Take 5

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

Conspicuously absent from the barrage of coverage has been any sense of what it's like to actually ride the bus. Who relies on local public transportation? What are the daily rhythms of the bus? Does the fear of mayhem affect the trip for drivers or passengers? To find out, I spent ten days riding the No. 5 line. I chose the 5 because it's the busiest Twin Cites route, averaging a suspension-sagging 21,400 passenger trips per day as it goes back and forth between the Mall of America in Bloomington and Brookdale in Brooklyn Center, cutting straight through the city of Minneapolis along the way.

It's running right now. If you're reading this story in the wee hours, say 2:47 a.m., at this very moment a southbound 5B bus is stopping at West Broadway and Fremont Avenue. On the other side of the city, a northbound 5K is about to pull alongside the barren Sears Tower parking lot near Chicago and Lake. In four hours, during the dawn rush hour, 21 different No. 5's will ply the streets. Around sunset, more than an alphabet's worth of 5's--28 in all--will form a veritable north-south armada. An inner-city route, the 5 doesn't represent the "typical" Twin Cities bus experience. Local buses are like the metropolitan area they traverse: populated mostly by white people (82 percent, to be precise). Half the passengers are age 35 to 54; two-thirds are women; more than three-fourths use the bus for commuting. Metro Transit doesn't break down the numbers by route, but it's clear the 5 lays claim to a far more diverse crowd. It's a rolling casserole of humanity, seasoned with fresh ingredients every few hundred yards.


Craig Lassig

The Back of the Bus

Aside from the morning and evening rush hours, when the aisle is crowded and seating becomes a game of musical chairs, passengers on the 5 generally segregate themselves into three distinct areas. At the front of the bus are the infirm, the elderly, the scared, the package-laden, the quick-trippers, the friends-of-the-driver, and the obsessive-compulsives. Conversations here are usually good-natured and genteel, with enough of a screwball quotient to keep everyone on their toes. The middle section, laid out so that no one faces anyone else, is for the most part occupied by twosomes and low-profilers, riders armed with books and/or headphones. Clearly, these people don't want to be bothered.

The back of the bus is where the rabble goes to rouse. With a trio of seat-benches configured like three sides of a rectangle, the space is tailor-made for performances. In winter the back is considerably colder and danker than the rest of the bus, and year-round the proximity of the roaring engine results in loud conversation. Add in the fact that back-of-the bus passengers are farthest away from the authority figure at the wheel, and that they have their own exit, and it's easy to see how the area promotes a sense of private mischief, like a basement speakeasy. That the space is often ruled by the antics of young African-Americans is probably no coincidence: Just as many blacks have adopted and empowered the epithet "nigger," the old "back of the bus" stigma has undergone a cultural coup d'état.

As the No. 5 exits the Mall of America just after the shopping center's six o'clock teen curfew, a loose contingent is camping it up in back. Gradually the conversation moves from tall tales ("I woke up at 2:00 a.m. in Columbia Heights, nigga, with no way to get home!") to word play about the Sharing and Caring Hands shelter ("Ain't that run by that ugly bitch?" "Yeah, but what about those other two ugly bitches, Sharon and Karen Hands?") to trading insults. This last exercise centers increasingly on one member of the group who seems to be taking offense.

"He's a swollen-face-ass nigga."

"A bitch-face nigga."

"Yo! He's a hairy-ass chimpanzee!"

The beneficiary of these remarks turns forward in his seat, silently working his jaw. A vein bulges in his forehead. He looks as if he might punch someone soon. "Hey, they're just trying to pressure you, nigga," counsels a friend sitting beside him.

The chorus gleefully continues. "You okey-dokey-ass nigga!"

"Deputy Dawg-face nigga!"

"Droopy long-assed-face nigga!"

At that the kid wheels around--and bursts out laughing. "Yo, you got me with that last one, nigga!"

The focus shifts briefly to the heftiest member of the group. "He be like Fat Albert," someone observes, only to be rebutted by a cohort: "Hey, wait a minute--Fat Albert's our hero, Cuz."

"You be lookin' like a low-budget Cris Carter," says Fat Albert to the kid who just nicknamed him.

"Nah, he's a hairy-beast nigga, like a Critter--y'all seen that movie Critters?"

"Shit, he's a pack of paleface nigga, a Cincinnati Reds-face nigga! He's a Count Dracula who can't count--'Ah, 1...3...25....'" The litany dissolves in paroxysms of laughter.

Then it's on to sartorial splendor, this time directed at a kid wearing red suede shoes and pants that are just as baggy as everyone else's, but made out of vinyl. "Look at this nigga! He's a Versace-face nigga!"

"He's wearing U-Clan clothes, as in U-gly."

Red Shoes is not amused. "Everything I got on costs more than yours, nigga," he says to his first tormentor.

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