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.