The corner of SE 20th and Burnside. I stand, bleary-eyed and stubborn, waiting to be picked up by the #20, to begin what can only be called a journey of epic proportions. I try to load a roll of film into my camera. The cold makes my finger shake and I drop the canister. It rolls toward a goateed man in tapered blue jeans and a flannel shirt. He shifts his cigarette and stoops to retrieve it for me. I try again, successfully this time, and flash a picture of the bus stop.
"Did you get a pitcha' a da moon?" the man says, pointing to the sky. I look, and through morning fog, framed between streetlights, I see a silvery crescent.
"It's beautiful," he says. "Almost makes it worth gettin' up early for."
I nod in agreement. On any other day, it would be worth getting up for, but today, it is merely a reminder of the night, of a time long past, when I was safe and snug under my blankets.
The bus rolls to a stop in front of us. I let Goatee board first, so I can fish four dollars out of my wallet.
"An all-day pass, please," I say, and move to a seat near the front. Early commuters have already distributed themselves about the interior. They look sleepy, or lethargic, or crabby, or a combination of all three. Above all, they maintain an intimidating air of privacy. At 5 AM, these people have found sanctuary from the tumultuous world that awaits them at the end of their ride. In this moment, the bus is a warm, rocking lull between the hectic destinations of everyday life. I have always loved riding it for the same reason, for the reprieve it provides from reality.
Today, I mean to test that love. From this moment, I will ride buses non-stop, jumping from one line to another, until they stop running around 2 AM.
Through total immersion in Tri-Met, I intend to reach a kind of commuter nirvana; a perch from which I will be able to look down on this great web of interweaving buslines and flowing streams of travelers and finally understand something.
Or, I will understand nothing. It hardly matters. I am a lover of stories, and I am confident that at the very least, I will find plenty of those.
I take my seat. The morning crowd on the #20 is quiet, half asleep. It smells like fart. I don't think it was me, but then I'm pretty nervous. Perhaps I let one slip.
The bus has never seemed so scary.
The end of the line for the #20 is the Beaverton transit center. It is empty except for two women and a little girl sitting to my left. Here is a golden opportunity to strike up a conversation. If I make an ass of myself, nobody will be around to see it.
"Can I take your picture?" I ask.
They stare at me. They are not accustomed to being asked for a photograph at 6 AM on the #20 bus line.
"My hair's messy," says the little girl, who sports a dirty Trailblazers parka and a cowlick.
"Why do you want it?" asks the lady on the right.
"Because I'm going to ride buses all day and write a story about it. And take pictures," I say, as if this is a normal thing to do.
"The bus is boring," the girl says. "That's why I bring a book."
The bus may be a lot of things, but boring it is not.
I've transferred to the #89, an exciting line for me because I've never heard of it before. There's a perverse thrill in riding a random bus line deep into a random part of Portland that I would never have any reason to go to under normal circumstances.
Right now, it's still pitch black out. All I can see are the neon signs adorning an endless stream of Bank of Americas, Subways, and Starbucks; the atomic particles of strip mall molecules that cohere to form the living body of Beaverton.
A large, curly-haired woman talks to the driver about all the flooding in Tualatin.
"Oh, dear," she says. "We're melting."
A shaft of blue light has pierced the morning sky. Day is coming. Only 19 more hours to go.
The bus rumbles on.
I've switched to the #12, still going through Beaverton. The last bus was stuffy. This one is cold, with clammy seats. The temperature changes are wreaking havoc on my ass circulation. My buttcheeks are very itchy. I sort of rub myself from side to side on the seat to little avail.
The bus is a pen, and I am its hog.
The #12 has turned around and is taking me back towards Portland. I'm fingering my bus receipt. It is a delicate thing. With the consistency of low-grade toilet paper, it feels like it barely exists. Even the bus drivers don't trust it, and why should they? I could have picked a dirty tissue up off the ground and had the same effect. Each new driver examines my all-day pass with what could almost be disgust. Some ask to have a second look before finally ushering me on.
I find I constantly prod myself while on the bus, worried that because I can't feel the receipt, it isn't there anymore. My fingers move through my pockets, checking for it. I am a mother cat and it is my kitten. If I could carry it from one place to another in my mouth, I would, but the saliva in my mouth would dissolve it.
The bus, amongst other things, gives me an excuse to grope myself and lick my lips a lot.
