For me, a bus trip is not just the ticket

My dad used to tell a story, laughing at his own expense. One day, for some reason, he was car-less. Maybe the car was in the repair shop. Anyway, he found himself standing alone on a street corner, waiting for a local bus. He literally couldn't remember when he had last been on a bus.

The bus arrived, but for some reason Dad couldn't work out where the door was. Finally - I believe this was the outcome - the driver decided the gent at the corner wasn't, after all, planning to come aboard, so he drove off without him.

These days - in spite of attempts by the British government to make us all abandon our cars and take public transport in cities - I also rarely go anywhere in a bus. It isn't that I dislike bus travel. It's just that buses can be difficult.

I like being on a bus. A bus is chummy. Unlike planes and trains, when you get on a bus you join a community.

My fondness for bus travel extends back to childhood. I have vivid recollections of being trusted to take the double-decker bus on my own into Bradford, the nearest city.

These bus rides were a kind of liberation from parental supervision and from being driven in the car all the time. They were presided over by a ticket-collecting conductor, a sort of parental figure. The conductor had a certain proprietary air: the bus belonged to him or her, not to the driver or the passengers.

Riding upstairs was an acquired skill. Small boys worth their salt didn't ride downstairs. You rushed up the twisted stair and tried to flop into a seat before the conductor rang his bell and the driver lurched the bus forward.

Then you had to anticipate your stop and be downstairs on the landing platform - holding onto the shiny steel pole - ready to leap off the platform before the bus came to a complete halt, running forward to keep your balance. One of the bus conductor's life missions was to stop boys from doing this, so you hoped he or she would be distracted at the right moment.

We moved, when I was 14, to a more rural place. For years I hardly went on a bus. I cycled to the railway station, and trained it into Guildford or London. In London, I used the Underground. And this is where my first reason for not often taking a bus began. Buses don't seem to know where they are going.

Most bus users only need to know one or two daily routes. They learn the bus numbers they need, and that's it. For visitors, the matter is far more problematic. I have never yet figured out whether a given bus has already been to the places it advertises, or is planning to go to them. This does not make for very predictable journeys. And buses with identical numbers and place lists run in opposite directions along both sides of many streets. How do you know which one to take?

I suppose that today there may be some conductors left, but my impression is that they are a dying breed. Instead, drivers preside over a cash-eating, ticket- dispensing contraption at the entrance. Drivers, required to do the job of two people, vary in character. They're another reason I don't take buses anymore.

The bus-driving fraternity seems to divide into the cheery and benevolent, and the dour and brusque. I recall with a chuckle a bus driver in Chicago who made up a comic verse about everyone who stepped onto his bus. Your initial embarrassment was momentary, because the verses were not unkind, and everyone on the bus - once you had undergone the unexpected initiation - was in the know and waiting for the next rhyming couplet.

But the dour side of the driver equation unfortunately seems to outweigh the welcoming side. The trouble with being yelled at by drivers is that everyone else is immediately interested.

When I first left my native England and came to live in Glasgow, I thought I'd get to know the buses. I climbed aboard one and then realized I was expected to know and pay the exact fare. I hadn't a clue. So, my English accent cutting through the Scottish air like a Sheffield steel knife through a haggis, I asked the driver how much I should pay.

He came back at me with what sounded to my unattuned ears something like: "Arrarehipagraurrrruutrawarrpattlara hew yoo!"

Immediately the entire congregation of ensconced bus passengers was listening intently, and behind me, pressuring, were several more wanting to get aboard, all with the right change at the ready.

"I'm sorry," I said, "what did you say?" My English voice flapped in the air like a fish out of water.

"Arrarehipagraurrrruut rawarrpattlara hew yoo!" he replied, without the slightest effort at explanatory modification.

Now I was positively sticky with embarrassment. "I don't know quite what you mean." I muttered. "How much should I put in for George Square? Do you go to George Square?"

He gave me one more chance: "Arrarehipagraurrrruut rawarrpattlara hew yoo!" I could have understood Swahili more easily. So I climbed down off the bus, and headed home to get my bicycle.

For 23 years, I haven't been on a Glasgow bus. But if I were to try again - and this, at least, is evidence that humanity does progress - one thing is certain: I'd have no trouble finding the door.

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