On the "(Bus) Pass It Along" blog, words to transit by

One of the swell things about working at a college is you find entertaining writing in the darnedest places. At the beginning of the 2008 spring semester, university Transportation Task Force co-chairs Nicole Hykes Mulhausen ’89 and Todd Badham ’85 asked the campus Sustainability Advisory Committee for a grant to buy 10 bus passes for free distribution to faculty, staff, and students. The idea was to use a financial incentive to coax people out of cars and onto public transportation. The request was funded, and Pierce Transit threw in another 15 passes, for a total of 25. The project was called “(Bus) Pass It Along.” To promote its impact, people who received passes were asked to make weekly blog entries about riding the bus, which the lucky pass recipients dutifully did and continue to do. Here, a selection of their observations and stories:

Claim to fame
One thing about public transport here is that I haven’t seen any public figures on it, unlike New York, where Mayor Bloomberg rides the subway. Years ago I met [former Washington governor] Gary Locke canvassing for votes at the Federal Way bus transfer stop, but that has been the extent of my transport encounters with public figures. Or rather public figures in the narrow sense. In a broader sense, there are people who are not politicians or celebrities but who have developed a public persona, a visibly noticeable image that sets them apart from the rest of us.

Today, in order of proximity, we have “Three-Fingered Jack,” the grizzled, bearded street musician often seen in Diversions [the on-campus café] with a newspaper and coffee. He invariably rides the afternoon bus to Seattle for Mariners and Seahawks games, carrying his fold-up chair and battered guitar case, and has dibs thanks to age and disability to the front bus seats. If you don’t know, he’ll tell you.

And we have a man of the hippy generation, but with more bizarre facial hair, who often rides the morning bus to Tacoma. Details of his costume indicated to me he was a clown (the hayseed, denim overalls stopping above the ankles, with candy-colored, striped socks and overlarge shoes below). Yet his lumbering bulk seemed too intimidating and his features too hard-bitten for any parent to want to hire him to entertain at a kiddy birthday party. The sort of clown he was became clear in last November’s Seattle Weekly article on the “Pike Street All-Stars.” His public name is “Squeaky Tom,” who, after a series of hard knocks, is trying to make a living selling variously shaped balloons at the market.

My last example is not a public entertainer in a professional sense, although he performs. And he may not have a street name like Jack or Tom, but he has fashioned a public image nevertheless with his fashionable dress of yesteryear. When he rides the buses in Seattle, he joshes with the drivers and fellow passengers, calling them “young whipper-snappers.” Old-fashioned expressions come naturally to describe him, since he is two years short of being a century old, as he proudly told us on the bus last week. He’s a “nifty dresser,” something like George Raft, periodically seen on the Turner Classic Movie channel. He wears his hats (including the kind of stiff straw boater hat that stopped being common street wear in the early 1930s) at a rakish angle, and sometimes has a “boutonnière” on his lapel. He cuts a jaunty figure on the sidewalk, even or especially with his cane. He is, in his public encounters, what in 19th-century France was called a “flâneur.”

If you’re into people watching, as a flâneur of today, public transport is a good way to go.
— Wallace, faculty

Oh, what a tangled web
Yep, I caused a ruckus on the bus yesterday. I travel to Seattle at least twice a week via the 594 for an internship in the art department at Anthropologie.

When I first started making the hour-long commute it took a toll on my agenda to get stuff done (which consists of too many side projects; not enough homework), but I have come to find the ride to be a great time to work on projects. At my internship I am around so many creative people, and we work on some pretty outlandish art installations, so I usually leave the store fully inspired. When I board the 594 I love opening my sewing bag and pulling out the new shirt I am decking out with knotted fabric or the scarf I am embroidering.

