Bus Route 423
Sydney. © Dean Sewell
On a sunny spring Monday, a man called Jeff from the Salvation Army arrives at my front door. Together we walk to my car. I hand him the keys and watch him get inside and drive away. And for the first time in almost 30 years I do not own a car.
Since adolescence, the idea that a car means freedom has been deeply embedded in my psyche. For a long time it was true. At 18, I lived in a country town with no public transport, and my 1976 lime-green Gemini was a chariot of independence. It carried me to and from work, along rutted dirt roads to my friends’ farmhouses, then onto the highway out of town: to university, into the world, to adulthood.
It carried me to the city, where it was eventually stolen, stripped and abandoned in a dingy suburban car park. Its bones were donated to a wrecker. The Gemini was followed by the Ford twins, Laser and Festiva (I hope somewhere there’s a family of girls with these names), and they, too, faithfully transported me through my city days and weeks and years. I drove back and forth to the beach, the country, up and down the east coast.
But, slowly, the affection for my wheels began to fade. I spent too much of my life either motionless in traffic, or driving round-the-block loops in search of a park. Miraculously I never had a prang, but my cars bloomed with dings and dents anyway. Once, waiting at a set of lights, I watched a man leap from his Audi, march up to the Camry in front and throw a punch through the driver’s open window.
My parking fees and fines could have financed an annual holiday. There was a memorable two-hour, central-lane breakdown on a Harbour Bridge exit, at peak hour, in the rain. By the time the NRMA arrived two hours later, I was teary and shaking from the screech of tyres, the blaring horns and bellowed abuse from other drivers.
With my return to full-time study came a sizeable income drop and a concession card. A smart car-share business was booming in our suburb, its shiny little Yarises with their orange wing mirrors roosting in reserved parking spaces all around our streets. We lived two minutes’ walk from grocery stores; public transport was handy. Suddenly $65 a month to insure my worthless bomb seemed insane.
As Salvo Jeff drives my car away I’m surprised by a surge of familiar feeling. It’s freedom – the same thrill I felt when I drove my Gemini away from its one lady owner all those years ago.
My first outing sans car is to visit a friend on the other side of the city, across the harbour. I have always loved riding in buses. A latecomer to public transport, I feel oddly queenly on a bus, sitting up high, unburdened by traffic jams or road rage. I like the peculiar blend of privacy and intimacy that bus travel creates, and the possibility of dreaminess.
There’s a special resonance to this morning’s trip into Circular Quay; I’m as alert, as keenly observant of every street and fellow passenger as I was on first arriving as a staring country girl, 25 years ago. Indeed, a family from Condobolin is sitting nearby in their three pairs of seats, gawking, shouting out landmarks to each other. The mother is the proud tour guide – “See that, Callum? That’s the Queen Victoria Building.” The son nods in respect, mouth open. Soon he cries out: “Mum! That’s where they do Sunrise!” The whole family cranes for the slivered view, then sits back, breathless with discovery.
I remember this feeling. I want to sit with them and join in.
At the Quay there’s a half-hour wait for my ferry. The sun is shining; it’s the first really sparkling day of spring. I sit back in the sun-warmed curve of the slatted bench on Wharf Number Four and close my eyes, lulled by the slow lift and bump of the pontoon, smelling the dank, lovely harbour: diesel and seawater overlaid with the scent of ripe strawberries and Maltesers – a nearby family’s morning tea.
At the other side of the harbour I climb the old stone stairs up from the jetty and walk to my friend’s house, stunned by bright beauty: foaming hedges of star jasmine, cackling birds, jacarandas in bloom everywhere. My limbs are loose, my back straight. This year has seen my lowest income in a decade, so what is this sudden feeling of wealth?
In the following weeks I learn my way around bus routes and timetables. Life slows down. And I see that this is it – a richness of time. For all their frustrations, cars are still quicker than buses. So my days are emptier; instead of cramming six things in, I fit in one or two. There is downtime, lots of waiting. I’m never without a book.
At the same time, I learn to seize moments, to run for the bus, make contingency plans if I miss one. I put together a carry pack of new essentials: a sunhat, a light scarf, a rain jacket, sunscreen. As a driver I never considered the weather before I left the house, but now I am in it, always. I rediscover its simple, sensuous pleasures. My 16-year-old niece visits from Tassie, and on our way to a city restaurant we’re trapped in a torrential downpour – we pelt, shrieking and sodden, through the fairy lights of Hyde Park. Another day, another niece, languidly blank-eyed as only a 12-year-old can be, is prised from her iPod and forced by our car-lessness into walking. She’s briefly, shockingly transformed, chattering and dancing and skipping all the way to dinner.
There are other realisations. Bus travel forces me into my community, and I realise how intolerant I’ve become. In my driving bubble I could control all noise, temperature, ambience. On the bus, the tinny jangle of someone’s headphones initially sets off a furious irritation in me. Doesn’t he know how loud that is? It is a jolt to understand how prissily middle class I am, how easily threatened. When a threesome of skinny, shouting junkies lurches down the aisle, bawling out details of housing commission deals and pension days, I stiffen, willing them not to sit near me. Will they ask for money? Will I be embarrassed? But they’re as pitiable and harmless as rescue-shelter pups.
Never travelling in peak hour, I learn the other tides of bus travel. In the midmornings a whole class of ghost people appear: the elderly. I realise with shock that when I drove, old people were invisible except as dangerous idiots crossing the road. Now, watching them climb on and off the buses, dragging shopping trolleys behind them, I am struck by their power and purpose. And I wonder, when I am old and straightening my back is an effortful task, will I have the guts and stamina to strike out into the world as they do, these dignified women and men in their beautifully pressed blouses and trousers?
Midmornings and early afternoons also bring babies: solemn and watchful, silken-haired and plump-lipped, mercurial moods crossing their faces like fast-moving clouds.
I know I must be in the honeymoon phase of public transport; it’s summer, I’m unemployed, nobody has coughed tuberculosis over me or called me a cunt or thrown up on my shoes. It’s not cold or rainy, I’m never in a hurry.
I hope it lasts.
The babies and elderly are gone by late afternoon, replaced by students and workers. Late nights are strangely homogenous: tired but happy young people, glued either to each other or their phones, smiling dreamily as their texting thumbs fly. A late-night bus is a strangely peaceful affair, at least in my neck of the woods.
A bus trip is the only time I’m in the company of strangers that doesn’t involve commerce and transaction. Carried together through the streets, here is my community, in repose. We’re all forced to share, not just our space, but our physical selves, our defencelessness. It’s difficult to get closer to a stranger than on a bus – close enough to see the painful-looking pimple swelling behind an ear, the blurred tattoo on an exposed hipbone, the frayed elastic on a pair of undies peeping from a waistband. You see the grey roots, the clumsily applied fake tan.
Maybe this is why I find it so affecting. On a bus we are revealed and connected, close up: all guilelessly, fallibly human. As basic as this is, it feels an important thing to remember, as I step onto the street and raise my hand to hail the 423.