I overhear a man bragging about a Sopwith Camel (an old war airplane) that he is planning to build. Lank, dirty bangs cover his forehead, and large glasses make his eyes bulge out at me. A sloping gut protrudes through a black heavy metal T-shirt. He has a book about World War II airplanes notched under one arm. I decide with relative ease that this is someone worth talking to.
"Did I hear you say you're building a Sopwith Camel?" I ask. The sea of heads grouped around us swivel alarmingly.
"Yes," he says.
I awkwardly point my miniature tape recorder at him. "Care to tell me about it?"
"Well, I'm building a 1917 Sopwith Camel."
And he is off. For the next 45 minutes, my only movements are to squirm under the stares and glares of my fellow commuters, who, because of me, are forced to endure a barrage of boisterous facts about the history, building, maintenance, and flying of airplanes. Later, I will listen to my tape to see if I can make out any audible pauses for breath in the man's tirade.
"Because, as you can tell, I'm a history buff and a pilot. I'm a member of the Northwest Antique Aircraft Club, I'm a tool and dye maker--which is a glorified machinist more than anything else. I got into the club not because I was rich, like the rest of those fine gentlemen, but because I made parts for their planesI had to send away to England for stainless steel valves that happened to have a diameter of the stem that was close enough that I could modify some valve guides fornylon isn't totally authentic, but I don't want to be cutting the fabric off that thing every ten yearsthere's a lot of club members that love to work on 'em, love to fly 'em, love to sit in the hammocks and drink beer and talk about, you know, various things"
Finally, we reach downtown, where he closes his mouth and gets off, saying behind him: "There you go. I hope you learned something."
I look around the bus. The sense of relief in the wake of his absence is palpable. The sanctum is renewed.
The bus forces eavesdropping from the meek.
I rest from my stressful encounter with Sopwith Camel Man on the #19 to Woodstock, a much quieter line. Here an elderly woman speaks to me as relentlessly as Sopwith did, but her volume is much lower, and the population of the bus much smaller and less annoyed. She talks about her family and the awful people who live upstairs from her. She talks about how she helped the police go up and tell them to be quiet, how she wasn't scared. She talks about the liquid center of the new Hall's cough drops and about the little bags of chocolate cream and egg that her mother used to prepare for her when she was very small. Her voice, tender and warm, intertwines with the gentle rocking of the bus.
I watch two women board at the same stop. One appears to be at least in her 50s; the other is lucky if she's 17. Both carry tiny infants wrapped in blankets.
I start to feel the hours of sleep that I didn't get last night catching up with me. Then I feel an all-too-familiar twinge in my bladder. I've been drinking coffee since five to stay awake, and now that's caught up to me as well. I decide the best course of action is to take the #19 back near my house, where I can use the bathroom and grab a sandwich. Right now, we're at SE 82nd and Powell, which is a ways away, but surely not that far.
The bus turns around and heads for home.
My vision is blurred by a fog of urine.
I'm still on the fucking #19. I forgot that it winds at an astronomical pace through suburbs near Reed College, across the Sellwood Bridge, up Powell Boulevard, and through downtown Portland before crossing the Burnside Bridge to where my house is. It has just entered scenic downtown, but all I see are images of liquid filling every pore in my body, making it bulge and sag at the seams. At the first downtown stop, at least 30 people stuff themselves onto the bus. They close in around me, each new person another drop in the bucket of piss that is about to spew forth from my urethra.
I should just get off and go somewhere; at a gas station, on a historic statue, anywhere, but I am stubborn. If I can just make it five more minutes, then I'll be home. I'm sweating, twitching, trying to keep from exploding.
A young girl shrieks. "This bus is really full, Mommy!"
Her words bounce through my ears and into my bladder, striking its walls with terrifying precision. I am a bottomless well of agony.
I am a swelling sausage, and the bus is my skin.
On the #4 an adorable two-year-old boy in a blue coat babbles earnest gibberish to a teenager with an enormous Afro. His mother lurks nearby, keeping a lazy eye on him. His mastery of gravity is impressive. While most standing adults struggle to maintain balance in the throws of the bus' inertia-riddled lurches, he struts up and down the aisle as if he's leading a marching band. The bumps and swerves seem to happen apart from him.
He jumps, crawls, and cackles. Yanks on the stopcord, tries to crawl in the driver's lap.
To some, the bus feels like home.
The #4 reaches the end of its line--downtown St. John's.
"This is it," says the driver, a tall, stern-looking man with grey hair.
"This is it?" I ask.
"But the bus turns around and goes back into town, no?"
