Study Rationale

The bus approaches the stopIn the past few years, communication networks based on ethnicity, political activism and socio-economic factors have been examined extensively in city neighborhoods particularly in terms of community (Ball-Rokeach, Yong-Chan and Matei; Britt; Jeffres; Jeffres, Atkin and Neuendorf; Mullen). More recently, communication research has focused extensively on the impact of information technology on and within urban spaces (Fernback; Graham and Marvin; Gumpert and Drucker; Matei and Ball-Rokeach; Putnam). But in the enthusiasm to frame urban discourse within these ideological and applied contexts, we often overlook more traditional, commonplace sites that can offer rich insights into urban existence.

One such site is the city bus, the heart of the mass transit system in almost every city of the United States and worldwide. Running continuously and (somewhat) predictably along the roadways of our urban spaces, city buses have become a visible part of the urban landscape through their routine and sameness, although noted more predominantly for their billboard advertising capabilities than for the individual experiences inside. But what has made the bus seemingly unremarkable to the majority may be the very “thing” that first attracts the researcher. French anthropologist Marc Augé recognized this "thing" as he descended into the subway system of Paris:

When we speak of ritual in respect to subway trips, and in a meaning different from what the term takes in common expressions when it is devaluated, a simple synonym of habit, it would perhaps be on the basis of the following observation, which sums up the paradox and the interest of all ritual activity: recurrent, regular, and without surprise to all those who observe it or who more or less are associated with it, it is always unique and singular for each one of those actively involved (27).

Indeed, the communication rituals of the bus underwhelm upon first encounter. On most days the passengers on the bus sit silently staring forward or out the window. Even in the odd row at the back and front of the bus that faces each other, eye contact is fleeting.  It is as boring on the inside as the outside. Where then is the uniqueness, the singularity of which Augé writes? It exists primarily within the individuals that at first are seen only with the collective eye. Sometimes it is the simple question about a stop.

More rarely, it is a deliberate conversation. Such was the case on rainy, chilly day in October. A 20-something white male with a dirty t-shirt, smudged glasses and blue stocking cap thumped down in the seat up a row and across the aisle from my own. Instead of facing forward, he stretched across the row, his back resting on the window. Both defiant and guarded in his posture, his cool gaze took in both the young man in the row behind him and me.

Noticing our backpacks, stocking cap asked, “You go to school here?”

“Yea, I go to UK,” said the other boy, a button-down, crew-cut type with a little pride and a little attitude. I nodded yes and smiled my assent briefly.

“I’m looking for a tech school,” stocking cap stated.

“There’s Lexington Community College right by the stadium,” offered crew cut. “I went there, just graduated. ‘Course now, it’s like, Bluegrass Community College.”

“I want to do welding, what did you do?” stocking cap continued.

“Computers,” crew cut said.

“Oh hey! Do you know Darrell Queen?” I asked.

“Yeah, I had him for one class. My dad went to high school with him at Lafayette, too,” he responded with a lopsided smile and some eye contact.

A 60-something white male wearing fatigues and a big bushy white beard in front of me turned around. “Lafayette, what year? I was there in the 60s. Lexington was a lot smaller then, maybe I know him.”

“I think my dad was there in the 70s,” said crew cut, nodding his head and grinning at the older guy.

“Do they teach welding at the community college?” stocking cap turned to crew cut.

“I’m not sure…,” he started but I jumped in: “Not on that campus, I think they do out at the Leestown campus.”

“The big problem is money. I’m at a halfway house,” he shrugged.

“Are you at Shepherd House?” a middle-aged African-American lady the row in front of him turned around to ask. “I help out there sometimes.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he nodded.

The elder, bearded man wagged his head. “It’s not right, you’re trying to do the right thing and you’re going to hit red tape. That’s what happened with me and the VA.”

“Oh, Lord, don’t get me started on that,” said the woman.

Stay dry and safe getting off the bus on a rainy dayThe talk goes on like this for a few minutes. I stay on the peripheral, my seat the farthest back on the right, taking notes initially but then putting the notebook away and watching. All lean in or move to the seat on the aisle to be closer. Bodies are turned toward each other and eye contact is made. We must look like an ad the local government has wished into existence, a colorful photo with a trite tagline with some pabulum about community. My stop comes up faster than normal and I am sent away with hearty good-byes and exhortations to stay dry and safe.

These brief encounters accentuate the long silent pauses that represent the typical bus ride. What is this instant coming together to pull apart again just as quickly and completely? Such events feel unquantifiable yet echo our literal journey – a moment of both fixity and movement. We live these single events in a single place even as we fly down the street according to the cyclical bus schedule. Not only are such incidences worth examining as encounters between strangers, but they are also worth considering in juxtaposition to the periods of much more common indifferences and in relation to the spaces both inside and outside the bus.

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