1 So Long, Sedan; Hello, Bus | The Billfold

So Long, Sedan; Hello, Bus

In Kansas City, unlike larger metropolitan areas such as New York, using public transportation is a definite class marker. Taking the bus here usually means you don’t have money to own a car, and as someone who could afford a car, I had never made the decision to board a bus.

I did, however, make the decision to speed across US-36 through central Missouri en route to Illinois, which attracted the attention of one very angry police officer who promptly pulled me over and rightly ticketed me. I cannot recall all the infractions individually, but I can say that what would have been a single speeding citation was compounded threefold by it having occurred—apparently—in a marked construction zone.

As I stood at the bar in an Illinois bowling alley with my older brother later that night, I asked him not to tell our mother about this new price on my head. (By the way, mom, sorry you had to find out this way.) I finished my glass of that night’s special—some cheap domestic beer—and with that watery swill still wetting my mouth, I realized I couldn’t afford my new debt to the state of Missouri.

When I got back to Kansas City a few days later, I immediately started brainstorming ideas on how to scrounge up money to pay for my traffic tickets. I came up with a few wishful solutions, hopeful that my dilemma could be solved simply and easily. The first thing that came to mind was selling blood plasma. I’d made good money over the previous summer selling my plasma so I could afford bar tabs and some groceries while squatting on a friend’s couch. The likelihood that I could donate nearly $400 worth of plasma in less than 30 days seemed slim and the thought of actually doing so seemed down right unseemly if not exhausting.

But I had to come to terms with what I knew would have to be done—I just couldn’t get over the poetry of it: In order to pay my traffic tickets on time, I would have to sell my car. If the officer realized that by fining me for driving poorly would actually lead me to relinquish the very instrument of my poor driving, then I’m sure he would have felt he’d done a good job that day.

Defeated, I posted an ad online and sold the car within a couple weeks to a nice young man who’d effortlessly talked me down on the price. I’d have $100 leftover after paying the fines, most of which would be changed to singles and quarters and fed into the fare boxes that are inside every metro bus I’d be riding for now on. Without wanting to, I went from driver to rider, pilot to passenger, a reckless headlong animal with a gas foot heavier than a brain’s worth of reasoning skills to a tamed and neutered kid internally struggling with how to afford all these panhandlers at my bus stop.

I was used to driving my car alone, so I wore headphones to maintain a similar sense of detachment. But I’d underestimated how inquisitive bus riders could be.

What are you listening to? Does this bus stop at the Plaza? Crazy weather, huh? Are we going north?

I eventually began leaving my ear buds at home and gave myself fully over to the experience of becoming a straphanger.

I began seeing other ramifications of taking public transportation. I was actually leaving my apartment earlier because of the departure times. When I had a car, I justified leaving 20 minutes before my 9 a.m. class, hurrying through the streets and eyeing every red light as if it were some heartless, traffic-congesting devil. Behind the wheel, I believed that my trip was more important than anyone else’s and that I was naturally a more skillful driver than anyone else on the road. Everyone had to get out of my way. I’d gas my car through the dying moments of a yellow light, leaving all the other drivers behind only to see them reappear in the lanes next to me at the next traffic light. I see this person now from my bus seat, anxiously rapping his fingers on the steering wheel and craning his neck low to maintain a perfect view of the red eye. He is idling his car forward a few inches. He is preempting the dissolve from red to green. The routine is the same at every light. I do not miss this.

Another thing I don’t miss is parking. At $115 per semester for a day permit, parking on campus is both time consuming and expensive. A night permit is another $98. That cost alone covers a semester’s worth of bus fare. Considering the additional costs of gas, maintenance and insurance, I was—in the financial calculations of a broke student—saving a fantastic sum of money.

I read somewhere that no one knows his city like the transit rider does. The driver sees only other cars, but the transit rider sees faces and hears voices of the people in his own city, and they make up the ever-changing landscape in which the rider lives and determines his daily experience. It didn’t take long for me to begin understanding that.

Sometimes there’ll be a comical scene on board like the 40-something man that all but sung his uncompromising love for a bottle of chocolate milk, or the tiny, adorable old woman who expressed at least 15 different ways to describe cold weather. Or there’s the man I sat next to after buying a 12-pack of beer, who, with such a selfless enthusiasm, told me I was surely going to have a good night, like I’d just won the lottery and deserved it.