He turns to look at me. "Yeah, in about ten minutes. Where you headed?"
"I'm just riding," I say.
He snorts. "Just riding," he says. "I hate 'just riders.' They're the worst!"
"I'm sorry?" I'm simultaneously impressed by his honesty and taken aback.
"'Just riders' just hang around. I need my space. I need this time to myself, these ten minutes."
I remember that the #4 is perpetually one of the most crowded and sketchy buses on Earth.
"Well, that's understandable," I say.
He nods towards Safeway. "Why don't you go hang out in the store for awhile?"
"Okay," I say, and I go to the store for awhile. I watch St. John's residents perform last-minute shopping, reflecting with some pride on my newfound status as a "just rider." If I ever start a band, I'll give it that name: "the Just Riders." Yeah.
I return and the driver is grateful: "Thanks, man. It's really important that I unwind a little."
"Hey, no problem, man."
The bus can get to you after a while.
The #15 is nearing the end of its line again. I haven't moved in a while. The short-haired, birdlike driver asks me where I'm going.
I use my old standard. "I'm just along for the ride."
Unlike the last driver, her body stiffens with rage. "You can't do that," she hisses. "You have to have a destination!"
"All right," I say, "I'll go downtown then. We loop back around, right?"
"You are getting off right here!" She jerks the bus over to the side of the road and slams on the brakes.
Trembling with fatigue and humiliation, I start to gather my things. Her rage is palpable.
"You can't just use Tri-Met that way. We're not your personal chauffeurs. Be going somewhere or get off!"
Now I just feel bad. Sure, I'm trying to exploit Tri-Met by writing about it, but I also think it's a great thing. I don't like being accused of abusing it.
"All right," I say. "Look. I've been riding buses since five this morning. I'm going to go 'til they stop running and then, write a story about my experiences."
Her head swivels, cocks. She stares at me. Then a warm grin cracks across her face, and her icy façade melts away as if touched by a blowtorch.
"Well, that's okay, then!" she crows. "You do have purpose. That's what I call a destination!"
I warm to her warmth. "Yeah! My destination is the creation of art!"
"Well, that's something," she says. Suddenly, we are best friends. "You just stay on my bus as long as you want. Have you tried the #5? Now, that's an interesting line. It could change your whole perspective on humanity!" She laughs, surprised by her poetic words, and covers her mouth. "Oh, I shouldn't say that. That's silly."
"No, it's not," I say. "You never know what can happen. Where does the #5 go?"
You never know is right.
The bus can change your perspective on humanity.
My journey is drawing to a close. My hand is clenching up, making it hard to take notes. I've taken 14 pages of notes. I grab a nearby piece of newspaper to scan the headlines, then laugh at myself. I forgot that my eyes aren't working anymore, either.
I'm on the #75 heading from NE to SE. It's me and one other guy, until a young lady gets on who seems to be crippled. She totters as if her legs don't work very well and sort of plunges backward into her seat, as if she is diving.
When the bus driver starts to talk to her, it becomes apparent there is something wrong. The hard, but kind lady driver is asking her where she's headed, but she can't seem to understand. Finally, after the driver repeats her inquiry several times, the young lady manages to say in a clumsy, slurred voice, "27th and Dekum," which we passed blocks ago. The driver informs her that now she will have to catch the #75 going the other way to get where she is going.
"It's the last bus, too," she says, "so you're going to have to move fast."
The driver pulls over and the young woman, with agonizing slowness, totters off the bus. That's when I notice that her pupils are dilated. She stares vacantly, as if the things that pass her line of sight aren't actually being seen. She makes it off the bus and starts in the opposite direction of where the driver told her to go.
"That girl is messed up," I say through cracked lips.
"It is too late for this," the driver says and jumps off the bus to coax the young woman back on. "We're going to call the police and get you straightened out, so you can get home," she tells her.
"Huh?" the girl murmurs.
Before I exit for the night, the driver has an epiphany. She eyes the unstable woman a little closer.
"Oh, I thought I recognized you. You're Schonie!"
"Yeah," the girl slushes.
"You're Rick's daughter. I thought that face was familiar."
"I know who I'm calling when we get you to the station. Your daddy."
Despite the disturbing surreality of this exchange, despite my utter exhaustion, I feel a pleasant heat spreading through me. In the middle of NE Portland, at two in the morning, the most cracked out girl I've ever seen has been saved by a driver saint who knows her daddy.
The bus is family.