By Julia Zichello
“Thank YOU and have a great day!” I tell the good driver as I descend the deep stairs of the MTA Express bus, knowing that without the ride from this behemoth vehicle and reliable person—I would not be able to get to work.
In April 2020, I got a new job. That job was inaccessible by subway, but only 20 minutes from my apartment by car. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t have a car. The problem was that I don’t drive. Or, I haven’t driven in a long while. So, in a lockdown-generated panic mode—I bought a car. In Manhattan. No. Big. Deal. Right?
Caught between a rock and a car place: Do I take public transportation in NYC at the height of the pandemic with no vaccines yet—or do I save myself from the exposure, suck it up, and step on the gas instead? Could I manage driving for the first time in years and navigate the stress of a new job—all while maybe getting Covid?
It was too much. So, I took the bus instead. Busses. Two to work—and two back.
I will save you the trouble of reading about the outsized drama and horn-honking involved in the trip back and forth across alternate sides of the street—just to park the car! Forget it. Anyway, for months my little used car sat on the streets of Manhattan, waiting for me to be brave enough to drive it.
It would be a while.
If you talk to youngish people about taking busses in Manhattan, responses are usually a mixture of ignorance, or scoffs, and dismissive hand waves about inefficiency or unreliability, or insistence on “only crosstown.” But now the bus had novel virtues, how the doors open and close (often) to the outside air, and sometimes the roof is even propped open. And on the Express bus I often rode alone, or with a few other people, which was great for limiting potential exposure to infectious disease.
Some notable moments on my bus were: My bus drove straight through the middle of the Met Gala. I rushed to one side to snap pictures, looking down from my $6.75 box seat. I managed one blurry picture of Amanda Gorman, the inaugural poet, in her sparkly blue gown. But another time a driver once stopped at a deli to use the “bathroom” and left me utterly alone in the bus waiting as they made his, I-am-sure-of-it, sandwich.
Then one day this November, I tried to start my car, but it wouldn’t. I did all the usual things. I waited a minute, tried again. Sighed. Cursed. Hoped. Nothing. Eventually, I had to call the tow truck, which hauled away my silent car at dusk. I had neglected it due to my driving anxiety and in favor of bus love. I felt terrible. Days passed.
The mechanic called to tell me that they found orange peels and bedding material in the engine compartment. Wha? A rat had been living in my car and had chewed through some important wires. My car was a warm rat home, orange-scented and festooned with wires like rat licorice garlands. Not bad. For the rat.
I don’t believe in signs in the mystical sense, and this wasn’t one either. It was a signal—like fly larva on a freshly decaying body. The rat was living its best life and highlighting my own half-lived one. Turns out my zip code had the most rat complaints in the last year in NYC. I do see rats scurrying across my street, leaping up and over the plentiful piles of garbage—their tails waving like villain capes behind them. But something about their insistence on living boldly, wholly, and everywhere, is inspiring. I didn’t blame them for living in my car, at least one mammalian species was prospering in there. It just wasn’t me.
But my spectacular failure as a car owner aside—the truth is—I like the bus. Mostly because you can watch the aboveground world through the windows as you ride. And some streets I prefer to ride by than to walk along. It’s a shame-free version of “A Christmas Carol,” where you can peer into places alive with goings-on, without really being there.
Every day I ride by the location where my dad was born, the museum where I used to work, and new places I would like to go. More than once the bus has synched up with the rate of sideways falling leaves in a kind of cinematic slow motion. And sometimes birds fly low beside the bus, and for moments I float with them. You don’t get these slow views of street and sky from the underground subway lines, or when driving a car.
My busses take me from black tie to bodegas, from 1939 to floating with birds in the low sky—and probably the most miraculous of all, they get me to work, and home again. What more can I ask for? To go faster. Nah, I am good.
Julia Zichello is an Assistant Professor of Biology who has lived in 10025 for 20 years.