I drove home late yesterday afternoon, New Years Eve, through snow falling thick and small against a pale, dime-gray sky, rolling slowly through the salted slush, keeping a careful distance from the glowing tail lights ahead. I’d already locked brakes and come close to sliding into a big, broad-bottomed van, in slow motion, with time for me to think about how my insurance would only cover liability for damages to the other driver’s vehicle and a portion of their medical bills, just up to $20,000, that I hadn’t bought enough coverage to really take care of me or the people in the van if any of us got really hurt.
But it was not just the near-crunch that had steeled my previous resolution to take my hands off the steering wheel altogether and to hand over the keys of my car to my brother for the rest of the winter. I couldn’t really afford to keep my beaten-up 2002 Chevy Impala in halfway decent repair, to replace the headlight that had gone out, or to fix the big dent I’d put in the front end as I pulled out of a tight space at the Giant Eagle parking garage way too fast. I couldn’t really afford to keep dribbing and drabbing five dollars at a time into the gas tank to rush back over to the grocery store if I forgot to pick up snacks for the New Year’s party or creamer for my coffee, the coffee I really wouldn’t have been able to drink if it hadn’t been a Christmas gift from my roommates. I lived with those roommates, in their attic, at their generous invitation, paying rent below market value, partly because I could not afford to be driving this car. As that pale grey winter sky darkened into tailpipe exhaust on the last day of the year, I had a grand total of $8 in the bank after buying salsa and chips for that New Year’s party that I was rushing to. And tomorrow I knew that I could not keep rushing across town to the next meeting for my job, which really couldn’t afford to pay me mileage.
I’d been working with Pittsburghers for Public Transit since the late spring of 2012, first as a volunteer, then, starting in October, as their first full time community organizer, teamed with a dedicated core of riders, drivers, and other transit supporters to advocate for long-term, dedicated funding that would keep the buses rolling. We were determined to do what we could to end the cycle of crises that had slashed many routes, damaged many of our communities, and threatened far more serious damage in September of 2013, staved off thus far because of the sacrifices of the men and women who worked hard to drive us where we needed to go. And yet I was embarrassed to admit that I had spent less time on the buses since I’d started my job for transit than I had as a student.
In 2006, at the age of 40, I moved to Pittsburgh for a graduate degree in nonfiction writing, and for three years had traveled by bus. I had shared and witnessed many, many conversations, courtesies, and cranky spats, had laughed out loud with total strangers, shaken my head with them over troubles that weighed us down, traded practical information and direct mutual aid that had helped us to make it through another day. I’d spent many hours rolling to and fro from my apartment on Stanton Avenue in Highland Park to classes in Oakland, meeting my neighbors in their yards or gardens or front steps as I walked to our bus stops, sitting with both neighbors and strangers under the scant roof of a bus shelter, all of us slightly warmer for being crowded together into the narrow cover from snow or rain. Since my family had given me a car, I’d been sheltered from the elements, but had lost touch with many of the nitty-gritty details of places and people that had moved me to want to stay in Pittsburgh.
I realized that all this last day of 2012, I had barely glanced to either side at the city around me, eyes locked on my wind-shield wipers, the crawling parade of cars ahead, the contours of the dirty snow piles advancing and retreating into my lane. I had chosen this community as my home. If “home” was to be a meaningful word, if I was to be more than just a statistically counted occupant of an abstract map, if I wanted to be a responsible citizen and neighbor, then I needed to stop rushing through it and to understand what “Pittsburgh” really meant.
So many of the men and women I’d talked to over these past three months had no other form of transportation other than the buses. Poverty was a way of life in this city for many hard working men and women. It was time to follow their more realistic example, to accept the fact that I could not afford to drive, to be responsible, to stop rushing, without forethought and careful planning, into potential crashes, whether economic or physical, that other people might have to pay for. I was poor and I needed to act like it.
I’d been working to study Pittsburgh history and politics, the way governance and policy-making worked, by reading books and blogs that other people had worked hard at. Now it was time to use the skills I’d gone to school to develop, to start gathering stories and telling the non-fictions of my neighbors, both friends and strangers. I had resolved to document the nonfiction of what it means for us to try to live within our means. I needed to carefully watch and try to understand the way the wheels go round, on the streets, in our City government, in the halls of our state legislature. I needed to document how all the levels of everyday life and law-making fit together, and how We the People have some impact on those wheels within wheels.
I’d been reading Annie Dillard’s story of growing up in Pittsburgh and her words had moved me to get moving on my resolutions:
The setting of our urgent lives is an intricate maze whose blind corridors we learn one by one – village street, ocean vessel, forested slope – without remembering how or where they connect in space…What is important is anyone’s coming awake and discovering a place, finding in full orbit a spinning globe one can lean over, catch, and jump on…You take it on faith that the multiform and variously lighted latitudes and longitudes were part of one world, that you didn’t drop chopped from house to house, cost to coast, life to life, but in some once comprehensible way moved there, a city block at a time, a highway mile at a time, a degree of latitude or longitude at a time…
I wanted to better understand the ways I could more responsibly participate in the decisions we make together, for better, for worse, even when we think that hill or river or bridge or class or culture comfortably shelters us from our differences from each other, our claims on each other, our needs for each other. On the bus, we meet each other, face by face, person by person, drivers and riders, and we can choose to remain silent, atomized bodies placed randomly next to each other by indifferent chance, separated by the borders of our seats. Or we can show and tell and act what it means to be a Pittsburgher, what it means to be a neighbor.
The bus lines are our life lines. They carry us like red blood cells through the body of the city. So, on December 31st, I bought a CONNECT card for unlimited bus rides for the month of January 2013. Today, New Year’s Day, I left my car behind and jumped on the bus to start better learning those mazey Pittsburgh streets, to more closely listen to all those histories being lived, alive, right here, right now, one city block at a time. The wheels of the bus go round.