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Guestwords: So I Took the Bus

Wed, 08/02/2023 - 12:03
A bus driver, somewhere in America, 1937.
Harris & Ewing Photograph Collection, Library of Congress

Wildfires and the relentless heat waves around the globe finally got me off the dime. I needed to do something to reduce my use of fossil fuels. I have been using a fan instead of the A/C, as it uses a fraction of the energy. But what about using public transportation?

Leaving my car at home a couple of times per week wouldn’t save the atmosphere all that much, but it would be something, and it would be part of my personal plan to adopt a more planet-oriented lifestyle.

So, on a recent day off, I took the bus. The Suffolk County Transit website had lots of information, and I identified the 10B as the best option for me to do some errands. As I stood at the bus stop on Springs-Fireplace Road, conveniently a short walk from where I live, my experiment had a pleasant start. There was a square of pavement to stand on and a shade tree that kept a muggy day at bay. The bus came on time at 9:45 a.m., and when I boarded I let the driver know my destination, as was recommended on the website.

The fare machine was to the left, with instructions in English and Spanish. I put in my quarters (it also takes fare cards). The price was $2.25; less for students, and only 75 cents for senior citizens, veterans, and the disabled. Children rode free.

There were a number of empty seats, and I sat down with my tote bag next to me. There was no air-conditioning but the moving bus brought a breeze through the windows. I learned as we went along that one needn’t stand at a stop to get the bus — passengers flagged it down at different places on the route and could ask to be let off at any point as well.

There was some congenial chitchat, and at one point I took out a book. But the bouncy ride and the dim light of the overcast day made it hard to read. Still, I didn’t expect luxury, just transportation.

The route included Windmill Village and a jog out to the medical center on Pantigo Place before going into East Hampton Village. After a brief layover at the train station, it headed out with three passengers, including myself, to Bridgehampton Commons.

I was the last off, and the driver courteously pulled over at Marshalls as I asked. Before leaving I thought I should check with him about departures. He explained the official stop was in front of King Kullen, but I could flag down the bus in front of any store. My printout in hand, I confirmed also that it would be there for pickups in an hour, about 11:40 a.m.

“Well, that bus is having some problems today,” he told me. “He might not make it. But definitely at 12:40 — that’s me, and I will be there.”

I was dismayed to learn that a bus might not run, leaving passengers there to wonder. I told him I didn’t need two hours at the Commons — was there some way I would know if it was running? What if I called the Suffolk Transit number?

“Yeah, you can call them,” he replied.

My optimism about public transport in the Hamptons began to wane. I began my errands, going from store to store. As I put my purchases in my tote, I realized one added environmental benefit to this shopping trip was reducing the extra distance a delivery truck would need to drop these things at my door.

At 11:35 I came out of King Kullen and found the bus stop. A few minutes later I decided to call Suffolk County Transit just to be sure the bus was operating. A polite voice assured me the bus was in service, but that it might be late because of traffic. So I waited some more. The day had grown hot and close, and there were plenty of fumes emanating from a truck idling in front of the supermarket.

When the bus finally came, it stopped in front of the sign — but the doors did not open. The driver got out his side and came around.

“I have to use the bathroom,” he said. Possibly contending with a long line inside — it is really none of my business — the driver did not return for 20 minutes. Being well past the scheduled departure time, I was more than eager to get on the bus.

When the doors opened, I put my fare in the box and said, “I’m going to Springs.”

“No, I’m on break when we get back to East Hampton. You’ll have to wait.”

The driver and I then had a rather lively exchange. I voiced — trying not to show my irritation — the unfairness to the passenger of all these surprise delays, while he made his point that he couldn’t help traffic or a nature call, and anyway, his break was built in to the schedule. Attempting to prove myself right, I checked my printout and, indeed, there was a layover at the train station I hadn’t understood at the outset of my journey. I apologized for reading the schedule wrong. He smiled.

As we drove along Route 27, I resigned myself to a long trip home. Drips from the overhead air-conditioner (which at least was working) landed on my head, and I switched seats a couple of times. I tried to think of what good might come from this disappointing day. I had certainly learned what the drivers are up against: old equipment, stressful traffic, angry passengers (and some who don’t bring enough fare, I later learned), and little accommodation for basic comforts.

I also felt for regular riders who had no choice but to use a quirky bus service even though it means uncertainty in picking up your kids on time, starting work on time, etc.

Yet it occurred to me that the bus was still the most accessible way for me to reduce my carbon footprint. These words of Jesus came to me: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” words that the Hebrew prophet Hosea had spoken for God, and bore repeating by Jesus as he addressed a religious elite known for false piety. God disdains great shows of worship at the altar when in everyday life we fail to show kindness and mercy to others.

I realized that it was like an empty ritual if I keep saying I care for the environment; it is time to show mercy toward the earth and its occupants. I need to put my concern into specific new habits. In fact, sacrifice is in order — the right kind of sacrifice — because unless all of us relinquish the conveniences that have led to so much decline in the natural world, and unless polluting industries relinquish profits for ethics, God’s creation will continue to suffer.

In October, the driver had told me, the bus system may become more “like Uber” — an on-demand service. It has been successful in Southampton, and it will be piloted in our parts, too. I applaud local leaders who have been advocating usable public transportation. Their goals have the common good in mind: to help our neighbors get where they need to be, and contribute to cleaner air. Fewer cars would of course ameliorate the extreme traffic and parking issues we have here in the village.

And so I am going to try the bus again. The new transit app is now downloaded onto my phone.

The bus driver was considerate back in East Hampton, dropping me near a place where I could kill time during his break. He also explained exactly where and when the bus would resume service so I wouldn’t miss it. I was there, in front of Stop and Shop, at 1:20 p.m.

We began the long loop into Springs, and on Three Mile Harbor he had to stop to put air in the tires. Passengers got on and off, and I found myself enjoying a kind of encounter with neighbors I wouldn’t meet otherwise.

When I finally got off at my street — I didn’t go as far as the bus stop — it was about two hours and 35 minutes after it was supposed to leave Bridgehampton Commons. My experiment was seemingly over, but actually had just begun.

The Rev. Candace Whitman is pastor at large for the Presbytery of Long Island. She lives in East Hampton.


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