Catching public transport has made me a better person. Rather than driving a car, rather than careening in my private space down crowded streets, surrounded but kept separate from everyone else – rather than this, I catch public transport, and I am better than I was before.
I don’t have my own personal stereo system anymore. I can’t sing along to the radio at the top of my lungs. I have to sit on seats that have been sat on by many, many other people – some of whom are frequently sweaty – and keep my knees together, my lips closed, my thoughts to myself. I have to think of others. I have to save up my smiles for strangers. I have to thank the driver. I love thanking the driver. A small thank-you and a wave for taking me to the place I want to go, for being a part of my journey, for not shouting at me when I didn’t have the correct change. Thanks for opening the door, thanks for not killing us on Coronation Drive. Just, thanks.
I don’t get to places quickly anymore. I don’t have the luxury of leaving whenever I want. I have to wait for buses. I have to wait. I have to find a spot in the shadow of the bus-stop shelter where the sun doesn’t hit me at full noon but where I can still watch the curve of the road for the oncoming bus. I sit in the shade of an old tree, on the cement border of a garden, on the flat grass next to the bench. I sit and I wait. I watch the road. I check my phone. And if I’m not too busy typing or texting or trying to find a tune that perfectly fits my mood, I look up at the sky. I often look at the clouds, watch them – they’re actually moving. I see them moving. I can watch one cloud shift from the left of the sky to the right, scudding past and changing shape and morphing into something completely different but equally beautiful and I question everything I think about the nature of reality. I ponder god. I ponder life. I stare at the sky until the sun is burned in starbursts onto my vision, and then the bus is heaving into the stop and I’m stumbling up to flag it down.
I don’t have my personal space anymore. I can’t pile as many things as I want into my car, carry the heaviest of bags, shift junk from one place to the other without thinking about it, because I have to think about it. I have to think about whether I will be able to get a seat, or whether I’ll be standing, and whether my my bags of junk might swing around and hit some poor older woman sitting near me who was just trying to get down the shops for a cuppa with her daughter visiting from Ipswich. I don’t have the luxury of not caring. I don’t have the ability to shut people out. I have to see them, all of them, the worst and the creepiest and the smelly. I have to breathe in the smell of cigarettes, even though I hate cigarettes. I have to listen to shouted phone conversations and loud school students and brassy ladies on their way out on the town. I am tired and I wish it were quiet, and the girl sitting in front of me stretches forward to press the button for an old man who couldn’t reach it. He twists his burn-scarred face and says, “Thank you”. She smiles, turns in profile; her purple fringe swings into her face. “No worries,” she says.
I don’t have control anymore. I have no say in how fast we go or when we get there or how many red lights we blow. I grip the back of the seat in front of me; I am terrified. I am elated. I want to throw my hands in the air like a roller-coaster rider when the bus driver hurls us down the hills of Kelvin Grove with the brakes completely untouched, hurtling through the suburbs and squealing into stops at the last second. I don’t know if we’ll make that corner. I don’t know if we’ll hit that car. I have lost control, and as a strange result, I am more punctual. I turn up on time, early – so early that I have time to meander down the street and take a breath in the doorway and stop for a drink of water before I arrive. I leave plenty of time to be late; I don’t trust the bus. I shouldn’t have trusted the car, when I had it, but I thought I was in control. I thought I could speed up a little if I was running late. I thought I could plan the journey to the minute. I was wrong, so wrong, and I was a bad friend, a tardy employee, and a flushed and stressed student. I was always running in just on time: “Traffic on the freeway”, “Ergh, no parking anywhere”. Now, I look out the window before I leave the house and think, “Huh, it’s raining. Allow an extra half-hour for the bus.” It’s annoying, but it’s better. I’m better, and when I arrive I’m relaxed and clear-eyed.
I’m looking around instead of looking at the road. I’m people-watching instead of fuming at people. I’m having a chat with the businessman whose briefcase is crammed in next to me, instead of trying to text while I steer with my knees. (Yeah, I used to do that. Another reason why it’s better I catch the bus.) I’m alert, paying attention, and watching my back when I walk home at night. Because I know I’m not safe; I know I’m out in the big, wide world and I am careful. I don’t have a protective bubble of glass and steel around me, tricking me into thinking I am untouchable. I am vulnerable, dependent, trusting that the people around me with treat me with care: the bus driver, the passengers, the other drivers on the road. I trust them. I have to. And it has made me better.
I never could have guessed any of this when I was watching my old Ford Festiva be towed out of the mechanic’s lot. I never could have guessed, while I was waving goodbye to my symbol of independence, my status as a car-owner in an increasingly car-oriented society, that I would eventually be grateful. That I would be kind of glad that I bought a lemon, that my beloved ’96 Festiva (“Jeff” to his friends) would conk out on the side of the Mitchell Freeway and never get going again. Not having a car has limited my life in terms of geography and distance – I can’t drive up the coast on a whim or live a ridiculous distance from work – but it has expanded my life in other ways. My heart, or something. So, bus drivers: seriously, thanks.