When you walk around DC you’re consistently bombarded with transportation. I’m not talking just talking about cars. I’m talking about metro stations and metro buses and taxi cabs. When you’re in the district you can get almost anywhere you want whenever you want.
When I was an intern at Amnesty International I use to ride the bus from Eastern Market all the way to Tenleytown. It was an hour trip, on one bus, where you saw the heart of the city. The 32/36 bus goes from Southeast Washington, DC up pass the Capitol Building, down through the Penn Quarter, past the White House, through Georgetown, and finally ends in Friendship Heights. It’s a long ride, but it’s an incredible way to see the city. It’s an incredible way to see the different types of people who live in the city.
I use to think if you blacked out the windows on the bus I’d still be able to tell where I was, based on the people who got on and off. When I stepped on the bus I was always surprised to realize just how segregated the city still is. Eastern Market, while itself is not a dangerous area, lies on the border of some of the most dangerous parts of the city. It’s disheartening that those same areas are also the most impoverished and the most black. I’d get on the bus as one of the only white faces, as the bus emerged from Southeast Washington and depart the bus in Northwest Washington as one of a sea of white faces.
I love the bus. The train may get me where I want to go faster. But it can’t get me everywhere and I can’t see everything. A bus shows you the city. It shows you its people and it shows you its buildings and sometimes, begrudgingly, it shows you its traffic. But, more important than all of those things, it’s cheaper.
You don’t think about how much cheaper the bus is to the other forms of transportation when you’re riding around the city. It doesn’t hit you. It hits you when you leave the city.
I’ve been living temporarily in Northern Virginia. I love the fact that the DC metro system is large enough that I can go from K Street to Fairfax County, Virginia in a couple of hours using only public transportation. It’s been a striking change though. Once you leave the city and enter Fairfax and the rest of Northern Virginia, where the cost of living it almost as high as it is in the city, the bus is almost only minorities.
I get a funny look when I board the bus, “why is a white person riding the bus in the suburbs?” In the suburbs if you have the money you drive your car or you drive to the metro and take the train, you don’t take the long bus ride to get from point A to point B.
The minorities that ride the bus are almost entirely workers. They get on the bus, after getting off one job, to go to their second job. Certain areas cater to more workers than others. The parking lot of the H-Mart I pass on the way home is flooded with minorities waiting for the bus. They stand on the edge of the lot, just waiting for their bus to come. It’s like that in the mornings and it’s like that in the evenings. Someone is always getting off a shift.
Hispanic and Middle-Eastern minorities are the working poor of Virginia. They’re working 2 and sometimes 3 jobs to make ends meet. They’re married with families. They came to this country for a better life, and yet they’re struggling just as much, if not more, than everyone else. They’re young and old. And most barely speak English. Every so often the same tiny, old Indian man gets on the bus with me, he walks with a bit of a limp and chatters away in broken English to the Hispanic women sitting next to him. He should be retired not pushing around heavy boxes and standing on his feet as a cashier.
When you’re working 2 or 3 jobs, when you’re trying to get by, you don’t have a car and you can’t afford the extra $2 to go into the city. So you take the bus. It’s cheaper.
Besides if you take the bus today you’ll meet the real DC. The real Virginia. The real Maryland. You realize that there’s more to the city than just wheeling and dealing and politics. There are people doing what they can to make ends meet, trying as hard as they can to get to their jobs, finding the cheapest ways to travel.