Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Riding the Bus Like a Schmuck

Life and luck have recently caused me to move from Inwood, the northernmost neighborhood of Manhattan, to Flushing, in the northern reaches of Queens. I like my new neighborhood well enough, but I no longer live a quick walk to the subway. To get all the way home, I now have to take a bus.

No one would rightfully choose to take a bus when they can take a subway instead. With a bus, you get all the aggravation of being stuck in traffic with of the unpleasantness of public transportation. Subways also take your money before the train arrives. With a bus, you get to stand in line while old ladies fumble for Metrocards or exact change. Buses also make many more stops.

There's also an unspoken aversion to taking the bus among New Yorkers. Even those who proudly boast they don't own a car and enjoy a smug self-righteousness about not polluting the Earth don't want to be on a bus. A city bus has no cultural cache. Trains, trolleys and ferries still have some scraps of glamor stuck to their fetid bones.

And in New York, bus riders get the shaft in many ways. Subway transfers are unlimited but bus transfers are not. There is no citywide bus map like there is a citywide subway map. City bus maps are only available by borough. And the bus lines are not depicted in consistent colors among the various borough bus maps, making it even tougher to navigate.

There are also many bus lines, particularly in the outer boroughs that are privately owned and appear on no official bus maps. The entire transit system is rigged against the outer boroughs, with subway lines almost all leading to and from Manhattan. If the other boroughs were similarly served, this would garner no complaint.

The New York transit store sells t-shirts emblazoned with your favorite subway line. I know of no such t-shirts for buses.

There are schedules posted at the bus stops that may be helpful to read but can also be quite maddening, as they are often not kept to and you can find yourself waiting about an hour or more for a bus in the late night/early morning hours. Some buses just quit running altogether for several hours, and their schedules will just show empty time slots where arrival times should be. Buses will also sometimes be on a “Limited” schedule, which means it makes fewer stops and the driver will drive right by your stop and possibly leave you far from where you need to go.

Bus passengers do have a smaller percentage of confused tourists. Most people who ride the city buses are locals who know where they are going or soon will. An elite order has formed among the riders of the special express buses. These are coach buses with nicer seats that make fewer stops and go greater distances. They cost $5.50 instead of the regular fare of $2.25, and these bus riders form their own subculture of regulars and tend to line up reliably. These are mostly commuters from the outer boroughs and suburbs who act with the experienced precision found only in seasoned commuters.

I am unavoidably among the cadres of working-class New Yorkers who find themselves on a bus every day. In my case it's either the Q44 or the Q20 (A or B, either stops in front of my building) or in some cases the Q34 in the mornings. I've decided to take a perverse pride in this. See you on the bus.

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