But back to the ruckus. My newest bus-time project is hand-sewing lace decor to a plain grey T-shirt. While the bumpiness of the bus ride can be a nuisance, I usually work around it. This time, though, it got the best of me. The bus hit a bump and sent my thread flying under the seat across the aisle. I kindly asked the woman next to me if she could reach under and grab it for me, and, while she was nice enough to help, the bus hit another bump mid-reach. The end of the thread stuck under her seat, but the spool rolled toward the front of the bus then toward the back and all around, creating a spider’s web of thread wound around the bus. By this time, people had taken notice. The man sitting behind me was directing everyone reaching for the spool as it rolled around the bus floor. Finally, after a few minutes of quite the thread ruckus, the spool rolled right back to my seat and I reached down and cut it from the tangled web it had created. I thanked everyone who had tried to catch the runaway thread spool and let some people who were still looking for it know that it had returned home safely. While I still plan on using my bus time to work on projects, I think I am going to make my next project a harness of all my tools so I don’t become the bus disturbance again.
— Paige, student

Tips for living: Mentholatum
Composing the next blog for this series I had to ask myself, “Would this be appropriate as a reporter’s item that will encourage other UPSers to use public transport? Would this report, the opposite of fun and games aboard public transport, turn readers off and make them stick to their private cars?”

But then I imagined some perverse, inverted universe, in which UPS was trying to encourage single-car commuting. Would a blog reporting an accident or a pull-over for a traffic violation discourage anyone? Hardly, since in actual life those sightings are normal in daily car commuting, with passing motorists probably saying to themselves, that’ll never happen to me, or if so it will be mañana, a nebulous future too indistinct to worry about. Or the passing car-driver in an old clunker experiences schadenfreude if the car in the incident is very high-end.

But speculating about jeremiads against Hummer aggressors on I-5 takes me too far from what I wanted to talk about, about what we public-transport commuters should report, or suppress, in telling about our rides. Yes, not all experiences are pleasant, no more than for the single-car motorists. The following report is one example, but also perhaps one with information the reader can use in other situations.

One afternoon an elderly man got on the Tacoma-Seattle bus. He exuded an overpowering odor from not having bathed for months or whatever. He sat at the front of the bus, and we riders quickly moved as far away to the back as we could. Fortunately the bus was half empty that afternoon. The bus driver didn’t have the option of relocating. She was stuck there at the wheel, with the man sitting three feet away. She drove as fast as she legally could to Seattle, or maybe a little faster, while periodically telling the passengers over her intercom how sorry she was about the situation.

Should such a situation occur in the future, I am now prepared, thanks to someone who knows about autopsies and dissections on ripe specimens. Smear a little Mentholatum in your nostrils to suppress the stench. So now I carry a jar of it in my book bag, and you may want to do the same, not just for the bus but for other occasions, if for instance in a funeral cortège car you find yourself trapped sitting next to an elderly aunt with negligent hygiene.

Fortunately this odiferous event has never been repeated on the busses I ride. However, the accidents and pull-overs of single car vehicles seen from the bus windows occur almost daily.
— Wallace, faculty

See ya next time
I have been riding public transportation for as long as I can remember, so when I was looking at universities I didn’t even think to look into the public transportation system. I have always just assumed that everywhere was like Portland. This is not the case! However, the South Sound most definitely has a good and developing transit system. Perhaps the most fun is getting to know the drivers on the route that you take frequently. I appreciate the driver’s sense of humor as he tells stories to whomever will lend an ear. Whether he is talking about traffic developments, construction detours, or the fact that he’s glad to be driving a bus rather than a horse-drawn buggy, it always makes for a good chuckle on my way downtown. And you know that the drivers take note when you hop off the bus at your stop and say, “Thanks!” The driver says to you, “We’ll see ya next time!” So thumbs up to riding the bus and getting to know people!
— Jon, student

