Two tatted-up guys sit at the 11th and N bus stop in Fortuna, passing a pretty glass pipe. Eyes shuttered. Coughing.
"We're traveling hip hop artists," the taller one tells me. He's wearing black and white pinstriped duds, and has strips shaved out of one eyebrow. He's Jordan Marozine. This is his best friend, Vince Moen (who's wearing a cartoony hoodie and an A's hat). They're both 22, from Sacramento. They've been in Fortuna a week — did a couple of impromptu performances, at the Oyster Festival and at a graffiti shop in Eureka.
"I like to write really prideful music," says Marozine. He says he lived a lot of places as a kid, with different people (his dad was in prison, and his mom somewhere else). "If I can help anybody through the pain God got me through, I want to do it. Our lyrics are positive and uplifted. People see me and expect me to do bad. But I prove them wrong. I like to push happiness."
Moen is smiling as Marozine talks.
So, uh, what do they think of riding the bus?
"The Greyhound buses are terrible," says Moen. "The bathrooms smell. City buses are fine."
And here comes the Mainline bus. Heading north.
Last year, people made 6 billion trips by bus in the United States, according to the American Public Transportation Association. I wasn't one of them. But in mid-April, I joined the party, becoming one of thousands of Humboldt residents and visitors who rely on the county's seven public bus transit systems (not counting paratransit, the direct pick-up system for those who can't get to bus stops). Sometimes I've ridden on the Redwood Transit Mainline, sometimes going around in circles on the wait-forever-for-it or dash-to-catch-it Eureka Transit.
Before, I drove everywhere. Or walked. I ride the bus now because I have to, after shoulder surgery. Still, if you can't drive — too poor, too broke, too disabled, too young, too whatever — having a bus to take you places is downright freeing, in its own regimented way. To rely on the bus is to be ensnared by time and space constrictions. You need a lot more time. Time to walk or roll to and from the stop. Time to sit on the bus as it makes umpteen other stops. In Eureka at least, you'd better hope your day's work or appointment schedule melds well with the hourly intervals that the bus arrives at any given stop. All it takes to screw it up is for the bus to be late — or leave early. It happens. And if you live in Fairhaven or Samoa, forget it — closest bus stop's in Manila.
And then there are the people on the bus. That rude boy in the red shirt and torn white socks, destination DMV, who wouldn't move his feet out of the aisle for me to get past. The lady on her phone buying a fluffy white kitten from someone on Craigslist. Bus people can be weird. Or wonderful. Either way, you're sitting right next to them. This temporary, thrown-together proximity requires a certain etiquette. In fact, there's an official sign on the inside of the bus that spells it out. The gist of it is, respect other people's space. Imagine a bubble of protection around each of them. If you pop it and they mind, and you don't stop bugging them, the driver will boot your butt off the bus. And no swearing, either.
One morning I start out at the canopied bus stop at the Trinidad Park & Ride. The driver unfolds the door and I climb the steps carefully, trying not to jolt my right arm which hangs in front of me, bent and cocooned in a brace. With my left hand I feed a $10 bill into the ticket-reader and the machine spits out a multi-ride pass. It's a better deal than paying per ride, and I can use it on the Mainline ($1.75 per ride versus $2.75), on Eureka Transit (85 cents instead of $1.20) and on the other bus systems in the county for similar discounts.
The bus gains speed as it heads south, past green and more green, a dog sniffing in the grass, the blue-shining Little River, grassy dunes, swooping Hammond Trail, shock-bright yellow scotch broom and spiky mounds of yellow bush lupine.
At the McKinleyville Shopping Center stop, two women — the younger in a wheelchair — wait on the sidewalk while the driver lowers the lift. They get on the lift, and then the older woman and the driver strap down the wheelchair, chatting nonstop about the weather while the woman in the chair smiles broadly and repeats, excitedly, "Hey! Hey! Hi! Hi! Hi! Hey!" The older woman stands behind her chair, her fingers now busy with some knitting.
