My grown up kids take city buses all the time. I know nothing of the routes and schedules they know by heart, of how safe or dangerous it is for them. Of the mistakes they could make and perhaps sometimes do, of where they get off, of how they pay their fare.
Lately, though, a couple of them have been riding another bus, too: one they call the Struggle Bus. And when they ride this Bus, I ride along with them, just like my mom did.
It had been decided that I would attend first grade at the Catholic school, “downtown” in the small town where we lived. It is today a sprawling, tony suburb, but was just a slice of Americana then, a tiny boating town where everyone knew everyone. The kids who lived downtown walked everywhere, but our neighborhood was a drawbridged-creek and a couple of miles away and would be too far for me to walk to school.
The trouble was that the moms in our neighborhood mostly “had the car” once a week. This meant that each and every week, there was only one day in which – I realize, bristling with woke indignation – a 1970s stay-at-home mom might have the freedom to get her errands done. Just one single day every week that – I reconsider, sighing with something close to envy – she would be expected to drive her children anywhere. The rest of the days, the family cars carryied the dads to work – to appointments or just to parking lots – while the moms at home made do.
My mom, who was always careful and usually very protective, had been born and raised not in our town but in New York City, a place rich in the fine arts of making do and of public transportation. It must have been this frame of reference – and her partner in motherhood, Necessity – that won out over the protectiveness, that brought us to the answer: I could take the public bus, which stopped down the street.. “It will be good for you!” she said confidently. “Kids in New York do it all the time!”
There were some details to be worked out.
To start, I was an exceptionally small six year old. Even the smallest available samples of the wool jumper hung heavy on my shoulders on Uniform Order Day, while the Irish whispers of the ladies in charge, tsking about the tailoring challenge at hand, hung heavy in my quickly-reddening ears. Next to the huge steps of the bus, I looked and felt so small. However would I do it, without a hand to hold?
There was the matter, too, of the necessary bus pass, a pink card with a month of numbers printed around the edge. I had then – as I do now – a tendency to lose things, and my mom must have worried about that, knowing I’d be stranded without it. She needed a way for me to pay my fare, alone, without undue delay for my fellow riders, adult riders who would be eager to stay on schedule, to get to work.
Furthermore, the school kids of 1971 carried their books in bags with flaps that snapped shut with push button clasps and hung on long straps off one shoulder: we call these messenger bags now, but in those days, they were just bookbags. No one had yet thought of a hands-free choice for unusually short school children who might topple over under the one-sided weight of their textbooks while they ran for the public bus. No one, that is, until my mother.
Starting at the fabric store, Mom altered a bag pattern into something she called a “knapsack”, adding lengths of marine webbing fashioned into straps and D-rings to make them adjustable. I was skeptical – I had only seen such a contraption carried by hitchhikers and Boy Scouts – but my mom was confident, declaring the knapsack “nifty!” and “clever!” which we all agreed it was. She reinforced how important it would be for me – undersized me in my oversized jumper – to have both hands free as I climbed the giant steps of the bus.
In the bottom of her sewing basket, Mom found a metal grommet and then, an idea: brandishing a one-hole punch, she made a round hole right in the middle of the pink bus pass card. She reinforced the hole with the grommet and threaded it through a chain: I could wear the pass around my neck. “Great!” we both exclaimed.
The first few days, my mom rode the bus with me, my little brother on her lap. She began by explaining everything, reviewing rules and instructions, pointing out landmarks, outlining potential pitfalls. As the days went on, she became more quiet, waiting to see what I had learned, if I remembered all of the rules. If I could do it on my own.
When the bus first arrived at the stop, I was to grab the rails with both hands and mount the steps carefully. Once on the bus, I should have my chained pass out and ready, leaning my head and body forward, chin up and out of the way as if in a Norman Rockwell painting. The quick ker-chunk of the driver’s hole punch on the card would mark another day I’d made the journey. She showed me how to pull the heavy fabric cord which would signal with a loud “ding!” that the next stop was mine. She told me how I’d know when it was time to get off.
She had conspired with the driver ahead of time, asking him to keep an eye on me. She did not tell me this. What she told me was that once on the bus, I was to sit as close to the driver as possible. If anything went wrong, if I needed help, I was to ask the bus driver what to do.
Once on the bus, I would scoot into the big leather bench seat behind the driver, my knee socks and school shoes dangling loosely off the edge. I should tuck the chain and card back into my uniform, where it would be safely sandwiched between the starched white blouse and wool jumper. The flat rectangle of the pass, visible under my uniform in the right light, would become a source of pride in my independence and of hot shame when my classmates asked teasingly, what it was, why it was there. But I knew better than to take it off. I knew that either way, that punched pass was my ticket home.
I am often anxious when we are on the Struggle Bus together, but I do not want them to ride alone. I wish I could just drive them there and save us all the trouble: I wish there was another way. But I know about the Struggle Bus what my mom knew about the public bus when I was in first grade: it’s only way to get to the places they’ll learn the most.
“You’ll be fine!” I assure the discouraged grown up on the phone. “This will all be good for you! You’ll see!” I hope that my breezy tone belies my protectiveness, that my feigned confidence conceals my doubt. It is only later that I allow the tears, the desperate prayers. It’s enough to make you wonder how often your own mom was not as sure as she seemed.
I, too, have planned ahead. I’ve spent years trying to pass on everything they’ll need to ride alone. Sometimes still, I look out the window as we ride together, giving directions, pointing out landmarks and the many potential pitfalls. The kid in question rolls their eyes. And then I remember that if I do not stop doing this, none of us will ever know that they can do it on their own. That they will know when it is their time to get off.
It is only now that I realize that my mom must have done the dead-end trips, as I do, and it is on those solitary trips when the Struggle Bus becomes my own. My kids probably don’t think about that part, either, about the misty-eyed mom riding all the way back on a route she already knows, that she has already traveled, ending up where she started out. About how she did it just to be with them for the ride, and about the double fare she paid to do it.
Since my kids don’t always love it when I talk to them about God, I just tell them to stay close to the driver of the Struggle Bus. That if anything goes wrong, they can ask Him for help. But I, too, have conspired with the driver ahead of time. I know, even if they do not, that He is keeping an eye on them either way.
Necessity is my partner now. I know – and I think my kids know, too – that their punched pass on the Struggle Bus, each day’s journey marked with jagged holes, can be a source of pride and can be one of hot shame. But either way, it is their ticket home.