It’s 5:15 p.m., and the roads are a late-winter mess. Cars are sliding, slush is flying and the snow is changing to sleet. Commuters are gripping their steering wheels, white-knuckled.
But not me.
I’m in the back of a big, salt-smudged Metro Bus. We’re trundling down Delaware Avenue, the biggest thing on the road, gloriously indifferent to other traffic. Kids are gazing into their iPhones. A gentleman with a long beard and traditional Jewish clothing is studying Scripture. The guy across from me is snoozing.
The one thing nobody seems to be doing is worrying about the weather.
I know, for people used to driving, the bus is a hard sell. It’s the least glamorous transportation imaginable.
But board one and .... ahhhhhh. (As in the noise the bus makes as it wheezes to a halt.)
You feed your $2 into the machine and suddenly the weather is somebody else’s problem. As you sit down, the big bus motor thrumming beneath your feet, you become, again, the kid in the back seat.
And part of a world that a lot of Buffalonians do not know exists.
“Take your time,” the driver tells me as, juggling huge mittens, I struggle with my wallet. “Have a seat,” she says. “Relax. You can pay me when we come to a stop.”
The bus is warm. The wipers plow back and forth across the massive windshield. We are a cocoon on wheels, rolling down Delaware.
As people exit the bus, the driver says: “Enjoy your day. Watch your step.”
She follows one such tender farewell with a long blast on the bus horn, directed at an offending motorist.
“Yeah, it was red, dumbhead!” she yells. Sweetly, she turns to the passengers. “Y’all didn’t hear that.”
That particular driver, a petite, in-charge type, is my favorite. I decided that one morning when, on her bus, I was annoyed by a guy whose headphones were turned up too loud. Jangling headphones are, alas, a common bus irritation. I prepared to suffer.
Suddenly, the driver swiveled around.
“Turn that down,” she commanded.
The headphone wearer could not hear the driver. Another passenger nudged him.
“She said to turn it down,” he mouthed.
“I can hear it,” the driver said.
“She can hear it,” the other passenger said.
And lo, the noise stopped.
I could not believe it. A little later, the jangling began again. Again, the driver delivered a reprimand. And again, sweet silence.
I was in awe. I had never seen a driver impose such order. Disembarking at the last stop, I said: “Thank you so much for …”
The driver completely snubbed me. “Oh, honey, see that bus station? I got to get there fast. Bye!”
My feelings weren’t hurt. The bus is the great equalizer. We are all, shall we say, in the same bus.
No wonder that there is a companionship among Metro Bus regulars. A group of commuters from East Aurora have gotten to know each other as, every morning and evening, they pile onto the No. 70 for the trip to and from downtown Buffalo. (It’s only $2 each way, same as if you were just traveling a couple of Buffalo blocks.) A bunch of Amherst guys make a game out of taking buses to meet at different bars for Monday night football. It’s fun – and they don’t have to worry if they have a few beers.
One of those guys said, only half joking, “I’m never really happy unless I’m on a Metro Bus.”
I get what he means. There’s a game to taking the bus, to getting the system to work for you.
I have always been a little intrigued by bus lore. My dad told me when I was a kid how the bus route numbers are the old streetcar route numbers. On Saturdays when my sisters and I were 12 or 13, my mom would tell us to hop on that No. 8 Main and go either west to downtown Buffalo or east to Eastern Hills Mall, anything to get out of her hair.
Even now, I am intrigued by the routes I have never explored. Their destinations – Lotus Bay, Herman Hill – are so exotic. (The bus I usually take, the No. 11 Colvin, flashes a mysterious but mundane “Industrial Park.”)
Our bus system, I have to admit, is far from perfect. There are no more free transfers. Changing from bus to train at UB’s South Campus can be tough and time consuming. And Metro Bus should really offer a better discount on a monthly pass. More people would buy them, I think, if you stood to save more than a few pennies.
Buses won’t get you everywhere. With the confidence of a travel agent, I tried to work out a way for a Kaisertown friend to go Metro to Black Rock and back, to join a bunch of us for an evening of pub crawling. I had to give up.
On the bright side, though, the NFTA’s website and its new app make it easier than it used to be to strategize. With a little planning, skill and imagination, the bus can be your personal taxicab.
Except for that it gives you that community feel.
One youth on a recent ride was wearing what looked like a kilt over his jeans. We shared a laugh when the driver, fearlessly, barreled up to a Mack truck protruding into the street, and whipped around it with millimeters to spare.
A few weeks ago, I heard a girl on her cellphone talking about how her benefits had been discontinued now that she had a job.
“But that’s OK. I want to work. I don’t want to be a drain on the system,” she said, before getting off the bus and heading into Main Place Mall.
The bus is convenient and interesting enough so that I won’t be a stranger when the weather turns nice. Why be just a foul-weather friend? Meanwhile, though, I’ll rejoice in the winter perk: No dents in the car.
I thought of that when, through a dirty bus window, I saw two drivers exchanging insurance information. It crossed my mind: There but for the Metro Bus go I.
The thought returned a few days later, when, hearing the birds in the morning, I took the car to work. On the way home, I got caught in a rush-hour snowstorm. Trying to see, trying not to slide, I got stuck behind a big, belching bus.
My bus, I realized, when I finally glimpsed its route number.
“You should have parked your car and gotten on it,” my husband joked later.
Why didn’t I think of that?