A day spent on the bus shows how the city can come together, and just as easily be torn apart.
The city is full of walls. It depends on them and takes shape and color from them. But their job is not to communicate but to conceal. Partitions are painted over, shingled over and reinforced to keep out weather, misfortune and onlookers. No city reveals its whole self willingly.
To go further, one must find a way in, a lively seam like the one that starts Downtown and touches the Lindsey Heights and Sherman Park neighborhoods and Wauwatosa: Milwaukee County Transit Route 57. Beginning at the palatial Intermodal Station, it uncoils through a range of neighborhoods over a span of just a few miles, bearing efficient witness to a cross-section of the city.
The well-traveled 57 bus has its social regulars, riders like Nemo Bailey, who slouches over a blue-padded seat, midway through a two-bus journey from a construction job on the South Side to his home on North 35th Street. He’s wearing blue and teal Nikes and a beat-up pair of corduroy pants.
He’s been taking the bus for years and uses the hour or so to unravel his stresses. “I think about where other people are headed,” he says. “Other times I don’t think about anything at all. It clears my mind. I’m secure on the bus.”
Riders cycle in and out of seats in the back, where conversations occasionally break out as neighbors recognize each other. One of these folks, a thin, retired MPS teacher named Barbara Richards, runs to the front of the bus to pick up the stray shoe of a woman sleeping sideways on the seats. “Riding the bus opens your eyes,” she says. “You can see your fellow man.”
Wearing a mauve fleece, Richards is headed for a board meeting at the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center. A committed Catholic, she does tai chi every morning and maintains a sustainable permaculture yard and garden at 83rd and Auer streets, growing as much of her own food as possible. She takes routes 57 and 60 most often and sometimes the 15 or 30, texting and emailing people, “organizing,” she says, for the various food and environmental causes she’s involved in.
The bus sits high, and the surrounding motions are fluid and riverlike, as if one is watching from the wheelhouse of a ship. Stop after stop, a computerized voice calls out the street, directing one’s focus back to the here and now. At a few junctures, small groups of passengers board, followed by a fresh driver carrying a dark backpack. There are red shoes among the passengers, fluorescent shoes, Brewers hats, hoodies, braids, and smells of vanilla and cologne. Out on the sidewalk, someone passes by, laughing.
In some ways, the bus is a harmonious bubble. There’s a feeling of all being in this together. The very floor of the bus lowers to welcome people using wheelchairs and motorized scooters. Drivers occasionally wave people onto the bus who lost a transit card or something. At the same time, a bus is a large, powerful machine, which you can feel in every bump and shudder and the way the windows shimmy and flex.
Route 57 passes the Speed Queen parking lot, the Hall of Fades barber shop, a disproportionate number of dental clinics and places selling used tires (“Yes! We sell used tires!”), a dozen children playing soccer, three county workers sweeping a concrete median, day care centers painted with murals, Hustlin’ Handz Tattoo and a sign advertising Car Toys across the street from another advertising Car Sounds. The air around the stop at 60th and Center streets is warm and almost still.
At any one time, up to four buses are traveling back and forth on Route 57, which handles about 2,000 riders a day. At 5:30 p.m. on a Tuesday evening in April, one of the dutiful machines picks up two men Downtown, and the driver, a woman partially ensconced behind a door of glass and metal, greets them, “Hey guys!”
“What’s up,” says the younger of the two, an office worker carrying a maroon backpack. “How was your vacation?” He leans around the glass partition and chats with the driver, as she drives, until his stop at Burleigh Street about a half-hour later.
Meanwhile, shadows have stretched across houses and intersections outside and darkened under the bus seats. Distances seem longer and stomachs emptier – riders fidget and check how long until dinnertime.
Route 57 dead-ends north of Mount Mary University, where the bus makes a U-turn at the base of a small hill and heads back the way it came. Typically, this goes off without a hitch, but this time, as the bus turns, a dark car comes speeding over the hill and honks wildly at the bus, which honks back. The car veers at the bus’s side – it looked like the driver was trying to ram it – and the bus brakes hard to evade, causing a booming sound. When the bus pulls over at the next stop, the car halts directly in front of it.
Later, the Milwaukee County Transit System’s official statement will be that the bus driver “probably should not have gotten out of her seat to talk to this woman,” the driver of the black car. But in the chaos of the moment, she goes right out to investigate the car, and its driver pulls out a handgun, leans over the passenger seat, and sticks about four inches of the barrel out of the passenger side window. Cameras affixed to the bus likely capture the whole exchange, as well as the woman’s license plate as she speeds off.
The bus driver, a veteran of 17 years whom MCTS later declined to name, gets back on looking alarmed. “She pointed a gun at me,” she says to the two people left on the bus. “She’s crazy.”
While a transit supervisor documents what happened, the two passengers are ushered onto another 57 bus and head east. They roll past small auto dealers with lots crowded against the street, a sign depicting a woman puffing a cigar and the tall stone walls of the St. Margaret Mary Parish.
To look is to inevitably overlook, to pick out something as foreground and demote the rest. The light is increasingly golden, and a gray-stubbled old man in a camouflage jacket and black hat with flaps gets on the bus, sits down and turns to the window.