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.

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.

 

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.

"Yeah, nice clothes, but they're on you, nigga," the kid replies edgily. "You're a white-skinned muthafucka, a Shanghai Noon muthafucka, you and that Somali hair of yours." So much laughter ensues that the game cannot continue.

 

2 Rides, 2 Raps

Pulling south out of Brookdale at the north end of the No. 5 line, a twentysomething passenger spinning rap rhymes in back is interrupted by a drunk in a light-blue watch cap. "Did you steal from me?" the drunk demands. "You're too old to steal from, and I ain't no thief," the rapper replies. "No, you're right. I was someplace else. I wasn't around you," the drunk says, and lays off.

The rapper tells me his name is Soul Taker. What's he rapping about? "Oh, I'm just throwing out the garbage now," he says. "That's point-zero-zero-one--no, wait!--that's point-zero-zero-zero-one percent of what I've got." Does he have a rhyme for the No. 5 line? After an initial attempt involving gunplay and gin, he stops. "No, man, that ain't right," he says. "Let me do something positive for the kids in the City Pages."

 

Ever since they made the 5 line for brothers like me to ride

It's been cool--no more cold standing outside:

Damn! There go the bus

Nah, that's the 5R--I need the S

I know everybody in the game wanna see me fall

But I'm still gonna be the mack to you all

"Sir, you got change for a five?"

"You ain't got enough to ride the bus," he said

"Oh, you gonna do me like that?

I thought you was a cool bus driver"

"Nah, you ain't gettin' on my bus with no fiver

Because you be startin' trouble, Black"

I looked at the Game and the Game looked back at me

My brother said, "Shoot that brother"

I said, "Nah, 'cause I ain't no killer, G"

 

I see this old drunk on the bus, acting not cool at all

Steady bothering a young brother--bus driver put him off at the mall!

I see a crackhead on the back--nah, he's in the front with a blue hat

He wanna ask question like, "Why you learn to rap and how you do that?"

It's true that I'm the coldest thing you ever seen in this industry

Back in 1973 Mama gave birth to a young brother just like me

Oh, the bus? It's about a lot of crazy stuff

And if you get on the 5 line you'll understand why I fuss

With everybody riding the bus

I can't even rhyme in peace

"I'm on my way to work!" "Brother, would you be quiet? Decease!"

Everybody wanna play. The girls wanna say to me,

"Um, do you know what time the 5 get downtown?"

Bitch, get a transfer! Or should I say a schedule

Then you'll know when the bus come around

There's a lot of cuties on the 5 line and I promise you this

But there's a lot of brothers--mean muggers who are getting pissed

They talkin' 'bout, "Yo, homey, that's my girl"

But that's all good and all

Cause I'm on my way to the mall

So I can buy me some shoes, y'all

 

On another evening a sharp-looking guy sporting sunglasses, a black cane, and a thin line of beard running from ear to ear makes his way to the back of the No. 5 as it heads north on Chicago. "Chilly is ready to go par-tay on the north side!" he announces, opening a can of beer from the six-pack cradled in a bag on his arm and passing a second can to a stranger beside him.

"That's Chilly. You want to talk to someone, you should talk to him," says the woman sitting next to me.

"You doin' a story on the 5 and you want a rhyme from me?" asks Chilly. "I got a rhyme for the 5, baby!

 

5 gonna take yo' life

If you wanna ride

On that 5

Comin' from the north

To the south side

On this bus you better not ride

 

"The 5 bus is ghetto fabulous," he says, breaking off. "It is the mainstream of crack hell. It will put you on Broadway, put you on Franklin, put you on Chicago and Lake. You go on the 5 to do one thing: Get on and get your ass off. Get you some dope and get back on. Get off and sell dope.

"'Go to the Mall of America, check out Planet Hollywood fo sho! We go there to shop. We go there for Camp Snoopy!'" he mocks. "I ride the 5 because I got a lot of friends on the 5! Got drugs on the 5. Lot of corruption on the 5. I can fuck up on the 5!" This observation elicits hearty laughter from Chilly's neighbors.

