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The bus is a liminal place. A kind of in-between or nowhere. Sometimes the bus is quiet and sometimes it is not. Sometimes children or adults cry on the bus. I’ve cried on the bus before.
I like that you don’t have to do anything on the bus. There are so few places left in the world where you don’t have to do anything any more. Of course, you can do lots of things on the bus. You can knit or paint your nails or read a book or scream. You can make a friend or call your mum or write a poem or pray. You can even answer work e-mails on the bus if you really want to and you have data on your cellphone plan. I do not.
You can gaze out the window and watch the city unfold before you, the subtle shifts between neighbourhoods, you can watch townhouses and cafés give way to condos and skyscrapers, ocean and clouds.
Or you look around inside the bus and study your travelling companions, their outfits, their habits. The bus creates a temporary community for people whose paths might not otherwise cross.
The city buses have taken me home so many times. They have sheltered me from rain. I used to dread rainy mornings on the No. 19, so many people crammed together, the unbidden intimacy with unknown shoulders and purses, necks and hair. But during the early months of the pandemic, when I mostly stayed home, I daydreamed about this crowded bus, this place where I was overwhelmed by touch. It seemed otherworldly.
I like being a passenger, in motion, in transit. I like being fleeting. On the bus, I am not my name or salary or job title. I’m just a blurred face in the window.
I love reading on the bus, getting so lost in a book that I miss my stop. I love writing long letters, too.
When I moved to Vancouver in 2018, I spent a lot of time on the bus, travelling from my home in Mount Pleasant to my job downtown. I treasured that commute. It was a part of the day that belonged entirely to me. My work was stressful, but on the bus, I didn’t owe anything to anyone. I could be anonymous, invisible. I was so lonely when I moved here, but the people on the bus kept me company.
Often, I would curl up in one of the bus’s plastic chairs and write long letters to my friends in Montreal. Often, I would read. Riding the bus gave me permission to indulge in these luxuries.
In Vancouver, people don’t often talk to strangers. It is a difficult place to make friends. But reading on the bus sparked conversations. A woman interrupted me while I was reading Bad Endings by Carleigh Baker on the No. 8 to tell me how much she loved it. I spoke to a man reading In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Dr. Gabor Maté on the No. 19 and he shared his experience working at a legalized drug injection site with me. Books on the bus were portals to connection.
I remember one February evening, shortly after I moved to Vancouver, waiting for the bus in the rain. It was cold and dark and I was crying. I had just attended my first appointment with a new therapist and it had been a disaster.
The bus pulled up and I stepped inside. A passenger in the first row was reading a book of poetry. This Wound is a World by Billy-Ray Belcourt. “I loved that book!” I told her. She offered me the seat beside her. “Are you a poet?” she asked. “Yes,” I replied shyly. “And you?” She nodded. We exchanged names and contact information.
It was then that I realized I was on the wrong bus. I bid my new friend, author Elena Johnson, goodbye and hopped off.
Later that week, I checked out Elena’s book from the library. I fell in love with Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra, with Elena’s sparse and quiet poems. And I was amazed by the kismet of our encounter. Elena wrote her book while she was the writer-in-residence at a remote research station in the Yukon. I had participated in an artist residency on the Yukon River the previous summer.
When I told my dad about befriending Elena, he said: “That’s a wonderful story. But you weren’t on the wrong bus.”
I love making new friends on the bus. But I also love finding familiar faces in the crowd of passengers. I love encountering my partner on the bus unexpectedly, their features coming into focus, the moment of recognition when our eyes light up. I love sitting down beside them and taking their hand.
I used to know Vancouver’s transit routes by heart. But after months of pandemic restrictions and working remotely, this knowledge has left me. Now, I have to Google the route before leaving home. This feels like losing a map or a language I once spoke. In the context of the past two years, this loss is a small one. But it still deserves its place in the catalogue of losses.
In February, I finished reading The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki while riding the 99-B line. “I’m intrigued,” the bus driver said, motioning toward the cover. “What’s it about?” I closed the book and considered. “Zen Buddhism, books, hoarding, hearing voices, jazz … oh, and a bunch of it takes place at a library inspired by Vancouver’s Central Branch!” “Jazz, eh?” he replied. “I love jazz.”
Through the window beside my desk, I hear the whistle of the Skytrain circling the city. This sound winds its way through birdsong, wraps itself around my home. I think of all the buses making their way through busy streets, leaving no trace of their paths. The crowds of faceless people stepping through their open doors.
Jessica Magonet lives in Vancouver.
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