I begin this story with full disclosure: I like riding on RIPTA buses, or at least I have fond memories of doing so.
Before I stepped on RIPTA bus No. 0124 Friday at a spot some of the locals disparagingly refer to as Hobo Junction â€“ the corner of High and Main, below the P&W truss bridge â€“ I hadnâ€™t been aboard one for about 40 years. When I was around 15 years old, the bus was how my friends and I used to go to downtown Providence for lunch at the now-defunct Lukeâ€™s Chinese Restaurant, where we reveled in dumping the soy sauce into a bowl of sugar
when no one was looking.
In those days, riding the bus was a rite of juvenile prankster passage, but it didnâ€™t take me long to figure out that fun is not the reason why the downtown bus stop is crowded with waiting riders every morning: Itâ€™s because they have no other way of getting around.
Theyâ€™re poor, disabled, on their way to doctorsâ€™ offices, running to the supermarket to put food on the table. Or it just makes sense to them because itâ€™s cheap and they donâ€™t have to park their car someplace they feel itâ€™s at risk.
Ron Dubois, one rider, told me he refuses to drive his car to Twin River in Lincoln anymore because heâ€™s had his vehicle stolen from the parking lot.
Did he ever get his car back? I wondered.
â€śKinda,â€ť he said. â€śIt was so trashed, it wasnâ€™t really worth it.â€ť
More often riding the bus sounded like a necessity than a choice. Robin, a mother of three, told me sheâ€™s on methadone and the only place she can get it affordably is at the CODAC facility, deep in the west end of Providence. Each day, six days a week, she rides the bus several hours, completing a trip thatâ€™s possible only by making three different RIPTA connections. She does it because methadone, the standard course of recovery for those hooked on opiates, is her lifeline to a brighter, stable future.
â€śI take the 87, the 54 and the 30,â€ť she says.
Why not go to the Discovery House in Woonsocket?
She has a state-subsidized slot to pay for her medication, and there arenâ€™t any openings at Discovery House. So ride she must.
Another rider, Gene Carrier, was a great help to me in understanding RIPTA culture. A disabled DOT bridge inspector, Carrier was coming home from the supermarket when he picked up his transfer bus to South Main Street under the P&W tracks.
When I told him I was doing a story on what itâ€™s like to ride the bus, Carrier explained what the four poster-size numbers lacquered above the windshield of every RIPTA bus mean. The first two numbers, he said, indicate the year the bus was manufactured. The last two signify the number in the fleet. So I was riding in a model-year 2001 jitney.
How did he know that?
â€śIâ€™ve been doing this too long,â€ť he said with a withering smile.
Carrier also knew that we werenâ€™t riding in one of those RIPTA buses with a hybrid engine, because RIPTA stopped buying them. He also predicted that there would be a good chance that on the return leg of my journey I would be lucky enough to board a 2013 model bus. He seemed rather pleased about that, since it would be good for my story. It turned out, by the way, that he was right.
I joined about two dozen riders on the outbound bus from Woonsocket Friday morning, and they seemed genuinely interested in giving me the lowdown about RIPTA â€“ and its drivers. Some were friendly and helpful, I was advised. Others were surly and curt. Some arrived at their stops early and left before the posted departure times, a habit that particularly displeased Sheri White.
Right on time, the lumbering 10:35 a.m. outbound veered toward the sidewalk and ground to a squealing halt. As the automatic doors whisked open with a distinct pneumatic whoosh and White could see who was driving, she quickly uttered, â€śThis is one of the good ones.â€ť His name, he later told me, was Femi Oshiyemi.
I also concluded rather quickly that a lot of things have changed about riding on a RIPTA bus since my soy-spilling excursions to Lukeâ€™s â€“ not all of them good.
