On the Bus

I am on the 38 Geary, coming back from an appointment with the cardiologist.

There is a large box on my lap.

I am sitting in the disabled seating, because it was the only seating available when I got on the bus. Normally I try to sit further back, to make room for those who are more disabled than I am. I have no choice but to be here, in the front.

The bus is getting crowded. Teenagers horse around in the back. An older Chinese lady with bags of vegetables is sitting next to me. Across from me, a veteran, returning from an appointment at the VA. We talk. About the VA, about caring for veterans. I do not offer up who I am, where I am coming from, what I am doing here in the disabled seating with this box on my lap.

More and more people get onto the bus.

I wonder why the driver doesn’t skip stops and let a bus behind us pick some of these people up. People are crowded into the aisles, hanging on to the straps and the bars.

The bus sighs to a stop, load of humanity seething inside.

A person with a cane walks on.

I tense.

I want to get up. I want to get up. I want to get up.

I want to stand so that this person can sit.

I am dizzy. I tripped coming up the stairs to the bus, almost dropped my box, in fact. I know that if I get up, I will fall down. My hands are too weak to grab one of the poles, I am too short to reach the straps that hang from the ceiling, what will I do with my box?

I cannot get up.

I cannot get up and I am consumed with guilt. It is filling my box, it is overflowing, I feel like everyone is staring at me and I am flushing and my heart is fluttering.

And the moment, it happens.

“Why don’t you get up, little lady,” someone says.

I stare at the floor. I stare at the box.

“I…can’t,” I say. “I’m sorry.”

I look like the picture of entitlement, here in the disabled seating. I am pale and sweating and trembling and my lips and fingers are bluish but that could be drugs, after all. Here I am, with my box, preventing this person with a cane from sitting. This person who  is standing right in front of me, holding the bar by my seat, because it is the only place left on the bus.

I hate myself.

I am convinced that everyone on the bus hates me.

I look around, hating myself for policing other people but wondering if one of the other young people who appears to be able will do the right thing and get up so that the person with a cane can sit down.

I hate myself.

I try to convince myself that I should not have to explain myself, that the disabled seating is there for people with disabilities to use, that I have a right to sit here. But so does the person with a cane. Neither of us is more deserving than the other, I just happened to get here first.

I hate myself.

One of the older women in the seats across from me gets up and says “here, take my seat” to the person with the cane, and she shoots me a dirty look. I still feel like everyone on the bus is staring at me. Hating me.

And then one of the things in my box falls out. It is the bill from my appointment. It is the thing which details what has just been done to me, and exactly how much I just paid for it. The bill which specifically says that I am supposed to have someone come to pick me up afterwards, which is something I lied about, leaving the office, “oh yes, of course I have a friend to pick me up.” Because there is no one.

The person with a cane leans over to pick it up, to pass it to me, eyes widen.

“Here, I think you dropped this.”

“Oh, thank you,” I say, trying to reach around the box to reach the outstretched piece of paper which now other people are staring at too, including the woman who stood up, who is standing right next to my seat.

Because it’s the only place left on the bus.

She sees it and her hand reaches out automatically and she leans to pass it to me and then “oh,” she says.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

33 thoughts on “On the Bus

  1. Your work is powerful and especially when you’re writing your life. We all do seem to spend a lot of time hating ourselves don’t we? That socialization is some ugly shit.

  2. I agree with the above commenters and as a frequent rider of the 38, I have to say it is an atrociously busy line I loathe the bus drivers who stop so much until it’s WELL overcapacity. It ends up being downright unsafe when it’s so packed. Elbows and knees, stumbling into each other with the lurching stops. I’ve nearly fallen on people because it’s so easy to (accidentally) shove people around. :-/

  3. It has been 20 years since I lived in SF, but I used to ride the 38 Geary all the time. In addition to the over-capacity, the abrupt accelerations and stops on Muni often threw me off balance. My sister, who still lives in SF, has to deal with this kind of thing a lot (the judgements) because when she is not using her walker people assume she can stand and balance herself without pain. My mother, who is 75, gets a little more slack, but not much.
    I’m working on this issue of feeling guilty for something I did not do, and it is really hard. My therapist has suggested that I repeat: “That is a judgement, and I do not accept judgements”. I have to start with myself, because how can I refuse the misguided judgements of others if I the first one to judge myself?

