Wet and stinky, I stomped home and called my friend. "I'm not coming," I said, and pulled the covers over my head.
Being a bus rider is like being homeless: You feel poor, unimportant, and dependent on the whims of government, changes in weather, and the kindness of others. And when no one listens to you, eventually you just lose it.
Until recently I was a big public-transit supporter, always defending Metro and blabbing about how much money I was saving by not having a car. But this summer, after nine years as a carless Seattleite, a little blue Toyota seduced me.
My housemate had bought a new car, and her old '91 Tercel was just sitting there in our driveway saying, "Hey baby, I'm lonely too." And one evening, when I had missed yet another bus, and my cousin from Arizona was waiting for me--I succumbed.
"Shelly," I pleaded, "can I use your car, just for a couple hours?"
"No problem," she said. I jumped into that hot blue seat, revved that little engine, pushed that stick shift through all five gears, and flew down Capitol Hill. I passed that stupid Metro bus and drove the six blocks from Denny Way that I would have walked, and pulled up in front of the hotel right on time.
Back in 1991, I had owned a Honda Accord. But then I lived in Pioneer Square, and a car had come to seem more trouble and expense than it was worth. And after I covered the Valdez oil spill as a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, images of blackened sea birds haunted me. So when I moved to China later that year, I was glad to get rid of my Honda. In Beijing, I rode a bicycle, buses, and the subway, and gained a sweaty solidarity with my comrades. I returned in 1992, smug with liberation from that ultimate symbol of capitalist consumerism.
For years, I loved not having a car. I smiled when people complained about their $400 repair bills. I read stories about air pollution without feeling guilty. And I discovered that a whole part of my brain, previously devoted to car stuff, had been freed up: I didn't have to worry about gas prices, watch the clock on the parking meter, or work oil changes into my schedule.
After a while, being carless became a religion, and I carried out the commandments dutifully: Thou shalt not consider housing that is not on major bus routes. Thou shalt not take a taxi when a bus is possible. Thou shalt not accept rides that cause your friends to go out of their way.
I tried to see even the bad moments as an advantage. Sure, it was a major pain to haul my broken vacuum cleaner on the bus to Sears, but it was a conversation-starter and I entertained a lot of people.
The damn reality, however, is this: I wasted a lot of time waiting and riding. I live in Capitol Hill. Using the bus takes an hour to get anywhere outside central Seattle. And that's if the buses are on schedule. I had to account for missed buses, slow buses, late buses, AWOL buses. Metro buses are fairly dependable (they claim an on-time rate of 70 to 80 percent)--but not, it seems, when you're in a hurry or have to be somewhere at an exact time. And so I had to pad my transit clock to account for the X factor. Sometimes I was late anyhow.
My worst carless moment came last January. I was going to the first rehearsal for a choir I'd finally joined after being on the waiting list for two years. To get to the rehearsal at the top of Queen Anne, I took the #8 from Capitol Hill to First and Mercer--but missed the connection to the #2. So I walked all the way up the hill, panting.
Then I wandered around, trying to find the church. In a car, it would have taken a couple of minutes to zip up one block and down another. But on foot, I overshot the destination repeatedly and had to backtrack. At one point I went halfway down the hill and then hauled ass back up again. It was raining, of course, and dark. I was 10 minutes late, then 20, then half an hour.
By the time I found the church, I was soaked with sweat and rain and weeping in frustration. I was exhausted and my feet hurt, and I arrived at the rehearsal looking like I'd come from a shipwreck, feeling like a fool. A clear liberal conscience was no compensation for this.
In the years I didn't own a car, my world had grown smaller. I sat home too many nights because it was just too inconvenient to see friends who lived in exotic locations like Shoreline or Magnolia. I stopped looking at community events and classes outside of the downtown core because it was too much hassle. I never ate at my favorite pho restaurant on Beacon Hill or took a sunset walk at Lincoln Park--these places may as well have been in Omaha.
But the bus rider's viewpoint has stayed with me. In all those hours I spent waiting for a phantom bus or riding the torturously slow #7, I talked to people and studied places that I'd zipped past in a car. Getting to intimately know some different corners in Seattle made me feel I was a citizen of the whole city, not just my neighborhood. And I saw that this grittier city was one I never read about in my "Seattle" daily newspaper; a city that didn't get priority in the mayor's office.
This brings me to my final outrage. A few days after I gave up and ended nine carless years, Mayor Schell's office announced that "Way to Go Seattle" will spend $120,000 bribing two-car families $85 a week to stop using their second car. The city will pay to "learn" from these two dozen already-privileged people what it's "really like" to get around town for six lousy weeks, and use this information to "educate" residents about how great it is to ride the bus.
Why doesn't the city collect its anecdotes from the not-so-rich, perpetually carless people--who are 13 percent of Metro's riders? Why doesn't the city pay me or some of those 54,000 people for not having a car at all?
Here's a thought: If Schell wants to know what it's like to ride Metro, and doesn't want to talk to the people who already know, why doesn't he ride the bus for six weeks himself? And make him carry a dripping bag of fish sauce, too, so that he really understands why his idea stinks.
Lisa Schnellinger is a Seattle freelance writer and editor.