Washington, DC

Eric’s earlier post about moving to Petworth can be read here. And his personal blog can be found here.

The likelihood of unusual things happening on a bus is far greater than it is on a subway. Why is that?

The other night it was cold and rainy, so I hopped on the 64 bus at Fort Totten for a ride over to my house near Rock Creek Cemetery. At the first stop, a number of people got on. After several people boarded, a guy got on the bus, half-heartedly felt around his pockets for a non-existent transfer, and said to the driver, “Hey man, it’s my birthday.”

After being waved past, the guy took a few steps in, then addressed the entire bus, “Hey, it IS my birthday. Everybody say, ‘Happy Birthday Kev-iiiiiiiin!'”

“Holy balls,” I thought. “This dude is doing a call and response…on a city bus.”

Then a chorus of people erupt around me, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, KEV-IIIIIIIIN!”

“Holy balls,” I corrected myself. “This dude is doing a call and response…on a city bus…and it worked!”

Before moving to Petworth, I’d never ridden on a Metro bus. There really is no good reason for this, just that our old apartment was two blocks from the Red Line, as is my office. However, since I’ve been introduced to the bus system, I’ve noticed something that I don’t quite understand. It seems that the likelihood of crazy nonsense happening on the bus is significantly larger than on the subway. I think most people who use both modes of transportation would agree with this assumption. My question is: Why? Story continues after the jump.

I mean, if you base it purely on volume (the number of folks riding on a bus compared to those on a subway car), you’d expect the opposite to be true. But it isn’t.

My bus’s birthday greeting for Kevin was far from my only unusual bus adventure. Just last week I rode with a woman wearing an electric red Pipi Longstocking-style ponytail wig who kept talking to her reflection in the window, occasionally shrieking about someone hiding things inside her shoes. Last week my friend Aaron rode the bus next to a guy who was clipping his fingernails while crying. Another friend routinely encounters a man selling white tube socks on his morning bus ride. A dinner companion told me a story of a knockdown girl-on-girl fist fight in the back of a bus that ended with one of them screaming, “I don’t care if you are my mother, give me back my cell phone!” My buddy Matt says that one evening he was taking the 42 bus home and the guy behind him was smoking crack. Yup. Smoking crack. On the bus.

Of course, riding the subway is not necessarily a dull experience, either. There’s the large woman with a painted face who plays harmonica and sings (sans melody, song structure, or skill) for tips on the Red Line. The guy I’ve seen several times shredding the Washington Post into strips and tossing them in front of himself as he goes through his commute like a newsprint-wielding Hansel and Gretel. My friend Amy tells of a guy who paced through her subway car slowly (yet loudly) singing “Jesus Loves Me” while giving The Eye to his fellow passengers as if he planned to kill and/or eat them.

My friend Meghan takes the prize, though. She once walked towards an empty bench on a subway car when she noticed a human turd on the seat. When she pointed it out to the train operator, he responded, “Oh, this happens all the time.” (Think about that before you sit your lunch down on the vacant seat next to you.)

But even at their relative best, subway stories rarely meet the number and intensity set by bus stories. In trying to make sense of all this, I’ve gathered four possible theories:

Routes: The chance that there’s a bus line within 2 or 3 blocks of your house is much higher than the chance that you are that close to a subway stop. Generally, the subway is a destination–you go to the nearest stop and enter their system at that centralized point. Buses are different, they route themselves through neighborhoods, going where people live. Therefore, it is easier for nonsense provocateurs to use the bus. While this theory has potential, there is one critical flaw in it. My bus (like others)–the source of my experiences–serves as a connecting point to the subway system. Most of those who ride my bus get off and walk directly into the subway entrance. Since that is the case–crazy on the bus should equal crazy on the subway.

Price: I’ve heard variations on this a lot. The idea here is that the price difference between the subway and buses prevents most of the nuttiness from taking the subway. First off, there are crazy-acting folks with dollars in their pocket. Plenty. Plus, for many situations we’re talking about a 60 cent difference. Come on–we are supposed to believe that some guy who thinks he’s being attacked by invisible birds has $1.35 in his pocket, but it’s preposterous that he would have $1.95?

