The Last Word: You Have to Take a Bus to Get There

By: Tony Chavonne

On a cold winter morning recently, I saw a city bus picking up passengers at the city’s downtown transit center. It made me reflect on a few impactful hours I spent with a bus rider several years ago.

David was a single father of two young children who had been introduced to me by a mutual friend. A life of substance abuse and bad decisions had left him unemployed and living in a homeless shelter. I met David and his two small children at the bus transfer stop at Cross Creek Mall before dawn. This was a spot where bus routes would converge to provide a way for riders to transfer from one bus to another. By the time we met that morning, David had already taken one bus trip – the first of many he would take that day.

I held the hand of one of his children as we carefully navigated across the six lanes of Skibo Road during peak traffic in order to reach the daycare center where David kept his children while he looked for work.

After dropping off the children, we returned to the transfer stop where we waited 30 minutes to catch the bus that would eventually get us to the Employee Security Office on Ray Avenue. David would meet with a job counselor there in hopes of finding employment. First, we had to take a bus to the City’s transfer center on Person Street – a pitiful collection of benches, some without shelters, where people would have to wait in all kinds of weather for the connecting bus that would continue them on their journey.

As we waited at the transfer center, David was open about his demons and the situation in which he found himself. He was committed to staying straight and keeping his family together and knew that getting a job was a critical step in his important journey.

The next bus delivered us to the employment office where David and the counselor were excited to find a position that was a good match with his skills. The job was also close to a bus stop, a requirement for David who did not have his own transportation.

On the ride to the interview, David shared his observations about the people he saw every day on the bus. He felt there was an unfair perception of bus riders and explained that most of the bus riders were just trying to get to work. Their plight was made even more challenging by a bus system that did not provide services every day of the week or to all parts of the city.

Bus riders had little choice and even less voice – in society or in local government where decisions about supporting transit systems were made. Their lack of collective voice contributed to the inadequate funding or any real support of a transit system in our city.

David and I were both excited when we arrived for the interview, but I could see the disappointment in his face when he came back from meeting the manager. The job had been a perfect fit, and David had been offered the position. But when told of the work hours, he quickly realized that the 5 p.m. close would not allow him the time to make the multiple bus connections and the trip across Skibo Road to get his children before their daycare closed at 6 pm.

Sadly, David had to decline the position. Another setback, another crack in self-respect and the realization that his tomorrow would look much like his today, hours of time on a city bus moving from spot to spot looking for a job and a better future.

The ride to the transit center was quiet as we each reflected, in our own way, on the experience. After yet another bus trip, we found ourselves right back where we started early that morning at the mall transfer stop. We parted ways there. I wished him well in his quest for success, self-respect and family. We promised each other we would stay in touch, but each of us knew that would be unlikely.

I felt guilty when I got back in my car on the way home where my family awaited me. Guilty when thinking about the seven different bus trips David had made in the hopes of finding a job. Guilty about things we often take for granted in our lives. Guilty that a person could live in the same community with people, see their faces in the windows of a city bus, but not really appreciate their personal journey.

A few years later I heard David had relapsed and succumbed to the demons in his life. His wife’s family had stepped in to assume responsibility for the children. After countless bus rides, David had succumbed to the system.

I think about him when I drive past the city’s new $15 million transit center and when I read of increased levels of ridership and bus routes running throughout our city every single day of the week.

The changes our city has made were too late for David, but every time I see a city bus drive by, I see his face. But thankfully, I see improved opportunities and respect in the faces of the people inside.