Bus driving through the Apocalypse

A bus without people is a lonely place. Like a school in the summertime, a banquet hall after the wedding, an office tower on the weekend, an empty bus is sad. For the past few weeks, we’ve all had to confront a world none of us imagined, one we thought confined to the science fiction nightmares of feverish late night imaginations, and as a bus driver, I’ve seen my whole place of work change overnight. A bus once crowded has turned into a one man parade, marching to its own chugging, belching diesel beat; an empty bus moving through empty city streets, a barge bereft of any purpose it might have once had.

Real talk in the concrete by the garage. Probably a little too real these days.

Of course there were empty buses before all of this happened. Barely used suburban routes chugging infrequently through subdivisions and country roads, trips designed to pick up school kids empty the weeks of winter vacation, a morning rush hour trip leaving downtown after dropping everyone off. This time it’s different though. It’s not just a moment of quiet in an otherwise busy day, but an entire day devoid of all the usual stressors and excitement that usually make up the bus driver’s life.

Me driving Line 17 during the summer before Coronavirus came to town.

A bus is a temporary community, with a cast of characters that appear day after day, at the same stops, at the same times. Now it is a party that no one shows up to. Friday during rush hour I drove Line 17 all the way through Northeast Portland, through Concordia and Irvington, down Broadway, over the Broadway Bridge and did not pick up one person. I looked at every empty bus shelter, every lonely bus pole and hoped that someone would get on my bus, at least one person. It’s 8:30 in the morning, I thought, this bus should be full by the time I reach downtown. Instead, I drove just myself. I looked at my mirrors, watched an empty bike lane, waved at other drivers who also piloted empty buses. I stopped at empty stops to use up time, because we are still following a schedule made for the much busier world we left behind three weeks ago.

During a pandemic, I tell myself as lonely as I am, an empty bus isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Every person boarding could be carrying the contagion. Instead of greeting people with a friendly hello or dispensing directions or small talk about the day, I view everyone with suspicion. Is this the person that is going to get me sick? A person coughs on the bus and everyone moves away. I think about how long that person was close to me, what did they touch on the bus? I blast the fans and commend my hands into the spirit of hand sanitizer and wipes. When everyone is a potential threat, it’s harder to be kind, and I briskly say hello and wave at people to sit down, hopefully far away from me.

The upside to the empty streets is buses that were impossible to keep on schedule are now always on time. With nobody out, there is no traffic. Nobody is in a rush to get anywhere, because there is nowhere to go. No more people cutting me off, running red lights, honking. Because there is no traffic, I’ve noticed I’ve become less stressed. The bus moves so quickly, with no obstacles and fewer stops to make, that I don’t feel the please-just-get-me-home-already vibes from the commuters on the bus. It feels strange though, driving through a ghost town where the only hives of activity are full grocery store parking lots with lines snaking up the block like a photo from scarce times in Eastern Europe in the 1980s.

It’s strange but not all bad. I’ve noticed people biking down streets that were so congested before all this it would have been a deathwish to bike down them. There are more folks out walking. Kids are taking over streets, skateboarding down commercial strips with boarded up shops. The empty streets feel like looking at the forest in winter. Everything is the same, but different, lacking the birdsong hum of engines, the pretty flowers of the shiny metal beans that usually clog the roads. Just like that unadorned winter forest has creatures crawling around, the streets every once and a while has a person walking, or biking, or driving, saying I am still here, the city is still alive.

An empty New Flyer waiting for all the nice people to get back on the bus when this is all over.

Driving an empty bus feels futile, but so does a city without what feels like anyone in it. What is a city if people can’t commune, can’t get together? What’s a bus if no one is riding? The bus is a weird instant community, a town square where the richest and poorest rub shoulders, sometimes chat, give advice, track ghosts, stare out the window or at their phones. What happens when that disappears? The bus is just a lonely shell, flotsam in the sea, with me, the lonely bus driver, waiting for someone to get on board.

Sometimes dreams become too true. Yesterday, after spending most of my almost 11 hour shift lamenting how bored and lonely I was, my last trip got interesting. I was driving Line 75, and picked up a passenger on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. He wheeled on a power washer and grinned at me as he walked by. His face had the scabs of a meth user. At first he sat down, then got up quickly as I rumbled up MLK. He strapped the washer in with the red straps used to help secure wheelchairs. I got to a timepoint, a spot where if I’m running ahead I have to wait until I am back on schedule. I opened the doors, parked the bus, and announced we would be there for a minute. The man walked toward the front door, pulling out a knife just smaller than a machete. “I need to go carve something quick.” He jumped off the bus and started to stab the nearby telephone pole. He walked further up the street.

I turned and looked toward the two passengers on board to see if anyone else saw what I just did. A woman had big eyes and stared at me. “Did you see how big that knife was?” I ask.

“Oh my lord it was huge.”

“I think I’m just gonna take off,” I said, fearing I would be the next thing he wanted to carve.

“Man, people be crazy,” she said. “He forgot his power washer too.”

I waited until I was supposed to go and looked up the street. He was nowhere in sight and I took off. Later on when we got to Killingsworth, the woman unstrapped the power washer. “Man, look at this gross thing.” She wheeled it off the bus and up the street. Even in the midst of the pandemic the bus continues to provide the wonders of the sick world. The weirdness of the city lives on, even if many of the people are staying inside.

During training, we would pepper our trainers with all sorts of what if scenarios. It’s a big scary world out there and we were about to leave the nest. One thing the trainer told us was no matter what, our job is to keep the bus moving, safely of course, but the bus needs to move. Even if no one is on, the bus needs to go forward, moving down empty streets. The bus runs to a schedule. It’s stability, scheduled stability, rumbling through a world where everything feels like it has changed. It helps nurses and doctors get to the hospitals, clerks to the grocery stores, people to appointments, folks to buy food. The bus is a lifeboat floating through the empty sea of the city, wheezing to save us when everything else is falling apart.

Just like there are rosebuds growing in Peninsula Park on an overcast day as the 4 trundles by, and cherry blossoms floating through the cold air past bare oak trees like snow, one day the empty winter scenes of the city will fill up with the flowers and green of spring and summer. One day this will all end, the city will blossom again with all its noise and traffic, and the bus will be full, of folks who are late for work, of grocery carts full of food, and with people just looking to get around. I want them all to stay home and be safe and healthy, but I miss them. I want them to come ride my bus again when this is all over. I miss them on my bus.

This is a personal blog and while I am an employee of TriMet, the views expressed in this blog are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of TriMet. Be healthy, stay safe, wash your hands, and ride the bus when this is all over!

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Don Iler

I’m a public transit enthusiast in Portland, Oregon. I love public transportation, history and writing.