Number of people: Earlier I mentioned that based on the number of people on a bus and subway car, the stats should indicate that more unusual things should happen on the subway. One way to explain this isn’t the number of crazy-acting folks, but the number of NON-crazy-acting folks. In other words, the odd birds are diffused by the sheer bulk of otherwise un-drama-inducers around them. Even though it is my own theory, there are problems with this, too. If someone is going to drop trou and defecate on the subway, it doesn’t matter if five people are there–or 50 or 100–someone is going to notice.

Bus stigma: My neighbor shared something I’ve heard many other people stumble around: bus stigma. She told me about hushed whispers among her co-workers saying things like, “Can you believe So-N-So takes the bus?” “No way, get out!” I find that most of the people who promote bus stigma are often the same folks who never, ever use public transportation. Then they bitch about parking…and then I get really mad at them. Despite their ass-faced transpo-elitism, the idea may be germane here. I mean, if someone doesn’t care how ridiculous they look clipping their fingernails or hocking tube socks on public transit, they obviously aren’t too concerned about the faux pas of riding the bus in the first place. (Note: Every time I’ve tried to type “bus stigma” I accidentally type “bus stigmata” first. It’s a fun distraction to try to figure out what “bus stigmata” might be.)

Sure, there are people who use both transport systems who have problems–probably big, unfortunate problems. But 90% of the stories you hear about strange happenings on the bus and subway don’t come from drug addicts or mentally ill riders. Most are instigated by otherwise “normal” folks. What’s missing from this entire conversation is context. Beside the turd thing, probably every other story I’ve shared could *possibly* be explained away in some context. I’m sure Aaron’s seatmate had a perfectly understandable and rational reason for clipping his nails…and crying. It, like most other stories, just seems odd out of context.

So there you have it, dear readers. Do you agree with the premise or any of the theories I’ve laid out? How about your own? While you are writing, feel free to throw in your favorite bus and/or subway story.

Comments (22)

  1. The reason, I believe, there are fewer nuts on the subay is because there is a highly visible security presence on the subway. There is rarely any kind of uniformed, gun-toting authority figure on the buses whereas there is amost always at least one in every station and, occasionally, on the trains themselves. Admittedly, their presence seems to drop off late at night in some stations but they are there. Also the kiosk trolls and faregates prevent access by anyone who doesn’t pay a fare where, on the buses, it seems that fares are at the discretion of the drivers.

  2. I think in some small part the metro “feels” different, cleaner and neater. I have noticed that people act different based on the superficial. Like dress down days in high school, put on a pair of jeans and everyone in catholic school goes nuts. :)

  3. I have no idea why the bus/metro crank gap exists. But I take the bus every day. Here’s my story.

    One night, I was taking a 16th street bus down to U Street. There was a group of about 8 or so punk ass kids who were causing problems the whole way down. Right at U, one of the kids didn’t want to wait until after the stoplight to get off of the bus, and proceeded to go out one of the windows. The driver was understandably pissed off, and stopped the bus to confront the kid. The kid started giving him hell, and it ended up with the kid in a headlock, the driver shouting at him “You have just f**ked with the wrong mother f**king black man!”


    Then the cops came, and we all had to get off and walk. Love metrobus.

  4. My theory (and I am a bus advocate- I think the subway is smelly and unnatural) is that you have a view. You can see outside and so you are less removed from your natural environment. Whereas the subway feels like a coffin or a library or a doctor’s office- very sterile environment not conducive to carrying on your normal conversations and “activities”. I feel more at ease on the bus. I can see where we’re going- not into a dark tunnel- and I just feel a camraderie on it that I could never feel on the metro. However, when I go to NYC I feel like their subway is akin to our bus system. So give it another 50 years and maybe the metro will feel more “lived in”.

  5. I think it is more obvious than that. It is clear that the subway was designed to get commuters in and out of the city and it is only recently that it has started to serve the neighborhoods whereas the bus has more stops where people live and is the best way to get around the city especially to the places where people live, need to go to get treatment et. al. Consequently, there is more of a chance of getting the characters on the bus since they, I believe, live in the city and need to get around the local areas.

  6. Dilution…the subway dilutes the cranks. Instead of, for instance a 4 to 1 ratio of normal people to cranks that you might find on the bus, the subway has, lets say, a 25 to 1 ration. My theory is that they are there, you just don’t notice, particularly when the trains are elbow to ass full. I have certainly noticed a fair share of nutters, drunks and deliquents on the metro.

