St. John’s in the new millennium is so overwhelming, sometimes I have to pinch myself to see if I am dreaming.
I was late leaving the house the other day, so there was no “iron” left for me in the driveway. I hunted down last year’s M-card and reloaded it on the Metrobus website. How cool is that? A rechargeable card that never expires, doesn’t have a magnetic stripe, yet the bus knows if it’s good for a ride or not. Not only that, but it remembers to give you a transfer to another bus! That’s positively “Star Trek.”
The snout of Route 6 silently glides to a halt at my feet. It is piloted by a young woman, her blue uniform contrasted by her hair, which has been warmed with a shade of burgundy. After I grope around a bit for a place to put the M-card, my driver cheerfully shows me the electronic reader mounted on a pillar in front of me. The reader recognizes the card with a touch and the fare is paid. No coin, no ticket, no bother.
How futuristic that plastic card process would have seemed to the drivers of the United Bus fleet that rattled back and forth along the old Route 3 between Seal Cove and the St. John’s terminus — a patch of gravel at the west end of George Street.
The yellow buses set out every half hour between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. on weekdays — with an extra bus laid on weekday mornings between eight and nine to meet the demand of workers heading for their jobs in the city. Many families got by without keeping a car or two in the driveway and the cheap and reliable United Bus, plus a little walking, was the answer.
One husband-and-wife team, who lived near us in Chamberlains, worked nights at one of the hospitals and worked their vegetable gardens all day. During the growing season, I believe the only time they slept was during the half-hour bus ride to and from St. John’s.
Chamberlains was near the halfway point between Seal Cove and George Street, so at peak times we could usually get a seat. But by the time the bus reached Dunne’s Road, the seats would be filled and there would be standing room only until a number of workers disembarked at the Waterford Hospital, at that time a big employer for the area.
Around shop closing time, the big loads would be travelling west, probably peaking at six in the evening. You were lucky to get a seat on the six o’clock, and very often the aisle would be full as the bus, the air thick with cigarette smoke, lumbered off the George Street lot, creaked and groaned down Queen, then rumbled off to the west via Water Street. Many of the older models used a heavy duty truck type two-speed rear axle, which when propelling a fully loaded bus added an extra lurch to each of the first few gear changes of an already bumpy ride.
For kids like me, the yellow United fleet was the lifeline to movie matinees and Water Street retail. We carried snacks, and a book if it was a daylight trip, and the bus ride with its rattling and shaking and dancing coins in the fare box, was part of the adventure. When the loaded buses rolled past Catholic churches en route, roughly half the passengers blessed themselves in unison while the rest looked away. Once, I witnessed one kid hectoring another with: “If you are a Cat’lik, you should wait for the Cat’lik bus! Don’t take the ‘United’ bus, this is our bus!”
I was as perplexed as the kid that was being badgered.
But usually the passengers were friendly. In fact, for a long time, I assumed that all adults must know each other because they were so chatty on the buses.
There would be plenty of cigarette smoke and a din of laughter and 20 or more conversations going on at one time, including at least one that engaged the driver. But there was a small bit of compensation for the driver distraction — someone usually lit his cigarette for him, so I guess it all evened out.
On the trip west, we were often treated to some offkey singing by a guy who, perhaps while conducting his business in St. John’s, had succumbed to the temptation of the many downtown pubs, but other passengers were always tolerant of these tipsy troubadours.
Refuse left behind by careless passengers would collect under the seats, and glass bottles would roll back and forth at every stop. Sometimes, after a sudden stop, bottles would clatter along the full length of the bus, pinging against dozens of seat mounts on the way, then leap down the steps and out the open door finally finding their freedom in the gravel at Octagon Pond or Joyce’s Corner.
The buses of Mexico are all modern these days, too. But just 20 years ago when I first visited, the high, rough-riding buses were lavishly decorated inside with beads, coloured lights, crucifixes, and icons of the Virgin of Guadeloupe. The driver handed out tickets and made change while shifting gears with one hand and steering his way through heavy traffic with the other — the kind of ride where a crate of live chickens wouldn’t seem out of place.
Although it was a different language and culture, riding the crowded old buses of Mexico felt strangely familiar to me. The friendly chatter of the passengers, some of them blessing themselves amid the lurching and stopping, reminded me of my days travelling on the United Bus.
Today’s Metrobus fleet, coaches crouched low on the street, free of garbage, cigarette smoke and singing drunks, are a far cry from the yellow “cheese wagons” of my salad days.
In fact, the only thing today’s buses have in common with the original party bus is a cheap ride.
Rick Barnes is a freelance writer who lives in Conception Bay South.