Some scenes make you feel less at ease, as if you glimpsed something very personal for a second: The disjointed, half-formed but in some very hard-to-describe way poetic ramblings of a very ill man breaking out of himself at the expense of an innocent, lone woman to whom he asked if she killed his baby. And once I glimpsed the eyes of the still, disconnected stare of the inebriate who had moments earlier planted face into the bus’s deck with the unflinching grace of a falling two-by-four.

But some days, the scenes you encounter appear more profound. There was the afternoon I watched a young black man give his front-of-the-bus seat to an old white man in a motorized wheelchair. The young man took a seat directly behind the older man, and had to swat the dangling Confederate flag that hung from the back of the man’s wheelchair whenever the bus experienced a turbulent bump.

There was the unassuming man, anxiously giddy like a child with a secret, who revealed an ability to tell you the day of the week for any date you threw at him. The riders tested him, checking his answers against the calendars in our phones, and he nailed every one. I was born on a Tuesday. Then there’s the one-handed man in my neighborhood who always has his disadvantaged arm wrapped around an old, dirty broom. He’s always the happiest man on the bus and I feel uplifted when I see him.

When I am on the bus, I am not in control—I’ve learned to accept and enjoy this. The idea of owning an automobile when I have even an underappreciated transit system available to me now seems crazy. Ditching my car was hard at first, but I eventually understood that I was making tradeoffs. I could leave whenever I wanted when I was in my car, but I had to find parking (and sometimes pay for it). On a bus, I never have to circle a parking lot three times before finding a space, though I do have to walk a little bit more. Instead of remembering to fill up and pay for a tank of gas, I have to remember to buy a pass. I’m not inconvenienced more while riding the bus—just in different ways.

I’m not suggesting everyone sell their Buick for a bus pass, or that buses are a far superior way of traveling. But once upon a time, I had to sell my car to pay off some traffic tickets and ended up having to rely on Kansas City’s public transportation system to get around. I learned to live with less, not just put up with it. I learned the idea of buying-out what bothers me is not a sound pursuit, and that if I continued to think so then I’d ultimately be bothered by everything. Most importantly though, I learned to stop looking only at the car ahead of me, and look at the people around me.


Bradley Trevor Hoffman is a student and freelance writer living in Kansas City with his girlfriend and their dog, Etta James. Follow him on Twitter, @BradleyTHoffman.


43 Comments / Post A Comment


Also, I ride public transportation every single day (no car) and nobody ever talks to me unless they’re asking me for money so… I don’t know what you’re doing differently.

josefinastrummer (#1,850)

@Reginal T. Squirge Yeah, put the headphones back on! People only talk to you on the bus if they think you are going to listen.
But good for you for giving up your car and taking the bus, even if it wasn’t by choice. I’ve been car free for six years now and I don’t see myself ever going back! I save way too much time and money not driving.
Now, what will it take to get you on a bike…

Never. Buses are warm in the winter and air-conditioned in the summer. And I don’t get Portland rain and other gutter debris all over my clothes if I ride the bus. I’m too fresh for a bike. Also, a lazier option.

…Or were you asking the author that question?

@Reginal T. Squirge I bus every day too, and no one ever talks to me, either. Except for the one day a woman in a business suit asked me for a cookie (I had a box of them for a co-worker’s birthday). That was… the opposite of what I was raised to do when I saw a stranger with cookies.

(That was me, disguised as a woman in a business suit… I was also the dude with crumbs on his mouth that asked for a cookie five minutes later)

EM (#1,012)

@Reginal T. Squirge Yeah, is this a weird Southern thing? I never talk to anyone on the bus. Book, headphones, sunglasses as needed!

Mike Dang (#2)

@Reginal T. Squirge @Michelle I’d say that 90 percent of the time, no one talks to me while I’m riding the subway in New York. But they do when they do. Sometimes, it’s because he or she wants to know where I got my shoes, or if I like the book I’m reading. Once, a young woman asked me if I watched Downton Abbey, and then turned to her friend and said, “See, I told you. Everyone watches Downton!”

