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Jan 2003 / from the source :: email this story to a friend

Up on the Gravois
By Christian Saller

I ride the bus in the City of St. Louis five days a week. To some, this is a perversely quaint, urbanite quirk. It inspires an odd reaction of bewilderment, amusement and approval. It's a strange blend, this response, and possibly unique to the idea of someone in a car-crazed, sprawl-happy region actually choosing to stand on the street and pay $1.25 to get around town in a rumbling coach full of strangers. What many of these mystified folk do not realize is that regular passengers on many bus lines form a society of sorts. Strangers, yes; but strangers seen everyday, face-to-face, reflect the intimacy of living in a city. Faces are familiar, but lives are unknown. There are perfunctory greetings and there are detailed conversations. Exchanges overheard are mundane, mysterious, hilarious, pathetic and salacious. They are all voyeuristic glimpses, for better or worse, into the lives of people you come to know without really knowing. The communities of bus people are a slice of urban St. Louis, sometimes indecent in their familiarity, born of random circumstance and paths that cross. Welcome aboard.

The Gravois bus fills up steadily as it winds through downtown, collecting a dozen passengers in front of City Hall. A red-haired, freckled fellow looking like a cartoon Irish bartender — surely a Mickey, Danny, or Pat — stubs out his cigarette as the bus approaches. He climbs up the stairs and pays his fare, extinguished cigarette now wedged between his ear and tweed cap. After greeting our driver, he turns to his companion, a tall, curvaceously eye-catching woman wearing lots of jewelry and a bright red dress, to continue imparting his chili recipe. As they both fall into facing seats near the head of the aisle, she nods at his detailed description, purring approvingly, "Hmmm, Bill, it sounds like you really know what you're doing!" "No hamburger; round steak!" Bill replies sagely. He leans forward confidentially, though several other passengers are listening in: "And trim it! Who needs the fat?" An elderly fellow midway back pipes in: "What I hate is people who put carrots in chili!" Everyone absorbs this outrage quietly except for Bill, who shrugs authoritatively and replies, "People do lotsa stuff with chili and stew. There are no iron-clad rules!" He smiles magnanimously around the crowded bus as if to convey the universal appeal of chili.

A group of Mexicans sits together speaking rapid Spanish in hushed tones. One, apparently a teenager, holds a bunch of flowers in his lap. A Roosevelt High School football player has been listening to the rapid-fire Spanish for a minute, glancing from speaker to speaker, his eyes narrowed in interest. He catches the teenager's eye: "Hey man, who those flowers for? Your gal?" "Jes," the fellow shyly answers, "They...they for my mother." "Your MOTHER?" the footballer guffaws. "Aw, MAN!" The Mexican teenager beams, evidently oblivious to the ridicule. A young woman with a frosty Farrah-do eyes the footballer critically: "Women love flowers. All women. He's a real sweet son." A portly, gray-haired gentleman two seats back replies, "I know that's right. An men git they flowers alla time so women don't be mad. Steel, it weren't no man hadda go an eat that APPLE, was it?" He's staring at me. "Apple?" I ask stupidly from behind my South City Journal. "Th' APPLE, man!" he booms, smiling hugely, "thousands a years ago an' shit. TH' APPLE. Men hadda make 'em feel all better 'bout that ever since!" The Mexicans are confused. I give my inquisitor a wry, man-to-man nod, not to agree, only to convey that I know what he's getting at.

An elderly man and his sprightly granddaughter board the bus every morning at 7:30, headed for Notre Dame Elementary at Oregon and Arsenal. He's slow and quiet, but the little girl is an absolute chatterbox, toting a pink Barbie bookbag, blonde hair loose to her shoulders, chiming into conversations up and down the aisle, making announcements about the approaching school day and her plans for the future: "Grampa? When I grow up to be a teenager, I'm going to throw rocks at myself. It won't hurt." The address to Grampa is disingenuous; she's talking to everyone but Grampa. She looks up and down the aisle sternly, seeking reactions. An elderly black woman smiles at her, saying nothing. The kid returns the gaze, holding up her hot pink lunchbox: "I got two of these!" she crows.

The Christmas season occasionally brings a new species of bus: one festooned with Yuletide finery, holiday music blaring from speakers and, best of all, no fare to pay. Serenaded by "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," the Gravois passengers are inevitably infected by the good cheer, slightly more convivial than usual, trading holiday plans. A tall young man stands at the head of the aisle, saying goodnight to the driver in her jaunty Santa cap. Before descending the stairs, he turns to the crowded bus: "Awright. Let me go home now. Ya'll be cool. Awright." There is a murmur of reply, along with silent nods and smiles.

A means to go from one place to another is obviously the main purpose of a city bus ride, but like sipping a beer in a corner bar, the bus brings an instant familiarity unique to that brief interlude: you don't have to socialize, but you feel free to do so. You can keep to yourself behind a newspaper or be absorbed in a book and no one cares. Like passenger Bill's chili, there are no iron-clad rules. The Gravois bus delivers strangers at ease on its long route, a mobile community of characters united under the banner of public transportation.

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