H ere are a couple of questions. How many different Spokane Transit Authority routes could you ride if you hopped from bus to bus to bus for 12 hours? And what would you learn about Spokane if you did? Last Monday, I decided to find out.
Now STA operates some 40 routes, so it wouldn’t be possible to do them all. Some out-and-back runs take about an hour, some more. But I thought if I stopped only for restroom breaks, I could log a respectable total.
I didn’t have an actual strategy. I did not study schedules and plan my attack. I just thought I’d wing it and hope my backside held up.
So I invite you to ride along with me on the road to nowhere.
• • •
After having waited alone beneath a streetlight in the dark and fog on a littered corner of Perry and 37th, the on-time downtown-bound No. 43 Lincoln/37th pulls up with a whoosh and a squeak. I’m the first passenger to board.
The ballcap-wearing driver puts a time stamp on my $3 Day Pass: 5:59 a.m.
Mundane official chatter chirps from his STA radio.
Lights are on in some of the houses we pass. Now and then, people can be glimpsed. There’s a cat in one window.
By the time the bus gets downtown, there are about 15 passengers. We are a quiet lot, some looking at books or hand-held electronic gizmos. Others are just staring ahead at the week to come.
At 6:22, I step onto the No. 24 Monroe.
I know the driver, but can’t remember her name. Truth is, I mostly know her sister and brother-in-law.
She’s talking to another passenger about Super Bowl commercials. They never mention the Google ad, which seems like an omission.
The woman behind me is on the phone. She forgot to give the kid with her an important pill that morning. And she calls several different people in rapid succession, trying to cobble together a Plan B.
“I’m going to get fired,” she says softly after informing her boss that she might be late.
The bus slips through the North Side with a sound that’s part whirr, part growl.
Maybe because of the predawn fog, the murky passing scenes of body shops and signs seem like they could be in Erie or Omaha. Then we go by the Garland Theater.
Someone pulls the cord to request a stop. There’s a ding.
The driver and her regulars wish one another a good day.
At 6:45, at the Five Mile Park and Ride, I board the No. 23 Maple/Ash. The only other passenger is an older guy who could do well in a glowering contest.
He gets off on Indian Trail. A few minutes later, the bus pulls into a turnaround where we stay parked for about 10 or 15 minutes.
A round-cheeked woman with a knit scarf gets on and greets me like I’m her favorite nephew. “Hi there! Well, how was your weekend? Did you do anything exciting?”
She tells me she went to an event at her church that she thought was going to be a simple potluck. But, my oh my, it turned out to be something quite a bit more grand.
A man wearing a Cossack hat gets on and sits in front of me. He smells like soap and shampoo. He and the scarf lady talk about contact lenses and Labradoodle dogs.
Back under way, the next passengers include a guy asking who won the Super Bowl and a hood-wearing young man speaking German a little too loudly on a cell phone.
I try to remember if I had set the DVR at home to record an “American Experience” on bombing the Fatherland during World War II.
• • •
At 7:49, back at the Plaza, I board the No. 94 East Fifth.
There are about a dozen other passengers, several of whom are coughing.
We head east over some teeth-rattling stretches of failed pavement.
Somewhere near Park and Broadway, I think, the driver announces that we will be parked for 15 minutes.
Dipping into my stash of PB&J sandwiches, I offer an individually wrapped half to the only other passenger on the bus at that point. He declines, with an accent I can’t identify. Then he gestures indistinctly toward his midsection.
He’s indicating either that he just ate and he’s full or he has recently been gut-shot. I don’t press him.
On our way back downtown, a guy on a cell phone says “No, I don’t want to talk to her” about five times.
At 9:05, I get on the No. 25 Division.
There are about 20 people aboard. One is talking about moving to Guatemala. “Got to trade in all my currency.”
Another speaks with an affected hip-hop dialect.
Several riders are listening to music with earphones. The noise leaks and it sounds like someone on the bus is panning for gold.
A few of the passengers know one another.
“How’re you and your boyfriend doing?”