@Michelle *Midwestern

EM (#1,012)

@stuffisthings I’d plead Canadian ignorance but I also have only a vague grasp of our Eastern provinces. #geographyfail

kellyography (#250)

It makes sense that there are bus routes that go to a college campus, but what about other places you have to go that aren’t necessarily on a bus line? As a former St. Louisan, I can’t imagine being able to get most places without walking several miles at a go without a car in the Midwest. Maybe our transit was just shittier? Basically what I’m saying is that this article impressed me and also makes me really anxious for some reason.

josefinastrummer (#1,850)

@kellyography I think sometimes you just have to walk. I took a bus the other day to visit someone in the hospital. The bus ride was over an hour to another city and I did have to walk almost a mile to the hospital. I could have taken another bus but had the time and needed the exercise. If you really don’t have the option of a car, you just do it.

ThatJenn (#916)

@kellyography Yeah, I considered going carless here in my college town (I’m not a student but I do work at the university), but there’s a lot of places I go regularly that don’t have bus service within a mile, or even if they do, the bus service to that area is once every 2 hours until 6 PM only on weekdays, so I wouldn’t be able to go there ever again anyway since that would all be during my working hours. I would have to give up nearly every one of my non-work activities if I didn’t have a car, and while I would survive that, I’m not excited about the idea. So, I got a new car, whee.

BananaPeel (#1,555)

@kellyography I sometimes ride the bus here in St Louis when I have to take my car in for repairs and I’d rather wait at home than at the mechanic. There happens to be a bus stop maybe a mile from the mechanic and it lets my off just around the corner from my apartment. I really lucked out. But, yeah, public transit here (especially Metro) is generally underdeveloped.

Theda Baranowski (#2,989)

Last week, a lady knocked on the window of my parents’ car and asked if she could get a ride to her job in downtown Davenport, Iowa, because she’d missed the last bus while she was in the movie theatre. It was 6pm.

You must have a kind, open face…that’s why all those bus people gabber at ya!

BillfoldMonkey (#1,754)

Selling the car overall may have been a good solution for the author, that’s neither here nor there, but I think it’s worth nothing that most jurisdictions will let you be on a payment plan for traffic tickets, especially if you look very sad and cry while you’re asking about them. (This may work better for ladies?) I think they would just rather know they’re going to get their money and if you can’t do it all up front they will help you give them it all over time. Aaaaask me how I know. Signed, Reformed Leadfoot.

@BillfoldMonkey I once got a $450 parking ticket and I was told to “contest” it, kind of, by taking it to court. The option is to plead guilty for a reduced fine. I would say it’s not worth it for smaller amounts because of time taken off work and whatnot (people were pleading $30 tickets and I was like, amateurs, but they did get reduced to $10 so I don’t know)

In my case, the prosecutor told me she would ask for the legal minimum which was $300 I think for that infraction (parking in a disability spot … don’t do it folks).

The judge took pity on me though, he was like “so … this is a quite large fine you know.” Yep. Yep it is. And reduced it to $200, so that worked out very much in my favour.

@redheaded&crazy Also I didn’t have to pay it for about a year because of the time it took for the courts to process (and then on the court date you select an option like, pay it within a month, pay it within two months, pay it within 6 months). And, ALSO, if they don’t schedule a court date within a year of the date you submit the request to take it to court, you can get the infraction wiped. Apparently. So, if it’s a large amount, it’s definitely worth it!

MissMushkila (#1,044)

@BillfoldMonkey The only ticket I ever received was a $200 ticket for only “pausing” at a red light when taking a right hand turn. I was by the high school where I work, and I think they were looking for students. I contested it, because $200 + the increased insurance fees for 3 years would have killed me as a part-time school teacher (selling my car was not an option, as I lived in the city and worked in the suburbs at 2 different schools).

I cried at the court officer very, very pathetically. All he could do was allow me to pay $270 to have the ticket continued for dismissal, since I had an otherwise perfect driving record. Basically, they agreed to not tell my insurance if I didn’t get any other tickets in the next year. It was essentially hush money? But legal.

The risk is that if I had been pulled over again in the next year, I would have had to pay the original $170 IN ADDITION TO the new ticket, plus whatever insurance increases would have occurred. Then I would have been in debt forever. (this didn’t happen but it made me so skerred to drive anywhere)

I got really angry about how impossible those fines are.

probs (#296)

When my beloved cloth-top Buick kicks it, I might go all public transit. Having a car is great for groceries, going to my girlfriend’s apartment, and visiting my family in another city, though.