  4. Thank you for writing this. I had a somewhat similar experience (being stared at as if I was a bad person for not giving up my seat when I look young and able bodied) and it made me so uncomfortable. Actually, I was thinking about this blog though, as I stayed seated, and it made me feel better.

  5. Thank you for writing about this so eloquently. I’ve been on the receiving end of The Glare as well, on buses and trains, and for daring to use a disabled parking space. But I especially liked the way you described the guilt and wanting to get up and hating yourself because you can’t – those internal feelings of self-loathing are worse than anything strangers can inflict with their disapproving stares.

  6. Ah, yes… Another example of how disability is stratified on the lines of visibility.

    I’ve never had the problem of not being able to get a seat on the bus because of my invisible back issues. Of course, I’m visibly mentally disabled (omg scary!) so pretty much all I have to do is stand near someone and they’ll get up just to scurry away from the crazy headcrip.

    Still, I feel that the bus is easily one of the most hostile environments when it comes to disabilities. It’s just a whole stew of nasty behaviour: staring, scooting away from you, changing seats when you sit down, whispered comments, not-so-whispered comments, shouted insults. And it seems that people are so much more willing to be overt about their behaviour on the bus too! I don’t know what it is about the bus. Maybe it’s because I just spend all my other time in safe space but still.

    I haven’t even started talking about the predators yet.

  7. Oh, woe, the bus. Those of us who live in urban areas are quite familiar with this mode of being (since we’re disproportionally poor and unable to drive). I’ve been where you’re sitting and you’ve captured that self-loathing so accurately.

  8. *comes back after calming down*

    ah, the hating yourself. Yes….every time an old person gets on the bus, I see, or think I see, people staring at young, fit (aside from the symbol cane) me, who is sitting down, while the old person must stand, or wait for some other person to stand up. Never mind that I need to sit down. Never mind that my balance is really bad. Those things are invisible, so they don’t exist for these people. I wish they were invisible to me.

  9. Something else I have noted on the 38 (and other lines in the City) is the spectacle which happens every time a wheelchair user needs to board the bus, speaking of the overt end of the disability spectrum. I’ve seen bus drivers with relatively empty buses zip right past a wheelchair user who is clearly waiting at the bus stop because they “don’t want to deal with it” (literally, I asked a bus driver once and that was the response). And, when they do pick one up, there’s a whole big production which is used to make it painfully clear that it’s a colossal hassle to deal with the wheelchair, making it as shameful and unpleasant as possible for wheelchair users on public transit. Might as well hang a big sign on the bus “we’ll take your kind, but only because we have to, and only when we feel like it.”

  10. When I lived in Fullerton, and for a few months of my time in Orange, I was dependent on the bus system to go anywhere. To buy a carton of milk. It would be a mile’s walk, minimum, and a bus ride, if not a connection. Then the store, then back. That was for the closest things.

    People would look at me as I sat in the disabled seating.

    To their credit, the drivers were good about wheelchairs (when I was there, anyway). No fuss. Just get up and let people in with a nod or a smile, set them up, get on your way.

    Of course, I imagine the people in those wheelchairs felt the exact same way you do: “I hate myself. I take all this time. People might be in a rush. I take up space someone else might need. I hate myself…”

    Because that would be how I feel, if I were in their seat.

    I tried, one time, to stand on the T. (Our trolley/train/subway type public transportation system in Pittsburgh.) I took three weeks to recover from the pain from 10 minutes standing — and only half of it standing, eventually I just sat on the damn floor — on the T. The lurching, the bumping, the turning, the screeching, the bouncing, the people moving around me, the light, the noise, all of it. It all coursed through my body, intensely, for three weeks afterward.

