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The Bus and Me

21 September 2006

A bit ago, the Consort had a meeting off campus that required him to use the car during the time that Trixie needs to be picked up from school. Not a problem—I took the bus, met her near her school, and we took the bus home. She liked it so much that we’ve made a deal to take the bus home on the one day a week that we don’t have a carpool scheduled. (At least until the weather turns blizzardly cold.) Now, public transportation in this typical American city sucks. Luckily, the route from our house to Trixie’s school is straight along one of the main arteries connecting us to the inner suburbs. But we wouldn’t be able to take the bus to an evening activity or a weekend get together (the buses stop running around 8:30 on weekdays, are on a reduced schedule on Saturdays, and don’t run at all on Sundays).

I’m glad that Trixie enjoys using public transportation; and it has reminded me how much I associate taking buses with freedom and independence. Growing up in northern New Jersey suburbia, our fathers took the train in to NYC, but we kids never took public transportation. Unless you lived really close, your mom drove you to school and picked you up at three. Perhaps this was different for public school kids, but my sisters and I went to parochial school, and in sixth grade we transferred from our town’s school to a parochial school in a nearby town. So we became even more dependent on our mother to drive us to and from places.

But in the summers, I would visit our relatives in Belgium. I would spend time in the homes of family friends, cousins, and aunts & uncles, but my personal pied à terre was my godmother’s house (just as my sister’s was her godmother’s house). My godmother lived in one of those tall and narrow city houses on a hill whose streets were still paved with stones. She lived near La Gare des Guillemins, Liège’s train station; and in front of the station, at the foot of the hill, across the street from the prostitutes in their windows (but don’t worry, they were all registered and officially “clean”), the tobacconists shops, and restaurants, were, of course, several bus stops.

My godmother had multiple sclerosis, and in all the visits I remember, she was in a wheelchair. Her husband worked during the day. I enjoyed hanging out with my godmother in her kitchen—listening to the radio, drinking many cups of coffee, chatting with her, learning to knit. And for several years I had a friendship with a girl, Carmenne, who lived next door—she’d come over to the kitchen as well and we’d play together, she’d sleep over, or we’d explore the spooky third and fourth floors of the house together.

My grandmother also lived in Liège. Across the river, near the Place Cathédrale. Which also happened to be a bus transfer point. And this is how my enchantment with buses began. The first time my godmother suggested I take the bus to spend an afternoon with my grandmother, I was shocked. Take the bus? Alone? In a city??? Growing up near New York City with my protective mother, taking public transportation in NY was just unimaginable (the fact that NY [pop: 8 million] is eNORmous compared to Liège [pop: 185,000], and that English was my mother’s second language, may have had something to do with this, I realize now as an adult). I didn’t want to do it. But my godmother didn’t believe in letting one hide behind one’s fears; she was a gentle soul, but she had terrific faith in me, and that, of course, bolstered my own sense of the possible.

I walked down the steep hill, got to the station, found the correct booth, waited for the bus, paid my fare, got off when everyone else did at the transfer station, got my bearings, and made it to my grandmother’s apartment. It was great!

It was so fun I thought of different things I could do by taking that same bus. Carmenne and I went to the movies at the theater in the Place Cathédrale. We window-shopped in the pedestrian thoroughfares along the Place. I visited my grandmother often. And I gained a sense of independence and self-reliance I hadn’t really had before.

So when I pick Trixie up on Mondays, and I feel the hydraulic brakes of the bus, or hear the rumble of the diesel engine, I remember those preteen summers in Liège, and I’m happy. And I think I’m going to enjoy Monday afternoons, even in the cold weather.

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