“We’re doing fine.”
Coming back into downtown on the return leg, I catch a view of the Washington Trust Bank building framed by the Parkade and the Chase Bank building. It’s a perspective I cannot recall having seen.
• • •
At 10:39, I board the No. 20 SFCC.
Just a few minutes after pulling out, the driver momentarily forgets which route he’s on – “Oh, Jeez!” – and takes us over the Monroe Street Bridge before doubling back and making the correct turn toward Peaceful Valley.
One woman weighs aloud the pros and cons of her tentative plan to take a nap later.
It turns out the No. 20 is a “City Loop” route and so it turns into the No. 33 Wellesley and then the No. 44 29th Avenue.
Somewhere on the North Side, the driver and a blind guy riding up near the front agree that The Who stunk during the Super Bowl halftime.
A man with some sort of mental challenge starts a “Rain Man”-like monologue that covers topics ranging from pizza to Rogers High athletics: “P.U. Can’t win a game.”
Up on the South Hill, a guy I know named Dave gets on.
After a bit, I ask if he ever went back to driving a cab.
“No, it just got too goopey out there,” he says. “The last year I drove, I was carrying a gun.”
At 12:09, I board the No. 28 Nevada.
Somewhere near Gonzaga University, an elderly woman realizes she recognizes a young man from previous bus riding. He’s got a beard now.
She tells him about a foster grandparent program she’s involved with. He praises her for doing important work.
These two, I think. These two could be my answer if someone asked me to tell them something good about Spokane.
A few minutes later, a girl in the back is giving her phone number to a prospective suitor.
“I’ve only dated like two black guys,” she says to the young man, who is African-American.
On the way back downtown, the young woman in the seat ahead of me is on the phone.
“Where are you at? Are you at that guy’s house?”
A teenage boy up front gives up his seat when an older man gets on.
• • •
At 1:42, I board the Spokane Valley-bound No. 90 Sprague.
The bus seems Third World full. I sit next to a guy who smells like an ash tray.
A phlegmy-sounding man across the aisle barks something that sounds like “Chuck wagon stew.”
A twentysomething woman gets on with a service dog that looks like a dingo. Maybe it’s a service dingo.
I’m on this bus for about two hours, which is not how a normal person would ride it. Near the end, the guy across from my latest seatmate wants to talk about having been in jail on a failure-to-appear warrant.
“Hey man, I’ve done time, too” I imagine saying. “I’ve ridden the No. 90 all the way out and all the way back.”
At 3:46, I board the No. 42 South Maple.
A white guy standing up front tells the black bus driver how much he admires the tennis-playing Williams sisters.
A woman in a denim jacket feeds a baby from a bottle labeled “Bug Juice.”
At 4:17, I step onto the No. 29 SCC Minnehaha.
After riding all over kingdom come and seeing all sorts of people get on and get off, the white-haired driver addresses me at a moment when I am the lone passenger.
“Where are you trying to get to, sir?” he says, looking up at a big mirror.
Good question. My reply, something about having always wanted to ride the No. 29, is greeted with silence.
But there’s a better answer. I wanted to see how Spokane looks from a few feet above the traffic.
And I can tell you. It looks a little weary, a little run down. But not beaten.
Taking the STA’s random routes, you see bars and churches you’ve never seen, neighborhoods you had forgotten and boarded-up places that make you remember.
And the people? Well, if you have ever read a Jess Walter novel, you know he’s not really making up some of those characters.
Still, there are worse things than being tired and tattooed.
Besides, you’ve got to like a diverse lineup of people who will scoot over to make room for you.
It’s dark again. Two fortyish women in the seat ahead of me are talking about men, but I can’t really hear them.
The interior bus lights make us all look a bit blue.
• • •
At 5:43, I get on the No. 44 29th Avenue to head toward home.
The bus is practically full. God help us, a guy in the back is talking about last winter and explaining El Nino.
It’s 5:58 when I step off at the Manito Center shopping strip.
Best $3 I ever spent.