Reporter’s Notebook: A day in Transit

by Robert Downs

I opened my eyes, panicked, and vaulted myself out of bed to reach my ringing phone. In the process I tripped over the bedpost and landed squarely on my left shoulder. Pulling myself up by my computer desk, I caught a glimpse of my clock: 5:14 a.m. I was late.

I slid my phone open, while at the same time thrusting my legs into the first pair of pants I could find, a decent pair of blue jeans.

“Jules, dude, I’m so sorry I’m late,” I pleaded, speaking extremely fast and weaving my words into one continuous sentence, as one tends to do in a frenzy. “I left my phone across the room to force me to get out of bed, and even set three alarms. I’m so sorry man, I’m getting dressed as soon as I can.”

“Yeah, man, the bus leaves at 5:18,” he said, pissed.

“All right, I’m on my way, I’ll be there on time,” I promised, my morning mind seriously believing I could make it out my door and sprint seven blocks to Jones Hall in four minutes.

I snatched up four reporters notebooks, three pens, my keys and wallet and stuffed them into my coat pocket. I couldn’t find any clean socks, so I jammed my bare feet into my running shoes and darted out the door.

I rounded the corner onto 15th Avenue in a dead sprint, practicing perfect running form, toe up, knee up. There was no wind resistance, so it was me against time, a battle I was accustomed to losing.

Pace yourself, I thought. You may need to save some energy to make a final dash to catch up with the bus. I passed Bierman Athletic Complex feeling less like an athlete and more like a desperate criminal running down a getaway car. I pushed past McDonalds, straight through the red light guarding Fourth Street.

As I crossed University Avenue, I saw Jules, camera around his neck, walking toward me. I checked my phone; it was 5:21.

“Jules,” I said between gasps, hands on my knees. “Did I make it?”

“A bus just left heading down University,” he said. I keeled over and planted my eyes on a pile of amber leaves.

“Could it have been the 3?”

“I’m not sure. I don’t think so.”

I spat, angry both at my lousy split and for oversleeping. Hands on my knees, I waddled behind the transit shelter on University Avenue and threw up what was left of last night’s spaghetti.

In denial, I took a quick look at the schedule. It was confirmed that indeed, we had missed the westbound 2 route by less than three minutes.

So, after a quick breakfast at McDonalds and a few energy drinks, there we sat, tired but clear minded on University Avenue. Me, the reporter, and Jules, the photographer, awaiting the next bus that was to kick off our experiment. My 19-hour marathon on the Metro Transit public transportation system was off to a start.

5:49 a.m. Westbound 2

Silence on the morning route is expected. The bus driver, his hand glued to a 24-ounce Columbian brew, did not offer a “good morning” to boarding passengers. Instead, his soft, melancholy voice surfaced only to call the name of upcoming roads and stops, an action required by the American Disabilities Act.

After passing dormant frat houses on University Avenue and dropping a few passengers near University buildings, the now-empty 2 rolled down Franklin Avenue.

At the end of the route, on Hennepin and 22nd street, the bus driver stopped and waited before his return trip. Bus drivers must adhere to time checks to ensure they are never ahead of schedule. It is only acceptable to be on time or late, but never early.

During his 15-minute wait, the driver left his bus running and walked three blocks to pick up a newspaper. He returned with the latest copy of The Onion.

6:29 a.m. — Eastbound 2

The bus is busiest — and adult fares are raised by 75 cents — from six o’clock to nine o’clock: rush hour. However, on this Friday, the amount of unfilled seats was surprising.

When Hector Rosanes boarded the bus he took small strides toward the back. As the diesel-fed bus accelerated, he battled g-forces and stumbled down the isle until he caught and pulled himself into an empty seat. The 33-year-old Mexico native had a half hour before he started his 10-hour shift at Franklin Street Bakery. He was on time.

People traveling to and from work make up 75 percent of transit trips, Metro Transit officials said. The troubled economy, coupled with Minnesota’s 7.3 percent unemployment rate, has caused a 7.9 percent decrease in bus ridership since 2008, Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons told me.