"5 is the home to ghetto godfathers," he goes on. "We pulsatin'. From the south side to the north side, it's like a vein runnin' through your arm. The 5 gets you to Penn, it gets you to Emerson. It gets you in trouble! The 5 will get you drunk! The 5 is the main street from suburban life to ghetto life. I am ghet-toh. I'm not a thug, I'm a hooood-lum! And I be out there wiiiiiith them! The one thing about a 5 bus: Either you doin' somethin' or you know somethin' about somethin'. When you see somethin', you gonna drop off and get somethin'. Get back on and then you don't know nothin'. Uh-huh.

"Everybody gets off the 5 comin' from north to south to make money. But not from south to north!" he hollers, milking his audience like a standup comic. "This is the hardcorest bus. The 5: 5 black eyes, 5 broke toes."

More laughter. "I'm a south-side nigga and I loooove the 5. You get on the 5 to do transactions. People bond on the 5. People talk here in the back of the bus: You know this is Black History Month? Damn!"

Amid the monologue, a gaunt black man has maneuvered into a seat nearby and is clearly waiting for an opportune moment to interrupt. "Give me the bid, Chilly," he says now. "Give me a square."

"Wait until we get off," Chilly brushes him off. "I'm tellin' you that the 5 bus is the same bus that travels to the Mall of America. Whatever you want out of this interview, I'm giving you the ghetto version. I don't sugarcoat it, don't sugarcoat a damn thing. I've been riding this bus since 1988. I've been on the corner for 13 years. The Ghetto Godfather. King of Lake Street. I just got out of the penitentiary. I ain't scared. I did my time. And then I hopped the goddamn 5 bus line. Sold my crack on the corner. I did my karma, did my damn time. I been out eight months. I love the 5 because all my friends ride the 5.

"And the 5," he concludes with a grin, "is always on time."

 

Real People

Ten years ago Metro Transit driver Jim Debill accepted an assignment on the No. 5 because it was a "one-piece day run"--meaning he could drive the same route every workday between 5:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. "I figured I'd work it for a while and then change," says Debill, a 26-year transit veteran with a slight paunch, a ponytail at the back of his balding head, and tattoos of his two children on the inside of his left forearm. "But once you get out there, it kind of gets in your blood. These are real people--truly real people. Each and every day most of them are fighting their own individual battle. I look at 'em and go, 'Wow.' Of course it doesn't make me any softer. But I'm sure I'll stay on the 5. I like the rush."

Two years ago Debill joined the ranks of No. 5 drivers who've been attacked by passengers. (Besides being Metro Transit's busiest route, the 5 has the dubious distinction of boasting the highest incidence of driver assaults.) It began when a quartet of young women ignored his warning to stop swearing loudly. He radioed a patrol car to come escort them off the bus, but before the squad car arrived, one of the women came after him. "I thought the girl who attacked me was a dude until she took off her stocking cap," he remembers. "She came up and spit at me first and then started clawing at me. I started throwing punches and the other three girls were kicking me in the shins."

Stewart Rudi was assaulted while driving the No. 5 along Penn Avenue North in 1995. It happened in the afternoon, he recalls, right after school. Rudi, who is six foot eight, told four kids he couldn't let them all ride on a single bus pass. The last of the quartet didn't go quietly; after starting to get off the bus he came back up with a fist cocked. "I was lucky he was slow," Rudi remembers. "I was able to get my arms up."

Rudi, who was a member of Metro Transit's Safety and Security Committee at the time, says the incident made him a forceful advocate for the installation of onboard video cameras. (Today more than two-thirds of the Twin Cities' 971 buses are equipped with cameras, including all of the vehicles that run the No. 5 route during off-peak hours.) "Once word got out that we were convicting people with videotape in court, things really began to quiet down," he says.

