A day in Transit


A group of more than 20 people stood at a downtown St. Paul street corner at 12:35 a.m., waiting for the Metro Transit westbound 16 bus to bring them to Minneapolis.

A young, drunk man approached a larger man in his early 40s and threatened to punch him.

The older man cocked his fist back, swung it forward and connected with the side of the drunken man’s mouth. The young man keeled over, and blood ran onto the sidewalk.

The 16 rolled up alongside the fighting men.

“[Expletive], I’ve got five kids,” the older man said. “You think you can [expletive] with me?” He forced the younger man’s head against the top of a trash can and then slammed him into the side of the bus.

Some onlookers cheered, and others shook their heads.

Nearly 16 hours earlier, a bus on the same route pulled into the Oak Street Southeast stop. Two college-age blonde women wearing matching North Face jackets walked aboard, scanned their U-Passes and turned to face the crowded bus. To their left, a homeless man stared at them. To their right, a woman spanked her screaming son.

“Keep moving, please,” the bus driver said through the intercom.

The women shuffled through the packed aisle until they reached an open space to stand near the rear door. “God, I hate the bus,” one said.

More than 6 million trips have been made by Metro Transit buses this year.

The bus is both a ride to work and a kitchen table on which to eat a bagel and read a newspaper; it is a bed for the homeless, who climb aboard in late-night hours to escape the cold; it is a path for the blind, who do not have the means to drive to work; it is a venue for therapy, where veterans share old war stories.

On Friday, Nov. 13, this Minnesota Daily reporter spent 19 hours on Metro Transit bus routes around the Twin Cities, speaking with people about their lives, routines and experiences on the bus.

As famed photographer David LaChapelle once said, “If you want reality, take the bus.”

7:35 a.m. – Eastbound 50S

In the back right corner of the 50S, a man in a dirty brown jacket sat slumped against a window. Drool ran down the side of his face. His earthly possessions sat in a backpack at his feet, guarded between his worn brown tennis shoes. Lee Westmoreland awoke and stretched his arms.

“Sure, you can talk to me,” he yawned. “I was just trying to catch a little Zs.” When he spoke, his vodka-stained breath saturated the air in the back of the near-empty bus.

Homeless people routinely fill the dull blue seats of Metro Transit buses during the night hours, depending on if the driver lets them stay.

“You come on here around 3 a.m., you’ll see six or seven of us sleeping our heads away every night,” he said.

Westmoreland said he likes to “kick it” in lobbies of University of Minnesota libraries, where employees let him take naps during business hours.

“If you try that shit downtown, you’re out of there,” Westmoreland said.

Westmoreland operates on a $20-per-day budget, which he earns by holding cardboard signs on St. Paul street corners. It pays for his bus fares and his daily $7 liter of Kamchatka vodka. Oftentimes he’ll head to a food shelter, grab a bite to eat and score a $5 or $10 bag of pot.

“I don’t enjoy being homeless,” he said. “I need a J-O-B. But I can smoke a couple joints, play my harmonica and be cool with that.”

8:00 a.m. – Bus stop in downtown St. Paul

Cheri Litz, 58, sat on a bench near Sixth and Wabasha streets and took a long drag of her cigarette. “I’ve set a date to stop smoking,” she said. “The year 2080, because then I’ll be dead.”

On advice from her doctor, Litz was on her way to get a flu shot. Instead of the usual $2.25 rush hour fare, Litz only has to pay a flat rate of 75 cents for bus rides because she is disabled. Litz has 26 disabilities, mental and physical, she said. Her voice is deep and hoarse – one of her disorders restricts the vibrations in her vocal chords, a condition she said was likely caused by smoking.

Litz does not have a license and hasn’t been to Minneapolis in years. She is familiar with downtown St. Paul. It is there, she said, that she catches the shuttle to the one place she knows she will have a good time: Mystic Lake Casino.

Awaiting the eastbound 64, Litz sucked in the last of her cigarette with great effort.

