Take 5

It's better than HBO! Riding the mean streets of Minneapolis on Metro Transit's busiest bus route.

24 Blocks, 2 Scenes

A portly middle-aged woman climbs aboard Metro Transit's No. 5 bus just south of Lake and Chicago and takes the seat behind the driver. It's about ten o'clock on this freezing, slippery Wednesday night.

"Why, you got your bandanna tied just like my folks down in Louisiana," says a man sitting directly across the aisle. "My folks are originally from Haiti. Yeah, we made it out. Twelve years now. They chew tobacco working in front of the sewing machines. They couldn't smoke because they worked near the cotton fields. I was born down there in '57.

"Yeah," he continues after a pause, "you look like kinfolk."

The woman squirms in her seat and gives him a pleased, embarrassed smile. "You understand. People need respect. Get it and give it. A lot of kids, they might learn from books, but they don't know how to put it on the table. Well, take care, now," he says a few blocks later as she bundles up to leave. "Salut! Bonne chance!"

Another passenger slips on the stairs while climbing in. "He'll be all right," the Haitian man says cheerfully. "In the morning. Hey, sir!" he calls as the man walks down the aisle. "Do you know you can sue your HMO for that?"

When I ask him what he does for a living, he tells me he works at the Cabooze. "Actually I work at the biker bar beside it. You know it? The Joint? They get a little crazy, but that's all right because they get crazy with each other," he says with a big smile. "And that's because they're around each other all the time. Well, gotta go!" he says, pulling the cord.

A few minutes later, at 48th and Chicago, two men step aboard. One, toting the yoke of homelessness--a shopping bag of full of clothes in one hand, a shopping bag full of newspapers in the other--pays his fare. The other, a raw-boned, middle-aged redhead in a trench coat, sits down in the first seat perpendicular to the aisle, opens his wallet, and, as if he's just made a momentous decision, announces, "I need change for a five or else I'll ride for free.

"My mother is cognizant," he says to his companion in the same booming voice, obviously continuing a conversation that had begun outside. "She's okay. It's just that she doesn't get what to do when she gets up in the morning. That's why I take care of her."

"What about a nursing home?" ventures Homeless Guy. "She won't go?"

"Nah!" Trench Coat Guy replies, dismissing the option. "I wouldn't do it even if she would. Anyway," he adds with a note of finality, "nice talking to you."

"Did you find your fare, sir?" the driver calls out. Silence. "Sir, did you find your fare?" Silence.

Homeless Guy leans out of his seat and taps Trench Coat on the arm. "He's talking to you."

"What?"

"Find your fare?" the driver says once more.

"Yeah, I'm fine. Thanks for asking!" Trench Coat hollers back.

Stowing his bags, Homeless Guy gets up, gently takes the wallet from Trench Coat's hand, and canvasses up and down the aisle for change. Successful, he returns the wallet to Trench Coat, walks to the front of the bus, and pays the fare.

Several blocks pass in silence, and then Trench Coat Guy pulls the cord. On his way off the bus, he makes eye contact with Homeless Guy. "Everywhere I go, people help me. And I don't know why," he says, with startling passion.

"It's okay, Kevin, you'll be okay," Homeless Guy reassures him.

"Ah, I'm such a sap," Trench Coat says.

The doors open. As if on cue, his first step outside sends Trench Coat flying into the cranny between the bus and the snow bank. A spectacular pratfall.

 

Thank You for Your Cooperation

At one time Metro Transit slotted paid advertisements in the narrow band that runs from the front to the back of every bus, near the ceiling. Now, though, the space is occupied by messages from the transit company--driver-recruitment posters and so forth. One notice, printed on a bold red background, reads, "It is a felony to interfere with the safe operation of a bus. Transit police ride MCTO routes in uniform and undercover. Violators will be arrested and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Thank you for your cooperation."

In recent months, questions about the safety of the local bus system--and the diligence of our transit police--have been high-profile news fodder. WCCO-TV (Channel 4) aired video footage of a driver being savagely beaten on the No. 18 line in early January, leading to the assailant's arrest. A few weeks later the Star Tribune published a story suggesting that the crime had been an aberration, and noting that despite a 12 percent increase in ridership since 1994, assaults on drivers had declined 41 percent. In late February WCCO came back with an investigative segment that featured some stark revelations: Metro Transit had fed the Star Tribune misleading numbers. Though the Twin Cities' bus system is one of the safest in the United States for passengers, driver assaults have actually risen 35 percent over the past two years--to the highest level of any metropolitan area in the nation. Transit cops, meanwhile, are twice as likely to be washing their patrol cars as riding the buses, and they spend an inordinate amount of their other time on the job writing parking citations.

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