Hector has no family, but he has a job, and that’s what matters to him. “As soon as possible, as soon as I have enough money,” he said, “I will go back to Mexico.” Even after seven years, Hector said he will never get used to frigid Minnesota winters.

7:18 a.m. — Eastbound 50S

Theto Hatley tucked himself in the back left corner of the 50S, hands on his knees. He was headed to his job at Goodwill in St. Paul, a job he had procured three months earlier. Although he hated the work, he loved the money – before it he had been unemployed for ten months.

He was notified of its opening through an online site. Before his stint without employment, the 39-year-old Bloomington native had worked as a semi-driver, and had made good money. After his license was taken away, Hatley was unemployed for 10 months. Now, without a car, Hatley weathers the hour-and-a-half commute every morning.

“Being on the bus has humbled me,” Hatley said. “I look at transportation different now. I got big headed, making all that money. I really forgot where I came from.” He lifted his head and looked me in the eye. “I’m on my way back though.”

7:25 Lee Westmoreland (Extended version)

In the back right corner of the 50S, a man in a dirty brown jacket sat slumped against a window. Drool ran down the side of his face. His earthly possessions sat in a backpack at his feet, guarded between his worn brown tennis shoes. Lee Westmoreland awoke and stretched his arms.

“Sure, you can talk to me,” he yawned. “I was just trying to catch a little Zs.” When he spoke, his vodka-stained breath saturated the air in the back of the near-empty bus.

“I’m a little down on my luck,” he explained. “I’ve been on and off the street for about 14 years,” he said. “I was hangin’ out with this lady I loved, and things went south, you see. I started hittin’ the bottle a little heavy.”

Westmoreland operates on a $20-per-day budget, which he earns by holding cardboard signs or playing his harmonica on St. Paul street corners. Westmoreland also owns a “very nice” pair of bongo drums, which he said he keeps at a friend’s house in Dinkytown.

These tactics pay for his bus fares and his daily $7 liter of Kamchatka vodka. Oftentimes he’ll head to a food shelter, grab a bite to eat and score a $5 or $10 bag of pot.

“You go to a house of charity, [drugs are] all over the place. You want herb, crack, or heroin, you go down there,” Westmoreland said. “I don’t mess with those, anymore though.”

Westmoreland said he quit stealing the same time he quit doing heroine and crack. Often, he would hop in a car with three other men and go from town to town, steal from houses and sell the goods to a pre-arranged buyer. He hasn’t touched the drug in two years, he said.

“It’s euphoric,” he said. “It sends you to Jupiter. But once you take it, you’re always chasing more, no matter what it takes.” Lee has had jobs before, but he can’t hold them. “I’m an alcoholic,” he said. “It’s medication for me.”

Homeless people routinely fill the dull blue seats of Metro Transit buses during the night hours, depending on if the driver lets them stay. “You come on here around 3 a.m., you’ll see six or seven of us sleeping our heads away every night,” he said.

Westmoreland said he likes to “kick it” in lobbies of University of Minnesota libraries, where employees let him take naps during business hours.

“If you try that shit downtown, you’re out of there,” Westmoreland said.

One of his favorite places to sleep in the cities is a small cave on the banks of the Mississippi River near the University, he said. Often times, he said, he will sit for hours in the dark and play his harmonica, toking up and sipping vodka.

“I don’t enjoy being homeless,” he said. “I need a J-O-B. But I can smoke a couple joints, play my harmonica and be cool with that.”

1:02 p.m. — Westbound 16, near downtown Minneapolis

“I ride the bus ten times a day,” the man said, his left hand shaking. “I go to the methadone clinic, school at MCTC and my friends’ houses.”

A sour smell came from the man’s puffy brown coat, and the passenger next to him sat as far way as possible, squished against the window.

“Sometimes,” he said, “I’ll take a taxi if I’m drunk or carrying something too big to bring on the bus, like a TV.”

