I made use of the buses in New York on a number of occasions because they were cheaper and I wanted to see as much of the city ‘above ground’ as I could. I found out quickly that the bus fare was $2.25, payable in coins to the driver, whereas I worried that going down into the subway I’d get caught on the wrong side of town on the wrong train, or have the wrong token or something. Mistakes on the subway seemed more difficult to put right, for some reason.
I did make one wrong turn. I made my way down to 12th street to visit the fabulous Strand Books (their motto is ’18 miles of books’ – now that’s the kind of walk I like to take) and was feeling very smug with myself for having successfully caught a New York City bus and actually made it to my destination in the rain. On the way back, I must have taken a wrong turn, and ended up at a 5th avenue bus stop with a gaggle of young girls – pretty and excited, chattering like birds. One of them asked me for details on where the next bus would go.
‘I’m sorry, I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I’m a tourist here.’
‘Oh,’ she said, when she heard my accent. ‘Are you Canadian?’
‘No, I’m from Ireland.’
‘Wow... so d’you like, speak Scottish?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘We speak English in Ireland.’
‘Riiiight,’ she nodded slowly. ‘Okaaaay.’
And with that the bus came. I took a seat and looked out the window as the street names told me a story I didn’t want to hear. I wanted them to say: 13th street, 14th street, 15th street... But instead it was Christopher Street, Bleecker Street... I approached the driver, an enormous guy with a baseball cap and a bored expression.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘Is this bus going up towards 42nd Street?’
He looked out the window and frowned momentarily. ‘Man,’ he said, like he was disappointed in me for even asking. ‘I’m goin’ the whole OTHER direction.’
Beyond the windscreen, signs started appearing for The Holland Tunnel. Tunnels, on the whole, make me panic. Entrance to something like The Holland Tunnel would mean emergence on the other side of something WIDE – ie something that requires a TUNNEL. In this case, the East River.
‘What should I do?’ I asked, feeling my voice rise a few semitones.
‘Get off at the nex stop, walk over to Hudson Street and pick a bus going back this way.’ He jabbed his thumb rearwards and as we hit the next stop, I skipped out onto the pavement and the now pervasive rain. I realised with dull anger that I was now out of quarters and would have to break a ten dollar bill for change somewhere to get back uptown.
Half an hour later, I’m sitting damp and footsore on a bus headed (this time) in the right direction, when a young girl boards the bus with an older man. He’s so painfully skinny and frail looking that I expect his knees to buckle before he reaches the seat, but he makes it, and sits down with a wheeze and she stands before him for a second as the bus pulls away.
From the seat behind me, a very soft and low voice says: ‘Sit down, child...’
It sounds like a vampire. That smooth, insistent tone. It makes the hairs on the back of my neck rise. Nobody hears it but me... ‘Sit down, children,’ the silky voice says quietly, ‘sit down... In every Jim Crow village and town... sit down children, sit down...’
And then there is silence. I’m scared to look around. At the next stop, the unseen figure behind me rises and leaves the bus. And I see that it is a bald man in his mid-60s, wearing a stained white T-shirt straining over a huge belly and a pair of jogging trousers and dirty tennis shoes. He stands in the pouring rain, hatless and coatless, on 8th Avenue, with a rucksack over one shoulder, peering out at the street under heavy, fleshy brows. He does not look like a healthy person to be around.
A couple of days later, the sun is blazing down and I’m riding the bus up to Central Park. I just want to see the park, really, to lie down on the grass and doze for an hour - and say that I’ve been there. It’s an extraordinary space, this green jewel surrounded by skyscrapers. I’m struck again by the use of public space for something so green and lush. And like so much of the city, it is exactly as you’ve seen it in the movies. Elegant and peopled with New Yorkers on the stroll, or jogging or cycling through, past the hot dog stands and the ice cream vendors as the buildings tower above and yellow cabs flash in and out of sight through the trees.
On the bus back down, though, I get on behind this portly little woman in her late 40s, dressed in a black trouser suit – a black jacket buttoned closed over a pair of black trousers. She has frizzy blond hair spilling out to either side, and a beaky nose. I take a seat, and she remains standing, just behind the driver. As we take off for the long journey down Lexington Avenue to 42nd street, she grabs hold of two upright handrails on either side, and looks out the window. I realise after a couple of blocks that she is singing quietly to her own reflection. This can be quite common for people wearing earphones, iPods, etc. But she’s not. She's just... singing to her own reflection, holding onto the handrails and occasionally tossing her hair, pouting and frowning and nodding as she delivers the words. It’s a full-on, silent performance to an audience of one. It feels kind of tragic and every time she tosses her hair she reminds me... of Miss Piggy.
Later on the same journey, another woman gets on and sits in the seat closest to the driver and tells him a series of jokes in a German accent, one after the other, without pause, like someone reading a menu to a blind person. And as soon as she finishes each joke she asks the driver if he gets it: ‘...ze priest says no but I hef a good contect for ze weekend you geddit, ja? You understand zis?’ When the bus stops and her jokes are interrupted by people getting on, she pauses and looks up at each of them in silent fury.
To avoid any more unstable people, I decided on the last day to take a Yellow Cab and the driver told me and my companions that he made $5,000 dollars a day as a cab driver. With the average NYC cab fare being something like $12, that’s 416 separate fares a day. At an average of 20 minutes per ride, that works out at a 138-hour day he’s working. If he really believes that, he should be riding the bus.