Maladydee (#909)

I’m 26 and have never owned a car. I take the bus everywhere except once in a while my car-owning friends will pick me up if we’re hanging out together and it’s not out of their way.
It can be inconvenient sometimes (Hello, Canadian winter!) but I see my car-owning friends who have to think about parking, plug their cars in at night and scrape the ice off their windshields (aaaaah that is the worst sound in the world!) pay attention when their cars start making funny noises, go from a stressful workday to a stressful drive home in rush hour traffic, and it just makes me feel pretty lucky. Of course, I live, work, and go to school in a central part of Winnipeg, so the bus service is good for the places I’m often going.
I bundle up, take a 5-10 minute walk through a reasonably pretty neighborhood, hop a bus and read a book on my way to work, rinse/repeat on the way home. I get to read and relax during rush hour and I get home and I am already mostly un-wound from work. I can get to almost everywhere I need to go with a single bus ride and I don’t often have to wait long. Sometimes I have to take 2 buses but not often, and there’s usually a shelter from the wind. Lots of the bus shelters are even heated.
So sometimes I think about getting a car, and then I think about all the money it would cost and how much more work it would be, and I think, “nah, I’ll put it off for a few more years.”

I may be a lady in the South but I feel IN NO WAY COMPELLED to talk to anyone on the bus. I am all about the “public transportation face,” which combines the thousand-yard stare of a survivor of a tragedy with the slightly wide-eyed look of a woman on the edge of murder.

Also I sit in aisle seats, and if someone asks to sit next to me I make them take the window seat. For EASE of ESCAPERY.

sintaxis (#2,363)

As an avid public transit rider, I enjoyed this even when I cant relate to the ex-driver anxieties and impatience. However, I couldn’t help but notice that almost all of the people that the author began to notice on the bus were men. Men doing this, men doing that. Being a woman on public transit is a very different experience in many ways. Most women I know wear headphones or talk on the phone because we are sick of being propositioned. I’ve yet to meet a woman who hasn’t been bothered on public transit, or groped, or rubbed against. I think that’s an important factor in the car vs. pubtrans cost benefit analysis that the author seems to take for granted.

@sintaxis What about the adorable old lady, the old white lady that the guy gave up his seat for, or the clumsy inebriate (gender unspecified)? Plus the story of the lady actually being bothered on public transit?

I mean, I don’t disagree with you. But your criticism does read like a case of “if you’re looking for something, you’ll find it.”

sintaxis (#2,363)

@stuffisthings Let’s do some math!
1- Generic driver is male: “I see this person now from my bus seat, anxiously rapping his fingers on the steering wheel and craning his neck low”
2- Generic transit rider is male: “no one knows his city like the transit rider does. The driver sees only other cars, but the transit rider sees faces and hears voices of the people in his own city”
3- “the 40-something man”
4- “tiny, adorable old woman”
5- “The man I sat next to after buying a 12-pack”
6- “a very ill man”
7- “at the expense of an innocent, lone woman”. (I am granting this outof generosity, but really she is not a character doing anything, she is merely present like a passive object in this story upon which a man enacts his storyline)
8- “the inebriate”
9- “a young black man”
10- “the unassuming man”
11- “the one-handed man”

So out of 11 listed persons or hypothetical persons, 8 are male and one is gender neutral. That means that women make up 2 out of 10 sexed examples (not counting the author) in this story for a whopping 20%.

Looks like you’re right, this story isn’t male dominated at all!

(edited to add: I forgot the white man in the wheelchair with the confederate flag, but i think my point still stands.)

@sintaxis It must be pretty exhausting reading the whole Internet like that.

coastalelite (#2,528)

@sintaxis Definitely agree with you, as a female who has switched from riding the bus to driving (due to the location of my house and my workplace,) I am so happy to have “bought my way out” of being harassed by male bus riders and having a weird feeling when one of them got off at my same stop…especially when there was a bit of a walk involved and not a lot of people around. I would absolutely love to rely solely on public transit but I’m not going to do so just to make a point, at the risk of my own safety.

sintaxis (#2,363)

@stuffisthings C’mon dude, you implied that my reading of this article as male dominated was misguided, I proved you wrong. Maybe you should just admit that you aren’t seeing things that are there because you aren’t looking hard enough, or at all in this case. You are gas lighting me by responding with such snark as to imply that I am being unreasonable by defending my valid claim.

sintaxis (#2,363)

@woof Thanks for the support. I too have had many weird feelings about having men harass me and then follow me off the bus at my stop. I live so close to the stop that my door is visible to the bus as it pulls away, meaning that I have to hang around until it clears out or walk around the block to make sure I lose someone who might be following me. There is an emotional cost to riding pub. trans. for many women who experience frequent micro-aggressions.