His right eye twitched. So did his left hand. The bus slowed down, and he stabbed his neck forward to check a street sign.  “Oh, shit, this is my stop!” he said, and darted off the bus.

1:15 — Northbound 5M

When asked to talk about their lives and experiences on the bus, two men that appeared to be in high school shook their heads and looked away from me.

“No, no, no. You’ll be asking me things I’m not going to answer.”

The bus driver was even less forthcoming. "Listen, I don’t know what you’re doing, but I don’t want any part of it," he said to me. While driving, he turned his head to look at me. “You hear me?”

7:19 — Downtown Minneapolis Bus Stop, Hennepin Avenue

“Listen, you can take the candy and vending machines out of the schools, but guess what? I’m a’ go to the corner store, get some candy, and eat it in class. If I want to be obese, I’m going to be obese. That’s my choice.”

 It was raining.

Two high school girls chatted under an awning on 7th Street, between Hennepin and 1st Avenues. Two other women in their mid-20s stood on the opposite side. The only white man at the bus stop, besides this reporter, stood under the middle of the awning, stroking the brim of his safari-style hat.

“So, you’re waiting for the 5?” he asked me.

“Yes, the 5M.”

“You ride this often?”

 “Actually,” I said, “I rode it once today all ready. I’m a reporter for the Minnesota Daily, and I’ve been riding the bus since around 5:30 this morning.

“Wow, that’s fantastic.”

The two women under the left side of the awning were yelling, and the man and two girls turned to watch.

“Once you get in the system, it’s hard to get the [expletive] out, you know that” one of the women said.

“You don’t think I know that?” the other responded. “My [expletive] brother was killed! I hope that bastard don’t see daylight till he’s 60.”

The northbound 5M pulled up to the stop. The man in the middle tapped my shoulder. “Do you want to come rest at my house?”

“Excuse me?” I said. “I don’t think I heard you correctly. What was that?”

He cleared his throat and spoke louder.

“You must be tired,” he said. “I was wondering if you wanted to rest at my house.”

“Um, that’s fine,” I said. “I think I’ll pass. I don’t think I’m even getting on this bus. I think I’ll wait for the 19.”

“Oh,” he said, looking disappointed. “All right.” He walked to the bus with his head down. The 5M pulled away, and 10 minutes later another pulled up. I hopped on it.

8:30 — Southbound 5M

“Hey man you got some green?” a man yelled into his phone from the very back of the bus. “What? What the [expletive]? [Expletive], you better get your ass out of St. Paul and get the [expletive] over here because me and my boys need some serious green.”

The bus driver looked at me and shrugged.

A man the front row of seats started crying. “Something is wrong,” he said to himself. “Did I do something wrong?” He looked around, and then took another sip of whatever was in his 44 oz. SuperAmerica fountain cup.

Closing remarks:

Even after this Reporter’s Notebook, the whole story hasn’t been told. The bus drivers were informative, the people were fascinating, and the bus system itself is well organized. I came out of this day with a different perception of the bus. I thought people would become angrier when they saw me writing down everything they said, or especially when we put a camera in their face. Most did not.

One criticism I’ve heard a bit is that the story wasn’t a true representation of life on the bus, and the highlighted people were sensational. Yes, it’s true, the typical commuter may have been underrepresented, but on bus rides the typical commuter often doesn’t stand out. What catches the attention of riders most often is the extraordinary people, the extroverts and irregulars that command intrigue. This gives a better glimpse into their lives.

 The one theme I picked up from these people was a common appreciation for the bus, but not an attachment to it. “Would you still take the bus if you had a car?” I asked Theto Hatley. “Hell no,” he replied.

The characters seen regularly on the bus to many seem uninviting, but students often present themselves the same way. Many students I’ve spoken with at the U of M do not go on the bus because they fear for their safety. That’s simply ignorant. Metro Transit has done a good job equipping bus drivers and buses with security devices like video recorders, GPS locators and panic buttons.

The only thing anybody is avoiding by skipping the bus is a reality check.