If you’ve ever been in a meeting and idly wondered who in New York is currently on the bus—what they’re doing and thinking about; where they’re going—there is one easy, if not entirely efficient, way to find out. That’s how we met the New Yorkers featured in this story, on an improvised route that cruised around Manhattan in one big loop, covering hundreds of blocks and at least a dozen neighborhoods.
The bus is an oft-overlooked staple of city life—it may not have the sex appeal of the subway (on the bus, it is rarely “Showtime”) or the novelty of the ferry, but it’s a robust, critical resource. It picks up, sometimes literally, where the trains leave off, creating a more inclusive transit system for disabled people and offering more options for those living in neighborhoods that are under-served by the trains.
And the bus is a world unto itself, both a microcosm of New York and a different way of seeing and experiencing it. It can be both its own respite from the chaos of the streets it traverses and an incubator for its own unique brand of micro-dramas, the kind that deal less in the subway’s brand of anonymity and speed and more in neighborly intimacy and sometimes comical inefficiencies. Those stories are best told by the people we met below.
En route: From Chinatown to Midtown
Do you ride the bus often?
I’m a New Yorker, so the bus reminds me of my childhood. I know the routes like the back of my hand. It’s very convenient for me. I also recently had knee surgery, so it’s easier right now.
Has anything significant ever happened to you on the bus?
I met my Godmother on the bus! She was a lady from Honolulu. We were on the bus together, sitting sort of in the vicinity of each other. She’s very loquacious so she started talking and I answered. Fast-forward, she says: “I want you to be my goddaughter!” So I’m her goddaughter now.
Whoa. Really? Did you just exchange numbers or something?
Yes, eventually we exchanged numbers and got in touch, and anytime I flew to Asia after that, I would go see her.
What do you do to pass the time while you ride?
Let’s see… today I brought my high school alumni newsletter and the New York Times magazine.
Do you have any bus tendencies?
Well, because of my knee—I can’t bend it all the way—I like to sit somewhere with more room for my legs.
Are there any unspoken rules of the bus?
Oooh, yes. I’m about to show my New York peeves! If I’m the only person sitting here and all the other seats are empty, generally it’s an unspoken rule that you shouldn’t crowd a person, you find your space. The other thing is that if you’re standing above someone, you may feel that you’re not disturbing anyone, but for the person sitting, the presence is always there. If there’s space elsewhere, you should move.
En route: From the Bowery to an appointment in Flatiron
Do you take the bus often?
It’s interesting that you’re asking me about this, because I’ve never really traveled on a bus in New York. I fractured my ankle and I can’t go down the stairs in the subway, and the taxis are just way too expensive to go everywhere, so this is a new chapter in my life. I googled the bus system and I’ve discovered that it’s excellent. I’m extremely happy.
I live in Pakistan and I’m visiting. I’m an architect and an environmentalist and I specialize in the impacts of urbanization on quality of life. I work a lot for civil society—in fact we just had a session on mobility and what mobility means in Pakistan. We promote public transport above everything else because of the environment. I think the bus is brilliant and I think all the cars should be off the road. People should walk or take buses so that we can get rid of this environmental crisis we’re in.
What do you like to do while you’re on the bus?
You have all this time on your hands… I love people watching. Being an architect, I’m very interested in public spaces. I think being on the bus is the best form of public space. I think talking to people on the bus is a good option! I used to strike up conversation in taxis a lot and I noticed that if you ask a taxi driver a simple question, it’s like a dam that’s burst. They will keep the conversation going on and on and on.
Gilbert, 39, & Her Kids
En route: From school to home
How do you feel about taking the bus?
We take it every day. It’s the best route for taking the kids between home and school. I use the bus often with them because it’s easier with bringing the strollers, not dealing with elevators and stuff like that.
What’s the most dramatic thing you’ve witnessed on the bus?
When the bus doors close too soon that can be really dramatic— we often have to shout for them open the doors back up.
And do you—
Actually, sorry, this is us, we have to go!
Jessica and Danielle, 17
En route: To Wendy’s
Is taking the bus a daily thing for you?
