BEING THERE Published in the Bangor Daily News 9/4/09
Getting lost on the city bus system, as it turns out, is an excellent — and economical — way to explore the town. There are people who will plop down 20 bucks to get a bus tour around a city. I got one yesterday, totally by accident, for $1.60.
Having used the Baltimore bus system for the first time only just the day before, I had yet to learn its in and outs. I dropped some of my change as I stood awkwardly on the steps paying my fare, nervously aware of the driver’s impatience and intimidated by the slick ease with which everyone else seemed to navigate the system. The driver shot something unintelligible-sounding at me.
“Excuse me?” I said, opening my mouth and officially outing myself as a Yankee — if I hadn’t already done so.
“I said, what’re you waiting for.”
I clung to the seat backs as I staggered down the aisle. Unsure of where to sit, I finally slid into an open seat in the back.
Only then did I realize that I was on the wrong bus — this one was going away from my neighborhood, not toward it.
Yet, as we pulled up to the next stop, I found that I was reluctant to disembark and find an eastbound bus. I had time that day — a rare thing — and we were headed into sections of the city I’d never seen before. What the heck, I thought. I’ll get home eventually, but I’ll get the scenic tour first.
The city buses have their own rhythm within the tempo of the city. The buses lurch to a halt and then push away from the curb again and back into the fray of traffic. Hasty fingers pull the dangling yellow cord running past each window to request a stop. I watched as the passengers cycled on and off the bus, skillfully swiping their cards or dropping their change into the fare box, pushing the back door open with ease to hop onto the curb at their destination.
I hardly notice anymore when I am the only white woman around — as is often the case in a city where less than a third of the residents are Caucasian — but it makes it harder to blend in. The other passengers offered several passing glances my way as we traveled farther across the city. Soon I turned my attention entirely from the bus to the scenery outside my window, taking in streets I still hadn’t explored.
We were on the west side of the city. I read the unfamiliar sign names as we passed them: Three Brothers Burgers, Tyrone’s Fried Chicken, Big D and Sister C’s corner store, Morning Star Baptist Church and St James United. We passed a statue so grand that I was surprised I hadn’t seen it before, and then an intriguing-looking park; I made a mental note to return someday on foot. A well-dressed woman waited for another bus to take her downtown, smiling to herself over something. An RN in pink and blue scrubs ran toward us from the Bon Secours Hospital, a gift bag bouncing in her hand.
We went through one section of town that looked rough enough that I knew I’d rather not get off the bus there. Barbed wire, broken glass, dirty windows and drugs: This, too, is Baltimore, the more dilapidated side of the city I now call home.
One bus stop was crowded with people, though not would-be passengers: Young and old congregated around a man selling shaved ice on the sidewalk. He passed out cups of varicolored slushies as fast as he could make them, and he laughed with his whole body as he worked, scraping a giant block of ice with a small metal tool.
When the bus turned around at last to switch directions, the driver called back to me questioningly. I stood up to explain to her that, actually, I was headed to the opposite side of the city.
“Why didn’t you get off and switch?” she asked me, probably thinking I must be the dumbest white girl she’d ever driven across town.
I shrugged. Because I just got the cheapest city tour around, I thought in my head. A buck-sixty and a realistic, multifaceted new view of Baltimore. Sure beats tour buses.
I’ll admit that I was a little embarrassed when she proceeded to eat her lunch. I pretended to make an important phone call. That embarrassment was soon eased, though, when the bus wheezed back to life. We took a different route on the way back across the city, extending my sightseeing even more.
Thirty minutes later, I stepped off near the park by my house: home at last. I was almost an hour later than I thought I’d be, but it was well worth it.