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2012: A bus odyssey

People didn’t always ride buses as if someone had set fire to their pants, but the harried faces on the #1 look like there are seven stops between them and the nearest extinguisher.

Buses were once symbols of discovery.

In 1964 novelist Ken Kesey journeyed from California to New York City with his collection of Merry Pranksters on the ‘magic bus’. Neal Cassady—the railroadman Jack Kerouac immortalized in On The Road—steered them across the country between bumps of speed.

This reporter sets out on the eve of a storm to explore Halifax’s transit system.

*****

I huddle beneath the canopy at the University of King’s College bus stop on Coburg Road as a blanket of mist tears across the roadway and strikes my half-sheltered leather jacket like BB pellets bouncing off a rhinoceros.

A figure joins me, seeking shelter from Hurricane Sandy’s darkening weather—a student by his knapsack, fogged glasses and stern face.

“When’s the next bus?” I ask him, not quite revealing that I have no plan nor means of navigation.

“Well,” said the student, stepping into the rain to show me the bus sign. “You go to the code on the sign here. See, yeah, punch that into your phone. And they send you a voice message with the time of your bus.”

“Don’t they have an app for that?”

“Not that I know of,” he says with a shrug.

Metro Transit has made a bid for online relevance with the Google trip planner, says spokesperson Sean McKinley, referring to the online maps service that allows you to follow your route in real time on a computer or mobile device.

“You have a better sense of when the bus is leaving. It allows people to make decisions on how much time they need to make a connection.”

Back on the bus unfriendly silence prevails as we rocket down Coburg Road. I hear hydraulics from the door beside me, and the clinking of mints in the pocket of the girl behind me. Lost in the muted atmosphere I’m suddenly at Spring Garden Road, where I disembark.

I gaze down the street, storefronts glowing under white streetlamps like in an opium dream. On the horizon roars the number—

“What number is that?” asks a man in a leather jacket wearing a Bluetooth device in his ear.

I shrug and we both squint to see the number.

“I think it’s the 40,” I say, but the man corrects me. “It’s the 20,” he says, and proceeds to tell me he’s just had laser eye surgery.  The man chuckles, and reveals a smile like cracked eggshells.

“Regardless of what kind of bus it is, if it has wheels, I take it,” he says, then steps aside to let me on first, I head to the back.

The man shares jokes with a lady up front, old friends on a familiar route. I ride the 20 through the downtown core, out past the police station and keep going north until the Mackay Bridge where the driver jolts the bus to a stop.

Metro Transit commissioned a subdivision of Clean Nova Scotia called FleetWiser to keep its buses energy efficient and green. Part of the mandate advises drivers not to accelerate madly only to lay on the brakes a couple of meters later, says FleetWiser coordinator Derek Gillis.

“This is it,” he yells back at the few stragglers left in the cab. Everyone gets off, but I saunter up to where the driver’s writing in a notepad. He’s a big guy in blue uniform with a stubbly chin, I ask him the best way to do a loop of the area and still end up back at King’s.

“Oh, a loop,” he says, rubbing his chin and making a sound like a cactus getting its thistles trimmed. “It’d be better if you took the 1 or the 14 back to the universities.”

I cross the street, Sandy slapping water into my eyes. I huddle into the nearest booth, resigned that the bus is made less for riding than teleporting from one place to the next. But, if you’re not easily discouraged, there are things to discover.

I take the #18 to a gigantic Christmas arts bazaar inside the Forum, entertained en route by a clan of synchronized demigoths watching cat videos on their phones. On the #4 I discover a suburban strip-mall in the far reaches of Bedford. I return home from my adventure with a handmade forest fir candle and a postcard from Big Sur, California from the late ‘70s. I am quite happy.

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