  7. There is more flavor on the trains late at night. And I dont mean from drunken bridge and tunnel folks…. Some of this is class, too…. The Green Line, for example, is
    -even during peak times, different from the Red Line… Of course, it’s also true that this isn’t the most emotionally unfettered place on the planet.

  8. One time this guy started fake vomiting because no one would get out of his way so he could get off the bus. Come on people, move out of the way. Is their some sort of status thing about where you stand on the bus? Do people have to stand right by the doors? Or stand in the front of the bus and not move to the back of the bus, even though 10 more people are trying to get on the bus? Well, this guy had them all figured out, just act like your about to vomit and people will get out of your way. What has society come to when a nice “excuse me” doesn’t get your attention, but the threat of vomit does.

  9. Pop–Just wanted to say thanks for introducing us all to Eric. I wasn’t familiar with him before this post. I just killed 20 minutes reading his very enjoyable blog. Thanks again!

  10. on the Georgia Ave bus recently there was a guy selling stuff…standing in front pulling things out of his coat and calling out to see if anyone was interested. T-shirts, socks, boxer shorts, long johns, …then seriously, spam and vienna sausages. I don’t think he sold anything. Half the bus was cracking up, and half the bus was like nooooo not that guy againnnnn…

  11. I think that it’s easier to get on a bus for free than it is to get on the metro for free. As you described, bus drivers often “wave” people back if they put up a long enough excuse or fight why they cant pay (aka. the man who got on without paying becasue it was his birthday). That’s not really possible on the metro.

    Also- i love riding buses – it’s always an adventure and you can always see where you are going!

  12. As someone else said, the buses are mostly used by locals who live in the city, and I think city dwellers would generally have more character than the suburbanites who usually take the metro or drive. Also, it’s usually people without cars who take the bus, and people without cars are the oddballs who don’t follow the norms of society (i.e. this is America, so you’re supposed to have a car!).

  13. If by character you mean mental health issues – you got that right!

  14. Ah, the bus… the better half of my commute. It’s a much more personal experience than the subway. Always in your face.

  15. a classic!

    For examples of bus stigmata, ask Frieda Kahlo about those…

    And, buses are more subsidized than metro in DC because of the different populations they serve

  16. Golden Silence


  17. “people without cars are the oddballs who don

  18. Personally I have had more “experiences” on the metro than the bus. I think it is a matter of frequency (I take the metro more than the bus) and the when you are traveling. Most of my crazy stories occurred from 10 pm – 3 am.

  19. I didn’t mean oddballs in a bad way, necessarily. Just that it’s way more likely, even in DC, for a person to have a car than to not have one, because there’s this perception that you need a car to function in American society. So if you don’t have a car you’re an anomoly, and probably more interesting (coule be either in a good or bad way).

  20. “My theory (and I am a bus advocate- I think the subway is smelly and unnatural)”

    LOL Yep, I’ve never gotten on a Metrobus that smelled the least bit like moldy clothes and urine. When I think of clean, I think Metrobus.

    And unnatural? Gosh, let’s all just go back to the horse and buggy.

  21. I LOVE the bus. Actually, I have a love-hate relationship with the bus, but it’s one of those things like you can criticize your family, but if an outsider does it, watch out. Same way with the bus–I’ll complain about bus-related items, but I feel the need to defend the bus’s honor if a Metro-rider or car-driver says anything negative.

    More often than not there’s something wacky that goes on during my bus route. There’s the man who had a massive, massive pickle jar and ate the giant pickles during a very crowded rush hour 30 route bus ride, then drank the juice, but was drunk and/or crazy and spilled it on everyone around him. There’s the man who gave us all the play by play of a Redskins game one Sunday afternoon from his radio–even though no one on the bus was interested. There are the drivers who are driving the route for the first time, and they ask the passengers where they are supposed to go–and everyone happily obliges. I traded novels with a fellow passenger one time because we both had just finished our paperbacks. For some reason, I feel like that would never happen on the Metro.

    It’s just a more personal experience, for me, than Metro. I feel like I’ve gotten to know this city and its residents much better since I started taking it 4 years ago. And probably somewhere, someone is talking about me as a bus-riding weirdo, because I sometimes make cookies & give them to my drivers to thank them.

  22. Golden Silence

    LOL Yep, I


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