I like the bus. I can now say that unequivocally.
But like most car-driving Haligonians, I used to have an ambivalent relationship with it. Not with Halifax Metro Transit or with the drivers; most of them seem quite nice. Nor with any of the 300-plus buses or 70-plus routes-including a taxi-fare-saving route to the airport-that operate all around Halifax.
My problem stemmed from the uncanny fact that any time I had to get anywhere in a hurry (work or play, day or evening) there would be this ubiquitous, billboard-laden, stink-spewing, giant steel cans on wheels that always got in my way.
But then it happened—not unlike Saint Paul on his road to Damascus—I learned what about 24.5 million Metro Tranist passengers a year already knew: the bus is actually a rolling mechanical knight in shining armor.
It happened one rainy Monday morning during rush hour a couple years ago. As I drove along Highway 102 heading into town, my car suddenly snapped its drive belt. As I coasted down from 110 kilometres per hour to zero, manoeuvring my eight-year-old Ford from the super-fast left lane toward the safety of the muddy green grass at the side of the highway, I was already in a panic. I knew I was going to be sans vehicle for the foreseeable future. Drive belts are expensive items to replace.
How was I going to get to work every morning and back home again every night? I couldn’t just take the subway. This wasn’t Toronto, Montreal, or New York. I couldn’t afford to take a cab every day. I’d go broke. I called my friends, all of whom either worked writer’s hours or, being suburban goof-offs, never went anywhere. Even my co-workers, all who lived on the other side of town, were no help. No one would give me a ride.
So I tucked my pride into a lunchbox, collected my loonies and toonies, put on my rain poncho, and joined the dozen or so other people from my neighbourhood who stand at the side of the street every morning—like characters from a Beckett play—waiting for something that may never arrive.
Of course, the nice thing about the bus is that it actually does arrive, eventually, though not always on time.
Life commuting on buses is a lot like living with an obtrusive relative; your life is not your own. I could no longer base my life around my own needs, but needed to consider the bus first before making any plans. Whereas before I could hop into my car 20 minutes before starting my shift and still arrive (relatively) on time, now I had to leave the house a whole hour and a half early, forsaking sleep and gulping breakfast, in order to hurry up and wait.
But I soon learned to enjoy my bus-riding experience. I like to read and found riding the bus to be pretty conducive to getting a lot of reading done, as long as I didn’t get motion sickness or was fortunate enough not to wind up sitting next to a “talker.” What is it about sharing a bus seat that makes so many people want to share the secrets of their love life and/or money problems?
I also soon found a certain voyeuristic pleasure in bus riding. It is easy to listen in on gossipy conversations. Riding a bus can be an excellent opportunity to do some people watching, especially when the weather is nice and people are unencumbered.
I also learned one bit of etiquette rather quickly that should never to be tested: never make eye contact with anyone on the bus. Doing so invites all kinds of problems. I’ve had to ward off everything from jealous boyfriends (“Really sir, I was just looking at her sunglasses.”) to illicit drug peddlers (“Really, my eye just twitched. I’m not interested in herbs, sir.”).
But the bus saved me; there is no doubt about it. It allowed me to keep my job and I was eventually able to afford to fix my car. As last year’s bus strike made clear, buses are essential in a modern city like Halifax. Throughout the 41-day strike, one of my friends had to walk three hours in the middle of the night, from the suburbs to the city, to get to his job at 5 a.m.
Now I have returned to my easy life behind the wheel, stuck in the long line of traffic on the Bedford Highway, paying exorbitant gas prices, and looking for an expensive place to park. I admit that I do sometimes look longingly at my fellow Haligonians as their bus turns the corner in front of me at an intersection. There they sit in plush air-conditioned comfort, reading a magazine, thinking unfettered thoughts.
It almost makes me want to join them.