I probably should have been prepared for the newfangled, coinless fare system. It cost $2 to get on the bus, which was enough to take me all the way to Providence if I wanted to go that far. I was only going as far as Wal-Mart in North Smithfield. Lucky for me, Carrier, the reluctant guru of RIPTA mores and customs, advised me that if I wasnâ€™t planning on staying long, I could get a return-trip ticket for just 50 cents.
â€śThanks,â€ť I told him. â€śYou just saved me a buck-and-half.â€ť
â€śHey,â€ť he nodded, â€śA buck-and-half is a buck-and-a-half.â€ť
It wasnâ€™t as easy as Iâ€™d hoped to slip three crinkled dollar bills into the automated fare-eating machine, but Oshiyemi â€“ the good driver â€“ lived up to his reputation and patiently helped me insert the bills with well-practiced dexterity. Sadly, however, though I expected to save $1.50 with my quickie round-trip fare, I really only saved $1 because my change came out as a paper credit of 50 cents. Since I knew I wouldnâ€™t be riding the bus again anytime soon, the credit voucher was worthless to me, so I gave it away to another rider.
There are some annoying things about riding buses that have probably never changed since the invention of buses, and I experienced many of those on my RIPTA excursion. One of those things is that bus drivers, even good ones like Oshiyemi, tend to drive off before youâ€™re seated, which makes you feel like youâ€™re standing on the deck of a small boat on a storm-pitched ocean. I donâ€™t get seasick, or carsick, but a friend of mine who was recently forced to ride the bus told me he felt his stomach rebelling at the time, and now I know why.
The pitching momentum doesnâ€™t necessarily stop when you sit down, but the passenger area is outfitted with lots of stability bars to grab onto if youâ€™re feeling tossed-about.
Somehow, as a kid, I remember the pitching, swaying and rumbling as part of the fun of riding on a bus. My guess is most adults would do without it if they could.
I seem to recall that seats on RIPTA buses were filled with lots of comfortable padding, but apparently they donâ€™t make them that way anymore. Today, they try to make the seats prettier, but theyâ€™re really just slabs of hard molded plastic. Theyâ€™re probably built that way because the people who sit in them have changed, too. Try vandalizing one of these seats. Go ahead, just try. Youâ€™ll probably do more damage to yourself than the seat.
And hereâ€™s another thing about riding on buses that hasnâ€™t changed since the invention of buses: you donâ€™t get to pick your company. As it turns out, this was a good thing, at least for me. I was having such a good time talking to some of my fellow riders on RIPTA bus No. 0124 I nearly missed my stop at Wal-Mart in North Smithfield. The last person I talked to was Melissa Rodriquez, a young woman who told me she had just had open heart surgery and that she didnâ€™t feel comfortable driving a car because she was afraid she might go into cardiac arrest behind the wheel.
I got dropped off near the garden shop at Wal-Mart, right next to a sign that said â€“ you guessed it â€“â€ťRIPTA Bus Stop.â€ť I checked the schedule posted underneath it and figured out the next bus back to Woonsocket wouldnâ€™t arrive for another 20 minutes or so. Waiting is another thing that hasnâ€™t changed since the invention of buses.
To kill some time, I annoyed an attendant at Wal-Mart by making him research the cost of a pot of pansies, which I later refused to purchase. Since that only took a few moments, I went in the store and milled around for awhile longer. I bought two packets of Burpee garden seeds and a Rockstar for later, but it would still be a few minutes before the bus came.
I have to admit, when youâ€™re used to driving a car and turning a key in the ignition at your convenience, itâ€™s an odd feeling to be deposited in the parking lot of a large retail plaza without access to a motor vehicle. I felt lost. I found myself looking around for something to do. My gaze kept wandering toward the parking lot where, I think, I expected to see my silver Buick Century, which was back in Woonsocket.
I took a seat on the bench next to the bus stop sign and kept waiting. A guy in a brown twill Wal-Mart uniform marched past with a price-ticketing gun, seemingly oblivious to my predicament. A seagull streaked overhead and emitted a plaintive squawk.
I couldnâ€™t wait to get back on the bus.