In the beginning, there was a bus stop, across the street from the neon steer above Don's Meat Market on Broadway, catty-corner from an abandoned Wendy's with a broken sign out front exposing vertical fluorescent bulbs. It's 9:45 in the morning on a Friday, and the Bi-State bus sits empty, its front door open. The bus driver, an African-American man who looks to be in his 30s, stands, checks the watch on his belt and steps off the bus to smoke a cigarette -- menthol. The bus idles in front of an old, vacant Bi-State garage, another brick building on Broadway that's no longer in use. The Grand Bus, Route 70, the metropolitan area's busiest bus route, is about to start.
Route 70 almost breaks even, which is an unattainable goal for a bus route, a fact that runs counter to the basic concept of public transit. Buses -- and, in Bi-State's case, MetroLink -- are subsidized by public tax dollars so that a basic framework of transportation is available for citizens to go to work, to go to school, to get home, to go across town. More than 130,000 people a day ride Bi-State buses, and 42,000 get on and off MetroLink. The Grand route is busy. Real busy. At rush hour, it is not uncommon for a standing-room-only Grand bus to pass a bus stop filled with wannabe riders simply because there is no room for them on the bus. And that's when the bus, in rush hour, runs about every 8 minutes. On this Friday, during the ride from Broadway and Montana on the South Side past the water tower near Interstate 70 and Grand on the North Side, exactly 80 people board the bus, though with people getting off the bus, only briefly does anyone have to stand. During several stretches, there is barely a seat to be had, but no one waiting for the bus is passed up.
As Bi-State rates it, the Grand is the "least expensive" route in its system. The daily cost per passenger mile of the weekday Grand route is 9 cents. On the basis of that premise, the approximate deficit to the Grand route on the Friday of the ride is $7.20. Bi-State and the region's taxpayers are $7.20 in the hole for giving those 80 folks a ride. The next two "least expensive" routes are the Grand bus on Saturdays, with a daily cost per passenger mile of 11 cents, and the Sunday Grand, with a cost of 22 cents per passenger. The next-cheapest route is four times that, with the Kingshighway No. 96 on Saturday coming in at 48 cents. The No. 97 Delmar costs 50 cents per passenger on weekdays. On the other end of the ledger sheet, the Clayton-Oakville on weekdays costs $18.59 per passenger. At that rate, Bi-State might as well call each rider a Laclede Cab and pick up the tab.
The Grand route cuts through the city on a north-south axis that extends from South Broadway near I-55 to the end of Grand, past I-70 near Hall Street. Along the way it passes the International Institute, the ethnic restaurants and quirky stores along South Grand, Tower Grove Park, Cardinal Glennon Hospital for Children, St. Louis University Medical Center, St. Louis University, the Fox Theatre, Powell Hall, the VA Medical Center and Fairgrounds Park. Reminders of yesteryear on the route are the vacant lot where Sears used to be, the concrete carcass of Carter Carburetor and the site of the old Sportsman's Park, now the Herbert Hoover Boys' and Girls' Club.
Turning off Broadway west on Meramec, five passengers get on at Nebraska. After passing the massive, cathedral-like St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church and Behrmann's Bar across the street, the bus turns right onto Grand, where, on the left, is Al Smith's Feasting Fox restaurant and beyond that a glimpse of Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, the South Grand location. The first influx of riders comes at Chippewa and Grand, where 12 people board. By then, 20 people have already gotten on the bus. Of the 31 riders -- one gets off at Grand and Meramec -- all but four are African-American, despite the fact that most of the neighborhoods traversed before Arsenal are fairly mixed, racially speaking. That most of the bus' riders are black is merely a reflection that blacks in the city are disproportionately poor. Most folks on the bus, on average, have slightly less in the way of assets than folks driving a Highway 40 commute. But cell phones ring on a bus, though it's unclear whether that's testament to the rising class of bus ridership or the increasing affordability of technology. Maybe both. And stereotypes are only sometimes true. One man, in jeans and a black T-shirt, was reading the paperback version of Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History.
The preponderance of one ethnic group both means something and nothing, in that few people speak to each other or otherwise interact on a Bi-State bus, so the person sitting next to you on the bus could be from Bosnia, Mexico or North St. Louis or could be a stone-cold white, born and raised under the shadow of the Bevo Mill -- it simply doesn't matter. Now and then, someone loud or incongruent appears, but mostly if you mind your own business, read the paper, stare out the window or feign sleep, no recognition of your fellow human beings on the bus is needed.