Riding the Chicago Avenue Bus
by Jerome F. Winzig
The Minneapolis Route 5 bus line starts at the Mall of America in the southern suburbs. When it reaches the Minneapolis city limits, it follows Chicago Avenue to downtown. From there, it heads north on Fremont and Penn Avenues, ending its route at the Brookdale shopping center in the northern suburbs.
I know it as the Chicago Avenue bus. It passes within walking distance of several major places in our family's life: Two former congregations where my wife has served. Our current congregation. The day care center, day care home, and nursery school where our children once spent time. The park where our children played and I coached. The former savings bank where I once worked.
However, until a technical writing contract in downtown Minneapolis came along recently, I had not ridden the bus in years.
Twenty years ago, I rode it to work every day. For six blocks my children rode with me until it was time to drop them off at their day care provider's home. Winter was a bit of a challenge, holding my four-year-old son with one hand to help him climb in and out of the bus while trying to keep my snowsuit-clad daughter from sliding out of my other arm. Then I would board the bus for the rest of the ride downtown. To this day, I meet people who did not know me then, but remember seeing me with the kids on the bus.
As the years passed, I forgot just how much the Chicago Avenue bus reveals an amazing cross-section of our city. The bus carries passengers who are young and old, quiet and loud, strong and week, rich and poor. Well, maybe not rich, but certainly comfortably middle-class. All sorts of racial and ethnic backgrounds are represented, in many styles of dress.
Riding the bus again brings back those memories. But today, some of the contrasts and differences seem greater than I remember them from twenty years ago. Winter coats and hats conceal some differences, but others are apparent. The express bus, which leaves our neighborhood to take the freeway downtown, carries mostly white passengers. The local Chicago Avenue bus, on the other hand, carries many persons of color, particularly during the day.
I find myself wondering about the contrast in economics represented on the bus. People who live and drive to work in the suburbs do not see this same cross-section of America. Some passengers are wearing uniforms; some are blue and others are white. Perhaps they work in one of the three hospitals along the bus route, or at one of the downtown hotels. One passenger behind me talks about working in home care; he's on his way to pick up his W-2 form. Except for the seniors and the students, most passengers seem to be on their way to or from work or are running errands.
A commentator on a recent business show said that our current 107-month-long period of economic expansion is really 199 months long, dating back to the Reagan tax cut in the early 1980s. Even if the expansion dates back that far, all of it has happened since I last rode the bus regularly. But the contrasts on the bus still seem greater today.
Our bus stop is on the edge of Shenandoah Terrace, a comfortable community of nice, single-family homes in the Field-Regina-Northrop neighborhood. The corner is a thriving one that includes a bank, a movie theater, a popular Mexican restaurant, a veterinarian, a sporting goods store, a law office, a liquor store, a chiropractor, a carpet store, a convenience store, a neighborhood bar, a dry cleaners, and a dental clinic.
Six blocks north, near Walgreen's Drugstore, an elderly woman boards the bus with difficulty. The steps are almost too much for her, and she is pulling a two-wheeled portable shopping cart behind her. Exhausted, she sits on the nearest seat until she can open her purse and pay the fare. Then she moves down a couple of seats, trying to get her shopping cart out of the way as best as she can. Her shopping cart is filled with two Walgreen's grocery bags. The drugstore sells some groceries, and I wonder whether she's been grocery shopping.
Four blocks farther north is a busy intersection where the 38th Street bus line intersects. Several people climb on board. The last is a young man in his early twenties. As the doors close, he suddenly shouts, "Let me out, let me out!" The bus driver opens the door again, and the man runs in front of the bus, flags down someone he seems to know in a passing car, and jumps in. The bus pulls away as a lady carrying an empty cardboard box makes her way down the aisle to the back of the bus.
Several blocks later, the bus passes the renovated Chicago-Lake intersection, where Project for Pride in Living has taken the lead in building new businesses. A half block farther north and we pass the huge, vacant Sears building. Once the largest Sears store in the metropolitan area, the building has been closed for years. The empty parking lot is surrounded with a high chain-link fence that looks like it was put up fast. Inside the fence are huge mounds of snow that have been dumped there.
At one bus stop, a young man with metal crutches slowly approaches the door of the bus. He boards even more slowly, one hand grasping the railing as he struggles with each step. After the longest time, he finally reaches the top step and the bus moves on. The young man is unable to stand and retrieve his fare at the same time, so he sits on the front seat, crutches in hand, until he can get his fare out.
On the way home, there is a bit of a wait for the bus and I decide to walk to the next bus stop in hopes of getting a seat on the bus, since it's usually quite crowded. There's still no bus in sight, so I walk another block, and discover a couple of other people have done the same thing.
Many passengers are carrying things: laptop computer cases; canvas bags, shoulder bags, purses, plastic bags, and paper bags. Combined with winter apparel, it makes the bus even more crowded as people make their way down the narrow aisle. Some people don't like to sit in the back of the bus, so they stand in the aisle instead and no one can get past them.
One sullen young man sits in an aisle seat. The window seat next to him is empty, but he sits slumped over looking out the window, ignoring the people standing around him. One older man with white hair stands right by him for awhile, but the young man never looks up. The seat stays vacant for a couple dozen stops.
There are a few seats near the back of the bus and I make my way back to one of them. In the window seat next to me a young man is dozing with a large plastic bag in his lap. He sleeps for so long I start to wonder whether he will miss his stop. But every once in awhile, he opens his eyes and glances out the window.
Several teenagers get on the bus at one stop. Three of them are wearing very nice, brand-new winter jackets and nice jeans and sneakers. They ride for just three blocks and clamber off the bus. Who rides the bus for three blocks?
There is a boy about fourteen at the front of the bus with short blond hair that is streaked with green and orange. He is sitting in one of the side-facing seats and is talking rather loudly to the woman across from him. They don't seem to know each other, but the boy seems to be trying to impress or shock the woman, and his language is rather crude. Then he almost shouts, "My sister is bisexual." He goes on in that vein for a few seconds more and then scoots out the front door with another boy.
The bus is only about half full when it reaches my stop. The young man in the window seat beside me is still dozing. Maybe he is on his way to work at the Mall of America; if so, he has another twenty minutes to go. I get out the back door and walk to the corner while the bus pulls away. As the sound of its diesel engine fades, I am struck by how quiet it seems, even though there are several cars at the intersection. There is a light snow falling as I head for home.