“The Million Dollar Ride”

By Mara Bailar

I can usually tell where I am on a bus ride by the smell. It took 45 minutes on the bus that took me from a tiny village in the Irish countryside, into the bustling and beautiful city of Galway. This bus went through a dozen villages of no more than a few hundred people, stopping for anyone who waved them down. There are no bus stops along the route and the drivers were on a schedule that fluctuated from arriving 15 minutes early to 40 minutes late, sometimes on a single journey.  Wintertime in Ireland meant the sun didn’t rise until 9 am and set at 4pm. I would have to wear a bright orange reflector vest, wave my arms, and jump and down to attract the attention of the ancient bus driver during those damp, dark winter mornings. Once on the bus I would find a seat, put my headphones on and close my eyes. I didn’t need to see out the window or listen to the bus driver to know where my stop was. I knew exactly where we were on the journey by scent alone.

 You could tell where the villages stopped and the broad expanse of farmland started by the sweet, pungent smell of sheep and horses grazing. The bus would stop and my nose would be assaulted with stale tobacco, dried sweat, urine and earth. I knew it was one of the old farmers who never married and clung stubbornly to the habit of only bathing once a month like many did before indoor plumbing became widely available in Ireland. I could tell where the farms gave way to the bog land that went on for thousands of acres. I would inhale deeply, taking in the mossy, muddy, burnt gingerbread aroma of the always soggy soil. The air would turn saltier the closer we got to Galway as the city runs right up onto the shore of the Atlantic Ocean.
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Albuquerque has it’s own unique smells that indicate what part of town you’re traveling through. We started our journey at Central and 13th Street across the street from the Dog House. The breeze brought the smell of hot dogs and cooking oil to us as we waited for the bus. The bus came to a halt and when the door swung open the driver greeted us with a warm smile and a hearty hello. We returned his welcome with equal enthusiasm, feeling immediately at ease and eager to start the evenings journey.

One of the things I like about city buses is that there is a spot in the front and rear where some of the seats face inward, creating a half circle. This creates a wonderful opportunity to engage your fellow passengers in conversation. We chatted with a couple of men who were homeward bound after a days work. Andrew wore a badge that said “Honored Citizen”. He tells us the city gives them to seniors and disabled people so they may ride for a reduced fare. I asked him what disability he was dealing with.

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“I got leg problems, back problems, a heart condition and high cholesterol.” he said with a fatigued sigh.
“We have something in common Andrew,” I playfully smacked him on the shoulder. “I have a heart condition and high cholesterol too!”
He looked me up and down, clearly baffled that a slender young woman would suffer from similar health issues.
“How can you have high cholesterol?” he asked.
“I love bacon and I put butter in my coffee!” I laughed as he shook his head and chuckled
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We were headed south on Central Avenue and the air was heavy with the scent of fast food restaurants and tire shops. The bus arrived at the end of it’s route on the far west side of town. We stayed on the same bus chatting with the ever-friendly driver as he informed us of the many issues that affect public transportation. The cost of operating and maintaining the system is surprisingly high. Just the body of the bus costs $800,000. It then needs to be equipped with tires and technology, bringing the total to $1 million dollars for a new bus. He also talked about the public perception that most passengers are the dregs of society that ought to be avoided. I admit that I was anticipating some erratic behavior or sketchy situations on board but so far it was smooth sailing. A few more people got on greeting the driver in a friendly, playful manner.  It was clear that they were all frequent riders as they talked and joked with each other in a familiar and relaxed manner. Though it was our first time on this route we were instantly included in their conversations and the atmosphere reminded me of my experiences of riding buses and trains in Ireland.The bus headed down 98th street and the bus emptied after the first couple of stops.  Waves of sand blew across the road and I smiled at the scent of dust and wild wind. Soon the bus reached the southern most destination on it’s route and swung back around towards Albuquerque.
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It was about 8:30pm when we said goodbye to Gilbert and hopped on a bus going back into the city. The first leg of the journey we mostly encountered people on their way home, the return trip picked up a slightly different traveler. An inebriated chubby woman was yelling at her slightly heavier and significantly more inebriated boyfriend to, “Hurry the fuck up!” before they missed their bus transfer. A young woman boarded the bus with an older man covered in prison tatttoos. They appreared sober as they showed their bus pass and made their way to the back of the bus. After a few minutes I turned back to look at them and the woman was clearly no longer sober. Her eyelids drooped and her eyes rolled upwards, obvious signs of a recent dose of heroin. You could tell by the fullness in her cheeks and the smoothness of her skin that she hasn’t been a long term user. I watched her body shuffle it’s way off the bus after a few stops. The scent of decayed innocence and a bleak future trailed after her.

Sitting next to me was a person with a completely different future. Johnson Charlie is a roly-poly teenager who climbed abroad the bus smiling and bouncing along to the music coming through his headphones. He sat next to me and immediately started chatting. He had just graduated from high school and was looking forward to studying business in college.

“I make inlay jewelry and won first place in the youth division at the Santa Fe Indian Market!” he told me with pride in his eyes. He plans on starting his own jewelry business. I asked him why he was riding the bus. This was to be the only time in our brief conversation that his sunny smile would disappear.

“I was hanging out with my brothers and they got drunk and started fighting. I had to leave man. I’m going to my sister’s house to chill out,” He shook his head thinking of his brothers and then his smile re emerged. I don’t think I will see this young man stumbling off of a bus in a drug induced stupor any time soon. Our stop was quickly approaching as I said goodbye to Johnson and wished him well. I was shivering from the unseasonably cold temperature, my teeth chattering through my happy smile.

I thanked Michael for inviting me along. My perception about Albuquerque’s bus culture has changed and I thoroughly enjoyed the million dollar ride!

I am a writer as well who writes about sexuality in a very open manner. You can check out my blog: http://pleasurepath.wordpress.com

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3 thoughts on ““The Million Dollar Ride”

  1. I drove a city bus for almost ten years and I could write quite an interesting book about all the characters I encountered. Thank you for a positive view of public transportation!

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