Who Is She? An Investigative Report of the Route 1 Bus

My favorite: 'Jeffrey doesn’t do buses alone. He can’t. He won’t. But unfortch Jenna C. (my bus ‘buddy’) was busy and I had to suck it up and ride the steel cage of trash all by my lonesome.'

"This bus is insane. There’s really no other way to put it. Insane good, insane bad."

"I hate the 1 bus.

I hate the 1 bus.

I hate the 1 bus.

I hate the 1 bus."

"I really didn’t mind this bus and I don’t see why the #1 gets so many bad reviews."

"The person responsible for scheduling the #1 bus appears to have mental capacities equivalent to an infected pustule resected from Sarah Palin’s anus."

Such are a few of the polarizing Yelp reviews for Boston’s MBTA Bus Route 1.

Determined to parse the Real Truth about the nature of this bus, I found myself plodding down Mass. Ave. on a recent balmy Friday morning, Charlie Card in hand.

No sooner had I reached the Johnston Gate bus stop than a series of bizarre events transpired–events usual enough on their own, but tinged collectively with a slight hint of the fantastical, of an elevated sort of reality. (Perhaps Harvard Square is always full of such magic, inconspicuous until you’re standing with nothing to do and a notepad itching to be filled with observations. But I suspected that this sense of anomaly was a deliberate wink from the universe, aware of the epic journey on which I planned to depart.)

It started when a man with twitchy hands and loud feet approached the crowd of waiting passengers within which I was now enmeshed, pointed his finger directly at my chest, and asked in a heavy Boston accent: “You know where the the number one is?”

Honored that he had singled me out as his potential guide, I told him I believed it was coming here, soon. He nodded solemnly. “Soon,” he repeated, staring off into the distance behind me. I awkwardly attempted to signal that he look in the opposite direction, toward the pavement (over which buses traditionally drive, as opposed to the gated, grassy Yard). He immediately pivoted and began marching down the sidewalk, away from both the Yard and the bus stop. I didn’t see him again.

As I squinted after his shrinking figure, trying to discern where he might be headed, my gaze inadvertently snagged on a different man in the distance who was in the middle of dramatically falling down. People rushed to help him up, but it didn’t look like he was trying very hard to help them help him. He just sort of smiled placidly with his arms crossed over his chest as a steadily growing crowd returned him to verticality.

I began to feel somewhat agitated that the bus still had yet to arrive. The querulous Yelp complaints about the bus’s schedule, I supposed, were right. Evidently I wasn’t the only one with this thought—behind me, a man addressed his concerns to a fully asleep woman on the bench behind me: “‘Scuse me, ma’am, is this where you get the one bus?”

He repeated the line again, verbatim, exactly replicating his speech cadence. And again. How was she sleeping through this? Was she faking slumber? Was she a fake person? Was he? Was I surrounded by prop people and robots who had mostly mastered their appropriation of human nature but were like, still missing a few elements? Who did this to me? Why?

Finally, my long-awaited golden chariot pulled into the parking spot. My fellow riders and I filed in.

This was my moment. Pen poised, I eagerly awaited the uproar Yelp’s denizens had promised. Hell on wheels, someone had written. And I’m not talking about the roller derby/sons of anarchy/railroad boys/tour de France fun kind of hell on wheels.

Bus 1, reveal your truth!

As the bus rolled toward Dudley Station, though, I found, to my disappointment, nothing much to Yelp about.

Yes, the grievances about stop quota were fair. (Boston is a city facing a very serious obesity epidemic and I do not understand why the good folk of Boston can’t walk just one more block, one user had written.) At one point, I wrote in my notebook that “we just stopped 30 feet from the last bus stop oh my god.”

There were a few unusual characters, as many reviews noted. I was particularly intrigued by the man dressed in yellow plaid pants and a trench coat who quietly offered ambiguous drinks to a number of reticent passengers. Also interesting was the heavyset man sporting a cowboy hat and a chain attaching his wallet to his pants, who was also sucking a lollipop. He and the driver shared an energetic exchange about something that was maybe the word “clam trucks” repeated fervently by both parties. It was unclear to me whether they were arguing or simply doing Man Bonding Talk.

Mostly, though, the bus was clean and pleasant.

The clientele seemed generally healthy, despite one user’s assertion that The Number 1 bus is the most statistically robust vector for the transmission of tuberculosis in the City of Boston.”

It wasn’t until the tenth or eleventh stop that the 1 Bus began to resemble the comment that the deepest and darkest level of hell might be akin to riding the number 1 bus all the time.

As we moved away from Harvard Square, the bus became increasingly full. Surely, a large crowd will exit soon, I kept thinking to myself. This was not the case. Each time we stopped, I felt certain that this number of people was the definitive maximum possible capacity for human flesh that can crowd onto a bus; and then we arrived at the next stop, and another pile of humans shoved their way in. I began to feel woozy–oxygen was dwindling, as was the concept of personal space. Smells abounded. A child cried in an excruciatingly high monotone.

Finally, when I could take it no more, I permitted myself reprieve: the next stop would be mine.

And at this moment, as if grumpily denying my petition to exit, the bus inexplicably slowed to a halt–no bus stop in sight, doors tightly sealed–and waited. What did it wait for? I cannot say. I don’t know how long we sat for. Probably thirty seconds, which felt like six years. In that moment I wondered about the ethics of clown cars as entertainment. Why does no one think of the damn clowns? Have they consented to work under such conditions? Why in God’s name would they ever agree to such a thing? Note to self: consider clown unionization activism.

On my Uber ride home (surely, no Toyota Sienna has ever received the unabiding love I lavished on mine that day), I scrolled once more through Yelp’s reviews of the 1 Bus.

My favorite: "Jeffrey doesn’t do buses alone. He can’t. He won’t. But unfortch Jenna C. (my bus ‘buddy’) was busy and I had to suck it up and ride the steel cage of trash all by my lonesome."

Eliya hates people who speak of themselves in the third person, and also doesn’t mind riding buses alone. “Steel cage of trash” seemed extreme. But “unfortch” felt just about right.

Magazine writer Eliya O. Smith can be reached at eliya.smith@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @eliyasmith.