Saturday, September 15, 2007
Sylvester Brown Wants His Barbara Ehrenreich Merit Badge
St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Sylvester Brown wants an authenticity merit badge, since he's gone slumming with the plebes:
    Sometimes I forget that I'm a 50-year-old fuddy-duddy who should give more thought before doing things on a whim.

    On Monday, I decided that I would ride the bus to work. It might be interesting to hang out with the nondrivers.
Oh, for Pete's sake. I would fisk the rest of the column, but why waste the mental energy when I could be reading to come up with material for the book reports you don't bother to read, gentle reader?

Oh, but I must.
    I had to be at Ranken Technical College on Finney Avenue, a bit north of the Central West End. Kingshighway is close to the area and runs near my home. A reasonable person might have checked the routes before leaving. Not me. I just trekked toward Kingshighway.
Real people have places to go; columnists on self-directed assignment can just wander in and out and be authentic, hanging out with the non-drivers on the buses.
    I guess the bus driver, who grunted her answers, wasn't used to newbies holding up her line to ask about fares.
Neither were the passengers on the bus.
    I was a bit dismayed after she told me a "multiuse transfer" ticket that I could use for another connecting bus, if need be, cost almost 3 bucks.
No doubt, multiuse transfers like the one he used are expensive; they're tourist traps. Real commuters buy the monthly or weekly passes and can ride whenever they want. If you're plunking down that much in change for the right to take one or two more buses in the next couple of hours, you're a tourist, or you're having an emergency. In any case, the quasi-government thinks that's a good time to charge you a premium. Not gouge you; that's what evil businesses do.
    Heck, double that amount and I could buy a couple of gallons of gas. Isn't public transportation supposed to be cheaper than driving?
Ah, therein Mr. Brown fails his roll to understand the economics of the situation. $60 a month for a bus pass means you have to come up with $60 once a month. Buying a car means coming up with a larger sum, several hundred dollars probably, all at once and then come up with probably more than $60 a month for gas and maintenance (usually, a lot of maintenance if you've only paid a couple hundred dollars). Plus licensing and whatnot, if you do it legally.

Bus transportation is inexpensive, and it's pay as you go.

Monthly or weekly, though, not trip by trip.

Back when I was a daily bus rider, the bus pass was the first thing I did when I cashed my paycheck at work (which also sold bus passes) because that way I was guaranteed transportation even if I spent every last nickel in my pocket, or just enough so I didn't have the buck for the white and green limousine.
    Still, I highly recommend riding the bus. There's something energizing about total strangers, scrunched together, engaging in random conversations.
Brother, when I was riding the bus, the last thing I wanted was to be energized by stranger engaged in a random conversation. Because he was drunk, stoned, and/or insane.
    The writer in me saw potential stories — the already tired-looking woman in the blue worker's uniform; the bicycle rider in Spandex, who hoisted his bike on the front end of the bus; the woman in the electric wheelchair, scooped into the bus by a powerful mechanical lift.
Brother, I don't see stories; I see garments and handicaps. A blue worker's uniform? Do all proletariat wear the same uniform, unlike the Intellectuals who ride the buses whenever they're running dry on column ideas?
    Then there's the story of Mattie, a missing dog. Among the ads on the bus encouraging prenatal and diabetes care, there was a posting that offered a $25,000 reward for anyone who found Mattie, a little, fluffy white dog who disappeared in 2006 after someone stole the out-of-town owner's car with the dog inside.
The best part of the story, because that is what a bus rider thinks about.
    Fearing that it would take me miles from my destination, I got off. Luckily, a friend saw me walking and offered a ride.
That's almost how real bus riders do it, too; all except the not knowing where you're going part. But if someone offers you a lift, you take it.
    After work, the reasonable me called Metro to find the best route from downtown to my home in south St. Louis.
Real bus riders get the schedules and route tracts and use them as a guideline. Metro even puts out a big guide that lists all routes and they give them away to the public, so you could consult one of these to plot where you need to go.

Unless you're a newspaper columnist and are used to getting people on the phone.
    If I caught #94/Page bus at 7:43 p.m., then transferred to #90/Hampton at 8:15 p.m., "I'd be just fine," the operator explained.

    Why would I head north to go back south, I asked.

    "That's what I have here, sir," she said cheerfully. "Good luck."
There you have it. A functionary who knows she only has to make an effort, and the fool who follows her.
    I had to catch the first bus behind St. Patrick Center, an agency that serves the homeless. As I walked, a young man sidled next to me. I slowed, he slowed. I quickened my step, so did he.
Ah, there you go, one of the noble people whom you meet while waiting at bus stops. I've met a few and have many stories to tell, but then again, I rode the bus more than once for a column.

    The ride on #94 wasn't as comforting as my morning commute. Most of the riders seemed tired and kept to themselves. An elderly man got off the bus in his wheelchair and quietly rolled down a dark and eerie street. It wondered if his journey home would be as depressing as his surroundings.
This matches my experience on buses running through the city. The expresses buses that run you right out to the suburbs have shiny people on them, shiny suburbanites. But people who don't ride their buses to get to the park and ride lots--that is, people who have to ride the bus--tend not to be chipper. Or maybe that's just me.
    When I got off at my transfer point, the poorly lighted intersection of Page Avenue and Goodfellow Boulevard, an alarming question crossed my mind: "Don't people get shot around here?"
Because Sylvester Brown is black, he can ask that question in print. If a white columnist had asked that, he would greet a firestorm of racism charges for equating crime with a black neighborhood. Even a black neighborhood that has a lot of crime.
    The ride home on #90 again stirred my imagination. For most of the ride, it was just me and the driver, a broad-shouldered, friendly man with a big, black Bible positioned within reach on his dashboard. I rode through Forest Park, my hands cupped to the tinted windows, glancing at the grassy hills and spouting fountains.

    I might have missed this beauty in my car.
Brother, I have driven through the Central West End and parts of Forest Park during rush hour. You don't have to miss the beauty because the traffic backs up at all the stoplights throughout the park. You actually get more time driving during rush hour to enjoy the beauty than you would riding a bus at street speeds later at night.
    It was after 9 p.m.. I would have been home hours earlier in my car. But I have no regrets. I moved through the city and met some interesting and engaging riders and drivers. I learned that riders should always know their routes and that Metro bus #94 can be a bit intimidating at night.
And he got a column out of it, a condescending bit of hanging with the real people kind of stuff that grates on my nerves. Fortunately, the next day, he drove to work no doubt to get started on his next column back in his normal grounds, black people are shortchanged by white people.

To say Noggle, one first must be able to say the "Nah."