Jessica: No, we only take it sometimes. We usually take the train.
Do you guys always commute together?
Jessica: Yeah, we usually go around together.
Are we the first people who’ve ever tried to talk to you on the bus?
Both: Yes [laughing].
What do you do to pass the time?
Jessica: We play multiplayer games on our phones. I play the Mario Kart one, that one we can play together. The one I like to play by myself is Candy Crush.
Danielle: I like to listen to the radio—Z100 is my favorite station.
Do you have a favorite place to sit?
Jessica: We always sit in the same spot. I just like being by the window, and you can see the view from the back.
Jon, 75 & His Partner
En route: To a film screening
What movie are you going to see?
The film tonight is… the Peanut Butter Stallion? Peanut Butter Cowboy?
Peanut Butter Falcon!
[Laughs] Yes! I’m curious about it. We’ve seen practically every movie that came out this year, because he’s one of the SAGAFTRA judges, so they send us the DVDs and invites to screenings. We’ve been going to see about three movies a week.
Do you have a favorite so far?
There have been a lot of great movies. Pain and Glory was especially good. I thought Marriage Story was remarkable. Then we saw something that we never expected to see at all, called The Aeronauts, about the first woman who went up in a balloon and broke the record. It was beautifully done.
What do you to pass time on the bus?
I read the newspaper, either that or I read Google news. We subscribe to four daily newspapers—The Post, The Daily News, Wall Street Journal, and the Times.
Do you pick and choose which one you’re going to read every day?
No, we read them all. That’s what being retired is about!
I’m so looking forward to that.
No you’re not!
Do you have any bus tendencies? Anywhere you prefer to sit?
Not really. Every bus is configured differently and I usually take the crosstown bus. The two of us don’t usually don’t sit together, he has his own ideas!
D’Mari, Marisol, and Chelsea
En route: Home, from school
When you got on the bus, I heard you guys saying that you were going to sit in the “prince seat” and the “queen seat.” What does that mean?
Chelsea: [Points to mom] She’s in the queen seat. I’m in the princess seat and [points to brother] he’s in the prince seat. When they’re here, our dad is the king and our other sisters are the other princesses.
So then your family gets the whole back row?
Marisol: [laughs] Pretty much.
Do you prefer using the bus to get around the city?
Marisol: Yes. It’s the scenic route. I’m from New York and I’ve taken the bus my whole life. I grew up in Brooklyn.
Chelsea: I was born in Brooklyn and he [points to brother] was born in Manhattan.
What do you do to pass the time?
We usually have friends from school on with us—other parents and the kids’ friends—and we’re always all gabbing away.
En route: To a doctor appointment
What’s the story with your jacket?
I was in the US Air Force and these are some of the places I’ve been to and some of the things I’ve done. Copenhagen, Denmark was my best time in the Air Force. I was supposed to go for three days and ended up staying for six months. This jacket was the closest I could come to a real Air Force jacket. The ones that say “Air Force” on the back have fur collars, which I didn’t want, but this one is actually really warm.
What do you like to do while you’re commuting?
Right now I’m just looking over some information the doctor gave me. But otherwise I just look out the window—see who’s getting on and off. I like to see how the city’s changed. Sometimes I see a building that looks interesting and I’ll just hop off to look at it and then catch the next bus.
Where do you prefer to sit?
I don’t like anybody sitting behind me—that’s from being Italian! [laughs].
Has anything significant ever happened to you on the bus?
Well, a lot of people crowd around the doors. Two weeks ago, I had to get off the bus at Grand Central and there were three people standing in the doorway. I said, “Excuse me, excuse me, I’d like to get off.” And then I had to push them out of the way. At my age I really shouldn’t be fighting with people—I’m 80 years old! Although I have had a fight on the subway. One time, a guy slid into a seat that I got up to give to a woman and I called him a bastard and he came at me and hit me in the head with a cell phone. I felt like Muhammad Ali—I actually beat the crap out of him. But I don’t go around looking for trouble. The bus is a nice way to see the city.
Photos by Sabrina Santiago.