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The Many Faces of Mass Transit

MY mother gave up driving on the day she was taking a lesson from my father, who had fallen asleep in the passenger seat of their '40s-model car. She misjudged a turn and hit a garbage can at the corner of a neighborhood street. Rolling downhill, the can knocked over a gas-station attendant.

My mother turned to my father, who had been startled awake, and said, "This is the last time I drive." And it was.

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I learned the geography of my childhood city from the windows of a big mustard-yellow bus called "The Broadway." I repeated bus schedules and routes the way some children recited their address and phone number. I was always finding worn schedules stuffed in the pockets of jeans and jackets.

I loved the bump and roll of the big bus. For years I never felt rushed in getting from one place to another. All the stops along the route gave me a chance to know the city in a way that I never could have had I been riding in a car.

My world widened beyond the secure home streets of Klickitat and Sikiyou into areas boundaried by street names hollered out in distinct syllables as the driver approached them: "Al-ber-ta, Al-der, Fre-mont." Sometimes the driver might even add a syllable, "Broad-i-way." On the return ride, the familiar "Klick-i-tat" was as comforting as the house that waited right around the corner.

At various times in my childhood, I used mass transit to travel to swimming and music lessons, to friends' homes, and to have my braces tightened.

I learned about patience from bus drivers who waited as older women and men navigated the steep stairs and fumbled through bags and pockets for correct change.

I sat next to readers, to people who worked crossword puzzles, and sometimes next to people my friends used to call "chatters," those passengers who visited with you from the moment they graced the worn leather seats until the time they rose to pull the bell cord for their stop.

Every person who sat across from or next to me had a story. I soaked up their conversations and let my young imagination picture their homes, their families, and the small triumphs and dramas they spoke of to the driver.

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Though these storytellers were anonymous, most likely never to be seen again, I still remember the suits and dresses they wore. I was surprised by the universality of their stories. How was it that a woman I didn't know could talk about the same feelings my mother shared with me the week before?

My children and I still navigate new cities by bus or subway. We let the bus driver worry about how to get where we're going. All we have to do is study a schedule, figure out our destination, and let the bus take us there.

My daughter Hallie's favorite ride was the Boston subway system. Passing Fenway Park, she stood balancing like a sailor as the crowded car rounded a curve. The hands of the people sitting around us reached instinctively to steady her.

Though I have felt and even welcomed anonymity on a bus, I've also experienced public transportation as a place where strangers occasionally reach out to help create balance in a rocky world.

On the West Coast, the East Coast can appear to be a frightening place, framed as it is by news reports that focus on crime and violence. Until we took the subway, my children saw the East as one big, scary city. Now they list Boston as one of their favorite places.

And I have learned that there is a need to be cautious, but that living in fear is one of the deepest tragedies of all.

THAT day in Boston - among the jostling crowd, the sullen and not-so-sullen faces - didn't feel so different from the many days of my childhood. Passing through the turnstile and giving a big grin to the occasional ticket-seller made me feel more secure than I'd felt yet in a new place.

So it is that we keep taking the bus. From the ticket sellers in Massachusetts to the bus driver in Ottawa who gave us detailed directions to the Natural History Museum, to the Portland drivers who carry bicycle racks on their buses, I've learned a great deal about kindness to strangers, and so have my children.

Next year we'll be living without a car for six months in a place with buses that traverse city streets as well as rocky mountain roads. Everything will be unfamiliar to us - the language, the place, the people.

Whenever I feel hesitant, I think of the bus and know that during homesick times, there will be a sure source of comfort.

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