Letter from the B43

It was late August, 2006.  I had just moved to western Massachusetts, and I needed to figure out how I was going to get to work every day from my home in Northampton to my office at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, seven miles away.  In the weeks leading up to the start of fall semester, I had been driving to campus in my car, turning right on Parsons Street and then left on Route 9, which crosses the Connecticut River on the Calvin Coolidge Bridge and then cuts through the farmland and strip malls of Hadley.  It was, to be honest, a dispiriting trip, full of bumper to bumper traffic, countless muffler shops, and endless stoplights, all terminating in an unpaved parking lot far from my office.

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It was a far cry from the lovely commute I had in Madison, Wisconsin, which involved, in good weather at least, an exhilarating, 2.5 mile bicycle ride along the shores of Lake Mendota, from my home in University Houses to my office on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  I had an old blue bike that I bought from a South African graduate student; I loved that bike and my bracing ride to and from campus every day.

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In bad weather, I took a free bus from Eagle Heights to Memorial Union; the wait was often chilling, especially in January and February, and the lurching of the bus, combined with the extreme heat or air conditioning on board, sometimes gave me a headache.  But most days I could lose myself in a book for 20 minutes and, before I knew it, I was at my destination.  I liked not having to think about anything except my book – I didn’t have to deal with traffic or road conditions or the gas gauge.  I’ve never been an enthusiastic driver, and I hate parking lots; so my commute during those years was ideal.

holyoke_bus

PVTA

Now, there’s a bike path here, too, connecting Northampton and Amherst, convenient to both my house and my office.  It’s a beautiful path that I ride often in the summer.  But the seven-mile trip is a bit long for a daily commute, especially in New England’s fickle weather.  Fortunately, soon after I moved here, I learned about the free bus service provided by the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (PVTA) for faculty, staff, and students of the area’s “Five Colleges.”  Routes connect Northampton, Hadley, Amherst, South Hadley, and other towns and villages here.  It’s said to be the largest free bus system in the world.  I was especially taken by the PVTA’s M40 line, the “Minuteman Express,” which departs multiple times every weekday morning from three different stops in Northampton, including the Post Office on Bridge Street near my house, and goes straight to UMass without stopping.  There’s also express service on weekday afternoons, taking me back home from campus to Northampton, with no stops in between.

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PVTA

By early fall semester, 2006, I was riding the M40 daily.  The trip takes 20-30 minutes, time I usually spend reading.  I have to follow the PVTA’s schedule, of course, and I have to deal with its delays; but the trips are free; I don’t have to worry about parking; I don’t have to deal with traffic; I don’t have to look at Hadley’s strip malls and stoplights; I can have a drink after work and not worry about driving while impaired; and I like the feeling that I’m contributing in some minor way to reducing carbon gas emissions into the earth’s atmosphere.

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PVTA

The M40 is also full of University people, especially graduate students, staff, and faculty.  I often see people I know on the bus and have even made a few friends because of it, people I’d see around campus and would ask, “Hey, you ride the M40, don’t you?”  It’s like a little club.  But more than anything I relish the “Minuteman Express” for the time it gives me, 20 minutes twice a day, to read – it’s sometimes the only time I ever have to read novels and other “non-required” texts.  Truth be told, despite the social potential of the bus, my face while riding is usually buried in a book or periodical, lost in another world as I prepare to start, or decompress at the end of, the workday.

(I have a friend, now moved away, who had a vibrant social life on the M40, unlike me.  I admired how many people she met there and how open she always was to sit next to one of her bus friends and talk the whole way to work or back home.  Her little group even had social events – once or twice a semester, they’d get off together at Mama Iguana’s in Northampton and have drinks.)

By mid fall of 2006, I was such a loyal rider of the M40 that on days I had to drive my car to work, I felt slightly off, as if I’d left my glasses at home or forgot my favorite pen.  I was an especially regular rider from fall 2007 to spring 2011, when I had an administrative job on campus and a more-or-less 8 am – 4 pm weekday schedule.  During those years, the M40 was a part of my circadian rhythm, my daily life revolving in large part around its comings and goings.

