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Next Stop: Freedom

There was a point in my life when a bus meant freedom. As a preteen in Los Angeles, I rode buses to the mall, the movies. I took two home from junior high every day, and only once had to ditch a weirdo who tried to follow me home.

There was something zen-like about riding the bus — a sense of stepping onto a constant and colossal force, like a tenacious river that takes no notice whether you’re bobbing in its currents or not.

That laminated bus pass made this trifling 12-year-old feel like a part of something.

But the moment I got my car keys, I became a part of something else. Something cooler. Something that didn’t require me to conform to anyone else’s schedule, or sit next to ill-scented strangers.

By college, the public transit system was so utterly off my grid that when someone once suggested I take a bus, my boyfriend joked, “You might as well tell her to ‘flim a jib-jab.’ She doesn’t speak the language.”

But let me tell you something: I don’t speak $5-per-gallon, either. Suddenly, in the midst of this gas crisis, auto-ownership doesn’t feel like autonomy; it feels like highway robbery. So rather than continue to feel powerless at the pump, a victim of my vehicle, I decided to reclaim the peculiar wayfarer’s freedom of my youth.

Yep, I flimmed the local jib-jab with my kids in tow. We downloaded routes and schedules off the Internet (so easy!). We found a bus stop right near our house (so close!). We even convinced an adventurous friend to hop on our bus as it passed her neighborhood.

“What fun! Sounds great!” she said. “Except…what are we gonna do when we need our cars?”

She was kidding. Kind of.

Anyone who’s ever had an ignition at the ready, a gear shift at her fingertips, will face some panic when committing to mass transit’s rigid rules, rates, and rhythms. For example, my boys and I tore apart the house looking for $3.75 because the bus requires exact change and we feared what might happen if we offered up, say, $4. Would they mock us? Boot us? Make us stand up the whole way?

But the bus we rode was ever-so-inviting, an immaculate and nearly empty people-mover with a convenient shelf to stash our stroller. The driver was shockingly nice, informing us that our toddler rides for free, and patiently helping us work out the confounding math and coinage of it all. He didn’t even take offense when my youngest said, “He looks like Grandpa!”

The driver told us that gas prices have brought more passengers, but the increased ridership has slowed the system’s pace.

“You get a few more people and you can’t pass any stops,” he said. “Plus, with the graying of America, you get more wheelchairs and walkers and that slows us down.”

But we reached our friend’s stop on time, and arrived downtown on schedule. We walked to a bakery for cupcakes and coffee, then cavorted around a park before jumping back on the bus to head home two hours later.

On the return trip, we met an elderly couple returning home after grocery shopping.

“You meet the most interesting people on the bus,” the woman said. “You know, everyone who can’t function at the highest level rides the bus.”

I’m pretty sure she was talking about me because by then, I was carsick from riding sideways. But I figured out how to crack open one of those big bus windows, stuck my face into the breeze and smiled as we passed a familiar gas station full of cranky looking motorists.

And it felt like freedom to me.

Published inColumnsParenting

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