Losing the Rat Race, and Learning to Love the Bus

MET Gala as seen from the MTA Express bus on Fifth Avenue. Amanda Gorman in blue. September 2021.

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.

Parkway Hospital, formerly located at 123 West 110th Street, where the author’s father was born in 1939.

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.

ABSURDITY, COLUMNS | 42 comments | permalink
    1. Erica says:

      I loved this Ode to a NYC Bus. Beautiful.

    2. Sarah says:

      Shhh, don’t tell anyone, but if you take one of the south-bound Fifth Avenue buses from the Met in December and sit on the right-hand side, not only do you get a look at all the fancy store window displays, but you also get a clear view of the Rockefeller Center tree. All for $2.75!

    3. ml says:

      Thank you!
      My family and extended family, all of us native New Yorkers and of all ages, love the bus.

      Sadly since 2009 the MTA has been cutting bus frequency and routes.

      True “youngish” people from the suburbs are not typically bus enthusiasts…but if they considered the authentic aspect of bus transit, perhaps they’d convert.

    4. ml says:

      Check out this great Danish ad for buses!
      Bus riders are the coolest!

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=75F3CSZcCFs

    5. LEE APT says:

      WE NEED MORE BUSES PER AVENUE ON THE UWS. THERE ARE 2 TO 5 BUSES ON EACH AVENUE ON THE EAST SIDE. WE HAVE MANY OLDER AND INFIRM PEOPLE WHO CANNOT MANAGE THE STEPS DOWN TO THE SUBWAY. AND ALL WE HAVE IS 1 BUS PER AVE, AND LONG WAITS FOR EACH ONE.

      • EdNY says:

        Shouting won’t get more buses to the WS.

      • LJ says:

        You’re so right! I have waited as long as 1/2 hr for a M11. Imagine in the winter standing in one spot. Complaining on MTA Twitter page will get you a quick respond but then they want bus number, yada, yada

    6. Caryn says:

      Real NYers, not transplants like you, learned to drive in these streets you find so scary. And we know not driving fur a decade doesn’t make us any less adept when we get behind the wheel again. The bus sucks.

      • Megan Y. says:

        For goodness sake‘s Caryn, that was incredibly aggressive for such a sweet story about learning to love the bus. And truth be told, most “real NYers”, as you call them, never learn how to drive or have the luxury of owning their own car. Seems like you might suck just as much as much as you think the bus sucks. Take it down a notch for all of our sakes.

      • NYYgirl says:

        Real New Yorkers are kind.

      • NotImpressed says:

        It would seem from Caryn’s post that “real New Yorkers” are completely beaten down by the City.
        Actually, real New Yorkers roll with the punches and use public transportation.
        Caryn might benefit from a few weeks in the country.

    7. Bill says:

      You write beautifully, Julia. Admittedly, I’ve been a “cross-town only” person, but my eyes have been opened. In my mid-twenties, I used to ride the bus regularly. In LA, of all places. I look forward to more NYC bus riding, eg southbound on 5th Ave.

    8. Viola Kanevsky says:

      This has happened to my car twice. Peppermint oil sprinkled under the hood seems to allay the problem somewhat in case the bus isn’t feasible.

    9. Aileen Parker says:

      Well said. When I travel (or used to), to see a place and live like a local, I take the bus. I also love the admiration of rats and the shout-out to Mr. Z!

    10. Deb Meltzer says:

      Love, love Julia’s writing More please!

    11. D. DiPrima says:

      LOVED YOUR GREAT DESCRIPTION OF BUS TRANSPORT IN THE CITY. ALMOST FEEL LIKE I WAS RIGHT THERE WITH YOU!
      HAPPY NEW YEAR AND BEYOND…
      AUNT DOTTIE & UNCLE ROBERT

    12. Fellow 10025 Neighbor for 20 Years says:

      This was absolutely beautiful!! Thank you so much, Julia!

    13. Susie says:

      My bro tells me that moth balls work the best – some inside the hood in the battery area, and some in between the seats in the cupholders. It wont smell like peppermint, but it WILL smell like your grandmother’s cedar chest…and the wool blankets when the leaves start to fall!!
      And, yes, the busses are THE best…you can tour the whole city in comfort and for not much money with great views out both sides.

    14. ann bluestein says:

      I love the bus. I know a lot of people get frusrated with them for a variety of reasons bu I just love he street and people watching.

    15. RJ says:

      Fun article and I am with you in your enthusiasm for riding the bus!! No worries about a meter ticking away in a cab if stuck in traffic and THE BEST when it comes to people watching! Grateful for the wonderful bus drivers who brave the NYC streets!

