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Know the West

Why I ride the bus


Only one other passenger waits to catch the 6:47 a.m. commuter bus from Pullman to Moscow, Idaho. She is pleasant looking, well dressed, with Walkman headphones snaking up out of her sweater. Because I ride this bus regularly, I've learned some details of this woman's life. Whitney Houston is her favorite singer. The woman has a preferred seat on the bus - the one directly behind the driver. I guess her age at 30, although she acts much younger. She works at Wal-Mart, and, at any moment, she may break out in song, or talk to herself in a loud voice. She is not like the rest of us.

The rest of us are a quiet bunch, who commute the eight miles to work or school. Through generous subsidies, Wheatland Express provides free bus service for faculty, staff and students at University of Idaho and Washington State University.

Because of this bus service, more than 450 vehicles are kept off the narrow, two-lane Moscow-Pullman road every day. I chose public transportation to drive less and save energy, to make a small contribution to preserving precious resources, but my tiny gift to energy conservation likely makes no difference in our warming planet.

My real reason for commuting is the woman who sings along with Whitney Houston.

For 15 minutes we accommodate this special woman. If she demands that one of us vacate her favorite seat, we do it. If she asks a question, we answer it even if the question is in the form of word salad. No raised eyebrows, no suggestive sighs, and no smirks.

"Hello, Wal-Mart," the woman who is not like us yells joyously, as we approach the big store. In unison we all look toward Wal-Mart. A giant American flag flies straight out pointing east. Behind the store a hawk, a northern harrier, follows the contours of a landscape that resembles the dimples of a golf ball. Deer browse in the tall, mature wheat. Sun pours over the hills, and a line of cars, vans and trucks heads east and west - all with lone drivers listening to Bob Edwards, Dr. Laura, the Fabulous Sports Babe or Don Imus.

As he does every morning, the bus driver passes the scheduled stop at the Palouse Empire Mall and, instead, drives a few hundred feet closer to the Wal-Mart parking lot.

No one complains about the special treatment. The woman departs and the bus driver waits to make sure she's pointed in the right direction. She walks off toward work, where she will tie a blue apron around her waist and begin her shift.

Five months later on a blustery, wind-chill Friday evening just before Christmas, we stop at the mall for a man who has a shopping cart filled with bags of groceries from Win-Co. Four inches of fresh snow have stranded the cart, and the man tries desperately to push it to the bus stop. But the bus pulls ahead to the man, who takes three trips to load his groceries onto two seats. I ask him if he needs a hand, but he refuses in broken English.

He's part of a large contingent of foreign students at the universities that depend on public transportation. For some, owning a vehicle is an unattainable luxury.

After he's settled, surrounded by white plastic bags - 12 in all - the bus pulls onto the highway toward Pullman and the driver turns off the interior lights.

This is one of my favorite moments. In the dark with the heater running, I feel safe, surrounded by these strangers, sharing a common experience.

As we arrive on the outskirts of Pullman, I wonder how the man will carry all those food bags to his home. I decide that I will help him. But at the Stadium Way stop, his wife is waiting for him. She is dressed in clothes that are from a country far away, maybe Latvia or Armenia. He again makes three trips back and forth with the groceries, piling them on the curb. They stand opposite each other, a two weeks' supply of food between them.

Then he does something as universal and ancient as snow. He smiles and touches her cheek in a greeting as tender and loving as I've ever witnessed between two people.

This is why I ride the bus.

All around them rush-hour traffic catapults by, and some cars honk and race their engines. I can't imagine why they are in such a hurry.

Stephen Lyons is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). He lives in Pullman, Washington.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Stephen Lyons