Buses and Abuses

Earlier this week, the cold resurfaced in one final last-ditch effort to make my life a misery, like a horror movie serial killer hamming up the final jump scare. This makes waiting for a bus decidedly distasteful, and if you know anything about me, you’ll know that waiting for buses is just about all I do. It was particularly unpleasant last Monday, when the city had virtually shut down over the threat of potential political protests. This meant that regular rides were few and far between, and I had to wait much longer than usual for my lift home.

By the time a bus eventually pulled up, huffing and scrapping like a colossal dying nematode, I was already in a bad mood. It was late at night, and I was cold. I also needed to go to the bathroom, but that was always a given. The cold weather has a way of making my bladder contract whenever I step outside.
The bus arrived in the usual fashion: break pads wailing, hydraulics wheezing, and the sound of something metal dragging along underneath. A lot of the buses in the city are the accordion type, with a spongy middle section that allows the twenty-meter-long behemoth to negotiate corners. Upon hearing its arrival, one always expects that it is on the verge of snapping in half, or breaking down entirely.

This is the typical Santiago bus, looking just like one of those sandworms from Dune.

After an extended chorus of hissing and screeching, the saloon-like doors jerked open, and I stepped off a deserted street that should have been humming with traffic,and into the madhouse that was a TranSantiago bus. I swiped my Bip! card over the scanner and mumbled a cursory “Hola” to the driver. He was middle-aged and male, with a large paunch and a clean-shaven face, passive and bespectacled, with deep-set wrinkles.
At least, I believe that’s what he looked like. In truth I hardly give a second glance to the person sitting in the glass booth, and this time was no different. His puffy black coat only served to make him fade further into the background. I was already annoyed that I’d had to wait so long, and I was transferring my frustration onto the fellow who was just doing his job.
Being on the bus didn’t do much to improve my mood. It was fractionally warmer, but a window was open somewhere, and no one moved to close it. People sat in silence, staring into their phones or huddling together for warmth. Everyone was dressed in black. Black jackets, black coats, black scarves, black beanies. Black mood. Sometimes people on the night bus are rowdy, or drunk. But mostly they just sit or stand, and hush and huddle.

By and large, the bus is never a pleasant place. It’s breezy when the weather’s cold, and sweltering when the weather’s warm. It’s loud in all the worst ways: things scrape and squeak, babies scream, teenagers cajole, lovers quarrel, people blast music. There’s graffiti everywhere. It’s dirty and often more crowded than you could ever think possible. Young people stomp onto the bus without paying, and the driver takes no action. The vehicle itself lurches along violently and unpredictably, leaving you in a constant state of imbalance. At times the bell doesn’t work, or the driver doesn’t hear it, and he’ll sail right past your intended stop, forcing you to walk a few extra blocks.

Get off my train
This guy told me to get off his train, even though it was a bus.

On this particular night, the bus stopped at the place I intended to get off, but before I could reach the exit, squeezing myself through the throng of somber ghosts, the driver had pulled the doors closed again with all the clanking and hissing he could muster, and so over the din I called “Señor! La puerta, por favor!”
I was certain that he must have heard me, and there were a few seconds of silence as everyone on board waited for the doors to reopen.
It’s embarrassing enough to have to start shouting in such a public place, and that embarrassment was compounded when the driver, ignoring my call, began to accelerate.
Now everyone on the bus knew that I had missed my stop. I felt like a fool, and there was nothing for it but to simply wait until the bus stopped again. The driver certainly didn’t care, and by now he had become my number one enemy.
A minute later, I got off the bus several blocks away from my stop, and I was in a fine fury. On top of being cold and requiring a bathroom, I had also been humiliated on the bus and had been taken far out of my way. I was angry at the driver for all of that. I wanted to demonstrate my displeasure at him, but kicking the back of a departing bus doesn’t help. All I could do was pull my jacket tighter around me, and stomp off home, cursing the man who had put me in this position. As I pounded the pavement I pondered the driver who was at that moment hurtling into the night, with many more miles to go. He was still stuck on that cold, clamorous hunk of metal, and would be until his shift ended, possibly hours from now. That thought gave me some satisfaction. I thought about how I would be able to relieve myself in only a few more minutes, while the driver didn’t have such liberty. I thought about how embarrassed I’d been to call to the bus driver, and I wondered how many people shouted at him on a daily basis. I imagined that some of the people who shouted at him probably didn’t use the word “Señor.”
I thought about his work environment. I had been on that bus for about fifteen minutes, and that was enough to lower my mood. Having to spend hours in that atmosphere must be awful. In my job, I talk to friendly people in calm, comfortable surroundings. Everyone the bus driver serves either treats him with aggression or doesn’t see him at all, just like I had. Most buses are riddled with vandalism. I could imagine that a driver wouldn’t dare take the risk of admonishing anyone who caused trouble. To do so would be to invite the threat of harm. Out of a sense of safety, bus drivers have no choice but to allow people to invade the bus without paying, and remain silent when they begin to tear it apart from the inside. Being a bus driver must be lonely, terrifying, and miserable.

By the time I reached my apartment, my anger had turned to sympathy and sadness. I suppose we all get mad at public transport from time to time. And maybe some bus drivers do revel in being unpleasant. But for the most part I cannot stay mad at them. It’s an awful job, and if anything I am grateful to them for doing it at all.

Bip! Card
This is a Bip! card, but that is not my hand.

2 thoughts on “Buses and Abuses

  1. A great portrait of life on public transport! What about the free musical concerts by musicians who can keep their balance AND the tune (at least their balance). One of my many jobs included a stint as a “trainer” for bus drivers on Client Service. Imagine! I think you got it right: they have very precarious situations, suffer loneliness, drive buses that need repairing, face dangerous lumpen, and so on and yet they are performing a very useful service. They are a varied bunch – from fathers working to pay their daughter’s college to those whose lifelong ambition in life was to be an “operator” and drive the buses. Hopefully, the new TranSantiago will start with better conditions and protection for the drivers, which means obligating the company owners to run a fair business.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s