With congestion pricing going into effect, more and more people are taking the public transportation into the city (Manhattan). Just all those people on a bus, sharing fumes. Talk about congestion.

Where I live (Passaic), the quickest way to get in and out of the city is to take a jitney, which sounds like a derogatory racial slur, like, “I don’t want to go to the zoo; all the jitneys are going to be there.” And jitneys are not pleasant (I am back to talking about buses). You know how in yeshiva there’s like a short bus for the kids to go home early if they can’t handle a full day of school?

But the jitney is more direct than the train, comes quicker than the city buses, and is 50 cents cheaper or possibly 50 cents more expensive. I forget. But it comes more often.

But it’s not the most pleasant way in. There’s no leg room, it’s dimly lit, and things always take longer than expected. It’s basically like a fancy restaurant.

But it feels safe. There’s a certain safety in knowing that not a single person on the bus actually wants to be there. No one is voluntarily getting on this thing just to steal your bag and then run off down the narrow aisle, bumping into everyone’s knees.

There’s also a certain feeling of safety on any bus that you’re above most of the traffic. Safe enough to walk around while the bus is in motion, like you’re on an airplane. Just hanging onto the monkey bars, swinging from bar to bar to make your way to the front so you can request stops that don’t exist. And if the driver hits the brakes while you’re walking around, you won’t go flying through the windshield, because you’ll gradually be stopped on the way forward by everyone’s shoulders.

There are two kinds of people on the bus: Those who do not say a word the entire time, and those who do not stop talking. But never in English. And the person they’re with does not say a single word the whole time. It’s just a one-sided conversation. Or the person they’re sitting next to doesn’t actually know them; you have no idea.

The third type of person on the bus is babies who kvetch the entire way to the city.

Keep it inside, like everyone else.

But if there’s one thing everyone on the bus has in common, it’s that everyone wants to have been the last person to get on. They want no one to get on after them. This is it, they hope. The driver will decide, “I don’t need more money for this trip that I’m doing anyway. Let’s skip this family standing on the street corner.” Every time the driver stops to pick up more people, everyone sighs.

So you’re the last one. You get on, and everyone immediately feels the urge to look out the window, so you can’t make eye contact with anyone, unless you go back outside, which is where you were. You should have picked a person then. You go all the way to the back of the bus, like you’re going to suddenly find a seat you didn’t see from the front, like with parking spots: “Oh, I thought that seat was empty, but there’s a small person in there.” Then you start swiveling around, trying to get someone to look at you and move their bag.

No one wants to sit next to you. They want to sit next to their bags. They specifically paid a second fare for their bags. Sometimes they’ll give their bags the aisle seats, sometimes the window seats; whatever the bag wants. But it’s clearly your fault that you want to sit, like you should have known there was someone on every bench before you got on. The bus has windows.

What do you want from me? I can’t get off the bus now. The driver already took my money, and we’re 3 full blocks from where he picked me up.

On a city bus, there are poles, so you can just stand. On a jitney, you can’t do that. It’s not really tall enough to stand.

So you sit. And the entire way into the city, you try, by way of apology, not to touch the person next to you or breathe their oxygen, so as not to inconvenience them. Kind of like when you have to walk across a floor that someone is mopping, but you want them to know you’re sorry, so you walk on your tiptoes.

“Yeah, this is less inconvenient. It’s not as dirty now because you did that. I only have to reclean some partial footprints.”

If you were really sorry, you’d get a running jump and have them throw the stuff you were carrying after you. Or your shoes.

So every turn the bus makes, you brace yourself like a board so you don’t lean into them. And they’re thinking, “Boy I really appreciate this. I totally expected him to fall into me that time.” And you have white knuckles from holding on to the headrest in front of you, inconveniencing the person in that seat who’s trying not to touch your hands with his head. Or lean on the person next to him. It’s a delicate ecosystem.

Meanwhile, the window people, who have already resigned themselves that they’re going to have to stay on the bus for a few extra stops until the aisle people get off, also lean away from the aisle people, and put their heads against the window, feeling every vibration of the bus through a rattling window that is definitely not sitting squarely in its frame. The bus company keeps the price down by not adding shocks at all. That’s where the 50 cents goes. Or a muffler, or any kind of way of circulating the air. They’re like, “Eh, the driver opens the door every block or so, they’ll be fine. The windows don’t have to open.”

At least the aisle people can sit with one leg in the aisle, like they’re ready to sprint to another seat the moment one opens up, like if a person starts monkey barring to the front to request a stop. That guy comes back to his seat, and, “Sorry, it’s taken! I’m sitting next to your kid now! Oh my goodness; stop crying.”

And then at various times you get a face full of someone’s breath or homemade cologne or whatever, and you have to bury your nose in your own coat or something; smell your own smells for a moment so your brain resets. You spend the entire trip trying not to breathe, or breathing maybe half as much as you normally would. You can literally hear the exhaust fumes building around the bus, particularly at red lights. And the bus makes every red light.

This is not the driver’s fault. The driver tries to make the green lights. You give him cash, and he gives you your change back as he’s driving, while he’s merging back into traffic. He’s driving around with a pile of bills in one hand and coins in the other, steering with his wrists. Your life is in the hands of this one guy you don’t know who is making turns you would never make in your entire life (“Are we hovering over that car?”) in a bus patched together from spare parts, where the seats are clearly taken from old bowling alleys that have closed down. And parts of the console are missing (“Were they stolen?”) And in those holes, the driver has various plastic bags containing parts of his lunch, which he’s eating with his knees.

A jitney is as close as you get to third-world transportation. There are people of every nationality, and they have all their worldly belongings, and someone has a live chicken (not me), and there are strollers littering the front that you have to climb over as you’re getting your change, while the driver is listening to some foreign radio station the whole time that you now all have to listen to.

It basically takes the uncomfortableness of travelling by train, but with the added factor of traffic that makes the length of the trip as unknowable as if you were driving on your own, except that if you were driving on your own, you would use your GPS and avoid certain roads, whereas the bus driver has to take those roads, because of the bus stops. He can’t just avoid them and take the quieter roads and pick up random people who didn’t expect the bus to be coming that way.

“I was just crossing the street!”

“Too bad; you’re on the bus now.”

“I don’t want to be on the bus!”

“No one does.” n

Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of seven books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com. Read more of Mordechai Schmutter’s articles at 5TJT.com.


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