The younger woman is Shannell Jennings. "But everyone calls her Nellie," says Adrianne Werren, her knitting friend. Werren works with the Redwood Coast Regional Center's day program, Community Links, for people with developmental disabilities. Four days a week she and Nellie get on the bus and go somewhere. A lot of it is what Werren calls socialization — to help Nellie and the community get used to each other.
Usually they go to Eureka, and a lot of times to Old Town Coffee & Chocolates to feed an addiction to banana waffles. It's easier to get Nellie and her chair into the bus than into a car, Werren tells me. For nine years Nellie's ridden the bus, four with Werren, and together they've made a lot of "bus buddies."
"Everybody loves Nellie," says the driver.
But it's possible not everybody knows that the cheerful-shy woman with the sun-bringing smile knits baby hat-and-booties sets and sells them at the Storks Nest in McKinleyville. They're called Nellie's Knits. Nellie has cerebral palsy and also is missing her left hand, so Werren helps her with a method called hand-over-hand knitting. You might know Werren, actually — she's the rabbit-hair knitter who has a booth at the Arcata Farmers' Market.
We pass a field loaded with goats and enter the highway. Behind me, two girls with heavy purses on their laps talk about a busted car.
Black birds. Gardens. Dairy cows and more green fields.
The driver speaks suddenly, breaking the reverie, "Breakfast, like everything else, gets to wait. You don't get to eat in here." The woman two seats back of me says, "Right," and puts whatever she was eating back into her bag.
Sun and clouds. Humboldt Hill. King Salmon. Field's Landing and the little white Calvary Community Church with its marquee questing:
Are you lost in sin?
Come to Jesus
Fortuna is sunny (of course). And we all go our separate ways.
Redwood Transit's Mainline dashes through small cities and countryside, a rural-urban thread strung between Trinidad and Scotia, with stops at all the towns and cities in between and at Humboldt State University and College of the Redwoods. Another Redwood Transit bus line runs up to Willow Creek from Arcata. And several other bus systems radiate out from or extend the Mainline — Arcata & Mad River Transit System, Eureka Transit Service, and the Southern Humboldt Intercity and Southern Humboldt Local transits — those last two overlapping in service. Most of the systems are overseen by the Humboldt Transit Authority, a joint-powers operation formed in 1975 by Humboldt County, Eureka, Arcata, Fortuna, Rio Dell and Trinidad. In 2001, the Willow Creek run was added. In 2010 the Southern Humboldt systems were added, replacing the "Quail" system that had picked people up door-to-door in SoHum and brought them to Fortuna or Eureka. The authority doesn't oversee Arcata's system, although it maintains its buses. Blue Lake Rancheria operates its own system.
Redwood Transit by far handles the most passengers — during fiscal year 2012-13, it logged 583,638 passenger-trips, Greg Pratt, general manager of the Humboldt Transit Authority, told me. In the same time period, Eureka Transit logged 236,176 passenger-trips, Southern Humboldt Intercity 20,438, Southern Humboldt Local 12,053 and Willow Creek 19,338.
Pratt said ridership on the Mainline, which was around 400,000 in 2007, jumped in 2008 when fuel prices soared, mirroring a national trend, and it continues to rise. The Jack Pass (funded by student fees) lets Humboldt State University students ride for free on Redwood Transit, Arcata and Eureka buses. When school is in session, Pratt said, the buses are at capacity. Ridership also peaks on the first day of the month, when more people take the bus to cash their assistance checks.
It's been getting harder to accommodate growth, Pratt admits. And that's largely because, he said, "the Mainline schedule has no real structure to it."
Just look at one of the long rectangles of tiny type staked out by nearly every bus stop. Or check out the bus schedules online. The times seem like haphazard increments. Take the Central and Murray stop in McKinleyville, for instance: You can catch the bus there at 6:03 a.m., 7:13 a.m., 8 a.m., 9:33 a.m., 10:05 a.m., 11:25 a.m., 11:55 a.m., 1:16 p.m., 2:01 p.m., 3:59 p.m., 4:14 p.m., 5:43 p.m., 6:19 p.m., 7:41 p.m., and 8:33 p.m.