    Now, I push ahead of people. I have no fucking shame about it. My husband knows just to note where I sit and stand where he can (usually a distance away, though so far we’ve managed to keep him in the same car) and meet up with me once we get off. I just push in front of people. I don’t knock anyone over, but I’m not going to regard the rules of polite society regarding who-was-there-first and waiting-your-turn. I don’t care. I push in front of you. Because I cannot handle the ride without a real seat. And I cannot handle asking someone else to get up for me. And explaining why I need it. And dealing with the questions, conversation, and stares that come with it.

  11. I agree that this is a very powerful post. So glad you put it out there.

    Comment #14 pretty sums up my experience as a wheelchair user on the bus. Have to make a point to remind me how unduly burdensome I am. Nice to know I’m responsible for everyone else being late/inconvenienced. Nice that everyone else gets to know it, too. This kind of thing endangers our safety. It really does. Setting us up as the scapegoat for frustration caused by things out of our control. People wonder why I’m sometimes afraid to go out? That’d be part of it.

  12. Yes, what a powerful punch this post was.

    And yes, can I relate. This is why I take my cane with me on the bus whether I need it that day or not. It’s a visible sign that I do deserve to sit down. I hate that I need that. But it does make a world of difference in how I’m treated – suddenly cars slow down for me, people open doors for me, and I’m allowed to sit down on the bus! It’s strange and sad, really.

  13. Before I needed a cane, there were times when I needed to sit down when boarding a bus and had to deal with the looks. And I will always remember an incident where I was standing near the disabled seating and someone else was as well and that someone mumbled something at those sitting down.

    A woman in one of the seats said “Excuse me? Do you know my history? Do you know why the hell I need to sit down? I’m disabled too! And I am not getting up!”

    I had a combination of horror and awe at her. But now I think about her every time I get on the bus. Because these days I use a cane and people get up for me, which is still startling and jerks me to remember all over again ‘Oh, things aren’t so invisible anymore’.

    I end up using the energy instead to ask drivers to get the bus to kneel so I can get on and off without hurting myself. Because even with a cane, they still tend to only lower the bus when they see someone older with a cane.

    There’s always a moment reminder of how ability and disability gets judged.

    But after the first time I hurt myself because I was too embarrassed/feeling shy to ask? And had to nurse the sore knee all night? I open my mouth real quick now. Cause whatever judgement people want to throw my way, they are -not- living my life. And they’re not going to massaging my sore spots for me, so they can take their judgement and shove it.

  14. When I rode the buses in Vancouver, Washington, they were rarely crowded enough for someone to need to stand or give up their seat. (The one time I took the bus in Portland on the other hand… around 5 or 6 pm… sheesh.)

    I remember the newer buses (the back seats were raised up a bit, I loved sitting in the back, all tall and stuff!) would lean down when a wheelchair user needed to get on. The regular ones had the lift. And I don’t remember ever passing somebody because the driver didn’t want to deal with it.

    I don’t know if I ever sat in the handicapped section of the bus, I probably did, but it was most likely one of the rare crowded times. I was on so many different meds, new doctors messing around, and the pain…

    What I do remember, and what makes me sad*, is this guy I saw a lot. He used a wheelchair. He also had a bag of soda cans the size of his wheelchair that he was going to take across the river to be redeemed. Recycling is much bigger over there than here (my school’s attempts, while inspiring, are mostly sad. Because we don’t care. And we’re pretty broke.) and I remember my uncle telling me that you don’t smash the cans because they had to be whole if they were going to be worth anything across the river.

    I’m pretty sure I talked to somebody in a wheelchair, because I like talking to people on the bus. I look young and I’m a white girl (not a threat) and not too bad looking. (Looking like I do helped me the first and last time I rode the Memphis bus – an older woman, who was friends with the driver, helped me figure out where the hell I wanted to go.)

    *It makes me sad that he had to do that. Though maybe he didn’t, and he was just recycling and making some money on the side for shits and giggles.

    All my boring bus anecdotes aside (I once saw this woman reading a romance novel in cryllic! And we had safety things in more than just English and Spanish! True diversity shocked me!), I can’t imagine how bad you felt, mel. I’ve been close, we all have. I’m my own biggest critic, after all. What if I am one of those bad cripples just gaming the system, taking things away (what am I taking away? I still haven’t attempted to fill out an SSI form.) from the real ones, the good ones.

