From daylight until dark, Wave buses carry riders across Mobile to work, school, shopping, and medical appointments. Buses pass Arlington Park, Airbus, and Colonel Dixie with Mobile’s “World Famous Dixie Dog.” They pass faded Mardi Gras beads hanging from lamp posts, a car lot filled with Cadillacs and Jaguars, pawn shops, and columned antebellum mansions. They stop in neighborhoods with streets named after cities and states: Baltimore, Virginia, Michigan, and New Jersey. Bird names too: Raven, Flamingo, Eagle, and Albatross.
Inside the bus, a man wears tennis shoes held together by duct tape. Feet of all sizes tap to music in earbuds that no one else can hear. A black cart with battered wheels is filled with bags and backpacks and a faded red washcloth hangs off the side. A boy leans on his mother’s arm and a baby drinks apple juice from a bottle. A hoodie hides the hurt in the eyes of 19-year-old boy riding the bus for the first time because he has nowhere to go. A birthday card plays “Can’t Touch This” each time it is opened. A woman holds a bag of chicken biscuits to give to her husband for breakfast, and a man buckles his tool belt as he steps off the bus.
For people who can’t drive, don’t have a car, or can’t afford to fix the car they have, a bus pass is the lifeline saving them from homelessness, hunger, unemployment, isolation, or getting further behind.
Wearing a tie and shiny black shoes, Brannon Parsons takes the bus to his customer service job at TJ Maxx. On the days he can’t afford a pass, he walks hours to work and hours back home, sometimes to work a five-hour shift. “I do what I have to do,” he says. “I have the responsibility to take care of my family. I have three kids under the age of five and they don’t understand when there is no food because daddy couldn’t get to work. I enjoy riding the bus and bringing church to people here. I do a lot of listening and encouraging.”
The buses are air conditioned, comfortable, safe, and clean. Some of the buses are old and the blue seat cushions are worn and torn, but there is a support and fellowship on these buses that you don’t get riding alone in a car.
Elbows and shoulders bump together in close seats and buses become a community of people watching out for one another. Riders call it their “bus family.” The bus lowers to take on an elderly man, and passengers help him on, give up their seats, and hold his bag.
People barely getting by share quarters, nickels, and dimes for bus fares or give away day passes when their ride is over. They share a pen and a pack of gum. There is teasing and laughter, “I have been thinking of you’s,” and playing with children. A 70-year-old man named Virgil greets people getting on the Springhill bus and puts away a baby stroller. Bus drivers are assigned the same routes and know their riders, where they come from and where they go, sometimes paying a fare or bending the rules to shorten a walk in the storm.
Sheena and Zionne Williams ride the bus six hours each day to take their kids to a good preschool in Mobile. “It took six months to get our kids into the school and it is worth the six hours we ride,” says Sheena, wearing a pink ribbon because she is a breast cancer survivor. She works 60 hours a week between two jobs at the Cracker Barrel and Mobile Infirmary.
“There is a misconception that the bus is for people who are down on their luck,” she says. “People can’t believe we ride the bus, but we live in a poor neighborhood without a car and we are dependent on the bus for everywhere we go and everything we do. We make it an adventure for the kids from exploring Mobile to splashing in the puddles in rain boots on the days we have to wait in the rain.
“In the South, people are embarrassed about riding public transportation and do without instead of getting a ride, but they are hurting themselves.”
There were one million passenger trips on the Wave buses in 2014, according to Tyrone Parker, general manager of The Wave Transit System. Many of the riders are the working poor, working one or two jobs with a place to call home, but they are living on the fragile edge where every dollar counts. The majority of the riders are between 25 and 54 years old, use the bus for work and shopping, ride the bus daily, and use cash or change each day instead of a discounted weekly or monthly pass (Survey by The Southern Rambler).