Drivers are protected by a sheet of curved Plexiglas that prevents passengers from attacking them from behind, and, if they've been properly trained, they are permitted to carry pepper spray. At the first sign of trouble, they're able to radio a "priority call" for one of the transit police force's 11 squad cars to respond. The drivers I spoke with told me that when a fight breaks out, the sound of radio communication usually ends it. Each bus is also equipped with a silent "panic button" that triggers an alarm at the control center, in the event of an accident or other life-threatening emergency.

Nevertheless, the threat of assault remains a fact of life for drivers, particularly on the No. 5. This year, for example, transit police reports indicate that on January 4--the same night the driver on the No. 18 line endured the beating that made the WCCO evening news--another man was jailed for verbally threatening a driver on the 5. The next day a driver on the 5 was slapped. Three days later a No. 5 driver was kicked in the thigh. On January 11 a driver on the 5 was "assaulted by a disorderly passenger," and five nights after that another was hit in the head with a backpack. January 27 brought two separate reports of passengers brandishing knives on the 5.

Stewart Rudi, who participates in a peer counseling program for drivers, says that after an assault "the emotions go in stages. First you start second-guessing yourself: What could I have done differently? Why am I in this job? Then the driver gets mad--mad at the company for not doing more to protect him. The last step is when you understand what really did happen and you go on with your life."

Inexperienced drivers have an especially hard time, Rudi goes on. "A passenger might say to a driver, 'I'm going to come after you,' or 'I'm going to come back.' But the thing is, most people look at a driver as a part of the bus and don't even remember who the driver was. If a driver is obviously nervous, that translates to the passenger. We've started training new drivers to make eye contact with people getting on board, to call out the streets, to make a connection."

Jerry Pratt is no rookie. For eight years Pratt worked days as a chemical-dependency counselor for Hennepin County and supplemented his income driving a bus at night. About a year ago Pratt--a father of two who fancies the nickname Bad-to-the-Bone ("because I'm such a nice guy")--quit his county job and went full-time with the bus company, splitting his time between the 5 and the 16, another inner-city route.

"This is the best job I ever had," he says. "Less stressful than my other job. Fewer issues. There's more enjoyment and more freedom. I get to see my kids. People who are afraid of the bus don't ride them--they get scared by what they've heard or read in the paper. I never had no problems and never expected any. Maybe it's because I'm a big guy. I just let people be who they are. The worst thing that ever happened to me was a guy exposed himself in front of me about five years ago. I've never had a bad experience. If they had a route that ran right by my house, I wouldn't even own a car."

According to transit police reports, assaults on drivers most commonly stem from fare disputes. With that in mind, the agency trains its drivers to ask for payment one time, then let it go. While Pratt is a veritable poster boy for that policy ("I'm a soft touch," he shrugs. "They can see it--it's written all over my face: a big teddy bear"), others are less lenient. Jim Debill says he always requires payment. "I explain it to them like the bus is a McDonald's. I say, 'If a Big Mac is $1.50 and you give them a dollar, will you get the Big Mac?' And of course they say no. So I say, 'Well then, pretend this is McDonald's. If you can't pay the fare, hey, God gave you some legs; start walkin'.'"

Debill doesn't think his hard line puts him in jeopardy. "The important thing is being confident and in control of your environment," he asserts. "By now people know me: There are passengers who are about to try and ride for free that see it's me and turn right around and walk away. But that's not the danger. Let's face it, there are some people who don't care if their eyes open the next day or not. Those are the ones you have to be very cautious of. Because if they don't care about themselves, they certainly don't care about you."

 

The Graveyard Shift at the Holiday Inn

Drivers on the No. 5 refer to the "owl" buses that run between 1:00 and 4:00 a.m. as "Holiday Inns." When the weather is particularly cold, a dozen or more homeless riders may be slumped in their seats, encased in fortresses of their belongings.

"We are in a dangerous place," a thin black man in a leather jacket tells me as we head north on a Monday owl run. "The young kids will terrorize us. I'm scared." With his slurred words comes the unmistakable smell of cheap booze. "Young-ass kids--13, 14 years old--talkin' shit. Black, white, Hispanic, it doesn't matter--they have no respect. No respect. I ride with my grandmother, we ride in the front seat, all scared as shit. Especially on the 5 line.

