Crosstown Traffic

I got rid of my car a couple months ago-or, rather, my car got rid of me. Only 80,000 miles in and the transmission decided there was no going back, literally, so it was $2,500 or car-free living, and I chose the latter. Life is much improved without the worry and cost of a car, which is basically just a giant purse filled with trash that you have to drag around with you all the time and there's never anywhere to set it down. Baltimore is built as if everyone has a car, when that is absolutely not the case; I joined the over 31% of Baltimore households that do not own a motor vehicle.

I have yet to struggle to get anywhere by bicycle, train, bus, or the occasional car-owning friend (yes, I'm a hypocrite who mooches off my gas-guzzling friends), even if sometimes that includes a whole lot of waiting, which it did last week as I waited and waited for the No. 11 bus. I had taken it on a rainy day when I was too tired to ride my bike up the hill to an appointment in Roland Park, and because I had the afternoon free, I decided to get back on that bus headed north, just to see where it would take me. The waiting really is the hardest part, especially since I gave up smoking and the sure arrival of transit that accompanied the newly lit cigarette.

Fortunately, this particular stop boasted a covered bench to sit and wait on, and it didn't take long before the woman who started waiting before me struck up a conversation. She promised the bus is usually quite reliable here, she rides it every day, it's just perfect, and plus she gets to walk up the hill to the class in graphic design that she teaches at Notre Dame of Maryland University, and that's good for her health. Sister Gerold (that's her dad's name, but everyone just calls her "G.") and I had plenty of time to talk as the No. 11 defied her predictions and ran late. She's from St. Louis and was sent to Baltimore more than 20 years ago by the School Sisters of Notre Dame to teach art and graphic design. She told me lots of stories-about shivering through her first Maine summer under an electric blanket, about living in the dorms as a house mother and why she won't be doing that again, how much she wants to go back to St. Louis, and how much better life is without a car. I told her about how I found my way here, what I love about Baltimore and why I don't want to go back to where I'm from, and how much I love that giant arch in her hometown-that got a great story about her watching the final square of the arch settle in between the two yawning arms of that shockingly tall monument; her mom was sure it would never work, but G. knew it would. And then the bus came, and she sat in the front and I moved to the back, and that was the end of our brief friendship, except for the wave I got through the window when she got off the bus 15 minutes later.

The wait for the bus was incredibly social, but the ride itself, like most of my bus rides, was not. Everyone is in their own world on the bus, staring down at glowing boxes or at a point just beyond, just over "there." There's an unspoken rule on most public transit that you don't talk, you don't make eye contact, and we all pretend we're the only ones here, even if our thighs are all rubbing up on each other. It's a social contract, and though G. and I might have been willing to break it outside, once we entered the sacred space of the bus itself, we were a collection of unrelated individuals, alone with ourselves, the driver, and four different video cameras. (I broke this rule once on the ride, to agree with the woman seated in front of me that pedestrians should get out of the way of the turning bus, because it is not our fault if they get hit-solidarity everywhere all the time.)

The rest of the ride was just me and my window, watching Baltimore go by, neighborhoods doing their quick-change from city to suburb. And then we did a loop through Rodgers Forge, and all I could see was brick and a sign celebrating the neighborhood's founding in 1923, A Keelty Community. Turns out what looked like barracks or old-school public housing to me is actually one of the first fully planned communities in suburban Baltimore, built by the Keelty Company, who also built Edmondson Village and is still building homes today. The community and all of its 1,777 homes are on the National Register of Historic Places, entitling homeowners to tax credits for upkeep and maintenance. The neighborhood sells itself as family-oriented, with good schools and engaged neighbors, and they've got an awfully robust Citizens On Patrol group, at least according to their regular newsletter and blog, which recently featured an eyewitness report of three black men in hoodies walking in the neighborhood and knocking on a door. Yeah-not everybody's invited to be a part of their family, I'm guessing.

And then the bus was at Towson Town Center. I got off and headed inside the mall where all those hints of mess you see on the bus-the race and class distinctions between who is made to wait and who gets their own ride; the crass distinction between the mansions of Roland Park and the gas stations of North Baltimore; the ways we isolate from each other even in shared public space-disappear, and you can get a facial at the Aveda store from Michele for $15. She told me the goal is to look dewy, not oily, advice very much worth the price of the ride there.

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