“I cope with my problems every day with coffee and cigarettes,” she said.

8:25 a.m. – Bus stop, Albert Street and University Avenue

University Biostatistics graduate student Ann Yue stood alone by her bus stop on University Avenue, shivering while she waited for the westbound 16 to bring her to class. The 22-year-old student from China is not used to the cold. In fact, before she came to America she had never seen snow.

“I don’t like the buses,” Yue said. “I don’t like the bus stops. Especially when they are cold.” She laughed nervously. “Around here, everybody smokes in the open. It’s not that common in China, and the cigarettes are much stronger here.”

A woman milling around offered Yue a religious brochure, which she politely declined. Yue saw her bus, nodded her head and hustled away.

9:17 a.m. – Northbound 14, on West Broadway

“My daughter wants to be a paralegal and get paid,” Denise Jones said. “She’s also a manager at Victoria’s Secret. She’s got bras I’d never pay $60 for.”

Jones, 46, works as a greeter at Wal-Mart. Personable and loud, she made her presence known and saw to it that everyone on the bus was having a nice ride. She also made sure everyone heard “the good Lord’s word.”

When she wasn’t speaking, the bus was silent.

“Ah, this is my stop,” a woman talking with Jones from across the aisle said. “Goodbye, honey.”

“You know, the family that prays together stays together,” Jones called to her as she walked out the door.

Jones’ loose-fitting T-shirt featured a portrait of Barack Obama set against a backdrop of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. She pulled it over her back brace, adjusted her do-rag and immediately looked to speak with somebody else.

Jones was headed back to North Memorial Medical Center for a checkup; three weeks earlier she had suffered a mild heart attack. Six months ago, she said, a group of men assaulted her when she refused to give up her pain medicine and caused significant injury to her back.

A north Minneapolis native, she prides herself on her town, her African heritage and, above all, her prowess in thecommunity.

The bus slowed to a stop in front of the hospital, and she sprang out of her seat, ready to make her exit. “Black and proud, say it loud!” she cried. Many of the bus riders called back or nodded their heads. She waited for the hydraulic walkway to unfold and exited the bus, balancing most of her weight onto her cane.

10:41 a.m. – Eastbound 16, near downtown Minneapolis Transit Station

Sixty-one-year-old Peter Christodoulou yelled out a question to nobody in particular: “What is the world’s most sophisticated cell phone?”

A woman turned around and stared at him from the front of the bus. Nobody answered, so he repeated the question.

Again, no response.

“I think it’s the iPhone,” he said. “I’ve witnessed new technology before.”

A former navy machinist and Vietnam War veteran, Christodoulou claims to have bared witness to the first calculator. He saw it, he said, while serving aboard a nuclear missile cruiser. It was top secret at the time, he explained, and nobody in the public knew about it.

On his weekly venture to pick up groceries, Christodoulou often passes through the University on the eastbound 16. Sometimes, he said, he goes for events like the veterans program held last Wednesday.

“It made me cry,” he said. “The main speaker talked about coming home from Vietnam, and I know just how he felt. When he got off the plane, he said protesters picked him up and threw him into a stack of chairs. “I flew into Atlanta, Ga., and the protesters spit on me.”

He looked down.

“Boy, you should have gone to it. The program was great.”

11:15 a.m. – Eastbound 3A

Robert Olson’s wild black goatee matched his hard Southern drawl and incomprehensible mumble. From his cowboy hat to his boots, the 51-year-old California native was a vision in black.

“I came to Minneapolis in 1995, strung out on methamphetamines,” Olson said. “I ain’t done any in 13 years. There’s no practical purpose in taking meth except for war.” Olson was not in a war when he was strung out, he said. He was in San Bernardino County, Calif.

A part-time worker, Olson sees a lucrative future in buying foreclosed homes and flipping them for a profit, but said he just doesn’t have the capital to buy his first house. Olson works part-time at his cousin’s house in East St. Paul.

Olson hopped off the bus on Como Avenue. He had to pick up a paycheck.

