The Bus Experience

I was tasked with riding a specific Metrobus line in Saint Louis and analyzing the experience. This was my written assignment for my sociology class.

The Bus Experience

Branson Fox

On Saturday, March 4th, 2017, I met with Zach Patterson to ride a Metro Bus from Union Station to the Clayton Bus Center. We met at the Grand Metrolink Station before going to the Union Station Metrolink stop, where we would transfer to a bus. Zach had a good sense of the Metro system, otherwise, we would have been greatly slowed down. There was a sense of anxiety as to timing whether we were going to make our bus, if it was going to have space, and if we were at the right stop. Keep in mind that we had Metro Passes, which without would have made the experience quite expensive. On our way to Union Station, Zach and I discussed the affordability, or lack thereof, of passes. I had the privilege of being provided one by the university, Zach had to pay for one. It cost $78 a month, or by discount $175 a semester. Zach complained that he was going to be ineligible for this discount next year because of a maximum age requirement.

We accidentally went past Union Station on the Metrolink, so we had to walk back to get to the buses. We are lucky that this was only a class assignment, and not something imperative like a job where we may be fired for showing up late. Once we got to the Bus terminal, we had to navigate timings, and zones and large crowds. It was confusing and stressful to a first-timer like me. And of the whole experience, the worst part for me was waiting for the bus. The area was dirty and grungy. There was a heavy prevalence of Marijuana in the air. It wasn’t hard to tell who was smoking it either. There were peddlers selling chips and cookies, and cigarettes. I only noticed minorities waiting for buses. At least on the Metrolink, it wasn’t uncommon to see a fair amount of diversity. I noticed a few families, or at least groups, specifically one with two boys. One was wearing red and white rollerblades that looked like they were from before the second world war. The boy showed great poise in riding the wheeled shoes. The unlaced skates matched perfectly with his battered t-shirt and deteriorated shorts. The other boy had a small cardboard package with swim goggles and a snorkel. I can only infer that this was a big day for them, the day that their female guardian bought them these previously used goods. I could only imagine what life was like for these boys. As bad as moments of my childhood were, I couldn’t ever remember being at that level. There was a handful of security and police. All of them were yelling things into radios or complaining. It was a whole different world to me, and I wasn’t even on the bus yet.

At 2:54 p.m., Zach and I boarded the bus taking route 97. It was just us, no one else boarded, and no one else was already on the bus. I noticed that the bus was fairly clean, and acceptably comfortable. The comfort would wear off by the end of the trip, however. Our driver was a tall, skinny, middle-aged black man in a nice uniform. I noticed that most of the drivers we passed fit this description. Shortly after we departed, the driver was approached by a jaywalking man. Whatever cause the man was promoting must have struck a chord with the driver, because the driver handed him some cash and shared a “God Bless” with him.

Throughout the entire journey, I kept a tally of the race and gender of passengers getting on the Metro. Instead of mentioning each boarding throughout the piece, I will leave all of my data here in the form of a graphic. (I did not include Zach or myself in the counts)

Although it is a small sample size, it is reasonable for me to say that on this day in particular, many more African American passengers used the Metro than any other race. I was surprised that there didn’t seem to be a bias toward one gender over another.

I wish I could have collected data on the health of individuals using the Metro, but that would be too complex intrusive or unethical. I say this because I noticed that many of the passengers were on one side of the spectrum of health. There were a few extremely obese patrons, but also a few patrons with very healthy grocery choices.

The first passengers to get on after Zach and I were an obese black woman and man. The woman did not fit her clothes and moved very slow. The driver was very impatient with her. She had a large wad of cash that she sorted through in order to find bus fare. If I had to guess, banking is relatively inaccessible to her. Banks have very bad hours for the working and poor individuals. If in her situation, I would probably find myself cashing checks at Walmart when no bank is open. It was another common theme I saw throughout the trip. Many of the passengers carried large amounts of cash and it was troubling to quickly find the right amount of change for bus fare.

The first active area we passed had a small tattoo shop. Outside were two young black women, and three young kids. The kids were holding flyers just as the women were. As a kid, my Saturdays were spent watching cartoons or going to the park, not handing out flyers for a tattoo parlor in the middle of the city. Soon after, I witnessed a deteriorated area of the city. Bricks were dark in color and overrun with vegetation. Windows were either busted or boarded up. Graffiti was surprisingly minimal. There were a lot of empty fields, but the ground was very rough and full of trash and debris like wood and glass. I thought about what a city could do with these fields. All it would take is a day of work and a skid steer, and this could be turned into a flat space to play sports or build something (new homes, a garden?). Why hadn’t this been done?

There was a lot of promotion of forward thinking. I saw about twenty signs from the same source. They read things like, “We must stop killing each other,” and “We need to start loving each other.” There were some unsettling messages, though, like the giant orange letters that read “Lock your car!”

A lot of people carried many bags or suitcases and walked long distances. I find it troubling that there are no alternative methods. If you are injured or have a disability, you can’t even get groceries. On the subject of groceries, it wasn’t until 3:19, 25 minutes after getting on the bus, that we say the first grocery store. It was an Aldi, which means that it is affordable in comparison to some of the stores we would see later. It was also located next to a family dollar, which provided some other necessities at decent prices.

