A rap song leaks out in tinny spurts from the earphones; the skinny kid wearing them stands transfixed in the ghostly fluorescent light of the packed No. 8 bus heading up Greenmount Avenue. Behind him, a man in a corduroy souvenir-day Orioles cap is snoring in one of the handicapped seats, propped between two obliging and able-bodied fellow passengers.
Even though it's a chilly night, the smoked glass makes the city outside look hot, sultry and sinister. A blond young man, his unblinking eyes focused on the air a few inches in front of him, lurches out of his blue plastic seat and grabs an advertising postcard about "Getting a Better Career." He flops back, puts a finger to his lips and studies his new-found job opportunities.
Everyone on the bus, it seems, is looking for something: a thumping backbeat, a better job, a little shut-eye or just a peaceful ride home.
My quest is different. I've paid my $1.10 to board the northbound No. 8 on a pilgrimage in search of the soul in the machinery, the warts-and-all character of the great blue-and-white whales that weave along asphalt currents past the city's reefs of concrete, Formstone and red brick.
While they are unglamorous, ungainly, unlovely and mostly unloved, for most purposes the city's 900 Grumman Flxible buses are its mass transit network. The rest -- subway, light rail, commuter trains, taxis, car pools, bicycles, skateboards, what have you -- are just frills, expensive options on the sturdy base model.
Baltimore's 14.2-mile Metro line serves fewer than 50,00passengers daily, and the Mass Transit Administration is building a 27.5-mile light rail system that, by 2005, is expected to carry another 34,000 passengers.
By comparison, buses cruise 1,227 miles of routes in the metropolitan area, carrying more than 290,000 passengers per day. That's more than three times the number of people the city's two rail projects are expected to carry 14 years from now.
AFTER MY FIRST FEW MONTHS AS THE Sun's transportation reporter, I realized that despite having commuted by car, subway and train in three states during my working life, I knew next to nothing about buses in Baltimore or anywhere else.
So I set out to learn, first for a month as an occasional commuter armed with a bus pass. Then, when I wound up using my car too often, I decided to go cold turkey -- I quit driving for a week and relied on buses exclusively. (With only one lapse, when I was dispatched to report on a pancake house stickup on deadline).
In preparation, I locked up my 1983 Plymouth Reliant, bought a couple of $10.50 packets of bus tokens and picked up a 1 1/2 -inch-thick stack of schedules from MTA headquarters near Lexington Market. My riding wasn't exhaustive or scientific. I didn't ride all the lines at all hours, I just used the buses I needed to get where I was going. There were no surveys or polls -- I talked to drivers and other riders and kept my eyes open.
What I found was a no-frills system, heavily used by lower-income and handicapped people, with just enough buses on enough routes to get me most places I wanted to go in a reasonable time. It's a system that rewards planning and patience, but is not suited for spur-of-the-moment trips or joy riding. Waits, especially off rush hour, can be long, and to avoid them the complicated route schedules must be deciphered and rigorously obeyed.
There were cramped seats and grumpy drivers who, nearing the end of their route, roared by passengers rather than stopping to pick them up, apparently because they were in a hurry to get off shift. One driver complained bitterly about being required to show up for work on time and being ordered to drive his bus in the snow.
But I also found drivers who chatted with and charmed their passengers. There were buses that were islands of peace amid the tumult of traffic. And, for the curious passenger not engrossed in a newspaper or a Walkman, the buses sometimes provide a mirror of the city, creating quickly vanishing replicas of the neighborhoods they pass through.
And buses were one of the few places in this city of neighborhoods where people from different neighborhoods mix -- where lawyers sit next to laborers, college students next to teen-age fast-food workers.
"You always run into people on the buses and everything: It's pretty sociable," says Duane Hemphill, riding the No. 8 up Greenmount Avenue one evening after work.
"Plus it builds a strong will in just conversing on the bus. It keeps you up, up on your feet. It keeps you lively, too. It's competitive. You know. It's competitive in the sense you've got to learn to get along with people. You've got to learn to be non-offensive. . . . Get your way through without pushing or shoving."
WHILE THE BUS SYSTEM SEEMS healthy now, it is showing symptoms of potential trouble.