I leave my house when the bus leaves the Ronstadt Center and catch it on Euclid as it passes 9th Street. I’ve been doing this for so long that I’ve gotten good at timing it. I know to leave early on Sunday mornings because there is no traffic and the entire commute will take less than twenty minutes. I know that during rush hour I have more time. There’s no shelter at this stop and the only shade comes from a light pole, so it’s important to time it just right in order to avoid sunburns.
SunTran, Tucson’s bus system, services 230 square miles of land. In 2014, 19.7 million one-way trips were taken on SunTran, which is actually the lowest number since 2008. There are 40 routes snaking throughout the city, which SunTran’s website states are covered by 240 busses and 621 employees. The bus is relatively convenient, especially for people living in central and downtown Tucson. Busses typically run every 10-30 minutes (depending on the route and time of day) on week days. Busses run more infrequently on weekends. They also stop running earlier on Saturday and Sunday nights.
People self-segregate on the bus. The veterans, wearing their wars on their jackets and hats, sit in the front. They are older, dignified, impressive, the words “Viet Nam” and “POW” emblazoned on their chests and foreheads. They wear their scars proudly. The stoners and gangbangers sit in the back, their music spilling loudly from their Beats headphones as they talk about the fight they got into the night before or how their man/girl/bae has been sleeping around. The high school kids like the back, too, as far away from authority as they can get. They come in packs, usually three or four teens to a group. The antisocial people sit huddled in various places barricaded behind headphones and books.
I didn’t always ride the bus. For most of my life, I was shuttled around in the cars of my parents and friends. Later, I owned my own car. I hung onto that car as long as possible. The idea of taking the bus scared me, for a variety of reasons. I would remind myself of the pros of keeping the car and the cons of riding the bus. (The car is so convenient! The bus is so slow! The bus doesn’t go everywhere. It can be dangerous to take the bus alone at night. The bus is a major source of germs. I like driving. I like my car. The bus doesn’t run late enough for me to take it home from work.) Over the next four years, my insurance record was spotty and I drove for several months with expired registration. When my registration came due in 2008, the DMV required my car to pass an emissions test. It needed work in order to pass, work that I couldn’t afford. I parked the car, hoping that better times would come.
According to SunTran’s website, individuals can qualify for an economy (or reduced) fare if they fall into one of four categories: low-income, disabled, senior (65 and older), or Medicare card holder. To qualify for a low income pass, an individual must “meet low-income guidelines based on the U.S. Department of Labor’s Lower Living Standard Income Level,” or LLSIL. The LLSIL is a table that lists income levels according to how many people are in a household. It is used to determine eligibility for federal and other governmental programs. In a household with one person, an individual would have to make less than $15,258.00 per year to qualify for an economy pass, and a family of four would have to make less than $42,378.00 per year. Economy fare passengers are issued photo IDs, which they are required to present each time a fare is purchased. Economy fares are fifty cents per ride, or 1/3 the cost of a regular fare. I have an Economy pass.
It’s important to have headphones on the bus, since without them, you are much more likely to get stuck in unwanted conversations or overhear more drama than you ever wanted to know. I keep the volume turned up, Isaac Slade or Beth Gibbons crooning in my ears, and go to my seat: second one back from the stairs, on the left, facing front, hard molded plastic. Sometimes, there’s some fabric cushioning on the hard plastic seats, which is nice; but it usually gets stained before too long. Like the stain that appeared one day in the exact shape of a uterus, complete with ovaries and fallopian tubes. Impressive. I can sometimes tell the busses apart by the stains on the seats and the graffiti on the windows. They are as reliable markers as the four numbers emblazoned at the front above the windshield. It’s usually more comfortable if I sit sideways, put my feet up on the double seat, and lean against the window. There’s a better view out the window from that angle, especially if there is no one sitting across from me. Sometimes, there is a hard, square bar across the window that makes it more uncomfortable. Going to work, it’s nice to have 20-30 minutes to just listen to music, let my mind wander, and not worry about school, money, getting enough hours at work, money, balancing study time with working, money, or rent. It is nice to just be.
Before I rode the bus to work for the first time, I got prepared. I bought a bicycle at the Goodwill store down the street from my house and made sure it worked and that the tires were inflated. The bicycle was important because the busses stopped running before I got off work and before a lot of my social engagements ended. Most places I went (e.g. work, friend’s houses, etc.) were within walking or biking distance of my house. When the bicycle was ready, I stopped driving cold turkey.
SunTran has a long history, going back to 1905 when the Tucson Rapid Transit Company purchased the horse-powered streetcar system that was already operating in Tucson. Tucson Rapid Transit Company eventually became what we know today as SunTran. The City of Tucson bought out Tucson Rapid Transit Company in 1969 and still owns and operates the SunTran bus system.
Sometimes, there’s a talker on the bus. You know the one. The one you pray doesn’t sit by you because you know they won’t leave you alone even if you are wearing headphones and reading. The person who insists on telling you their life story despite the fact that you have never met before and will likely never meet again. Many times, one person will speak avidly to another, while the supposed listener of the conversation stares blankly ahead with his or her headphones screwed tightly into their ears. I tend to adopt the “smile and nod while not actually listening” approach when I happen to get saddled with a talker.
Poverty will make you do things you never thought you could do. The number one comment I got when I told people I was giving up my car was “I could never do that. I could never get along without my car.” It’s different when you realize that you can pay your car insurance or your rent, but not both. When you realize that you can either have a car to drive or a roof over your head. When you realize that you’re not making it and that something has to go, even if it hurts.
Riding through the city streets, enjoying the coolness of the bus after being scorched by the desert sun, it’s easy to zone out. I’ve developed an internal alarm, experience telling me when it’s time to pay attention to the stops, time to pull the cord, time to disembark.
Copyright 2016 Pamela Israel
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