But things change – and in the fall of 2011, I suddenly found myself with a more open schedule than I’d had in years.  I no longer had to be on campus every day, all day.  I was also teaching an evening class.  And I had moved into a small, cramped, non-air-conditioned office in Bartlett Hall.  I took to sleeping later and working more at home.  Slowly but surely I got out of the habit of riding the bus; and I got into the habit of driving my car.  It was kind of nice not to have to worry about the PVTA’s schedule, inflexible as all public transit schedules are; and I liked being able to stop at the store on the way home, to pick up food or drink for supper.  In the summer, I rode my bike to campus.  Otherwise, I drove – for two years.

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Picador Books

That is, until No Impact Man.  In the spring of 2013, a committee I was on selected Colin Beavan’s No Impact Man as the school’s third annual Common Read for entering first-year students.  The book is the true story of a family in New York City trying to live as environmentally as possible.  I describe it this way on the blog I maintain for the project (see link below):  “For one year, Colin Beavan, his wife, and their daughter tried to reduce dramatically their impact on the environment – by producing (almost) no garbage, avoiding (almost) all carbon-emitting means of transportation, turning off their electricity, eating (mostly) locally-grown food, and taking other steps to test whether modern ‘conveniences’ were making them happier or just making their world sicker.  It’s an inspiring book about humans’ place in the world, both in actuality and in potentiality.”

All through the spring and summer of 2013, I blogged about No Impact Man, met with sustainability activists on campus, toured the University’s celebrated permaculture garden, and helped plan campus-wide events around sustainability issues, like our own “No Impact Week” coming up in October.  I did all this while driving my private, fossil-fuel burning car to and from campus every day.  By the end of the summer I realized that there was a tension in my life that I needed to resolve.  Beavan and his family upended their whole lives for a year in order to lessen their environmental impact on the planet.  Surely, I could do something.  I decided to park my car, pull out my old PVTA bus schedules, and get back on public transportation.

It surprised me how quickly I returned to the old routine.  I started organizing my life once again according to the PVTA’s schedule; I got used to making the walk to the Post Office in the morning and back home again in the afternoon or evening.  And I began to carry a book with me everywhere I went – because I could read it on the bus.

But there was a difference this time: I was now teaching late afternoons, Mondays and Wednesdays, from 4:40 to 5:55 pm.  That meant I’d be coming to school and returning home later than I was used to.  I could still ride the M40 on Tuesdays and Thursdays, at least if I got up in time; but on Mondays and Wednesdays, the M40 was out – it didn’t fit my new schedule.  I’d have to take the B43.

The B43!  As everyone knows who commutes by bus between Northampton and Amherst, the B43 is M40’s poor cousin: slower, duller, more provincial, less sexy.  Dark blue rather than shiny red, it’s a harder working bus – by far – than the M40, running practically all day and night, through the weekend, making many more stops per trip, and hauling many more groceries.  It’s also noisier, more erratic, less predictable – and infinitely more tiresome for anyone just trying to get to and from the University.

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PVTA

The two buses follow almost the exact same route, between Northampton and Amherst; but one of them, the M40, is the “express” version, the other, the B43, the “local.”  The differences, however, run deeper than just the number of stops they make.  The two buses really transport two different worlds.  This is mainly for one simple reason: The B43 stops at both Hampshire Mall and Mountain Farms Mall in Hadley.  And I mean both malls.

