Saturday, April 14, 2012

Riding the City Bus

When I was growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, the city had a vibrant and bustling public bus system and riding the buses was integrated into the fabric of my youth. Like most middle class families, we had only one car and Dad drove that to work most days. While I was in school, my mother was a stay at home Mom, managing a busy household of me and my three siblings.

That left the issue of how to get to school to either walking, riding my bike or public transportation. The first eight years at St Matthews Parochial school were not a problem since we lived only about a mile from school. But my high school was in Southside way over on the other side of town, presenting a different challenge. The school chartered buses from the city and provided a “Special” bus service from a nearby parish about 3 miles away. We had brand new GM buses in the city just like the one shown here, only ours were mostly white. So my day began with catching the Route 22 Lake Shore bus over to St. Paul’s, where I would transfer to the special bus over to Bishop Kenny. In the afternoon, the routine was reversed; riding the Special back to St. Paul’s then the city bus back to Lake Shore.

I found that I looked forward to my daily bus ride. Starting on the route bus, usually there would be one or two other students from my school and we found out that we had just enough time to catch up with each other before getting to the transfer point. On the rare days when I was alone on the route bus, I would spend the time honing what would become a lifetime passion for me; people watching. Usually there would be a business man or two making their way downtown to the office. A young mother would board with all her kids in tow, going who knows where. It was interesting to listen to the conversation of the grownups; finding out what was going on in the city and everybody’s lives.

On the Special, it was a different story, we had a pair of buses to ourselves and it was a rolling party all the way across town. I mean that in a positive sense, that this was a big social time for us. For, you see, the boys and the girls were in different classes and in the final years, in different buildings. The administration and teachers thought that separating the boys and the girls would enhance the learning experience. I have always felt that was at best a neutral outcome. I firmly believe girls mixed in with boys in a classroom environment act the same way as control rods in a nuclear reactor; they keep the boys from bouncing off the walls. Overall as a group, my classmates valued the education we were getting and to a point, the brighter kids in the classroom were the more popular ones.

But back to the buses; every now and then, I would miss the Special back to St. Paul’s and would have to ride the Route 17 Atlantic Boulevard route bus to downtown and transfer to the good old Route 22 bus to my home neighborhood. This would take about three times longer than using the Specials but it gave me the opportunity to walk several blocks downtown between the closest Atlantic Boulevard stop and one on the Lake Shore route. Now I was in heaven, in the middle of the hustle and bustle of downtown, on my own, wild and free. Well sort of, for my school had distinctive uniforms and if there was too much wildness and freedom, somehow the word would get back to the principle and there would be a meeting the next morning.

The bus system in my town is in trouble, ridership is down. Every family has more than one car and only the poorest of families still need the system. I find that a bit sad, because when I look back on my bus riding days, I remember all I learned about life and people on the bus. I remember the green tinted daylight streaming through the windows. I remember the smiles on the faces of my schoolmates. And occasionally, if I was very lucky, sitting next to that special girl and quietly holding hands. Even today, the smell of diesel and the sound of a bus engine revving up when the lights turn green take me back to a time of innocence, happiness and the special joy of growing up in a special place. Oh MY!

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