11: 22 a.m. to 12:35 p.m. – Eastbound 3A, westbound 3B

Gary Merchant has been driving buses for Metro Transit for 15 years. In his first month as a full-time driver, he was assaulted behind the wheel, he said.

“It was summer of 1996, and the assault was part of a gang initiation, police told me later,” Merchant said. “Bus drivers

all over St. Paul were getting sucker punched from the side. I was late on my route to the Mall of America, and I slowed down to let these kids off the bus. Sure enough, I got sucker punched.”

All Metro Transit buses are now equipped with cameras and have a panic button that if activated sends an alert with GPS coordinates to local and transit police.

Despite the occasional troubles, the majority of passengers on his routes are “very nice,” Merchant said. “I’ve had people bring me presents and cookies for Christmas,” he said. “It’s like a small town atmosphere in parts of St. Paul.”

A woman climbed aboard from a West St. Paul stop and tried to pay for a ticket, but the sale didn’t go through. Merchant spent the next two and a half minutes tinkering with buttons on the ticket feeder, and passengers grew impatient.

“Come on man, I’ve got a 70 to catch!” a man yelled from the back.

“Never driven a bus before?” another called.

When Merchant works the night shifts, he said he lets homeless people sleep on his bus. “It’s better that they’re on the warm bus, as long as they don’t wet their pants,” Merchant said. “I’ve seen that before.”

Dealing with drunken people isn’t hard compared to drug addicts, Merchant said. “Dealing with people on drugs is much harder. It’s scary; you can’t predict what they’re going to do.”

2:54 p.m. – Southbound 6B

In a stroke of luck, Marlo Harper was hired three weeks ago for a seasonal job at Macy’s at Southdale Shopping Center. The 40-minute ride from his East Lake Street home isn’t bad, but soon, he said, he won’t have to take the bus at all. He plans on becoming an Olympic champion.

In his only sanctioned boxing match, Harper is undefeated. After months of training at a St. Paul gym, Harper is set to fight his first sanctioned mixed martial arts match Dec. 15, and he says he’s going to win.

Hands folded across his lap, 32-year-old Harper spoke softly and slowly. His long beard closely resembled the style worn by street fighter Kimbo Slice.

Weighing in at 155 pounds, Harper said he can put up 305 pounds on the bench press.

“Worst case scenario, I’m only the 155-pound champion in MMA, but I’m not even worried about that – I’m going to get an MMA title, regardless. I want a gold medal in 2010,” he said.

4:30 p.m. – Northbound 4

When Kevin Haas was 27, a degenerative retina disease took his eyesight. Before that, he drove a truck for his father’s company.

Eight years later, Haas takes the bus everyday from his one-bedroom apartment near Uptown to his job at the U.S. Department of Labor.

Nine months of training at Vision Loss Resources on Lyndale Avenue taught him to live independently, he said. Haas has virtually no vision, and he said he tries not to rely on anybody but himself to help him navigate the Twin Cities.

“People aren’t really helpful,” he said. “Last week I was at Mall of America, and somebody grabbed my hand and told me I was going the wrong way. How do they know where I’m going?”

As the bus approached his stop, he gathered his things and stood in the aisle.

“You’ve got a clear path,” the bus driver said. Haas felt the ground with his cane and began his walk home in the dark.

11:40 p.m. – Eastbound 16

Rod Avila used to sleep on the 16 during his 11 years as a homeless man. Now, he rides it to get to one of the two jobs he works to support his three children, ages 10, 11 and 15.

Avila, 43, works more than 40 hours per week between his jobs at Macy’s and The Old Spaghetti Factory in downtown Minneapolis.

“You’ve just got to work, that’s it,” Avila said. “You can’t stay down forever; it’s just a bit harder to get back up these days.”

As the bus pulled into a stop in downtown St. Paul, Avila prepared to make the two-block dash to his connecting 64 route.

“I do not want to miss this bus,” he said. “I’ve got to get home.”