My first transit memory

26 Oct

I didn’t grow up using transit. I grew up riding in the back of my mom & dad’s station wagon, mostly to and from school. My younger brother and I would race each other to the hatchback door for the opportunity to ride in the ‘way-back.’

Our home was a single story, brick ranch, circa 1960, located in an older, tree-lined, inner-ring suburban neighborhood in Raleigh; now on the decline, it’s considered one of the least desirable neighborhoods on the wrong side of town.

At the time it was all my parents could afford, but as I would later discover, it was also all that we really ever needed.

My mom was an associate college professor, without tenure, making about $6000 a year. She jokingly tells me how I sat for my first PhD exam when I was only 6 weeks old, and performed about as well as some of her students, sleeping through the whole exam.

My Dad was ‘an artist.’ He was starting to build his screen printing business, but he still was at home, without an office. He was, as the popular movie of the time period, just like Mr. Mom.

We lived about 30 minutes from our elementary school. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a prestigious, private Montessori school that my parents couldn’t afford. They took out loans, a second mortgage on their house, and I was on partial scholarship.

I started what would be equivalent to of a public school’s First Grade at the age of 4, also known as Children’s House. I entered the classroom and was greeted by my teacher; Meena, a small Indian woman wearing a yellow and red Sari. She introduced me to the class, a small group of kids of varying racial, ethnic, and national origin backgrounds. I didn’t know at the time, but these kids were also of varying socio-economic classes.

As a child, you don’t really recognize differences in others; that is, until an adult points them out to you. Even then, you don’t fully understand what these differences mean, or even the greater implication of what these differences may represent to society as a whole.

To me, my classmates were my friends. I didn’t know that Michael was the son of two local multi-millionaires, who owned a regionally significant chain-restaurant. Or that Rebekah was the daughter of a single mother, who was a well-respected, prominent, local attorney. Or that Deepti was a spoiled, rich daughter of an Indian business man, whose house had more and staff than I had extended family members.

I didn’t know that I was lower-middle class, and that I was on a tuition repayment plan and a partial-scholarship. I didn’t know that my two best friends, Nikki and Alta were on full-scholarships, and government assistance. Nikki lived in government housing and Alta lived in a three-room bungalow, both in Raleigh’s poorest downtown neighborhoods.

I didn’t recognize any of these differences. I only knew that these were my friends… and they were awesome!

I remember one of the first times my parents let me ‘spend the night.’ It was October of 1987. My friend Alta had invited me to go to the North Carolina State Fair with her after school, and then to spend the night with her at her house.

The State Fair was one of the biggest events of the year in Raleigh (still is), full of food that I’d never consumed in my life, games, prizes, agriculture contests, pig races and carnival rides. I was so excited!

My parents packed my bag with enough supplies to permanently move out of their house. My bag included three changes of clothes, a towel, a washcloth, a bar of soap, a shower cap, powder, sheets, a pillow, with a pillowcase, another bag with fruit rollup snacks, a Tupperware container with my dinner, and a box of milk.

Apparently my parents thought I was either moving for good, or that I was going to a third world country, where I would be thrown to the wolves and left to fend for myself. I was merely spending the night!  ((Rolls eyes))

Alta’s mom picked us up from school. Her car was considerably smaller than my parents’ station wagon and it only had two doors. I’d never been in a car with just two doors.

Little did I know that this would be a night of several firsts.

We drove downtown to drop our bags off at Alta’s house before leaving for the State Fair. Alta’s room was bare and dark. It was one of the rooms in the attic of the bungalow, split down the middle by a curtain to separate her room from her mother’s room.  She had a twin bed with mismatched sheets. It was completely different from my room at home. I had a queen sized bed that had a pink comforter with matching pink sheets. I had an entire room to myself, with a door and three windows. The idea of sharing a room with someone was intriguing.

I began to unpack all of my bags. Alta laughed at me as I took out the washcloth, soap and towel set. I asked where the bathroom was so I could put my things away. She pointed to a closet in the hall.

It was a small room with one single light, a mirror and a sink. I asked her where we would bathe; she stated that they didn’t have a working tub right now, so I’d have to clean up in the sink – that was,  if I wanted to. She told me how she only bathed once a week, when she visited her father who stayed in a motel by the highway. She said that she could wash her hair there.  At the time I was fascinated with the concept of not bathing daily. I really had no idea of the gravity of the situation.

Alta’s mom called us downstairs. It was time to leave for the State Fair.

I ran to the car and called backseat. Apparently, I really liked the idea of flipping the seat forward to climb into the back. Alta’s mom stopped me and said, “Oh no honey, we can’t take the car. My boyfriend needs the car tonight.”

These were all new concepts, no bathtub for bathing; and what was a boyfriend?? Not riding in a car to go somewhere…??? This was just weird to me.

I said, but how are we going to get to the State Fair? I started to get upset, thinking that we would not get to go. She stopped me and said, “Don’t worry honey; we’re going to take the bus. The bus stop is right at the end of the street,” as she pointed to a sign that seemed like it was a million miles away. I replied, but how are we going to get to the bus stop? She just laughed.

We started walking. Alta’s mom told Alta to hold my hand as we walked down the street. My emotions shifted from upset and worry back to excitement.

