Sometimes I forget that as a car-free American, I’m unusual. I totally tune out car commercials and people’s online discussions over things like handicapped parking spaces and road rage. I don’t really encounter these issues. I actually enjoy public transportation. Well, mostly. It is hot in the subway this time of year and on those days when the bus or subway stops for no particular reason and you are mashed against other humans with no idea of when you’ll reach your destination, well, I think about cars. But then I also think about traffic and gas prices and having to watch the road ahead of me instead of my app or my book. I think about getting lost, which I always seem to do while driving. That moment of panic as you wonder if this is your exit, with no bus driver to ask. And flat tires and roadside breakdowns. No thanks!
I was already planning this post when, while discussing a possible excursion of mine to an area a few states away, North of the City asked me, “have you researched the transportation there?” Well, of course I have researched it. Down to every possible permutation. Greyhound or Bolt Bus or Chinatown bus or regional rail? Which is the cheapest? Which is the fastest? Which meets up with the local bus of a city in which I have spent no more than five minutes of my life? Researching local buses is by far the most complicated yet interesting part of any trip I plan, in any state or country. The websites of local bus networks are meant for locals and they read that way. Even my own Metro-North site organizes its local trains by “East of the Hudson” and “West of the Hudson.” If I told you to meet me in Croton or in Hawthorne, how would you know which of those to choose? This is what you’re up against when you plan trips by public transport.
But I love doing it. I love the challenge and the planning and the novelty. And then, of course, you have to do the whole process again for the way back. That’s the most important part, really, and I discovered that two decades ago in college, planning a trip to a mall in the suburbs of Baltimore. I loved malls and the one in White Plains, where I grew up, was easily accessible by public transportation. The Bee Line, Westchester’s system of buses, has actually won awards for its coverage and organization. And then I came to the Baltimore area where things weren’t quite so good. I remember phoning the Capital Center in Landover and asking them how to get there by public transportation so I could see the Rangers play. “You can’t,” the guy said to me matter-of-factly. “I mean, you could take a taxi here, but no cab would come pick you up.” That sort of stunned me. How could there be a place not accessible by public transportation? That’s when I became a Baltimore Skipjacks fan. You could get to the Baltimore Arena easily on the #3. You still can, even though the Skipjacks left long ago and they keep talking about replacing it. The Cap Center is gone, though, replaced by an arena that is situated on top of a transit stop. Ha!
But back to the malls. I found that this mall (and I honestly cannot remember which one – White Marsh? Hunt Valley? Who knows) could be reached by bus and I planned my trip. Except somehow, I missed that there was only one bus in the afternoon that returned. Naturally, I figured that out after I had done my shopping and needed to get back to school. And then, and then, I had to go to the ATM and withdraw $40 which was what the cab cost to go home. That may not seem like a lot now, but back then, I had so little cash in my account that I usually couldn’t even use the ATM because it only dispensed twenties and I never had $20. I think I used my credit card to take a cash advance. The only way I could keep from mentally berating myself all the way home was to tell myself that it was a $40 lesson. The lesson was, always plan the way back, too. And I always do now. It seems pretty cheap if you average it over the years that it has stood me well. Good as gold.
I also learned to stick with Owings Mills or Mondawmin as far as malls went. In Mondawmin, which was the closest mall to campus, I was the only white person I ever saw. I remember thinking, “do no other Hopkins students know there’s this mall right here?” And you could take the bus or the subway, a rarity in Baltimore. Weird! Once, on the bus, in which I was also always the only white person who got on west of Hampden, I was walking down the aisle to get to my seat when a guy I had passed sitting in front called out, “I got jungle fever!” Later, I starred in the Baby Got Back video.
Anyway, I may still take this trip, it’s not been decided yet, but either way, it was fun to plan. The way back, too.