and is overall less educated, lower income and older (hey, that hurts!) than air and rail passengers. For the record, you do not need a legal driver's license to ride a bus (unlike the train or plane, where you need some form of government ID). It's also a good option for folks on the cash economy. Altogether, these people make up what one regular commuter calls the Bus Family, a group that is neither the Cleavers nor the Sopranos. Nor the Simpsons.

The family nature of our Charlottesville group organized quickly around the Explainer. She was at the front of the line when I got there. A short woman with what used to be called a "profound bosom," she looked like a fireplug with a hairnet. She explained to me that she'd been riding this bus for 20 years, and had seen the service go from acceptable to bad to worse. She explained that the lack of power in the building shouldn't affect the people dishing out sodas or giving tickets. There should be a backup system. What were they thinking?

The bus was to leave at 10 a.m., or so it said on the Web site and various boards thoughtfully located around the building. I believe the company posts departure times like this to promote the idea that it is in the transportation business. Turns out that "providing transportation" is among the bus company's goals -- it certainly gets good play on the Web site -- but it doesn't appear to be anywhere near the top of the list. Instead, what seems to be driving the bus company is the desire to gather together, for socio-anthropologic purposes, random groups of people whose only commonality is a nominal interest in two geographical locations. At this, I must say, it excels.

There were a lot of anthropologists at the station in bus company uniforms, walking around, going in and out of doors, conferring with one another, careful to not make eye contact with passengers. Perhaps they were researching papers on the American tendency to congregate in lines. Or maybe they were thinking about how to describe the situation on their blogs. One thing they were not doing was putting passengers on buses and driving them away.

The Explainer and I had a long conversation about that. Then she nabbed one of these disguised anthropologists and explained to him that we needed a bus and a driver to take us to Charlottesville. He explained back to her that his biggest problem was getting the power working in the station. She explained to him that getting a bus to move away from the station did not involve using any electricity whatsoever, and that he could just go find us a bus and a driver, now. He said there was no driver available, maybe at noon or so one might show up.

She gathered everyone in the line to listen to this explanation, forming a circle around him like you see on all those civil rights clips on the History Channel.

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