THE GREAT DIVIDE
I am reminded daily of one example of America’s immense social divide as I drive about in suburbia. Suburbia U.S.A. has flourished largely because of the automobile, which made possible the move from high rise to split level. Stroll along anywhere and see garages full, driveways packed, and curbsides often thickly populated, one vehicle after another.
So what is it that offends my sense of fairness as I motor along? Simply seeing groups of people waiting at bus stops. Yes, public transportation arrived here, but in truth buses remain a relatively rare sight. Furthermore, routes are few, connections limited, and schedules highly suspect (and fares no bargain either). And what of those segments of the population who regularly rely on them? These are overwhelmingly America’s working classes – car wash attendants, home health aides, waitresses, dishwashers, golf caddies, day laborers, agricultural workers, cleaning men and women, lawn and landscape workers. Living often within the city or along the more remote margins of suburbia, their jobs often require long distance travel. And, as is often the case, with few cars available to them, they must rely upon buses, sometimes two or three, to complete the trip each way. Thus every workday begins and ends with a challenge, involving a familiar cycle of waiting, riding, changing, and then waiting again. And so a lengthy work day becomes considerably longer and more exhausting.
That’s why it saddens me when I see them waiting at the bus stops. (Most revealing is the fact that despite decades of suburban living, I’ve not once boarded a bus!) Thus, from a distance I observe separated from them in so many ways. Here I am seated comfortably in my car, radio on in the background, heading directly and effortlessly to my destination. If it’s hot outside, I flick the AC switch and cool air immediately flows in. In frigid, blustery weather a reliable heater provides instant warmth. A driving rain produces no discomfort, completely sheltered as I am from the deluge.
They of course enjoy no such protection. On steamy days I watch them waiting and wilting. (To be poor often means to wait, not only at bus stops, but at Emergency Rooms, food banks, clinics, social service agencies, for subsidized housing, etc.) In the cold blasts of winter, bent over, they press against a building or take cover in a nearby doorway. When it rains or snows heavily they’re especially vulnerable and, except for umbrellas, almost completely exposed. Their facial expressions at times reveal a stoic acceptance, a weary resignation to the realities of the situation. I watch as one after another of those waiting, as if on cue, steps out into the street and peers down the avenue. Body language reveals instantly that there is no bus in sight. And so they head back to the curb where they will continue to watch and wait.
I’ve driven past such scenes countless times, always struck by the contrast between their situation and mine. With automobiles so common it’s hard to consider them a privileged possession. You can be sure, however, that’s precisely the view of all those folks out there who each day wait and wait some more at suburban bus stops across our nation. Still, there is hope; current jobs can lead to better ones. And to having their own cars from which to watch others board buses they once rode.