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PVTA

Coming from Northampton, and having already made multiple stops along Russell Street (Route 9) in Hadley, the B43 bus turns into the east end of Mountain Farms Mall and stops at the Wal-Mart there for shoppers to get on and off.  Then it crosses the street and stops at the other mall, Hampshire Mall, specifically at JCPenney’s, for shoppers to get on and off there.  Then it circles back around as if heading back to Wal-Mart (oh, for heaven’s sake!) before getting on Maple Farms Road and, at the traffic light, turning right toward Amherst, where it will make several more stops in Hadley and Amherst (Holiday Inn, Greenleaves Drive, CVS, Southwest Dorms, etc.), before getting to campus.  The M40 whisks by all of this with academic disdain.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are other differences, of course, not quite as determinative but just as revealing.  The M40 operates only during weekday rush hours, so it’s really geared for people (especially faculty, staff, and graduate students) who keep regular working hours at the University.  The B43 operates throughout the day, including mid-day and night, seven days a week.  So it gets students from Amherst heading to Northampton for the night.  It gets people who work at the mall, coming and going at the many different hours of retail.  It gets people who need the bus to do their shopping: at Wal-Mart or Big Y, Liquors 44 or CVS.  It stops at several social service agencies in Hadley.  And it stops at three different U.S. Post Offices – in Northampton, Hadley, and Amherst.  It stops, and it stops, and it stops.

Having cut my public transportation teeth on the M40, the B43 required an adjustment.  It was a longer trip, involved many more stops, was more often delayed, more often crowded, and had more unexpected disturbances than the M40.  And it served a much more diverse clientele.

The other day, on the B43, there was a girl rolling a cigarette beside me – I was amazed at how deftly she pursued this task while the bus lurched along.  Across the aisle, a middle-aged woman sat alone on the outside edge of her seat, leaving the window seat unoccupied though the bus was full.  Everytime someone got on, she would sit there stubbornly, almost daring you to ask her to move.  When we stopped at Wal-Mart, a man got on with so many shopping bags that it took three trips to get them all on the bus.  We waited patiently.  He left all his bags on the floor in the middle of the bus.  When we started up again, he stood by the woman on the aisle and shook his head violently up and down, motioning for her to move over.  When she didn’t do it fast enough (what was her problem?), he cursed her loudly and then squeezed in next to the woman in front of me.

It seems that nearly every trip on the B43 involves a scene, or a near scene, of some kind.  One day coming back late from teaching, a crew of young female students – I think there must have been a dozen – boarded.  They stood in the middle of the bus and talked loudly, and crudely, all the way to Applebee’s.  I stared at my page, reading nothing.

The bus sometimes seems to descend into a kind of social chaos as the day drags on, especially toward the end of the week.  I’ve heard passengers talking to themselves; I’ve seen old men passed out, their heads leaning against the window.  Wheelchairs climb on and off, the ramp lowered and raised, a bank of seats folded up and folded down.  People sprawl across multiple seats – they eat, they talk loudly on their cell phones, they yell at their children.  They sometimes smell bad.

DSCN1555ROne recent afternoon in hot weather, soon after the semester started, I got on the bus at Hagis Mall on campus – it was nearly full – for the ride to Northampton.  I sat on the aisle next to a young man – I pegged him as a freshman, still somewhat disoriented – who was listening to his iPod, the pulsing beat soon giving me a dull headache.  I tried to read.  When we got to the CVS on University Avenue, he suddenly got up, and I moved to the side to let him pass.  The bus was nearly full, so when he was gone, I dutifully slid over to his seat by the window, leaving my former one empty for another passenger.  Once I moved, I realized that my new seat, both bottom and back, was wet – a warm, oppressive dampness that left me slightly sick to my stomach.  I assumed – I hoped – it was sweat, though even that wasn’t exactly comforting.  I wanted to say something out loud  – “yuck!” – and slide back where I came from.  But I was on a crowded bus – surrounded by strangers – in the middle of a weekday afternoon.  I sat still, as the dampness permeated my clothes, and rode quietly the rest of the way home.

To be fair, I’m sure riders on the B43 have stories about me, too – the annoyed professor with gray hair and beard whose head is always buried in a book, his eyes occasionally glancing around arrogantly.  I know my type.

So here’s the curious thing about my “No Impact” year, at least so far: what I thought was going to be a modest experiment in environmental living, in giving up my car and burning less fossil fuel, has become a modest experiment in living in a complex, diverse society – with other people.  And I mean really living with them – shoulder to shoulder, thigh to thigh, as you make your way together through a common world.  Perhaps sustainability, then, is not so much about getting off the grid and growing one’s own food as it is about living cheek to jowl with people who are very different from you and trying to figure out how to do that without killing each other.

