Standing at the very front of the No. 13 bus, swaying and staggering as it lurches through Oteen and Haw Creek in rush-hour traffic, I briefly consider whether all my creativity is being sucked out through the window and swallowed by the dreary Tunnel Road streetscape. It hasn’t been a fun trip, and it’s getting worse.
Earlier, the driver — while talking on his radio to see if the other buses could wait a few moments so his riders could make their connections — had missed a regular stop. Over passengers’ protests, he drove on to the next stop, a few blocks farther down. The reaction was instant and harsh.
“Open this door!” one demanded. “What’s wrong with you? That’s my stop!”
“I can’t let you out here,” said the driver. “Please step back behind the yellow line.”
“You need to learn your stops!” another passenger yelled. “We’re already late. Let me out of this bus!”
“I can’t go anywhere until you step back behind the yellow line.”
“It’s your fault,” declared the first rider. “You’re the one that missed the stop! All the other bus drivers would let us out here.”
The riders relented, grumblingly stepping back behind the yellow line. But the level of discomfort, of sheer personal tension, in this bus is nearly tangible; everyone seems to want off. Now.
This is exactly why I avoid riding the bus.
My intention today was to interview a few other bus riders, but it’s just not happening. It’s hard enough even to make eye contact with anyone, much less strike up the kind of conversation that delves into a stranger’s personal life and why they find themselves using public transportation. (Almost universally, I gather, the reason is financial rather than more abstract concerns such as fighting pollution or conserving precious resources.)
One of the few exceptions is Chris, a young man who tells me only his first name and who seems to think I’m trying to trick him into something. After only a few minutes, Chris gets off at his stop in Oteen, but not before explaining that he’s saving money to take drafting classes, and riding the bus to work each day is much cheaper than buying and maintaining a car. Chris seems typical of the riders on this route: young, black and a little sad. And looking out the window now, it’s easy to see why.
It’s not a scenic route. The No. 13 ferries riders like Chris through some of the area’s worst urban and commercial sprawl, past the ragged succession of fast-food joints, mini-malls and gas stations lining Hwy. 70. Power lines, neon signs and aesthetically undistinguished structures hide the mountains.
But the riders aren’t here for the scenery, either. Their uniforms (and, almost as clearly, their glazed stares) reveal that those roadside concrete shells are where these people work for many grueling hours a day — hardly an inspiring prospect.
It’s not the Asheville Transit System’s fault. They’re doing their best — despite severe budget constraints and other pressures — to move people from point A to point B with as little hassle as possible. They can’t help it that Tunnel Road isn’t pretty and that the poorest of the working class use this route to get to low-paying jobs in these Tunnel Road establishments. Nonetheless, it doesn’t make for a very pleasant journey.
As we enter the tunnel and the daylight world disappears behind, I briefly consider turning around to the grumbling masses at the back and yelling something like: “Hey, look everybody! Just look at those mountains. You can kinda see them, if you squint your eyes and blur out all the signs and stuff. Really! I understand that the last thing you want to deal with right now is some nimrod wordsmith urging you to contemplate the splendors of the Blue Ridge when all you really want to do is make it home and chill, but there really is still beauty in this world — honest!”
But I don’t. My fellow riders are already angry, so I restrict myself to quietly pondering the merits of public transit. Tunnel Road becomes a dying-television dot of blurred colors as we move from one side of the mountain to the other, passing through its hollowed-out heart.
Moments later, we finally return to the terminal, prompting a rush to exit this vehicle. There’s no pushing, no shoving — but there is a distinct sense of urgency.
Maybe, I think to myself, I should give this route another try. Perhaps this was just one bad run out of hundreds of good ones. So once again I show the driver my pass and find a seat in back. This time, I tell myself, it will be different.
I wish I could report that my second circuit on Route 13 was pleasant, that the riders were both ethnically and economically diverse, and that the ride entailed no arguments or other woes. I wish I could say there was a definite sense of hope, and a few folks even smiled.
But I can’t. Because despite its utility, Route 13 just isn’t that kind of ride.
This story was originally published in the May 7, 2003 issue of Mountain Xpress.