The bald, middle-aged man in the driver’s seat brought his car to a stop, honked the horn and waved to the young woman in skimpy red shorts standing on the side of the road, calling her to join him in the front seat.
I followed and climbed into the backseat.
I never thought I’d write a letter like this…
I mean, I never thought I’d be taking a ride like this.
That doesn’t sound much better, does it?
Try again: I never thought I’d stand on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge and crawl into the backseat of a stranger’s car for a lift to New York City.
But commutes in the big city make strange carfellows of us all.
Each weekday I travel to the office in Jersey from our home in upper Manhattan. Some nights the return trip takes 15 minutes. Sometimes it takes 45 minutes. This past Saturday it took an hour and 15 minutes. If it ever takes two hours and 15 minutes, I won’t be going back the next day.
My commute is easy compared to the trek many in our office endure. Most travel an hour each way, many 90 minutes — and that’s when the trains and buses are all running on time and in sync. For me it’s four stops on the subway and then a 15-minute ride on the 186 bus, a small part of the New Jersey Transit fleet. The bus always leaves from New York on time, but the ride home is a different — longer, more frustrating, angrier, bewildering — trip. The 6:13 bus was our normal bus, but for years it routinely arrived 15 to 20 minutes late.
Everyone called that bus’s driver Jabba, a crude, cruel, unoriginal nickname that also happened to be completely accurate. It wasn’t so much his physical condition that led to the moniker — although I’d be dishonest if I said it didn’t play some role — but it was more about how he ran his 186 kingdom. The only time I ever saw him chuckle came when a man tripped going up the steps. He bullied riders, lectured them for not having proper change, sneered at them and, if he had the power to do so, I have no doubt he would have sentenced commuters to an eternity spent in the guts of a sand monster in the desert. If you gave him cash instead of a ticket he stared and then sighed, as if each dollar bill meant 100 dollars came out of his paycheck.
That was Jabba the person. As a driver he kept the bus at least 20 miles per hour under the speed limit. The vertical pedal to the right remained a mystery to him. Why arrive to a destination on time when you know it will still be there 25 minutes later?
Then, at the start of the year, Jabba and the old 186 buses disappeared, replaced by Clean Energy buses that are more cramped but apparently more efficient. The drivers actually speed across the bridge, hurtling the passengers inside from side to side. Is it better than Jabba? Probably. Is it more dangerous? Certainly.
The drivers are new, too. This past Saturday I had to go into the office for a rare weekend workday. The bus was again 20 minutes late as I waited to return home. As we approached the road where the bus always makes a right turn to get onto the George Washington Bridge, the female driver hesitated. I looked up from my book in the seat next to her as she turned and asked, “Do I make a right turn here?”
Excuse me? Do you make a right turn? A guy nearby said no, go straight, but he did not understand the question or she didn’t understand his answer. As she started going through the stoplight, I spoke up, “No! Make the right turn.” She did and apologized and then explained it was her first day on the job. Actually, it was her first ride on the route. I felt bad for her, couldn’t imagine how terrified she must have felt, especially since they obviously didn’t provide a trainer for her first day behind the big wheel and didn’t explain how to get to that big ol’ bridge that’s 80 years old, central to the 186 route and has appeared in approximately 200 movies. She made it across safely, but only after driving like a 15-year-0ld student driver from Janesville who’s taking the driver’s test in NYC instead of Mankato.
That 186 bus was my life for six years. Then, about a year ago, a co-worker who lives in Inwood started driving her brother’s car. That car is now officially her car. A few days a week — depending on our respective schedules — she picks me up at 9 and we make the 20-minute ride to the office. We chat and stop for Big Gulps. We relax, instead of battling the masses. We then make the 20-minute drive home. Twenty minutes! Not 45, not an hour. And we don’t deal with dictatorial drivers or inexperienced ones.
But some days Jaime can’t drive me and some days I’m finished with work but the next bus isn’t scheduled for 45 minutes. On those days I get a lift to the bridge, where I wait for what used to be called dollar buses but are now two-dollar buses. They’re little vans that motor across the bridge and to various parts of Jersey. They run all the time, at all hours and all the seats are filled. Temperatures inside them range from zero to 100, with the former being the median winter temp and the latter the summer norm.
And that was the bus I waited for last Friday. A little white van that would shuttle me across the GWB, but only after waiting 15 minutes for people to pile on. The drivers wait and wait and wait because they need every dollar that comes on. They aren’t getting a salary from New Jersey transit. So if you get on the bus first, be prepared for a maddening delay.
As I waited I noticed the bald, middle-aged driver slowing down and waving his arm at the girl in red shorts. Then he made eye contact with me. I’d seen these types of drivers before. A few times I stood at the bus stop and saw these cars pull up and honk. Each time I shook my head side to side, like a pitcher with a no-hitter in the ninth who informs his catcher that, no, he’s not throwing a curve and is instead bringing the heat. What did these drivers want, I wondered? Company? Money? A kidney? But a few weeks ago a friend told me they’re actually drivers who simply want two passengers so they can go through the car pool lane with their EZ pass, where they pay a reduced rate at the toll — something like three bucks compared to 12. Ahh. I knew about the car pool lane from Jaime, but did not know strangers collected strangers for free rides across the bridge.
No one said a word once all three of us were inside the car. I didn’t have to pay anything for the lift and simply took in the views as we sped across the George Washington. He dropped us off right outside the bus station and then said his only words of the trip: “Bye.” Both passengers said thanks and two minutes later I was waiting for my subway.
Will I take advantage of this system again? Probably. It’s cheap, efficient and great fodder for those with an active imagination or an encyclopedic knowledge of horror films.
“The next thing I knew I woke up in a bath tub in Midtown. I felt the stitches, then I screamed.”
Would I get in everyone’s car? Of course not. No way I’m climbing in if Jabba’s at the wheel.