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A Bus Novice Learns the Rules Of the Ride

Picture this: The sun is bright, you're half-awake, driving to work. Suddenly a shadow falls over your car as an exhaust-belching bus cuts you off. You slam on your brakes. The bus whizzes past you through a yellow light - which you don't make. When the light turns green, another bus materializes in front of you, stops, and lets off 25 passengers. Cars stream by on your left. You're late to work.

That used to be me. But then my car broke down, and I had to ride the bus for two weeks. Despite my previous experience on the bus in junior high, I was a bus-riding novice. This was the big leagues: public transportation. I was slow. I held the bus up. The regulars shifted, sighed, and rolled their eyes as I counted my change. On my first day, I found they don't make change for a dollar on the bus. The driver didn't miss a beat. "Anybody got change for a dollar?" he yelled.

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We lurched forward, sailing through a yellow light. I stumbled against a passenger in the first row. There was an expectant pause. Everyone stared. Finally, a woman slowly pulled off her glove and counted out the change I needed. "Thanks," I said, my face as red as the upholstery in my waylaid car.

I also had trouble anticipating my stop that first day. I had visions of the bus speeding past my stop, destined for the end of the line. I watched the other riders hit the yellow strip that ran next to the window: "Ding!" The bus obeyed. Looked easy. I thought I saw my stop coming. "Ding!" Oops, wrong stop. "Ding!" Oops, wrong again. A third "ding" brought a loud protest from the driver. "Who keeps ringing and not getting off?!" he yelled. I blushed a deeper scarlet. Surely nobody would know it was me. "It was her," a guy in a leather bomber jacket betrayed me. "She doesn't know what she's doing." He obviously did. He had displayed a certain je ne sais quoi when he'd climbed aboard and swiped his travel card with precision. He was no bumbling change-carrying passenger. He was a regular.

I became more accustomed to the routine over the next two weeks. But there remained some mysteries. I could never understand those people who got on the bus to ride it for only two blocks. How did the woman in the back of the bus apply a full face of makeup without decorating the seat in front of her? And I was baffled one day when the bus driver pulled over on the side of the road next to a McDonald's and ran inside, leaving the doors wide open. We all sat there in silence. Nobody looked too surprised, except me. One minute passed. Two minutes. Three minutes later, the driver returned with an Egg McMuffin and we were on our way again.

After the first week, I brought reading material. I started making friends on the bus. You can learn a lot about somebody in 10 blocks. I got some exercise walking the three blocks between my stop and work. With no gas to buy, I had more spending money. Then the garage called. "Your car is ready."

I left my fellow bus riders somewhat reluctantly. Back in traffic behind the wheel, I almost missed the wheeze and whine of the bus doors. I found I began slowing down to let buses merge in front of me. There was no camaraderie with my fellow drivers. No group patience. That made up my mind. When I moved north a few months later for a new job, my car stayed behind.

So the next time a bus cuts you off, think of me - I may be on board.

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