@sintaxis Sigh. I mean you have a perfectly good point, that one of the big reasons many people (who are in the position to do so) choose not to take public transportation is the level of harassment and danger, which especially affects women. Fair enough! I just think the claim of phallocentrism is way over the top and unfair to the piece and the author, especially as he DOES address — albeit glancingly — the very issue whose absence concerns you.

I’m not ready to concede that this short series of anecdotes by a male writer featuring mostly, but not exclusively, male characters, performing an activity not usually associated with any gender (riding the bus), is therefore a “male dominated” piece of writing. Any more than my telling you a story about a guy I saw wearing a funny hat is a “male dominated story.”

I also stand by my “snarky” comment: if you really do go around counting the ratio of male to female pronouns in every piece of writing you encounter, well, that DOES sound exhausting, at least to me. Maybe you enjoy it, or believe it to be somehow useful. To each her own.

And who knows — maybe the women he encountered in his bus rides failed to make an impression as colorful characters because most them were hunkered down in their headphones trying to avoid eye contact?

MissMushkila (#1,044)

@stuffisthings I remember the first time in college, when I read a textbook that mixed using “he” and “she” very specifically when referring to hypothetical people, because it was not a gender studies textbook and it was continually jarring to me. I’m a woman, and I had naturally been picturing all the hypothetical people as men. And then the text would go “she”.

I think things like this can sound somewhat petty, but it gets really old that pieces written by men about public life commonly have about a 10%-20% percentage of women in their comments. I don’t find it goes the other way (pieces about public life by women primarily referencing women). It isn’t about this article – which I thought was good and I enjoyed! – but about the fact that this is All The Articles. The author isn’t necessarily responsible for changing that, but it still kind of sucks.

hershmire (#695)

@MissMushkila One finds it tedious and distracting, doesn’t one?

bacon (#1,500)

@stuffisthings Also, there is exactly zero mention of Chinese people in this article, even though Chinamen (and, ok, Chinawomen) are the largest single ethnic group on the planet. For shame.

@stuffisthings Sigh. It *is* exhausting not being part of the default privileged group! And noticing when things specifically reinforce that dominance on the internet! Thank you for noticing!

This gives me memories of college, when I always had to drive my non-car-owning-on-principle anarchist friends to the grocery store.

honey cowl (#1,510)

I didn’t have a car in college & this story makes me nostalgic & sad. Sad because they are eliminating evening & weekend services in my college town, which is not actually a town but a good-sized city! Good thing I moved up the road to an even more good-sized city.

TARDIStime (#1,633)

I love this piece – beautiful. Totally relate as an early-twenties public transport user and soon-to-be student.
But I will argue that yes, @sintxis is right, on a level. I have been targeted by crazy/drunk/horny/bigoted people on the train and bus. It’s really unpleasant, but I’ve only ever had harmless experiences.
It is more avoidable when driving a car.
To counter – cars represent their own dangers, too. Road accidents and so on. I do wish buses had seatbelts on them, though – In Australia, it’s illegal to drive without your seatbelt on, but there is not an option for bus commuters to do the same, even by choice (?)

“Behind the wheel, I believed that my trip was more important than anyone else’s and that I was naturally a more skillful driver than anyone else on the road.”

Just as I’d always suspected! – A bus rider

z(oo)mm (#252)

related, kind of: this blog by a bus driver in Seattle Nathan Voss’s Blog

iuliancezar (#6,477)

Well i know some people that can afford the best limo rental in NYC but they still take the bus. I think that it really depends on where are you going and at which hour and of course, that you need to carry stuff with you at work.

repo (#6,628)

So long bus, hello sedan for me! I just got some Nissan Maxima parts because I want to change my car’s front lights. Now that i have read this article i remembered that i need to change a thing or two around the house too.

Jordan85 (#7,698)

If your car breaks down, you should have an immediate diagnosis from professionals, as seen in an auto repair shop in Texas. Furthermore, this service should be free of charge, but maybe leaving a tip could definitely make you a favorite customer.

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