    Or there’s a part of me that says, if I were in your seat that day, all these people have pain too, they have problems, why do I complain? Why am I so weak?

  15. Augh – forgot this. My uncle wasn’t taking the cans across to be redeemed. He left the whole cans out in the correct recycling bin so that other people could take them if they needed to redeem cans.

  16. PS:

    The thing I dislike about the whole wheelchair loads at the front thing (my local buses), is that it pits those not wheelchair mobile against those who are. Cause everyone who’s disabled and sitting at the front of the bus has to get up so the wheelchair can pass to get to the wheelchair spot.

    And I’ve had moments of tears in my eyes at having finally sat down after having to stand at the bus stop, only two stops later having to get up and shuffle.

    I’m still amazed at a bus driver who politely asked a wheelchair user to wait, because every one sitting down in the disabled seating had a cane or a crutch. And he was all “They’re not less important than you. The seating is for -everyone- who is disabled. But I’ll be happy to radio the bus behind me to expect you.”

    But it made me grr at how the set up pitches wheelchair users and non wheelchair users against one another. Because not every bus driver will do that. And I have felt hurt and angry when some bus drivers treat wheelchair users as the only disabled people who count. Especially when they shout ‘Move to the back’ and I’m there trying to hold on to a spot near the front, because navigating the backdoors equals height (no kneeling) and obstruction (doors you have to push open) so I need to be near the front. But that’s not a consideration.

    Also not a consideration; whether or not someone can even reach upto the holds and straps.

    The other side of that, is when the bus driver won’t start the bus unless someone gives up their seat to a person obviously in need of it. The tension and loathing on the whole bus just leaps up two rungs. And usually it ends up being an older and/or disabled person giving up their seat because no one in a non disabled seat stands up.

    Had this happen with a pregnant woman with a cane. The whispers afterwards were harsh. Apparently people with mobility issues shouldn’t get pregnant; cause it will mess up a bus ride.

  17. So so powerful. I felt my heart rate rise and a flutter/sinking in my stomach. I too know that feeling. That anxiety. That panic. That self-loathing.

    When I can, I try to get on the bus first/early. If a bus is starting its run and there’s lots of people at the stop, I try to make sure I’m near where the bus will stop and actively watch/wait for the bus to come. If I’m up to it and it’s a non-threatening route/time, I go near the back of the bus so I can sleep without feeling like everyone behind me is watching (long bus trips, often close to traveling whole route). If I’m having a poor day, I’ll sit a row or two behind the disabled seating or near the 2nd door if I am on a bus which uses two exits so I am close to the exit (most of the newer buses have flip up/down seats at the front which can be used for wheelchair users, a row of seating facing into that space and then the next row is disabled seating).

    If I am having a very poor day or the seats already have at least one person on them (I like window seats so I can lean/sleep against window), I just sit on the first seat I see. I always feel a little anxious sitting down next to someone but I’m generally fine when they sit down next to me.

    The buses into the city from my area are always packed and take up to an hour and a half depending on time/load. Generally I can get on the bus into the city when the bus is near empty but sometimes have to catch a connection to get it which means I get on when it’s full. I’m not up to standing/balancing/holding on for very long. If I can’t get a seat I will always just sit in the aisle if I can (blend in with others on the packed late friday/saturday night buses, people take their high heels off and just sit down in the aisle). Even when I’m sitting up the back I feel some of that self-loathing when no one gets up for someone who visibly needs a seat, you know that delay while people decide to get up? Generally people and bus drivers are pretty good and get up, the buses are always full and there’s a lot of uni students on that route so there’s always an expectation that someone on the bus will give up their seat. There’s not really enough “priority” seating, especially during “off-peak” when more visibly disabled and elderly people catch the bus into the city.

