Come along for the ride, folks

January 29, 2000|By Jacques Kelly

IGUESS that a few more Baltimoreans had an unnatural experience this week. Forced by the snow, they boarded an MTA bus, subway car or the light rail.

Welcome to this club. I've been riding public transit since 1958.

Bus riding is one of the essential urban experiences, one, alas, that few people know or will admit to. You learn plenty about a locality by overcoming the natural fear of getting on one of these conveyances and placing your trust in its driver. You pass through both dangerous and prosperous zones. And you observe people, inside and out.

Your mind drifts as you pass by the landmarks of, say, Northeast Baltimore -- the American Brewery, the remains of the old Goetze meat packing plant, Little Flower Church, Seidel's bowling alley, Holy Redeemer Cemetery, the Woodlea Bakery, the Earle theater and the Gardenville shopping center.

Over the years, I've gauged many a Baltimore impression while riding one of our coaches. We are not, let it be said, a truly great mass-transit city. We limp along, often out of ignorance. Many commuters treat transit as if it's some sort of mobile roach motel that is only used when we are socked by a surprise snow storm.

It comes as revelation, then, that many of us drop our $1.35 fares in the box a couple times a day, year round.

The news stories that detail the sad shape of our bus empire are accurate. Baltimoreans are not truly inclined to ride this way. It forces them to go through neighborhoods they don't want to see and it forces them to sit next to people they'd rather avoid. That is, until they've submitted and given transit a chance.

And our bus service remains one of Baltimore's antiques. The paths traveled by the bus lines that radiate out from downtown have changed little since the 1860s, when horse-drawn carriages ran on rails.

But, if you want to learn about Baltimore, there is nothing like a seat on an MTA bus. I think that daily commuting delivers a choice perspective. You see it all -- and by no means is it all bad. And while I've witnessed outrageous acts of bad blood and rudeness on parking lots in our suburbs, I've seen many a friendly helping hand of goodwill on a bus.

Riding along, you also get a sense of the city's history -- block by block, the rowhouses change. Each street away from the oldest part of downtown Baltimore grows a little newer. You watch 1920 become 1940 without turning on the History Channel.

I find that a bus ride -- far from being a perilous practice -- rewards with its own pleasures. I look out at the scenery -- and am still amazed at the number of grandparents who escort their 7-year-olds on the light rail for an outing to the airport or downtown stadiums.

As a passenger, you get to eavesdrop on conversations. I'm convinced that the people on buses actually want their private business to be heard by others. I've listened to guys talk about their release papers from the City Jail. I've auditioned cocktail party plans in Guilford. I've heard many a mother scold children -- and my guess is that these moms want the passengers to add an audience dimension to their sermons.

And there is just the pleasure of having the bus show up. Last Tuesday morning, when an MTA bus broke through the white-out and appeared at my corner, I boarded with relief. There were only three other passengers in addition to the driver.

I stepped up, smiled and proclaimed, "The Lord provides."

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