I noticed a lot of peculiar things. There were very nice housing complexes, which I suspect were public housing complexes. There were a lot of tax preparers and churches in these poorer areas. There were also quite a few adult day care and early childhood centers. They didn’t appear to have any accreditation. They are what Chris Gardner called “Women with children.” They are just some women who watch children so that very poor people can afford to work.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Gardner just two days prior to my bus journey. It just so happens that his discussion of homelessness with me would be eye opening and essential to this experience. He had said that it isn’t impossible for the homeless to get ahead, and I found this to be true in at least a few cases. There were several men in suits with jobs at places like the VA hospital, the social security office and at a psychiatric facility. Gardner had said that it isn’t worth any effort to try and fix those who “aren’t ready.” I now know what he means. There were two types of people on that bus with me. There were those people in their work uniforms (on a Saturday!) and there were the individuals that walked the streets, pushing the sale of whatever it was they were selling. I remember a clear divide in two men specifically. There was the well-dressed man with a magazine about guitars. He was very polite and well-mannered to me. I could only imagine him trying to get ahead. There was also the gentleman with sagging pants that threw his trash out the window. He was rude to me, the driver and I couldn’t imagine him getting ahead. There are some things I disagree with that Gardner said. For one, he said that quitting drugs is a choice. I find it troubling to subscribe to this school of thought, but his point isn’t lost on me. I do agree that rehabilitation is only effective if the addict is willing to resolve their problem. Of the people on the bus that I would extend my help to, I would be much more willing to work with the well-mannered man.

I noticed something else. It seemed as if one side of the road was run down, but the other was flourishing with growth. On one side, there was an old mattress sitting on the balcony. On the other, there were movie-perfect lawns with modern architecture.

We got stuck in traffic for a moment, and that’s when I started to analyze passengers more. There was the woman trying to put eye drops in while the bus was moving. I’m aware that you aren’t supposed to touch your eye with the bottle or you risk infection, but this whole scenario makes that seems like an issue. There was also the ubiquity of “freebies.” These were the items like backpacks that touted a prominent logo from a company or business. You know, lunchboxes that read Saint Louis Public Libraries or backpacks that said Saint Louis Public Radio.

Traffic subsided, and we made our way through the Delmar Loop. This is where I noticed a divide of worlds. Outside, walking the sidewalks was nothing but wealth. There were college aged kids with a large amount of jewelry and very clean clothing. Beside me, on the bus was a man with a battered ball cap and torn jeans. Everyone on the sidewalks was white. Everyone getting on the bus was not. While there are shops and dining in the Loop, they are very expensive and not conducive to attracting people without a lot of disposable income. After the Loop were a lot of nice neighborhoods (and from experience and friends, I can say the proprietors are quite wealthy). I notice a lot of law offices and reality firms. They were a lot of commercial stores, for both groceries and necessities like drugs, something missing from the areas we had come from.

There were some more issues, like the pull cord on the bus not working, which meant a woman missed her stop and had to walk an extra block. And by this point in our ride, my legs were very cramped and I was starting to get anxious.

Then we hit Clayton. This place radiated wealth like a dumpster radiates the smell of filth. I lost count of how many “International Reality” firms and “Wealth Management” headquarters there were. Everything was tall. There was also a lot of healthy things in the area, from nutrition to gyms. There was a grocery store, a Straubs, where bread costs double because it has a buzz word like “organic” on the package. The wealthier the area, the more health seems to be viewed as an expenditure of disposable income. Every doctor you need is already available to you, but where do you go to get your earth-green, six-dollar shake? Clayton. I hypothesize that there is more wealth in one investment firm in Clayton than there is in three blocks of Delmar.

To add insult to injury, The Saint Louis Bread Company opened their first “Bread Co Cares” in the middle of this financial haven. The gimmick of this restaurant is that it is ‘pay what you want,’ or ‘pay what you can.’ The intention of the corporation was to give back to the community and feed those who need it most. I’m not sure that the guy in the Audi A8 outside was starving and couldn’t afford ten-bucks.

At the Clayton bus center, Zach and I got off and transferred to the Metrolink. We talked about what we saw and how it related to what we had learned in class. We summarized there were a few key points, which I’ll replicate here:

  • It’s not as affordable or viable as an option as one would think. It is still an expensive and confusing system, which leaves implications for people getting to work or to stores.
  • If you don’t live close to where you work, it makes it harder to get and keep a job.
  • It’s not easy to get access to groceries or drugs, or even doctors. If you have a health problem, or would like to prevent a health problem, then this involves a significant amount of time on a bus. You can’t buy much fruit (etc.) if it’s expensive or if you can only shop once a week, because the fruit will go bad.
  • Healthy lifestyles are inherently problematic for the poor and underprivileged.
  • It’s a whole different social and emotional experience. While there are certain benefits to using public transit, it is a system that will eventually cause great stress to the individuals who use it.
  • An increase in stress is a good indicator of health outcomes, specifically poor ones.
  • The people we witnessed utilizing the Metro system were of lower socioeconomic status and almost always minorities.
  • Minorities are more likely to be impacted by the issues that would cause them to have to use the Metro system.
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