Wednesday, November 26, 2014

adventures in public transit.

When I graduated college in spring 2009, I had two humanities degrees and a plan. Or, what my idealistic 22-year-old self thought was a plan. My plan was to do a series of internships in art museums and then head to grad school. I thought that I wanted to work in a museum someday, and that dream almost certainly could not be accomplished without a master’s degree – and admission to grad school almost certainly could not be accomplished without some internships on the old resume.

In the great scheme of things, I was already behind. Like many young undergrads, I had switched majors a number of times. I started off as the ultimate cliché: a psychology major. One psychology class later and I found that it wasn’t as interesting as I thought it would be. I switched to English, briefly to English education, and then back to English with an art history minor. In the second semester of my junior year, I realized that if I worked my tail off, I could promote my art history minor to a major.

If I’d had my act together and had realized earlier on that I wanted to major in art history, I could’ve been doing summer internships all along. But as it was, I didn’t figure it out until it was too late to get an internship during the summer after my junior year. Therefore, I had to do these internships in the months following my graduation: the Denver Art Museum in the summer, the New Orleans Museum of Art in the fall, and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in the spring.

First stop: Denver.

Going in, I knew that these internships would be unpaid. “No problem!” I thought. I was staying with my aunt and uncle in Denver, so I wouldn’t have to worry about rent. As long as I could find money for food, gas, and bus fare, I’d be set. I’d just get a part-time job, which would be easy as pie. After all, I’d never had any trouble finding a job before.

I was completely wrong. The economy had taken a nose-dive, and it took me almost a month (not to mention many blows to my ego) to get a job.

Job or no job, I still had to get to my unpaid 20-hour-a-week internship at the Denver Art Museum. My aunt and uncle lived a good thirty minutes away from the museum, so I wouldn’t be able to walk or bike there. The museum was in downtown Denver, and parking there was out of the question. The museum didn’t offer any kind of parking area for interns, so if I was going to drive myself there every day, I’d have to pay something like eight dollars a day to park in a ramp. When your income is zero dollars a day, eight dollars a day just to park is an absolute travesty.

That left the bus.

I was no stranger to buses. I had ridden the school bus during my entire elementary and high school tenure. I had taken a bus trip to Chicago with the high school band. I had gone to Minneapolis with the UMM concert band on a Greyhound. Buses didn’t scare me.

However, public transportation was a whole new beast. My first stop was the local grocery store – that’s where you could buy a book of bus passes. Though I was technically no longer a student, my UMM student ID was still fresh – after all, I had graduated less than a month ago. So I went ahead and bought the student bus passes: $18 for thirty bus passes. $18 for fifteen trips into Denver – one ticket there, one ticket back. It was certainly cheaper than paying for gas and parking, but in my state of under-employment, $18 sure seemed like a lot.

There was a park-and-ride just a few minutes away from my aunt and uncle’s house, so I’d drive my Mercury Sable over the Walmart parking lot every morning to meet the bus. I was supposed to be at the museum by 9, so I’d catch the 8:15 bus, ride it downtown, take the 16th street mall streetcar, and scurry over a few blocks to the museum offices. No problem.

I rode that bus from the very beginning of June until I left Denver at the end of August. And let me tell you: the people watching was fantastic. As you might expect, I became familiar with many of the bus regulars. I got to know the morning bus driver, who was the happiest guy I think I’ve ever met. There were these two mustachioed sisters who rode right up at the front, and the warmer the weather was, the worse they smelled. My favorite bus regular was Stuck in the 90s Girl: she got on the bus shortly after I did every morning, and she looked as though she’d stepped right out of 1995. Every day, she had on a different 90s outfit: Mudd jeans, crop tops, platform sneakers, chokers, you name it. I always looked forward to seeing what 90s flashback outfit she’d be sporting.

As a regular myself, I tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. I never boarded the bus without my trusty iPod – that summer was the summer Michael Jackson died, so I spent a great deal of my bus time listening to Michael Jackson. (I’m not kidding when I say that “Man in the Mirror” was the soundtrack to my summer.)

That iPod was a lifesaver. Those little white earbuds are the international signal for “don’t talk to me,” and that’s exactly the message I wanted to send on the public bus. And 99% of the time, it worked like a charm. However, not all methods are foolproof. I was huddled in my seat one morning, listening to “The Hounds of Spring” (you mean you don’t listen to classical music on the bus?), when a middle-aged balding man plopped down next to me. I did my darndest to ignore him, but he began talking to me – conveniently disregarding my earbuds and my less-than-friendly glances. I finally caved and removed the earbuds, only to be treated to a long story about how this particular gentleman – though born in the United States – had lived in the Soviet Union for most of his life, and if I ever needed anything translated into Russian, please give him a call. I think I still have his business card.

Riding the bus was never scary: just weird. When I rode the bus home late at night after staying in the city to see RENT, I was surrounded by angry drunk people. That was the same night I found a chunk of hair at my feet.
Of course I took a picture.
I rode the bus all summer with few incidents. There was one time with the afternoon bus driver was not the regular guy, and when I handed him my student bus pass, he exploded at me. “This is a STUDENT pass! WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING???!” he screamed. Turns out that Denver student bus passes are meant for HIGH SCHOOL students. Oops.

The other bus disaster came on my very first day of work at a fireworks stand. At the end of June, I had finally gotten hired to work at a fireworks shop through the Fourth of July. I had to work at the museum that morning, so I took the bus home as per usual. I would make it back to my car in the Walmart parking lot with plenty of time to drive over to the fireworks stand. However, the bus picked that very day to break down. The driver lowered the wheelchair ramp to let somebody off the bus… but the wheelchair ramp would not go back up. I sat and watched the minutes tick by with increasing panic. I absolutely COULD NOT be late to my first day of work. I broke into a nervous sweat after fifteen minutes of no progress, and I thought I might cry when the bus driver announced that a substitute bus would be there to pick us up… in an hour.

Needless to say, I was super late for my first day, and I groveled at the feet of my new boss. Thankfully, she was all too familiar with public transit, so she cut me a considerable amount of slack.

Moving away from Denver marked the end of my public transit days. I wasn’t too sad to see them go – there were a lot of things I wouldn’t miss about it, the ripe public transit smell being the first thing that comes to mind. However, I do find myself missing the people watching as well as that nice hour or so to sit and read or listen to music.

But I don’t miss it enough to hop back on the bus.

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