    I find the train worse access wise. Going up long, steep ramps or stairs or waiting ages for slow, often broken down, lifts. Getting dirty looks (or feeling like I’m getting dirty looks) when I catch the lift up/down from a platform, especially if the lift is one of those really small cramped ones (you don’t need the lift, use the stairs/ramp). I’ve worked out which carriages to get on to be closest to the entrances/exits which are easiest. Even though there are escalators at one station, I often use the lift because, without any walking/getting through crowds on the platform, it gets me right at the carriage I need to get on that will arrive near the exit at my destination.

    We have double decker carriages with a largeish vestibule level to the platform on either end of a carriage which generally have “priority” seating. I don’t like going up or down the couple of steps to either level so almost always sit/stand in the vestibule area. In off-peak, can generally get a seat in this largish area. In peak, the train is so FULL. CityRail (our train service) often exceeds “crush load” aka sardines on many lines (crush load = 135% of seated capacity of a train). See http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/train-crush-load-limit-to-triple/2009/01/03/1230681809446.html In my experience it is a lot less likely that someone will give up their seat on the train, mainly because when the train is so full of standing passengers the seated passengers kind of feel like they can hide more. If I can’t get a seat I will generally sit on the floor or if there is not enough room to sit stand very uncomfortable for 25 minutes. I won’t ask for a seat unless I feel almost certain I will pass out otherwise.

  18. Oh man, you brought tears to my eyes.

    Two years ago almost exactly, I was riding on a bus in one of the busier parts of town. I had been out shopping – bought myself some boots, and a couple of presents for people at home, so my lap was full of packages. Packages that covered my cane.

    I was seated in the disabled area, because at that point I hobbled as if I was 4 times my age and it hurt so very much. A woman with a cane got on, and a middle aged woman across from me – also in the disabled seating – demanded I stand up. I turned to her and said ‘I wish I could.’

    She grumbled about rude young people as she deigned to stand and give up her seat. The other woman with a cane sat down, and I turned to her and said, “Sorry I didn’t stand. I’m disabled too, my cane is in here under my bags.” She smiled at me. I said that I hated the way people judged my health by my age, because I was mad at the woman who’d tried to force me to stand. Yeah, maybe it was small and petty, but I’d been hurt. It still hurts, the memory.

    When I’ve had to move for a wheelchair to use the same space, the drivers have been very polite. One came back and asked me if it was possible for me to move, and then requested the people in the seat behind me find other seats so I wouldn’t have to move far. Another asked if I would mind moving across the aisle so that he would have to move fewer people, and held my bag for me while I moved. Both of them definitely seemed to imply that if I couldn’t handle moving, they’d figure out something else.

    I got on the bus one day and found all of the disabled seating had been occupied by high school students. I’m sorry, I found it difficult to believe that all 7 of them had disabilities. I said ‘Excuse me?’ No one moved. I said ‘I need a seat.’ Again, no one moved. The bus driver turned around and said, ‘Kids, one of you can give up your seat to the lady who needs it, or you can ALL get off my bus!’ He was great, one of the regular drivers on that line who I chatted with – in part because he treated me as a PERSON and remembered things like me needing him to kneel the bus to get on. Such an awesome guy. I felt very lucky that he drove on the line I used to get to and from school every day.

    But I’ve also had the lousy ones. The ones who I ask to kneel the bus so I can step on more easily and they stare at me like I’ve grown horns or better yet tell me that it’s broken. The ones who won’t help me when people won’t get out of the disabled seats, or who start while I’m trying to get back to the seat (which has caused me to fall more than once).

    My life has gotten a lot easier with regards to seating since I got my service dog. Because I need space to put him, no one gives me crap about wanting one of the disabled spots (which have more space around them). I do try to remember to thank people who get up and move – yeah, they’re just obeying the law, but I still appreciate that they think it’s worth doing. After all, respecting the law means respecting my rights as a PWD to have an accomodation.


  19. That was very powerfull writing. I always wonder, what does it say about those people, that they automatically assume one is “faking”? Is it (only) because our culture is so full of the “bad cripple”-narrative? Or is it that they themselves have no problem claiming a reserved seat even if they are not disabled, and so they assume the same of everybody else?