It's squirrelly. Not easy to plan a day around. And, says Pratt, as ridership has exploded and more stops have been added, the schedule has metamorphosed into a tightly knit web. That leaves drivers little time to take their breaks and makes it hard to insert a new route.
Eureka's system offers another kind of frustration. In Eureka, the buses run in loops — not in straight, back-and-forth lines like the buses in the other systems.
"The loop system is not ideal," says Pratt. "It's good for coverage, but it's not really passenger friendly."
Some of these irritating quirks are going to change, says Pratt. Soon. Since April, a committee has been working on a new structure for the Mainline's schedule that it hopes to have ready for public scrutiny this fall. Then the authority will produce new maps for the region and for each system.
"Our goal is to set hour headways," Pratt says. "So, if you're in McKinleyville, you can get a bus every hour. Northbound and southbound between HSU and CR — which is the main ridership — the bus will run every half hour. Trinidad we're still working on, but it would be more than one hour between buses. Northbound and southbound between Fortuna and CR would be every hour. And Rio Dell, Scotia, we haven't come up with that yet."
In the meantime, there have already been improvements. There's free WiFi on Redwood Transit, Willow Creek and SoHum buses. And signs are being posted at major stops showing passengers how to text to find out the real-time bus arrival (the buses now have GPS tracking). That's handy if it's raining, say, and you don't want to wait at the stop until you really have to.
I had seen the three friends earlier in the day, around noon, chatting and laughing and looking at their phones inside the Starbucks in Fortuna. Now, in the mid-afternoon when I get on the northbound bus at the 11th and N stop, they're on the bus, too, sitting in one of the long rows of side-facing seats. I sit opposite them. All of the other passengers are keeping to themselves, staring at devices or straight ahead. I study the mind-your-own-business sign above their heads.
Ah, what the hell. I ask the three friends where they're going.
They laugh, and say they just texted each other about how they saw me earlier in Starbucks.
"We're going to a tattoo shop in Eureka," says the one on the left with long brown hair. She's Courtney Borgelin, 19, who's cheerfully talkative. Blonde-haired Cheyenne Andersen, 18, sitting in the middle, just smiles and looks at her phone a lot. Rachel Caywood, who also has long brown hair, is fairly chatty too.
Borgelin's the one getting a tattoo — her first. "I'm really nervous," she says. It'll be the infinity symbol, on her wrist. "The idea stemmed from a bad break up, in December. It's to remember that things don't last and to appreciate something while you have it because it will not always be there."
The three live in Fortuna and have been friends for 12 years. They all go to College of the Redwoods: Caywood's studying to be a nurse, Borgelin to be a preschool teacher and Andersen, for now, to be a phlebotomist.
They all work. Borgelin slings coffee and is also learning to deal cards at a casino. Andersen does fast food and sells western gear. And Caywood works in a retirement home and a pizza joint. And they're all saving up their money to buy cars. Borgelin's hankering after a green, extended cab Toyota Tacoma. "We can go camping at the river when you get your truck!" Caywood says to Borgelin. Caywood's going to buy a Ford Freestyle from a family member. And Andersen's also eying a Tacoma.
They won't miss the bus.
"I had to flag down a police officer one time, at the 11th and N stop," says Borgelin. "A guy was making some comments to me. He followed me. And one time a wasted lady who didn't have a bra on sat next me."
"And her shirt shifted," Caywood picks up the story.
"And she kept saying something to me," Borgelin says. They all break up laughing.
Caywood says one time a dog got sick on the bus, and its owner didn't clean it up. Just got off the bus. "Rude," she says.
"I met a homeless man, he sat next to me," says Borgelin. "He started to tell me his whole life story, and then he tried to give me a hand-cranked flashlight. He kept trying to give it to me. He was so nice."
Her friends tease her that she talks to too many strangers. She laughs and says, "One time, a guy got on the bus and sat next to me, and he opened his laptop and started showing me home videos of his high school wrestling matches."
This whole respect your neighbor's privacy thing, it's just a suggestion.
