Bus Spotting

A social lab on wheels whose subjects aspire to drive themselves

The incessant monologue of hushed Spanish is the soundtrack to the hypnotic streams of Circle K reds and Burger King yellows that fan passengers crimped on cushioned alloy seats. Above, under phosphorescent light, multilingual signs assert "No Fire Arms" and "Out of Work? Need a Job? Call . . ."

The bell tings, lowering the pitch of the motor's hum, and the bus rolls gently to a stop.

A large woman in a flower-print muumuu stands, rocking back and forth until steady, waddles down the aisle and steps off the bus. The door hisses shut and we roll again.

The 8:10 Redline is running from downtown to Metrocenter, then back again. Sleepy, multiethnic, workaday faces press against night windows, showing no hints of joy or contentedness but a kind of resigned indifference. They are here, not by choice, but by some external design.

An old drunk is down for the count, slumped at a window and better off here than anywhere.

A severe-faced old man dials a cell phone continuously, unaware the thing isn't working. An elderly couple carrying grocery bags sit for miles without exchanging a word, as though there is nothing left for them to say to each other.

Two rows up, across the aisle from me, a dark complexioned man sporting numerous piercings and a beaked nose sits staring at the ear of the woman seated next to him.

"Where did you get those earrings?" he says finally. "I just gotta have something like those."

The spindly woman's aesthetics cling to the Summer of Love. She's got flared jeans, sandals and multicolored hairbands. She carries with her a datebook elaborately decorated with notes, scribbles and jottings. She opens it and pretends to read, ignoring the gent.

He looks around and catches me watching him. He says, "You know where I can get some earrings like these?"

"Sorry," I say.
The woman turns to him and says, "The little baby ones my old man bought me. They're diamonds. The loops I just picked up."

"Where do I get an old man like yours?" he says, nudging her.
In its stops and starts, the bus takes and leaves a cross-section of nationalities. Public transportation is one of the few remaining places you can see our diversity.

Richard, a round-faced Irish guy, maybe 50, wears glasses, a mustache and long, orange hair pulled into a ponytail. Around his neck and halfway down his beer belly hangs an ill-fitting tie, screened with characters from Winnie the Pooh.

Richard works a jewelry store and claims an insider's knowledge of ring sizes and other arcana.

"Girls come in wanting wedding rings and whatever; you get to know a lot about them."

"Yeah?" I say.
"If a girl is between four and a half and a five ring size, then she is a babe," he chirps in absolute seriousness. "From five to seven, she's average. And above seven and one-half, she's a pig."

"Are you kidding me?" I say.
The woman behind him gets up and moves.
Richard breaks into an annoying, open-mouthed cackle, exposing a critical need of dental work, his ample belly bouncing along a beat behind his laugh. He says, "Why would I be kidding?"

Phoenix streets are designed for the comfort of your car, not you.
Walking in Phoenix is humiliating. So is waiting for a bus. And to subsist without feeling like a second-class citizen, one must own a car. It's like a holy suburban rite of passage.

I hate cars. Cars can keep up with sprawl. That makes public transit systems less accessible, less effective.

And it's getting worse. Those sprouting chicken-wire-and-spit tract homes, strip malls and golf courses are consuming the desert. The architecture maintains an aesthetic equivalent to typing paper. Phoenix is among the least densely populated--and most spread-out--of the world's large cities. Since 1992, according to the Arizona Golf Association, an average of six golf courses have been built each year in the Valley of the Sun. In Phoenix, single-passenger commuting costs an average of almost $4,300 more per year than public transit.

Our bus driver, John, is thick-set, patient and concludes sentences with genial laughter.

"I have been driving Phoenix Metro for five years, rotating routes so it doesn't get boring," he says. "Rarely have I had to toss anybody from the bus for disruption. Though the city is getting so big now, this is all gonna get ugly."

On the return from the lovely 10-minute layover at Metrocenter, I hop a Redline going south with a more inspired set.

A group of teenage boys struggling with identity and a dubious fashion sense argue about the location of their next stop; Latino mothers sit, oblivious to the shrieks of their restless children; three bubblegum-smacking girls prattle on about Kid Rock and B*Witched; a stiff, suited man stares unvaryingly straight ahead; and a Mad-eyed Jack with shocked hair sits at the very back, begging for eye contact.

I oblige him, and he won't stop staring at me.
You can't ride a bus at night without suffering some eternal Weirdo-With-a-Mantra and enviable self-confidence. Tonight is no different. Up front, yakking at the back of the driver's head, is he: white shorts (cold night), white tennis shoes, white tee shirt and socks, oversize jaw and overall slimy visage. Suited, he could approximate some white yup lawyer or an overnight TV shit-merchant missing his chance. And on the confines of the bus, he is well-placed.

He leans heavily on platitudes about how we should "collectively stop paying taxes to autonomize ourselves from evil," and how "hidden cameras are on every city block 'cause The Big Man needs to keep us under close watch."

He's culling in credulous passengers who nod in agreement. His sermon lasted until my drop back downtown.

I get off and wander toward home, pondering what I'd seen in less than 90 minutes:

A real city, for only a buck and a quarter.

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