Pleasant surprise
Have you noticed how nice all the bus drivers seem to be? Maybe I’ve just been getting lucky, but every bus driver I’ve met was friendly and helpful. They can always tell if you’re a rookie to the system. I was getting on a new route, not quite sure where I was going, but I had to make it to Seattle. With my suitcase packed I sat at the bus stop before dawn hoping that I was getting it right. Unfortunately I wasn’t. The bus pulled up and as I got on with my suitcase, the bus driver asked me if I was going to Point Defiance. No, I told her, I was going to the Tacoma Dome. She smiled at me sweetly and kindly explained that I wanted the bus stop on the other side of the street. She then looked up when the bus was next scheduled to come. I was embarrassed about my mistake, but she smiled at me warmly and wished me luck. She didn’t get annoyed with the hopeless girl trying to figure out the bus, but she took the time to help me with nothing expected in return.
— Kayla, student

Sinking into apathy?
I love to people watch and it just so happens to be that buses are one great place to people watch. My friends and I, in need of some off-campus chill time, headed to the Mad Hatter Tea Company downtown. It’s right by the 10th and Commerce transfer station. Full of tea samples and interesting people, it’s a great way to relax. Anyways, our bus ride downtown was pretty thought provoking. Everyone seemed jazzed up about Hillary Clinton’s visit [to campus]. My friends and I first sat quietly and pointed out places we always wanted to go. Then an elderly guy began an intensive interview amongst the three of us on our political stances. He didn’t seem to care so much about what we said, but rather how we said it. He wanted drive, ambition, passion. He wanted emotions of rage or joy to reverberate with our voices. Yet I didn’t feel it, and now I wonder how much I feel about anything? Where are my wild protests, like the 1960s college students? Where’s my passion?
— Mei-Lani, student

The bike/bus connection
Although this is my second year working downtown and advocating alternative transportation, I must admit that the bike racks on the front of the buses still worry me. This fear of the racks coupled with my unwillingness to pay the $1.50 fare has kept me from the buses for far too long. Biking to work has always been a great way to start my day and since I start work at odd hours, the traffic’s not too bad. But riding my bike home—trying to combat rush-hour traffic uphill the entire way—is not my favorite way to end the day. So today I faced my fears and placed my bike on the rack at the front of the bus. Despite my apprehension it did not fall off and get run over and although the entire bus got to see me awkwardly trying to fit my bike in the rack, the bus driver was very helpful and the bus pass made getting on go nice and smoothly. While my fears may not be completely overcome, I’m sure that with practice I’ll become a bike-rack pro.
— Liz, student

Rolling late
Late … late … late … pushed it just a little too far this morning. Lingered too long over that morning paper. One too many hugs for the 4-year-old urchin clinging to my leg as I rush out the door. Urgh! Gotta head back in for the bike helmet. Really gotta boogie now and get some love from the streetlights if I’m to have even a slim chance to get that 7:30 bus. There’s the yellow school bus headed at me down the street. If it’s on time maybe I’m not doing so bad after all.

First light. Green! So far, so good. Bottom of the hill I can see that lovely green glow. Stay, stay, stay, stay. Yellow. #@%$! In my mind’s eye my bus is slowly pulling away just a few blocks away as the evil red eye glares at me and log trucks rumble by. Looks like I’m chasing today. (The beauty of a bike is that it can catch you up a few stops.) Jog left, right, up the road a bit and there it is, red light working in my favor this time. I roll up to the stop, flag her down, load the bike, and ease into the warmth and safety of my usual seat. Piece of cake. Time to sit back, pop open the coffee mug, and let someone else deal with the stress of the road.
— Garrett, faculty

The place where we meet each other
Last year after the big windstorm, I rode the buses from one part of town to another to see the damage that had occurred. I met people who were forced onto the bus because their cars were blocked by downed trees. I also saw how neighbors were out helping one another. As people would get on the bus, they were in more of a frame of mind to reach out to others. It gave me the feeling of living in a smaller place than we do. The buses that day were the place where we met each other—where we were all living in the same town, not North Enders or South Siders.
— Jane, staff