One gray Monday morning, I tag along with Mainline driver Dave Startare (disclosure, yes, he is Seven-o-Heaven celeb Will Startare's dad). Startare's run began in Scotia earlier that morning around 6:30. Around 7:45 a.m., I'm waiting in Eureka at the Fifth and H stop in front of Aladdin Bail Bonds, next to a couple of scruffs. One hocks a noisy loogey and spits it on the sidewalk, then leans into oncoming northbound traffic to look for the bus. The other flicks his cigarette into the street.
The bus arrives, Startare opens the door. It's muggy aboard and smells like morning breath. The front side-facing seats hold several sleepy men.
O Street comes up. "O Street," says Startare. "Last stop in Eureka. O Street, last stop in Eureka."
A nicely dressed woman carrying a Frida Kahlo bag steps on, followed by a guy with a stack of books and an iPad. A Popeye-faced man walks by the open door and growls, "This is a fucking robbery," and keeps walking.
As we sail over the bridges to Manila, a blue heron flies low over marshy Indian Island and lands next to a trio of egrets. Startare says this is the best job he's ever had — the benefits, the retirement plan. And when he had the SoHum run, that was the best: "the scenery, the temperature, no stop lights, they can't radio me. Just drive and enjoy it."
Startare, nearly 62, hopes to retire this year; he's been driving the bus for 15 years. He grew up in Eureka and his dad owned Yellow Cab and City Ambulance when he was a kid. Startare drove a cab for awhile. He's also worked at a market and a bakery, and did a four-year stint in the Coast Guard. With Yellow Cab, he got to drive Ray Charles to the airport once, and gave Pro Bowl Raider Raymond Chester a ride, too. Driving the bus, he has other excitements — like not getting fired his second day on the job after running into an old fire hydrant and ripping a hole in the bus. And just a few weeks ago two passengers — a jabberer with earphones on, and a guy standing and holding a big skateboard, got into a huge argument somewhere between Arcata and Eureka. When he got to Eureka, Startare kicked them both off near the courthouse. Skateboard guy begged to be let back on so he wouldn't be late to work.
"I said OK, but I want you to sit right here by me and I don't want you to breathe," he told the guy. A young woman, when she got off at her stop, hugged him and said thanks for stopping the fight.
Another time, he saw a guy chasing a woman near the post office. She ran onto the bus, and Startare shut the door. The guy followed the bus in his car, and at a stop, he tried to drag the woman off. So Startare called 911.
Then there are the regular annoyances. The pullout at the McCullens Avenue stop off Broadway isn't long enough, so his bus sticks out into traffic. At the stop in front of Broadway Cinema, drivers refuse to let him get back into traffic. Just fare dollars wasted waiting, he says. And people who speed — oughta have their cars yanked from them, he says.
"I couldn't do this job without God, Jesus and prayer," Startare says. "Couldn't do it. When you deal with the public every day ... well, every morning I pray. That my passengers will be safe."
In Manila, Startare has just left a stop when a youngish guy with a cane and a dog comes hop-limping as fast as he can down the lane. Startare waits, and the man, reeking of sweat and pot, gets on and huffs awhile, catching his breath.
Startare says he's one of the slower drivers. Not one of those who drives coldly past the running-late passenger. But the time on the road does eat into his already brief breaks.
By the time we reach Westhaven, the bus has thinned out. A woman with graying hair struggles to lift her bicycle onto the rack. Startare gets out and helps her. She says she needs a pass and that she's a senior.
"Seniorita?" Startare says playfully.
She's Shirley Saucerman, visiting from Anchorage, where she rides the bus all the time.
I'll probably return to driving most of the time, once I'm able. But I think I'll be using the bus some, too. It would be the virtuous thing to do — reduce my carbon footprint and all that. And it'd be nice to stuff some beers, books and sunscreen in a bag and catch the Mainline up to Moonstone Beach on a weekend day. If the buses ran later into the night, say on Fridays and weekends, I'd definitely ride them for potentially drink-involved outings. Safer that way. And when I need a shot of random, surprise-possible community, or to make some new buddies, I know I can hop on the Mainline.