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PVTA

Public transportation, like public libraries, public schools, public parks, and public pools, is a space both maximally inclusive and imminently unruly, where everyone is, by law, welcome, and where you make your way through the world, focused on your own needs and desires, while having to adapt – constantly, minutely, and instantaneously – to others focused on their needs and desires.  It’s one of the few places in our society where we literally come together, our diverse bodies touching, and share a common path.  It reminds us viscerally that the space between us belongs equally to all of us, and it thus depends on all of us to maintain it, a maintenance which requires patience, forbearance, and tolerance, things none of us possesses in full, or has always at the ready.

Maybe that’s the lesson of the B43: we don’t have to love one another or even like one another – but we need to be willing to share our seats, no matter how uncomfortable this may turn out to be.  If we do this ourselves, regularly, others may do it for us one day, when it’s cold and rainy out and we’re tired and just want to go home.


Years ago – it was 1986 or 1987 – I was living in Washington, DC, working for a public policy “think tank” on the campus of Catholic University of America, four or five stops on the Metro from my home on Capitol Hill.  It was the end of a long day at work, sometime in February or March.  It had been snowing all day, and when my boss and I walked to the subway together, each to go his separate way home, there were handwritten signs out telling us that our stop, which was above ground, was closed due to the weather.  We were directed to a nearby bus stop, where, the sign continued, a city bus would take us to the closest below-ground subway.  The snow kept coming down harder and harder as we slogged to the stop.  We waited there with other passengers – the conditions now approaching a blizzard – until a bus appeared, as if from nowhere, and we all got on.

The next hour was one of the most unexpected, and slyly thrilling, of my years in Washington.  It was nice to be on the warm bus, out of the freezing cold and blowing snow, but it quickly became apparent that the driver was on no known route.  The streets were becoming impassable as the late afternoon turned to early evening, the white all around us swirling gray, then grayer, then dark.  We turned down one street, only to find the snow too deep; we turned down the next, only to find immovable cars blocking our way.  We rode down streets that had probably never seen public transportation in their midst – at one point I was certain we had made a large, miles-long circle and were back where we had started.

“Where are we?” passengers began asking.  There were no cell phones back then, no internet, nothing any of us could do except ride along and see where we ended up.  It was warm and dry on the bus.  And it was nice to have some time with my boss – he was much older than I was and knew the city better.  “Oh, I know where we are,” he would occasionally say, peering out the window.  There were times in my life – when I had babies at home, or a pressing appointment at work – when this little adventure would have made me crazy with worry.  But the extraordinary circumstances that evening – instead of making me feel anxious – had a calming effect.  “We’ll all get home eventually,” I thought.  The driver was unflappable, and people were joking with one another.  Someone started singing in the back – I’m pretty sure I saw a flask in his coat pocket.  Meanwhile, the snow came down harder and harder.  We rode down one street, turned up another.  We stopped at an intersection, and the driver looked left and right.  Then he steered us on the course he was clearly making up as he went.

Eventually, we got to a Metro stop for below-ground trains, which were, thankfully, still operating.  We all went our separate ways.  I bade my boss goodnight.

It was dark by the time I emerged again, near my apartment.  The snow had stopped.  The city was quiet, everything crisp and white in the glow of the streetlights.

Ah, ship of fools!  You wend this way and that, following no known course, making no real sense, arriving so far off schedule.  But what a journey!


For the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority of western Massachusetts, click here.

To find out where the PVTA’s B43 buses are right now, click here.

For a lovely multimedia article about the former B75 bus in Brooklyn, by Miranda Purves and Jason Logan, click here.  (Be sure to check out their graphics!)

For World Carfree Day, click here.

For my blog on UMass Amherst’s Common Read, click here.

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One thought on “Letter from the B43

  1. I like the addition of the PVTA links at the bottom, it makes your piece more interactive and it shows you put thought and care into it. I think pictures taken while on the bus could be a nice addition. It would really put the reader into your shoes.
    I also like that you admitted to “pegging” your fellow passengers. Everyone does it and that was an honest moment that made me reflect on my bus rides and my past “people watching” moments.

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