An Urban Adventure for Sixty Cents

From this distance the sign advising of a bus stop may as well designate a hidden cache under the ice for a hungry explorer. I brave four lanes of traffic on Central Entrance in order to reach my destination. The sidewalk is snowed in and the bench is buried. My waddling motion with two heavy canvas grocery bags as I flow with traffic makes for quite a sight. Eventually I reach my destination, turn around to optimistically face the oncoming traffic, and wait.

This reminds me of when I first moved back to Duluth. Every Sunday while cruising up Piedmont I observed people standing at one to three block intervals staring down the hill at traffic. After a month of bemusement I finally asked out loud, “Why are all these people just standing there looking in the same direction?” My wife responds, “They’re waiting for the bus. Duh!”

Now I wear the same forlorn look as I wait. I came prepared with my bright red union suit, quilted jeans, and wooly. Since the mercury hasn’t climbed above zero on this morning mere hours before Christmas, a deep chill creeps in.

Thirty minutes go by and I start feeling desperate. I stare into cars going by hoping someone will stop. A small used car dealer sits adjacent to my corner. I go inside, and the kindly owner lets me phone the DTA. Joy of joys, a bus should be there in a few minutes.

I arrive downtown with an hour to kill on a layover. Wondering if I’m being panhandled I enter the space of a man that opens the door to the Holiday Center and say, “Thank you.” “You’re welcome sir,” comes the professional and cheerful reply. No strings are attached to the kindness. I hear him say to a thin man, “I used to do that at the Radisson. I miss that!” A genuine servant’s heart on Christmas Eve. How refreshing.

By the time the #7 pulls into my neighborhood two hours have passed since beginning my urban adventure at the first bus stop. This has been a valuable lesson on the necessity of community, and an experience walking in another’s shoes. In the past when I watched those people staring at traffic I bemoaned the waste of tax dollars when seeing nearly empty buses.
This is the only form of transportation for many people, though, and they must organize their lives around bus schedules. An occasional empty bus during off-peak hours is a reality for any viable mass transit system.

I also reflect on an experience last year on a bus as we careened down the hill to catch the Lakeside Express once we arrived downtown. I see a woman desperately trying to flag the bus down as we pass through one of the largest and busiest intersections in town.

I watched the clock with anxiety and hoped we wouldn’t stop since I’d only have two minutes to spare, and she was on the wrong side of a very complex traffic stream. I say nothing. We cruise through a yellow light, and guilt is seared into my soul as I see she has a small baby. It was about fifteen degrees below zero. I can still see her jumping up and down in desperation as we passed, and she wasn’t dressed well for the cold.

My slow trip home was a glimpse into a wide cross section of humanity, and it was both uplifting and overwhelming when thinking of the great needs of the working poor. The best way to understand them is to walk, or ride, a mile in their shoes.

I leave you with three lessons learned for any bus trip. 1) Have a plan. Know when the bus will be passing by your stop. 2) On a cold day there’s no need for your body to heat a partially full bladder. Empty it beforehand, and your whole body will be warmer. 3) It’s wonderful to slow down and be part of your community. To always travel in the comforts of your car with your radio, cell phone, and stress, deprives you of the rest of humanity. Get out among the people and have your heart warmed as mine was by the small kindnesses that stand out in a world of averted eyes. Perhaps then cold hearts like ours’ will thaw and we’ll become more human ourselves.

—From 2009….

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