"So you're from City Pages? Do you write about gays?" he asks me.

"Are you against them? Be honest now: In your heart, are you against them? Shit. You a cop, ain't you? Stop these crazy-ass nuts on the bus. Boys--and girls!--they will beat your ass. I've been smacked several times. I've seen them smoke reefer right in the middle of the damn bus. Seen them come up and beat the damn driver, beat him to a fare-thee-well. I've been spit on, hollered at--and she was black!

"I have kids that age. But if they ever acted like these kids do, I would kill their ass. I lived down South so I wasn't raised that way, and my kids weren't raised that way. They respect me. They know their dad is a gay father. To keep me on, I know they had a hard time. But they love me. I'm going home June first. My daughter will be graduating from school. My kids love me, bigtime. But drugs have a hold on me. I've been drinkin' and takin' that shit, that crack shit. I had a friend in Louisville, I was staying with her. Now I've been riding the bus to stay warm, for one whole month."

I ask if he has no place to live.

"Why? You gonna take me home?" he says suggestively. "I ride until they kick me off. This one might do it," he continues, nodding toward the driver, "because he's an asshole. He's cute, though. You pretty cute too. Is that a spot on your pants?" he says, leaning over and trying to run his hand up my thigh. I grab his wrist.

"See, you are a fucking cop!" he yells. When I ask his name, he says, "My name is Dildo! My name is Suck Me! Leave me alone, you damn cop!"

All the while, I've been aware of a mellifluous but barely audible chant-song emanating from a large man three seats away. After Dildo leaves I ask him what he's singing. He looks at me with a start. "My language," he says cautiously, then nods toward my tape recorder. "What's that? Don't talk to me! My father was a fool, but I am not a fool. There are plenty of white people on the bus--why aren't you talking to them? Go talk to them! I'll watch you."

After the man gets off the bus, the driver tells me he's a regular. "Usually he's very nice and pleasant, but every now and then he gets a little funny," he says. "Sometimes he'll complain that I don't have the heater on. I point out that it's going full blast, but he still doesn't believe me."

As one of Metro Transit's longest-tenured drivers--27 years and counting--Nancy Geer has her pick of hours and routes. A large, squat woman who seems at one with her seat, Geer has chosen the owl shift, from about 1:00 to 9:00 a.m., on the No. 5. "Never a dull moment," Geer declares. "It's better than HBO and it's all free. It's fun to watch the dichotomy of the personalities. You go through places that are geographically and economically depressed, and places that are much better off. You got people with attaché cases sitting next to blue-collar people and street people. One guy has gotten up five minutes late for work and wants you to fix his life. Another guy has fallen asleep on the bus and wakes up to find himself in the real world."

As her homeless passengers snore, Geer's No. 5 makes its way along Fremont Avenue in north Minneapolis. One early rider who climbs onboard wants to get in some exercise at a downtown health club before he goes to work. Another is heading for work at the airport; she'll transfer downtown. A trio of rough-hewn characters who come aboard at Broadway are bound for day labor.

By 4:30 all the seats are filled. Beside me is a 53-year-old man named Les, dressed in the blue uniform of a Pinkerton guard. About a year ago, he tells me, he was hired to patrol near Abbott-Northwestern Hospital. Unfortunately, he had just signed a lease on an apartment in St. Paul. For the next ten months, Les left his house five days a week at 3:00 a.m. and walked two miles to catch the No. 21 bus to work.

"One bus got me to work a half-hour early, at 5:30, but the next one would get me there 15 minutes late, which wasn't acceptable," he recalls, peering through thick lenses that make it obvious driving a car wasn't an option. "I'll tell you, it got pretty cold taking that walk in the wintertime."

Last month, Les says, he found an apartment along the No. 5 line. "My stop is three houses down across the street. I made sure," he notes with evident satisfaction. "It saves me about two and a half hours a day.

"Oops!" he interrupts himself, glancing outside. "Time to go to work!" He pulls the cord.

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