Magic Jewball

all signs point to no


The $40 lesson

Filed under : Life in general,Travel
On July 22, 2010
At 11:30 pm
Comments : 14

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.

Stan Ridgway – Stranded


14 Comments for this post

  1. sarpon says:


    So when I was what? Eleven? I wanted to go roller skating (when you could wear the ones with four wheels each without being ironic!) and my parents said no, we don’t want to pick you up from the rink and I said I’ll get a ride except I forgot to get a ride and when the rink closed I didn’t have a ride and it was too far to walk so I called the police department and they did send an officer who did take me home and he and my parents all three chewed my head off for using the police department as a taxi service.

    Lucky for me I am an old and the town didn’t charge my parents a meelyon dollars for my stupidity as towns are wont to do today.

  2. Alex says:

    It would break your heart to see the Owings Mills mall today, Becca. Two years ago, I was there for the first time in 15 years. It’s dying a slow–and very hideous–death.

  3. Irishelena says:

    Very good one, Becca. That’s the story of my life too, as a non-driver, in a much smaller town than yours. I remember maybe 20 years ago going to White Flint mall with my DC-sister, and it seemed like the bus took hours each way. We got to see rural scenery–it was like a Deluxe Motor Coach Tour of Ireland, or something! Here we now have a pretty good intercity bus system, as long as you don’t want to go anywhere on Sundays [no service at all]. But the bus doesn’t go to the hockey arena in Raleigh, and you don’t want to be at the bus station in downtown Durham the time of night a Bulls game lets out. So only on the rare Wednesday day games do I ever take a bus there. But it’s fun doing it, so freeing not to have to rely on someone else driving. On trips, my sister and I always check out the public transportatin from the airport and to any sightseeing not in walking distance of our hotel. She really has a thing against using cabs–not for the money, but about being able to do it all on her own, I think.

  4. Priszm says:

    Don’t plan a trip down here to Tampa. Our public transportation system sucks. I live 4 miles from work. Checked the bus schedules, it’d take me 45 minutes to get there. Minneapolis/St. Paul, on the other hand, has a very decent public transportation system.

  5. North of the City says:

    What do you mean, the Skipjacks left??

  6. Jane says:

    Hee! I love this post. Mostly because I just purchased a one-way ticket to NYC for late August. The way back will be the best part.

  7. Melanie says:

    I loved the White Marsh mall when I went to school in Baltimore, but mostly just for Ikea, which isn’t actually in the White Marsh mall.

  8. Tami says:


    In my religion we have a lay ministry. No one is paid even one cent. So, the Sunday meetings are overseen by regular people like me. Each person has a “job” in the church. (that is neither here nor there but…) For the main Sabbath meeting we have two to three speakers. Sometimes it’s ME.

    So, next time it’s me, would you mind if I borrowed this story?? As I read it, it made me think about life. It seems that I work and work to ‘make it’ in my life, to do good, to be a friend, to make money, etc… Then, I ask myself “have I planned my way back?” you know, to my life after this one. Am I doing all that I can to return to my creator?

    Anyway, just a thought. I’ll never forget the $40 lesson.

  9. Becca says:

    Wowzah! If I had known, sitting dejected in the parking lot of Unknown Maryland Mall, that one day the story would hit a nerve on the internet, I would have said, “what the hell is the Internet?”

    Sarp, I think they should have commended you. Free taxi service!

    Alex, thanks for the warning; I shall not go back. Do you know what happened? Other than people have no money to shop anymore?

    Elena, I forgot about White Flint! And I hear that story about Sundays a lot. When we did Komen in Austin, there were no Sunday buses either. I guess everyone’s supposed to stay home and think of God. Oh, and I am with your sister. I do not like cabs. I do not like spending money, I do not like making chit chat with strangers, and I do not like being in the back seat driven like Miss Daisy.

    Prizm, my Dad had a place in Tampa for many years and I agree, that’s true. There’s nothing like driving down Dale Mabry from strip mall to strip mall, running your errands. I think this is where my image of the world outside NY comes from.

    North, uh no, that’s a lie. They’re still there and Steve Seftel is the left wing. Forget I said anything!

    Jane, I think that’s where half the population in NY comes from. They just didn’t plan a way home.

    Melanie, me too! Several pieces of my furniture that are doing just fine to this day come from that Ikea. Luckily, I did have a friend or two with a car so I didn’t have to tote a dresser on the bus.

    Tami, that is really, really lovely. I just love the idea of you using it that way. Please do borrow it and I won’t even charge you $40.

  10. Alex says:

    Becca, Owings Mills Town Center seems to have died while I wasn’t looking. (I spent a long time not looking, so it had plenty of opportunity.) I’ve read that its proximity to the single line of Baltimore Metro Subway (one line–that amuses me so much) made it an attractive destination for an undesirable element. Crime started to increase, and Towson Town Center doubled in size, so people started shopping there. This was, according to what I’ve read, the beginning of Owings Mills Mall’s death spiral.

    Nowadays, it can’t keep department stores as anchors. When I was last there, in the summer of 2008, about a third of the interior store fronts were vacant.

  11. kylydia says:

    This makes me laugh at the enormous difference in our lives. Seriously! Do you know that I’ve never used the public transportation in my town (bus only)? I live about four miles from work and I, too, looked at riding the bus to work. I’d have to walk a half mile to the closest stop, ride the bus for an hour (making two connections), and then walk another half mile to the office. Is that the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard? I could walk to work, seriously uphill, in less time than public transit could get me there…and this city is the Capital!

  12. Becca says:

    That’s so interesting, Alex, because that’s why I shopped there: its proximity to the subway. Thanks for the (sad) update.

    Lydia, I think most people are like that and whether bus service is limited because no one uses it or if no one uses it because its limited, I’m not sure. But I wish it weren’t so!

    But in response to both these comments, I should say that I don’t only find shopping centers by their proximity to public transportation, I find homes that way too. When I moved to Northwest Baltimore, I made a little circle around the subway stop (and as Alex points out, there is just one line) and went looking from there. On Sundays, the subway didn’t run (maybe it still doesn’t) and that bus ride extended my commute by 45 minutes… but I made sure there was at least one bus that went from my neighborhood to downtown.

    These days, I live in the lap of public transportation luxury and could be so snobby as to refuse to live near a local stop and instead chose to only look at homes near express stops!

    Oh, and Alex, you’ll love this. The Metrocard case I had two before this current one was selected from the “Great Subways of the World” collection. Of course I chose Baltimore so I could snort every time I looked at it. I wish they still made that.

  13. Alex says:

    “Great Subways of the World” includes Charm City? Well, shut my mouth.

    I suppose I should’ve realized proximity to the Subway would’ve been a draw for you. I hope you understand that when I say “undesirable element,” I don’t mean you. I mean people with mohawks. And striped pants.

  14. Becca says:

    I have to go with the belief that every subway of the world was a Great Subway of the World.

    And yes. I once saw a sign at Milford Mill about a new apartment complex being built pretty much right next to the stop and seriously considered moving there.

    As an aside, my mother had a dear friend from college and we used to visit her family every year in Baltimore when I was a child. I remember the friend telling us they were building a subway and the Old Court station was right nearby! I remember thinking, “ooooh, wow” in bored fashion. It never occurred to me that it would have any kind of effect on my life.

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