Here’s a frightening childhood story about a horrible thing that happened to me that for some reason my family finds hilariously funny. I think some of that is owing to their sheer amazement over me because it involves my escapades alone on the city bus as a child. No kidding, from as young as age 8, my neighborhood friend and I would hop on the bus and go downtown… uptown… wherever we felt like. It was the 80s and kids were allowed out of the house, in fact we kind of roamed free. In contrast, my suburban town kids have never taken a city bus except for shuttles to baseball games, or for novelty purposes while on vacation. When I talk about those days, about back when I ambled around like a lost squirrel, barefoot and unsupervised, my kids usually stare open mouthed and incredulous.
Have you never squished your toes in soft tar on freshly repaired blacktop on a hot day? Been shoed away from running through a stranger’s front yard sprinkler? Hidden behind a tree from the creepy car slowly following you down the block? Been scolded and threatened with police action for writing your name in freshly poured sidewalk cement?
“Your parents let you do that???” They can hardly believe the words coming out of my face as I hand them their gummy vitamins before driving them two blocks to their pre-arranged playdate.
“Of course not.” I smile at the absurd question. “They didn’t know where I was. How would they have known what I was doing?”
…And even if they did, well, where was the harm, really? We lived in a nice neighborhood in the city. I was more or less a wandering public nuisance, like all children. Because that’s how we did back then. Kindly strangers tolerated the existence of roaming kids. They invited us in for lemonade, or chased us off their lawn; watched from their window as we’d turn on their water spigot and drink from their hose, pick flowers from their garden and idly blow dandelions puffs all over their front yard, or they’d threaten to call the police; they let us pet their puppy or showed us their penis. Whatever. Win some lose some. The world turned round and days went on forever until we came home for dinner.
Those things and walking to the little grocery store to buy pop and candy were our entertainment systems… until my friend introduced me to riding the bus. We meticulously studied the paper brochure-like schedule (note: they were printed on paper… and the only way to obtain one the first time was to pick it up from the very bus whose schedule you were inquiring after… which made things complicated); they didn’t make them easy to understand. For every route 17, for instance, there was a 17A, 17B, 17AB. (I’m making these routes up because I can’t remember.) We had no idea where the bad parts of the city were, but were positive if we made a mistake and got on the 22 South C instead of the 20C, we’d find ourselves rolling through gang territory and riding with drunk teenagers, or even just teenagers! Nevertheless, we’d scrape together all our loose change, having no idea how much the bus cost, and wait on the corner for one to come round. When the doors yawned open, two young girls climbed the seemingly enormous stairs, fed fistfulls of coins into the meter, and appeared to be blushing to death under the watchful eyes of the bus driver. In retrospect, I’m sure he wasn’t at all counting out our pile of pennies and assumed that we’d completely overpaid. We’d breath a sigh of relief when he wordlessly allowed us to continue to our seats. The doors closed with a satisfying whoosh, the bus signed and heaved forward.
As I mentioned, we’d go lots of places, but I’m going to have to say we were most often Uptown; we were “Uptown Girls.” Uptown was up and coming, and it was closer. It was an 80s pop mecca to our fascinated 10 year old eyes. Stores were loaded with Marilyn Monroe and Elvis posters, Max Headroom coffee mugs, Ronald Reagan coasters, naked troll dolls with fuzzy hair, Dorothy and Toto greeting cards, Betty Boop shot glasses, brightly colored plastic sunglasses, E.T. T-shirts… and Stickers! Stickers to add to my elaborate collection which I would show-off to my envious friends at school on Monday. Everything was neon green and pink and somehow managed to nod irreverently to the 1950s, while simultaneously flash dancing into the modern future, which was actually happening right now! It was very exciting times.
My friend and I took it all in, too young to participate in the early 80s shenanigans, we were observers. We loved to casually walk past the entrance to Ragstock where all the “punks” smoked cigarettes and just seemed to… hang around? We weren’t sure. It was the heyday of the punk scene and Uptown Minneapolis, for whatever reason, was fully engaged. We tried not to be obvious as we studied their green mohawks, ripped jeans, black leather, spiked dog collars. They put eggs in their hair, we’d heard, that’s how it stands up so tall.
Ok, I’ve built up the background so much that I’m killing the story that I meant to tell. The story of the horrible thing that happened to me that makes my kids roll with laughter is this: I got on the wrong bus. One day I was going to my friend’s for a Mary Kay makeover. I was 12ish, so, naturally, by then a seasoned bus rider. I thought I had the whole Twin Cities Metro Transit system all figured out, no problem. In reality, I’d probably only ridden about three different routes that took me to my comfortably familiar haunts. So of course, I just hopped on the first of those three buses that happened by. I knew the cost and even planned on getting a transfer, just in case, you never know, or at least I didn’t… really know… it slowly dawned on me as we chugged around dropping people off, picking people up, for what felt like hours. I waited for the landmarks I navigated by to assemble themselves into some kind of recognizable picture so that I could confidently reach up and pull the bell wire. Of course I didn’t ask for help. Instead I sat quietly still, watching wide-eyed out the window, stomach churning. As the winter afternoon turned to evening, the bus driver finally called out, Last Stop, somewhere downtown.
“You just rode around? You didn’t know where you were?!?”
The driver turned in her seat and asked me where I was trying to go. I didn’t know my friend’s address or, come to think of it, even what neighborhood she was in. So I did the only thing I could think of and asked to be taken me to my dad’s office.
“You just asked her to take you to your dad’s work? BWAHAHA! ‘Bus driver, take me to my Dad’s office building!’” My kids delightedly parrot.
But guess what, she did! The bus driver, after surely radioing into somewhere (“I have a young girl. Lost. Doesn’t know. Nope. I’ll just take her…” sigh…), took me out of her way to my father’s office building, which was easy to find because I knew it’s name and it was the tallest building in Minneapolis. Even I could navigate by it if I got lost. Just look up, and there it was.
“And that’s how we survived without cellphones,” I tell my kids. “By our wits!” And sometimes the kindness of strangers who, more often than not, did not try to show us their penises. I don’t add this part.
I caught my Dad just as he was about to get on the elevator to head home. He was was surprised to see me– but not really. Not That surprised, though it was a bit late. I’d often treated his office at the large corporate law firm as one of my home bases. I’d pop up to the 42nd floor, give a salute to the well-dressed nonplussed lawyers and secretaries breezing through the halls, get me some free pop, use the bathrooms, and stop in to say Hey to my dad before I carried on my way to the next sticker store. Dad drove me to my friend’s house where I was over an hour late for our Mary Kay makeover. Back then if you were late, people just waited for you.
Like I said, we didn’t have cell phones, but we had our spots. Places we knew we could go, use the phone and go to the bathroom. Safe places… kind of.
This is very puzzling to my children. It’s so absurd, it just tickles them. “Oh Mom,” they sigh their world weary sighs. But are they? World weary, I mean? No Way! Not that it’s a competition, but I’m the one who’s been around. Obviously. I’m a bus rider.