Used to be, when I lived in Seattle, that I couldn’t get on a bus without falling in love. Public transit has always been fertile ground for people watching, but more than that, it reflects our community. In cities with established public transit, it’s a cross-section of the public. Santa Fe is…different.
If you consider a ride on the introspective carnival that is our city bus system, make sure you plan your insertion as cunningly as your escape. Neglecting to check the scheduled times, I showed up at the nearest bus stop four minutes late and was submitted to an hour of midday sunstroke before the next Santa Fe Trails No. 6 rolled over the hill.
The atmosphere of the more populated “transit stations” overwhelms you almost immediately and is a lot like the vibe of a Greyhound station. You find yourself surrounded by America’s forgotten class: the carless. While the homeless and jobless elicit a humanitarian response from enough of the populace to get a little help, the people relegated to the bus are just OK enough to fly under most people’s poverty radar.
But here at the bus stop it’s inescapable. It’s the kind of broke that’s just crippling enough to perpetuate itself without making its victim a fashionable underdog you can really get behind. You overhear the conversations—some laden with subtle clues to the way people created their own problems, others pointing to some mental or social disability beyond their control.
On the bus, these forgotten poor stratify themselves further, everyone with their own “kind.” An old lady chats up the driver, as if all our lives didn’t hang in the balance of him successfully navigating the Road Warrior Gauntlet that is Cerrillos Road at 3 in the afternoon. Moments later a Prius noiselessly cuts across two lanes of traffic, prompting the driver to slam on his brakes and send us all flying from our seats.
“Worst one I’ve seen today,” he mutters, after casually announcing the crossing with Osage.
“Not even this week?” I ask, apparently the only one on the bus fazed by the action.
“No way, man. Just today,” he answers. He can tell I’m not a regular.
We stick out like sore thumbs. The people who have to ride the bus are there week in and week out, and they know each other on a first-name basis —fixed-income grandmothers, immigrants, junkies and mentally ill homeless people alike. And the guy at the front, who’s still got his bike helmet on and feels really progressive for taking advantage of public transit, while he may not admit it, is aware enough that he doesn’t belong to not make eye contact with anyone.
The bus is a perfect microcosm of how we interact with each other. Or, more specifically, it shows that beyond certain arbitrary economic boundaries, we don’t. And that’s a pretty well ignored part of the reason you never see the “normals” on the bus. It’s uncomfortable to surround yourself with people who are here because they have no choice, when you’re just a tourist, trying to prove to yourself that it’s not so bad.
I pondered this as I walked from my final stop to the Railyard Second Street Brewery, laughing when I saw that more people were sitting around the bar this Thursday afternoon at rush hour than had been on the bus. At least I won’t be driving home.