    I am glad that our buses are required to kneel and open all the automatic doors at every stop, whether the can see someone with a visible disability or not.

    Are any of the regulars here from London? I don’t think it would even be possible for people who need accommodations to use the subway, given that it tends to be so incredibly crowded, one often can not even get in (has to be horrible for those who can not take crowds and lack of personal space or space to move) I don`t remember there being elevators, and the escalators were stuffed with people, many of whom were always trying to pass.

    I know they got rid of the old, dangerous buses a while back, but still, not being able to use the subway in London…

  20. Lauren – I don’t find the London Underground too bad actually. Even at rush hour I’ve always been able to get a seat, and I much prefer trains/trams/subways to buses because they always come to a definite stop, whereas I’ve had bus drivers run past my stop because I can’t get to the front of the bus while it’s moving.

    As for passing on the escalators, the rule in Britain is ‘stand on the right’, so you’ll have a line of stationary people being carried up (or down) on the right hand side, and another line walking past them on the left – all very orderly.

    I can imagine some people would find it difficult, but for me it’s the best way to get around London.

  21. This made me cry, it was so powerful.

    I definitely would have picked you up (or at least offered to) if I was anywhere near you. Big hugs if you want them! <3

  22. Dogged:
    Glad to know it is not as bad as I think. My experiences with the tube where only as a tourist/ four-week-intern, so maybe I would have gotten used to the stacked-so-close-you-can-not-move morning crowds and the escalators (fear of heights) eventually.

    Still, I don’t remember any way for wheelchair users to use the tube, though that might have only been because my TAB-privilege might have kept me from noticing.

  23. I don’t think I would ever get used to theLondon Underground. I was on it a lot when I was in London, with friends. I could barely handle the crowds back then, and that was a time when I was willing to devote practically everything I had (spoons-like) on passing in public and keeping up with friends. I probably couldn’t do it now, and definitely not alone either back then or now. There is also the problem of navigation. I think something to do with dyscalculia makes it impossible forme to figure out those schedules for different lines and such, I have that trouble with all buslines and undergrounds and trams and such.

    I don’t know which has better accessibility here, busses or trains. On the one hand, trains are easier because the schedule is much easier for someone like me to work with, so I don’t make nearly as many mistakes, and if it were just that, I’d be able to take the train anywhere on my own. On the other hand, buses actually have better wheelchair accessibility. At least in the places I’ve taken them, you could just show up and get on, don’t have to go through the doors at the front of the bus either. For trains, you have to announce that you’ll be travelling by train with your wheelchair in advance, and when exactly, so they can show up with a portable ramp (or you’d have to have some way of carrying the chair on board). Then you’d most likely have to stay right next to the doors instead of at the seating areas (because many trains now are doubledeckers and have steps inside them leading both up and down, also the doorwars are incredibly narrow in any type of train) so if you’re travelling with friends there’s a good chance they won’t be able to get a seat near you. I also don’t know what happens if you’re late for some reason out ofyour control, or if your train is late and you miss a connection.

    I don’t think I’m allowed to use the disabled seating, but I’ve often wanted to ask for a seat in whatever location when my backpain is bad (as it often is on the way back when travelling, at least). I’ve never asked though. Sometimes I’m unable to, but at other times I’ve been too afraid to ask, because I don’t think anyone would believe me.

  24. The trains I use regularly in the UK (First Great Western) have a lovely disability policy – if there are no seats left in the standard coach and you are disabled/pregnant, tell an attendant and they will move you first class. Very useful if you don’t have the energy to fight through the crowd for limited seating.

  25. Just want to say this is a really moving post and I have TOTALLY noticed the thing with the way they make a big production out of getting a wheelchair user onto the bus. Like yah it’s going to slow things down a little and that’s fine but a lot of the drivers definitely seem to make it a lot more difficult than it has to be.
    .-= whatsername┬┤s last blog ..The Occupation of San Francisco State =-.

  26. I am a feminist currently trying to dismantle the ableism I’ve only recently realized is ingrained in me. This concrete description of your experience helped me better understand and empathize with your situation. Thank you for taking the time to write this.

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