Monday through Saturday, dark and early, riders wait at bus stops and street corners holding hard hats, computer bags, and lunchboxes. Some wear housekeeping uniforms or aprons that say Walmart, Winn-Dixie, and “Good Food Fast and Friendly.” They board buses at 6 a.m. to be at work by 8, arriving early to the bus stop because missing the hourly bus makes them an hour late.
After the sun rises, buses fill with students from preschool to college wearing backpacks and riders running errands. Stopping at the Dollar General or taking clothes to the laundromat after a night of sleeping on the street. Picking up medicine, donating plasma, and refilling oxygen tanks. Getting chemo, injections, dialysis, or lab results. Adults going to nursing, electrician, or business administration classes at local colleges or students from the Regional School for the Deaf and Blind learning how to ride the bus on their own.
Gary Anderson takes the bus for chemo treatment and radiation for prostate cancer that spread to his bones. “We leave our house at 6 a.m. for an 8 a.m. appointment,” he says. “I couldn’t get the treatment I need without the bus. It’s not convenient, but it is a life-saver.”
Riding the bus is essential, but it isn’t always easy. It can be minutes, blocks, or miles to the nearest bus stop, sometimes crossing Mobile’s busiest streets, to wait in the heat, cold, wind and rain. Many stops are unmarked, unlit, and uncovered. They have no sidewalks or benches and the grass is worn away under the trees where riders stand in the shade. Buses break down, causing delays, missed hours of work and missed appointments.
Elizabeth walks five blocks to Dauphin Street to take the bus to Walmart for groceries, buying only what she can carry five blocks back home. She is a small, elderly woman who wears pantyhose, a green skirt, a cream colored blouse and a hat over the graying black ringlets of her hair. There is no bench at her bus stop, so she places a newspaper on the concrete base of a fence where she sits to wait. “No Trespassing” and “No Loitering” signs were recently posted on the iron bars of the fence. She refuses to give her last name, her age, or allow a picture, but she speaks with the soft, Southern accent of old Mobile, and her blue eyes light up when she says “I take care of myself. I never say ‘I can’t.’”
From the streets, the blue and green Wave buses look like rolling billboards for lawyers or a local university. Advertisements for college football and injury litigation cover the windows and hide the faces of the riders inside. Smaller moda! buses provide free service in downtown Mobile and there is a Mobility Assistance program (MAP) for people with physical or functional disabilities.
Safe. Reliable. Prompt. The Wave system reaches its goals, but public transportation is an expensive service that does not break even from ticket sales. The city recently cut funding by 10 percent ($700,000), and Wave will soon eliminate stops, trim service, and possibly increase fares while riders want more buses, covered shelters, benches, and expanded service for a growing city.
In a November transit town hall meeting in Prichard organized by the Amalgamated Transit Union, union leaders warned that major cuts are coming and encouraged riders to speak out now about their need for public transportation.
Melissa Gross and her husband started taking the bus after the transmission went out in their car. “We can’t afford repairs, so my husband rides the bus to his job at Alabama Orthopedics,” she says. “I am thankful that public transportation is available because we would be homeless if he lost that job.”
Bus pass. Two simple words and a ticket to education, employment, healthcare, and making ends meet, but if you don’t have $1.25 for a one-way pass or $3 for the daily pass, you can’t afford to ride.
Social service agencies give bus passes to clients who can’t afford them, but funds are limited. Money raised through Gift A Lift Mobile, sponsored by The Southern Rambler will buy bus passes to be given out at 15 Place, a day shelter for the homeless that helps with housing, healthcare, and employment to get people back on their feet.
“Clients ask us for bus passes all day every day,” says Nikki Scheuer, Control Site Coordinator at 15 Place. “We have a van that takes clients to appointments and we give out bus passes, but we never have enough. If we can’t get clients to appointments, they have to reschedule and wait until we can get them there.”
Brannon, Sheena, Zionne, Gary, and Elizabeth. Bus riders have names, struggles, stories, and strength. There is grace and gratitude in a community brought together on the buses in Mobile. A community needing a lift to have a normal life.