When my last relationship succumbed to a burning mass of repulsively toxic, gaseous flames at the same time that my pathetic little Volvo chugged up its last puny hill, the idea of starting fresh in a new environment was appealing. Instead of dumping money into car repairs or crying over some jerkwad, I’d embark on an adventure, using the bus for my forty-mile commute. My plan was to appreciate the newfound freedom from my horrible boyfriend and unreliable car while catching up on some reading aboard the bus. If at some point I crossed paths with a fellow wayward commuter, great. A little innocent on-board flirtation would be a welcome bonus at the start of my new life.
At the time, public transportation cradled the promise of possibility; romance, adventure and a microscopic carbon footprint. A winning situation for me and the entire world.
To psych myself up, I thought back to several years ago when I watched Amelie every single night for an entire month in an attempt to revive my faith in love. I figured that if I watched the film often and with the naïvely optimistic, rose-tinted eyes of someone far enough away from the obliteration of heartbreak, that I’d somehow manifest some osmotic boot-knocking. Or something like that. Of course, what made the movie a complete romantic masterpiece wasn’t solely the onscreen presence of the lovely miss Audrey Tautou or hottie Mathieu Kassovitz and their much-anticipated kiss on her doorstep, but the element of mystery, adventure and hip-quotient that Paris’ public transportation system and its depots seem to exude.
The idea of a chance encounter with a potential mate in the middle of criss-crossing strangers at a bus or train station or while daydreaming out the window, rolling swiftly toward a destination is one that I’d argue most of us have entertained at least once in our lifetimes.
My version would go something like this: Girl drops polyurethane-free water bottle or Patti Smith memoir. Boy reaches under seat to retrieve it for her. They brush hands. Soon, they are brushing naughty bits in a dimly lit Paris hotel room. Who hasn’t fantasized about this? And regardless of the sex we may or may not be having after traveling en masse with a pack of strangers, going from one place to the next is an adventure. And who on God’s green earth doesn’t love adventure?
Unfortunately, Paris lies far from my humble abode and my community has yet to provide folks like me with a wonderful travel rail. I have no L Train. I have no Jeff Tweedy kissing and swaying on the CTA. I have no BART. Instead, I have a once-an-hour bus system where stations resemble anything but Paris in the springtime. Gare du Nord is an architectural delight and a glorious god damn carnival of love. Most Golden Gate Transit stations are not.
Still, the experience was pleasant enough at first. And I felt righteous about the fact that my Volvo was no longer polluting the Northern California ecosystem. The first few weeks brought with them a handful of bright young backpackers with sun kissed cheeks and the fragrance of adventure seeping from their pores heading to and from San Francisco. The mean bus driver that always yelled at everyone barely fazed me as I lived vicariously through the travelers’ stories, nostalgia for my own travel experiences aboard foreign buses carrying through my days.
However, after a few short weeks of commuting, I learned rather quickly that there are few things as unappealing, uncool and unromantic as navigating the suburban public transportation system.
Eventually, summer gave way to fall, and the tourists bailed, leaving me alone with the grumbly old bus driver, at least two highly intoxicated insurance agents, a handful of transients with upper respiratory infections—who repeatedly failed to shield their warm, moist coughs near the narrow aisle—and at least twenty others with no sense of personal boundaries on each trip.
My fantasies of love were replaced with the reality of the public-transportation-utilizing demographic of where I live. My open heart closed like a cold hard bear trap on the paws of hope. Daily, I found myself restraining my inner crazy bus lady rants: If I am riding the bus that means I am broke and don’t have a car! That doesn’t mean that I am desperately horny and looking to replace my last douchebag boyfriend with another! The fact that I am on a bus is also not an open invitation to continuously bounce, brush or stroke your leg up against mine! Stop fucking touching me!
Bus travel provides its own mobile and unsanitary culture. Vomiting or urinating on the bus occurs more frequently than one would expect. People smuggle live critters like small, tropically colored birds and Siamese cats past the driver almost daily. An astounding number of passengers—usually men between twenty-five and thirty-seven, roughly—have awful taste in music, blasting Linkin Park from their headphones. Younger men blare auto-tunes, likely recorded at home on their iPhones. And high school girls ditching algebra—the most loathed passengers of all—screech and shit-talk in close proximity when all I want to do is melt into my novel, slather on hand sanitizer and weep.
Yet the constant exposure to inappropriate behavior allowed me some room to lower my own self-imposed standards of socially acceptable behavior as well. First, I basically started hating everyone around me. I was the mean bitch than no one wanted to sit near anymore. I didn’t offer thanks when drunk men gulping forty-ouncers complimented my eyes at eight o’clock in the morning. I stopped pretending to listen when re-entry students attempted to engage me in discussions about their economics midterms. And instead of judging, I began condoning the mothers who yelled at their bratty children. Those little fuckers deserved it. I even felt that it was perfectly fine to deliver my stool sample to the lab via bus, though it did make me wonder just how many people ride the bus with stool samples tumbling around inside their satchels. And if not stool samples, what other public transit health code violations are tucked away in the various backpacks strewn about?
The bus was turning me into an awful person. Amelie would never behave like this.
The anxious moodiness didn’t last long before it was replaced with the overwhelming presence of a deep dark depression and humiliating sense of defeat. Like a detrimental relapse from substance abuse recovery or a gambling addiction, I started lying to loved ones about where I was spending my time and how I was getting from one place to the next. I refused to acknowledge that I was not a glamorous writer, living a glamorous life with book signings and glamorous suitors lined up outside my door. I was ashamed that I began singling out my best dating options at bus stops—usually homeless thirty-somethings with skateboards and scruffy beards—and wondered if they were my only options, being that I now traveled by bus right alongside them.
And with my motion sickness, I was smacked with the esteem-shattering realization that at any moment I could be someone else’s horror story, vomiting into my lunch bag. Or worse.
Finally, I made my way to the doctor’s office, hoping I’d return home with a new prescription for anti-depressants. I engaged in daily battles between walking aboard or throwing myself under the buses that constantly rolled past. I needed something to take the edge off.
“I’m not sure if my health issues are causing my depression but I feel awful,” I whined. “The whole bus ride here, I just wanted to die.”
“Oh, you’re riding the bus?” she asked. “Tell me more about that.”
Poor me. I ranted on and on, explaining the time it takes to get to work, to get my youngest daughter to school and how hard it is to transport groceries by bike. I explained how the bus driver made me cry after scolding me for using too much change, how bros with leg tattoos always sit next to me on their way to DUI school, pretending to sleep in order to let their hands rest gently against my thighs and how the other day, while waiting for my bus, I saw an elderly man with no teeth trying to eat an apple. An apple. With no teeth. Times don’t get much harder than that.
“I don’t think you need antidepressants, Dani,” She said, alarm spreading across her face. “You need to stop riding the bus.”
And she’s right. Public transportation is ruining my life.
In the end, I know my lazy ass should be grateful that I am even allowed to ride the bus with my horrible, shitty attitude. But Amelie, no matter how sweet and hygienic, would never willingly surround herself with dirty-handed people who regularly wet their pants and try to grope thirty-something women just trying to read their damn books.
My dreams have been shattered.
My friends say I should be more open minded and not dismiss the possibility of finding love in an unexpected place and that my unfaltering sense of humor is a testament that I am still relatively cool, regardless of my daily bus trips. While I like to think this is true, I doubt my soulmate is anything like the fifty-year-old Hanna Barbera enthusiast who rubbed himself excitedly behind me while discussing Smurfette and Wilma Flinstone a few weeks ago.
Or maybe he is. Who am I to judge? I ride the bus, afterall.