I was going on an adventure! I was taking THE BUS!

I had no idea what a bus looked like (my school didn’t have school buses and I didn’t recall my parents ever pointing one out to me). So I waited for Alta’s mom to tell us what to do.

I heard a rumble of the diesel engine in the distance; the squeal of the brakes as it rounded the corner; and the throttle of the engine as it accelerated toward us. Alta’s mom said, here it is!

The doors opened and I looked up to what appeared to be the world’s tallest stairs – in a vehicle? Stairs? How strange!

Alta ran up the stairs with ease; clearly not her first bus ride. My legs trembled as I attempted to scale this mountain of stairs. Suddenly Alta’s mom grabbed my arm and lifted me up to the top. She said, “Come on Meghan, the driver doesn’t have all day to wait for you.” She then told us to go find a seat.

Alta ran toward the back, without her mom. I was in shock. I had never been more than 3 feet from my parents’ side; there she was running to the back to sit with strangers, by herself! A tall, skinny gentleman in a restaurant uniform stood up and offered his seat to me so that I could sit next to my friend. I quietly said thank you, as I was not accustomed to talking to strangers.

I looked around my seat. Alta asked what I was doing, and I told her that I was looking for my seatbelt. She laughed at me again, “No silly…this is not a car; there are no seatbelts.”

Another first… no seatbelts??!!  My father had instilled the fear of death into me, I was always belted!  I started to panic. She assured me that we would be fine; she rode the bus all of the time.

The bus drove around the city. I don’t remember looking out the window as so much as I remember people watching (to this day, this is still one of my favorite activities to do while riding transit). It was so neat! It was like watching TV.

I was glimpsing into the lives of people that were different from me in so many ways. I could listen to conversations; look at how people they were dressed; observe their mannerisms; watch how they interacted with each other; see how some people preferred to keep to themselves, while others clearly yearned to be the center of the conversation, even if the conversation only included themselves.

Our ride went on for about 20 minutes until we arrived at Crabtree Valley Mall. The driver turned off the bus and everyone stood up from their seats.

Now this was a familiar site for me. As my mom reminds me every year around my birthday, I was shopping at Crabtree Valley mall when I was only 3 days old. (Who brings their 3-day old infant to a shopping mall??  Yeah that would be my mom).

I asked Alta’s mom why we were stopping; she said that we had to transfer.  Transfer?  What did that mean?

 I stood up and Alta grabbed my hand. I followed her and her Mom down the stairs – this time with significantly less trepidation then when we boarded this bus.

Alta ran ahead of me, she already knew which bus to board and was ready to go. I ran after her and yelled, “Hey, wait for me!”

We boarded the second bus and Alta’s mom handed the driver a piece of paper. I asked her what that piece of paper was. She told me that it was a transfer and it told the driver that we had already paid on the previous bus, so we were allowed to be on this bus. I replied, “Oh, ok.” Of course, little did I know that kids rode for free, so we didn’t need a transfer, just Alta’s Mom.

The second bus ride was much quicker than the first. It was a special bus Alta said, one that only went to the State Fair. How cool! A special bus! It didn’t seem any different than the first bus, other than the fact that it made less stops and turns. It was still as packed as the first bus and still had plenty of people to watch.

We arrived at the State Fair a few minutes later.

When I had previously been to the State Fair with my parents, I remembered that we had to park really far away – in the mud. We would pay a parking attendant in an orange vest and my parents would argue over which spot had more shade or less mud. Once parked, we’d walk for what seemed like hours. My dad would usually pick me up and put me on his shoulders because I would complain about how far it was to the front of the fair.

This time was completely different. The buses were escorted to the front gate. We stepped off the bus and we were right there! In the middle of all of the action! I was immediately in love with transit from that very moment (don’t ask me why…I was just in awe of the moment).

Getting to go straight to the front door of the State Fair! The convenience of skipping the walking and the crowds. Riding the bus the people watching; the conversations; the diversity; the activity of paying the driver just like a candy machine; running up and down the stairs; sitting all the way in the back; watching people – strangers even – get on and off the bus; observing the mannerisms of people, the way they talked; watching the world go by in my seat; seeing new parts of the city, new city streets; seeing the world from a different point of view.  There was so much that interested me about the bus; I was officially in love!

Not many people have the opportunity to say that they do what they love, but I can truly say that I am really doing something that I’ve always loved.

Don’t get me wrong, every day at work is not sunshine and lollipops. Most days are full of long hours, full of unfulfilling, tedious work; much of which will go unrewarded, unrecognized, or even unknown by most people.

What keeps me going is my long-time, true love for transit. I believe in providing all people with the opportunity for access – access to jobs, appointments, to travel to and from home, to visit friends and family, and yes, even to fun things like the State Fair.

My sleepover with Alta changed my world. I believe that it shaped my life in ways that I will never fully recognize. It made me realize the importance of transit and all of its wonderful attributes at a young age.

Children are heavily influenced by their experiences before adolescence. They don’t see differences in people and are much more accepting. To introduce a child to transit may very well influence how they view transit as an adult. It is important for children to recognize that for some people transit is a necessity; while for others it as choice; a convenient alternative to the normal station wagon hatchback way back ride.


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