At 9:15 on a weekday morning, the young woman boarded Metro bus G-8 for its fifth run of the day from Prince George's Hospital in Cheverly to the country line at Langley Park.
She was a pioneer in spirit, if not in deed. "It's like traveling by covered wagon out here without a car," the woman said, when asked about her experiences on the buses of suburban Maryland. "I don't mind the bus once I'm on it, but figuring out how to get around is so tiresome. Everything becomes a major event.
"Today, I had to go to the mental health clinic. I'll end up wasting three hours of my day just going to and from."
This woman, willing to share her feelings, but hesitant to offer her name, said she feels isolated and discontented sometimes when she looks out the window of the bus. "I see thousands of people in cars. They are in control of what they're doing, you know? I always feel like they're in on something, and here I am, looking out the window, so tired from trying to get myself around. I don't feel helpless, just stupid."
There are scores of government studies on the economic, environmental and social effects of public transportation, but none of them have examined how many people are out there riding buses and feeling stupid or powerless or paranoid while doing so.
The only officials in Prince George's County who offered even the slightest awareness of such mental anxieties were found at the county mental health clinic. "I know our therapists have brought that up as an issue," said deputy director Dr. Edward Dorkin.
"The transportation network in the county is sorely inadequate, and that probably can cause both mental and physical problems for some people."
Bus riding in Prince George's can also, in some instances, bring just the opposite result. Leamon Bell will tell you about that.
Bell pays 50 cents to sit in the back corner seat of bus G-8 for a half-hour ride each weekday morning. It is a bargain price, he thinks, for 30 minutes of mental therapy. The seat on the bus is Bell's psychiatric couch. He is alternately patient and doctor.
"Since I started riding this bus, I've had a good chance to look at myself," said Bell. "I just sit back here and kind of go into a trance. When I first began riding, I tried to talk to other people, but most of them acted as though I were crazy or something. Now I just think to myself."
Bell, 28, thinks about how much easier his life has become since he moved to Landover last year, away from the "sirens . . . loud sirens all night long, and the gangs that walked down the streets" of his old neighborhood in Washington. He thinks about "how I wasted so many years jazzing around, doing things that I didn't really want to do."
And, unavoidably, he ends up thinking about his right hand, the one that was mangled in a Chinese egg-roll machine four years ago when he was working at the Chung Wah Noodle Manufacturing plant. "This hand is really why I ride the bus," he said. "I haven't had a job for four years because of it. The doctors have been working on the muscles ever since the accident."
The logistics of riding Metro bus G-8 - when and where to get it, where it will go - are not all that important for Leamon Bell. His is the art of riding the bus, not catching it. And it is an art.
There are some riders who confide that the rhythms, smells, sights and sounds of a bus are sensuous; the vibrations of the handrails; the sweet gas smells and soft drum sounds of the underbelly; the bagpipe blasts of the brakes; the fleeting glimpses out the window of people one will never see again; the graffiti on the backs of seats; the slow pull up the hills; the oversized steering wheel; the curious mix, the subcultures, of fellow passengers.
On the G-8 last Monday, each of the seven passengers had a peculiar relationship with his or her world and how to get around in it, the philosopher Bell; the isolated woman; an elderly woman who spent all week planning a trip to the hairdresser's only to discover the shop was closed; another woman who always sit up front and jealously protects the six seats marked especially for senior citizens and handicapped persons as though she owns that section of the bus; a 28-year-old Langley Park man who drives a truck all night and then takes the bus to the mental health clinic to talk about his "rootless" feelings, and two Northwestern High School students who are late for school.
The Prince George's government funnels about $5 million into the Metro system each year to ease the transportation burden for people who don't have access to an automobile. Eight-nine bus routes wind through the country. But the frustrated riders are right when they worry that they can't always get from here to there.
There are still no buses, for instance, that run to the county offices in Upper Marlboro. "There's only one way to get here by bus," admitted S. Robert Rubin, director of transit for the county. "I think you take a Greyhound up to Baltimore, then catch another one down again. It's even worse in the extreme southern part of the county.We can't get buses down there at all."
Rubin said there is "too much open space" in the southern stretches to make public transportation economical. "It's difficult to justify running services when you know you won't return nearly 50 per cent of operating costs."
The G-8 bus returns only slightly more than that 50 per cent mark, with an average passenger load of 8 or 10 people on most runs, but it is considered an important line. For one thing, the G-8 serves the county hospital. Furthermore, it is the only bus route among the 89 in the county that travels solely within the borders of Prince George's.
B. D. Smith is thankful for that. Smith, 67, picks up the G-8 about four times a week near the county hospital and rides it up to Baltimore Avenue in Hyattsville."I don't like to go out of my own territory," he said. "Baltimore Avenue is my territory. Baltimore City ain't. I get lost every time I'm up that way."
Smith is one of the handymen of Hyattsville. He works at gardening, windown cleaning, ditch-digging and "whatever else the folks might want done." About half the time, Smith works jobs that he has picked up in advance over the telephone, but quite once he just hops off the G-8 and looks around town for work.
"I do all right by the bus," said Smith, wearing a black baseball cap and carrying his work clothes in a yellow plastic bag. "Of course there are a few problems. It's not all that easy to carry the old lawnmower on board with me. I can get myself around all right, but I can't take much more than the bag with me."
One of the few regulars on G-8 who seems to be concerned with punctuality is the driver, Vic Musick. "There aren't as many people commuting to work on this bus as on most others," he said. "I handle a lot of older people, people going to the hospital or shopping center, people who are free in the day. It's an easy bus to drive. I'm on time almost every run. There have been only three times when I've missed half-a-trip because of a mechanical breakdown."
Musick, 61, who has been driving buses and trolley cars in the Washington area for 39 years, has accumulated so much seniority by last year that he had a choice to drive any route he wanted in the Prince George's region.
"I think the G-8 is as good as any," he said. "It gets you all over the county without any trouble splots. I like to get around. I see a lot and hear a lot and feel like I know what's going on with accidents and fires and different things like that. It helps on this job."