Bus stop means go to man with bent for navigation

February 19, 1991|By Doug Birch

If colleges gave courses in Baltimore's buses, Tyrone Crawley would have a Ph.D.

Since he was a child, the 35-year-old Social Security Administration employee has been exploring Baltimore by bus and, since it opened in 1983, by Metro.

He has chatted, eavesdropped, snoozed, listened to his portable tape deck, flirted and simply cruised while riding the M-6, the 87, the 44x or the White Marsh Flyer -- names for some of the Mass Transit Administration's 79 routes.

He has put up with friends in the suburbs who have complained about having to pick him up at bus stops at shopping malls. He has had a girlfriend threaten to break up with him if he didn't start driving a car. (He didn't, and she didn't.) He has witnessed crime but said: "You see very few weapons on the bus."

Most of all, Mr. Crawley, sometimes called "the Navigator" by his friends, believes in the city's public transit.

"I trust the schedules," declared Mr. Crawley. ". . . . The buses that aren't on time are consistent in their lateness."

The squarely built man, who wears a mustache and beard, seems to regard non-riders as cast into outer commuter darkness.

"There are a lot of people who will never catch the bus," he said solemnly. "They have no faith in the system. They have not caught a bus. And they will never try."

While it is not unusual for middle-income Americans to depend exclusively on public transit, their numbers have been shrinking. Increasingly, mass transit officials say, buses and subways are used only bythose who can't afford their own automobiles.

Mr. Crawley, who helps run a small literary press in his spare time, traces his allegiance to transit to a tragic accident that occurred when he was 10 years old.

Every Sunday morning, he and his childhood sweetheart, Janie, would walk to a store to buy a newspaper. One Sunday, he went to church early, and Janie walked alone. She was hit by a car in an intersection and killed.

"It set a little switch off in my head: 'Cars are bad,' " he said."They killed the one thing in this world I really, really cared about."

In junior high school, Tyrone itched to see parts of the city outside his East Baltimore neighborhood. Sometimes using expired student bus tickets expertly forged by a classmate, he ++ cruised the city in buses run by the now-vanished Baltimore Transit Co.

The seats were covered with cloth, not plastic. Passengers chatted freely. Bus stop preachers warned cross-town passengers of the wages of sin. Drivers would stop at diners to let passengers make change.

For the Navigator, it was a movable feast for the eyes and ears.

Today, Mr. Crawley commutes from his Park Avenue apartment to the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn. He begins at the State Center Metro station on Preston Street, where he usually takes the 8:40 a.m. train, saving an estimated 12 seconds by standing next to a particular escalator.

At the Rogers Avenue Metro station, he catches the M-6 bus between 8:53 a.m. and 8:55 a.m., which gets him to work in Woodlawn between 9:20 a.m. and 9:25 a.m.

At night, he often takes the long way home -- sometimes visiting friends or going shopping, plotting his return journey using a thick stack of bus schedules he keeps in his desk.

Mr. Crawley never owned a car until 1989, at age 33, when he acquired a green 1978 Ford Granada from a friend for $19.95.

The car, he explains, has been "in the proverbial shop" for two years. He seems in no particular hurry to get it fixed.

On buses, Mr. Crawley prefers to sit near the rear door, where he can eavesdrop on conversations -- especially the banter of high school students.

"If you sit in this part of the bus, you hear snatches of teen-age life," he said, gesturing toward the rear of the white and blue Flxible MTA bus taking him to Woodlawn one morning. "It keeps you in touch with what's going on in the world. You get to hear what's on people's minds."

It also affords him a front-row seat for bus-borne melodramas, such as the time a drunken woman borrowed a bowling ball from another passenger and rolled it to the front of the bus.

Bus riding isn't what it used to be, laments Mr. Crawley. Drivers are less friendly. Eccentric passengers are less amusing, he said, because of the fear they might be armed. Earphones and Walkmans, he added, also "have cut down a lot on bus camaraderie."

He is also no stranger to the frustrations of commuters.

One holiday he waited for about an hour at the bus plaza beneath the Rogers Avenue Metro station before the station attendant came on the public address system to say the bus was canceled. Furious, Mr. Crawley got into an argument with the attendant, scuffled with a security guard and was arrested.

"It was an hour! It was cold! And that's all he had to do! Make the announcement!" Mr. Crawley said. "I had a big bag of presents that I took into the police station. I spent a blinking night in jail." The charges were later dropped.

But Mr. Crawley did not sour on the system. He defends, for example, MTA's claim of an 80 percent on-time record for buses. And he worries that it is all too easy for people to give up on mass transit.

"To discourage people, all it takes is one or two times for a bus not to come and people say, 'Forget it,' " he said. "When you're a veteran of the system, you kick something and keep on going."

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