    16. Lois Pascale Evans says:

      Julia Zichello I was also born at Parkway Hospital and wondered if your father’s family lived in East Harlem resident and the family doctor was Dr. Lepore. Parkway Hospital was renamed years later as the Italian Hospital. I too love buses and it is my favorite mode of travel in NYC and especially in Paris.

      • Tony says:

        Not that long ago, before the M5 Riverside Drive bus was divided into two segments you could ride from the GW bridge in Wash.Hts. to South Ferry and then even continue onto the Staten Island Ferry. One can still do this now with a transfer from the M5 to the M55. It all could take a couple of hours and hopefully the windows are clean enough for the grand tour. I am a native New Yorker with a driver’s license, thankfully no car. I am also a licensed tour guide for better than 10 years with an innate love of the our city.

      • Julia Zichello says:

        Hi Lois,

        Yes my Dad says he remembers Dr. Lepore! My Dad did grow up in East Harlem, and even though moved to Westchester over 40 years ago now, always has Harlem somewhere in his heart.

        Thank you for sharing.

        Julia

    17. Paul on W 67 says:

      What a nice way to start my morning! Thanks for writing this. Having grown up in San Francisco’s pre-subway days, to a 14-year old, the bus (and the occasional streetcar) meant freedom. A fifty-cent day pass and I could go anywhere I wanted, as long as I was home before the streetlights came on. These days, if I’m in the Village, sometimes I’ll take the M11 all the way home instead of the subway. I love looking out the window, but sadly, most of my fellow passengers are too busy staring at their phones to notice the passing scenery. (BTW: today marks the 20th anniversary of the day I arrived in NYC, basset hound in tow, to start my life as a New Yorker. So, fellow WSR readers, I ask you, after 20 years, am I a New Yorker yet?)

    18. Anthony Gosse says:

      Thank you so much for this article. I love taking the bus for exactly the reasons you mention. I used to occasionally take the M15 from the Financial District up to Yorkville every night . Sometime I took the M4 downtown in the morning. It was a great way to see The City. A long trip but well worth it

    19. Sylvia Karchmar says:

      Great story, but here’s a little cavil — the plural of bus is buses. Busses is hugs and kisses, far as I know.

    20. Julia says:

      I love the buses and bemoan the fact that there are many fewer M(so people take a taxi or the subway and the 104s are further reduced) also that splitting of both the M11 and the M5 into two routes–also the 104 no longer goes across 42nd. So far they haven’t messed up the M4 which goes from the west side across 110th and down 5th/up Madison,

      • Sally Sacks says:

        Loved this story! For four years, long ago, I took the bus from 86th and Riverside down to NYU. I did my homework, admired the views of the Hudson River and gracious old townhouses along Riverside Drive (sadly, now mostly gone), checked out the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. I loved that ride. I especially loved sitting upstairs on the open bus, even in winter, when you could always get a seat. And my ride culminated at Chock Full a Nuts, where I just had time for coffee and a donut before my first class. Sure, the subway would have been faster — but how could you miss that beautiful experience?

    21. Thank you WSR community for your kind comments, tips for rat-proofing the car, and expressions of bus love!

      • Ann says:

        I was born in Parkway Hospital in 1948! I am thrilled that you posted the picture of the building, overlooking Central Park; my mother often talked about her lovely view. For years, we’ve walked on 110th trying to determine the location of the hospital. Mystery solved. Thank you for your lovely piece from a fellow bus-rider and 10025 resident of 35 years.

    22. MH says:

      Wonderful article, thank you! I love taking the bus for all the reasons you mention. That said, I frequently have to take the 72nd Street crosstown bus, and it is like Waiting for Godot, but slower, until finally one appears.
      Couldn’t the MTA add a few to this route? It would be such a mitzvah.

    23. Leigh says:

      Thank you for this, Julia! Your article is beautifully written and, as others have said, I felt like I was right there with you. My commute is half bus/half subway and I always look forward to the bus portion- it’s so nice to get to watch the world around you instead of being down in a tunnel. Reading this was a bright spot in my day. Thank you!!

    24. Pat says:

      Keeping rats & mice at bay— try an inexpensive item you easily clip inside your engine compartment called Rid-a-Rat. An alligator clip attaches to your battery terminal and it constantly emits a flashing light inside your engine compartment which annoys & deters rodents from taking up residence. Developed for use against park rats in the southwest, it’s just as annoying to northeastern rats & mice. Costs like $20 online. Saved me after I had that gnawing issue. Also, remember to ask your car insurer if they cover that repair. Mine did and saved me the $700 I had paid to car dealer to dismantle engine to get to the gnawed wire— the actual replacement part/wire was less than $5!!

    25. Peter says:

      You comprehensive insurance cover that. Check with your insurance company.