Bus Boy

Scott gets on the bus (so to speak)

click to enlarge Bus Boy - Scott Harrell
Scott Harrell
Bus Boy

When I decided to see how long it would take me to ride the bus from my neighborhood in west St. Pete to the Planet office in Ybor City, my first stop was the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority's Central Plaza Terminal. A gleaming-new circular depot across from a cut-rate grocery store just east of 34th Street on Central Avenue, Central Plaza is one of two main convergences through which most St. Petersburg PSTA routes flow; downtown's Williams Park is the other.

"I'd like a map," I told the neatly presented guy in his late 20s, seated on the other side of the artillery-proof glass.

"What route?" he countered. (Or something to that effect. It was tough to tell exactly what came through that round, slotted grill in the window — you know, the one that acts mainly as a cheese grater for vowel sounds.)

I guessed that "all of them" wasn't a valid answer.

"The one that goes to Tampa."

He got up and went over to a massive brochure rack whose stark white contents varied only in the big, black letter printed in the upper left-hand corner of each, plucked one titled 100X, and returned to slide it to me through the change-moat.

"You get on at Gateway Mall," he said as he did so.

I was almost to my truck, a block away, when I realized:

1. Gateway Mall was not Central Plaza Terminal.

2. I didn't know what, or where, Gateway Mall was.

3. I had no idea which bus would get me to Gateway Mall, from whence I could get to Tampa.

But I didn't want to look like a doof, so I kept on walking and did what I always do when I don't know something and it seems somewhat important, though not immediately crucial, that I find out: I forgot about it until I was dicking around later on the Internet.

The PSTA's website (www.psta.net) is a much bigger help than a first look at its "System Map" page implies. One is invited to click on the pertinent area of Pinellas County for a closer look; for a colorblind guy, the resulting "detail" of downtown St. Pete is not very encouraging — numbered lines, some closely grouped and of similar color, tracing streets of which a minority are labeled. Click on the route, however, and a schedule appears. Through approximation, winnowing and the smoking of many cigarettes, I was able to discern that Route 5 passed near my house and would eventually stop at Williams Park. Where I could catch Route 4, which would eventually take me to (a-ha!) Gateway Mall at Ninth Street and 83rd Avenue North. Where I could eventually board the fabled 100X to downtown Tampa.

9:15 the following morning found me at the Tyrone Gardens bus stop on Ninth Avenue North. I struck up a conversation with a sweet, garrulous, slightly mentally impaired Taco Bell employee. We covered his Christmas presents, his impending trip to the mall, and his fear of doctors and needles before he informed me I was on the wrong side of the street to catch the southbound bus. He also casually relayed enough information about the PSTA system to make me wonder why some people (like a guy in perhaps his mid-'40s with the demeanor of a bright, inquisitive 11-year-old) are considered handicapped, and others (like a guy who often tears his house apart looking for his lucky hat, only to discover it on his head) aren't.

At 9:40, I caught the Number 5 Bus. And spent the next three-and-a-half hours sitting in, waiting for, or convinced I was on the wrong one of those fucking things.

The numbered lines on the "System Map" appear to run straight for considerable distances. On the ground, the routes I took rarely did, drifting almost arbitrarily a couple of blocks west here, a couple of blocks north there, to their designated stops. The Transit Authority makes quarterly "service adjustments" to its routes, ostensibly as the result of research and feedback gathered over four months' time. Maybe each "service adjustment" will streamline things further until the organization ultimately discovers that St. Petersburg is, in fact, laid out as a grid.

Another data-to-real-world discrepancy concerns the schedule's arrival times. The buses I rode always left on time and were never late. However, the estimated arrival times must've been figured to account for occasional minor delays, like a four-car pileup or extended hostage crisis. I thought I had planned my trip with dangerously scant changeover time, given my lack of experience, but ended up with far more than enough time between buses to wander around like an idiot and stand alone in the wrong kiosk. (At one particular stop, the many buses that arrived early would pull over 50 yards short of the kiosks; the drivers would emerge, smoke and joke amongst themselves, studiously ignoring their eventual charges.)

On the plus side, each of the four coaches I caught — including a HARTline bus from downtown Tampa to Ybor, when I could've walked the distance in less time than I waited for it — was clean, cool and absolutely jammed with helpful etiquette instruction, from NO FOOD NO DRINK NO SMOKING NO RADIO to that old favorite, PLEASE AVOID ALL UNNECESSARY CONVERSATION WITH THE DRIVER. (On any bus with more than six passengers, someone will be pathologically driven not just to break that last one but to obliterate it with a tsunami of questions about the inner workings of the bus, the history of the area, the driver's middle name, etc.)

And the time during and between rides gave me an opportunity to listen to members of the surprisingly broad spectrum of public-transit travelers share with one another, mostly about how much riding the bus sucks.

Nice Guy in NASCAR Visor: "What time is it? 10:45? God, the morning's shot!"

Sullen Teenage Girl in Thick Glasses: "I hate the bus."

Sullen Teenage Girl's Stressed-Out Mom: "Everybody hates the bus, honey."

Otherwise Extremely Polite Dude in Baggy Pants (to hot girl walking, while hammering on window): "Hey-hey! Hey-hey!"

As I walked the final two blocks to work at one in the afternoon, passing the bus I had just gotten off while it braked at another, closer stop, I realized my feelings toward people who regularly use public transportation had shifted from pity to admiration. Those people are committed, man. They know where they've gotta go, and dammit, they're gonna get there, whatever it takes.

And I'm not saying that the Bay area does a frightfully inadequate job of providing the means. It's a big area, a couple of small downtowns surrounded by miles of suburban sprawl that continues to spread unchecked, where picking up anything more than a 12-pack and a lottery ticket requires a 10-minute car ride.

But I am suggesting that if you're going to live here, without wheels or wheeled roommate, you should do some serious figuring with regard to where you're going to live, work and play.

And buy a bike.

A good one.

Contact Scott Harrell at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected].

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