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Friday Afternoon Bus Ride on M5


I had no idea where this journey would lead me to while I stepped into the bus. I didn’t even check the bus map for the exact location of the destination. Having never taken any buses before in this city, I stared at the card reader for a while trying to find out the right direction to swipe my metro card.

“Never mind”, the driver turned around, looked at me and said.


“It’s not working.”


This conversation was already beyond my preset scene and I did not know a way to respond. I paused for like 5 seconds, searching in my brain for possible routes to go ahead. Supposedly he’s not going to ask me to fix it?

“What do I do then?”, I asked, “I can pay by cash…”

“It’s NOT working! Free ride! FREE RIDE!”

Everybody knows free ride. Problem solved. I was more than satisfied.

It took me 20 minutes to find the bus stop at Houston and La Guardia Pl. Before that I waited at a wrong stop (which turned out to be the last stop for M5) for a while, during which ironically I was politely inquired about another bus stop by three guys in black suits. In fact I was checking the map at that moment, it’s hard to believe they would rather choose a tourist-like guy to ask ways.

A fairly good start anyway.

While I sat down happily in the bus and realized I was the only passenger, I started to think about how people would react to this broken card reader thing.

I had no clue whether this is normal in New York. Maybe the card reader breaks a lot and people just get used to it?.

It did make sense not to charge the passenger with metro card now that the device was not working. And passengers who were originally intended to pay by cash also get the fee waived because they should not be charged just because they had cash on them. It’s the service provider’s fault and they had the responsibility to afford it.

This is how services are supposed to work. Fairly enough. But I cannot imagine all passengers be getting free rides if it’s a card reader broken on a bus in Shanghai. It never occurred on a bus, however there were times while I took taxi in Shanghai I was asked to pay by cash or just leave because the card reader on the taxi was broken or running out of receipt paper.

(BTW the driver’s job is really intense. Apart from driving, s/he would have to tell the next stop, tie the wheelchair for people with disabilities, and explain to every new passenger that it’s a free ride. If it were me I would lose my temper much sooner.)

Whether or not this happens a lot in the city, people would eventually accept the free ride happily. I watched for several stops and categorized people by the hesitation they shown on hearing this.

Basically all people did show hesitation, but no one had one as long as mine. I preferred to believe that their pause was just properly and carefully disguised. Elderly people tended to confirm one more time and younger people just walked away. Among them there were for sure tourists (I assumed so since I heard them talking in Russian/German), they travelled in groups and while they heard about it they told other members in the group (who were probably still puzzling) in a delightful tone, which apparently shortened their stay at the door and eased the traffic.

My conclusion would be that this sort of “distraction” of a bus ride is pretty common in the city and people accepted it as it is. Even if one had never met this kind of situation before, s/he could response to the situation within seconds based on the judgment for responsibilities and feel comfortable with the result.

If we look back to the taxi case happened in Shanghai, I was given two options. a) Cash, or b) take another taxi. In the bus case a third alternative, c) free ride, was offered for all passengers along the ride, and the “cash” option is subtly waived since no one would possibly choose that. Unlike taxis, buses are engaging much more people. By offering the free ride it’s doing its duty as a public service. Taxis, however, are more profit-oriented and the drivers are splitting the income for each ride with the taxi company (at least in Shanghai), and time is a critical factor and much more precious for them. That’s why a free ride is not affordable for taxi drivers. I suppose buses are not allowed to just drop the passengers and let them take the next bus because they are funded by tax, and as a service if the bus itself is working safe it then has no reason to drop any passenger.

Stalking time! Some fun and not-that-fun facts while I was searching for “new york bus free ride”:

The Good: Commuters using Ikea shuttle bus to bypass MTA routes.

The Bad: It’s no free ride: Bus-born must pay.

The Ugly: Youths Demanding Free Ride Attack Bus Driver in Queens.


It’s always been amusing to me that people refer to different parts of the city as “uptown” and “downtown”. It’s most likely to origin from the map where the north is marked as “Up”. However in Shanghai we have similar terms like “upper/lower corner” started from early as 1920s or 1930s, which have nothing to do with the geographical position and are more likely to link to the state of prosperous of the area.

M5 is running from downtown West Houston Street along to upper 178th Street. Given the context of up/down I felt like traveling in an elevator ascending from the root of the tree of the city to the top leaves. It’s just the routes in the city are connecting to each other more like a web than tree branches, nevertheless I decided to keep that imagination.

The obvious benefit of doing so was that I could then measure the progress and feel proud of it. While the number increased, It’s like a intangible progress bar running in my brain and made me feel like … accomplishing. I knew it sounded a little bit weird but that’s how I saw it. Thanks to the simplicity of this street naming convention, I do hate it sometimes though.

During my very first 2 weeks of stay in Manhattan I had never been “upper” than Penn Station. It somehow explained why I got excited that easily, that, I’m still a tourist, an explorer, a new comer. And that’s the reason I was capable of being an observer.

I watched the street outside the window. Born and raised in a big city, I wondered whether I could find anything surprising in the streets in New York.

Metropolises are always alike. Same busy traffic, same crowd, even same shops — Those worldwide big brand chain stores are just everywhere. I always believe that the cities were meant to be built alike so that it eases our nerves while we travel around, and we don’t have to learn a whole new set of rules to survive. Moreover, we city people have trained ourselves to be *not* concerned about the surrounding world and interpret the world as what we are already used to. And we know we would be safe under certain regulations and rules.

So how do I fit New York City into my eyes? I could make a long list of apparent differences that I noticed on my first day in Manhattan.

a) Traffic lights for vehicles

NY: hung highly over the street, sometimes swinging. yellow.

SH: installed on a pole or under the bridge. black.

b) Traffic lights for passengers

NY: stop-sign in hand shape/walk, red/white

SH: stand/walk both in human shape, red/green

c) Broadcasting onboard a bus

NY: bus drivers have to yell at each stop

SH: pre-recorded tape for each step

d) Stop request on bus

NY: press the rubber tape to request stop

SH: stand near the rear door and the driver could monitor through a live camera

e) Blind-way for the blind

NY: None?

SH: Yes

f) Subway entrance

NY: not connected underground. You have to look carefully for the correct direction.

SH: all entrances are connected to a platform underground and you could travel both ways.

g) Parking

NY: every main streets

SH: no way in main streets

h) blah blah blah

Those are not issues to me at all. Most of them are well self-explained and in fact no big deal. Although differences make me nervous, but to be accustomed to them would not take too much time at all.

My real problem is, my English language is far from enough to describe what I see. Like a patient suffering from epilepsy has the brain split in half for a compromised solution, I lose connection between objects and their names, ideas and language. Riding on the bus I kept taking notes of what I understood but could not describe in simple words.

It started to rain.

It started while we were turning to the Riverside at West 72 street. Streams of water began to appear on the floor of the compartment, forming strange curves and making the floor look dirty.

People started to move from left side seats to the right, and I don’t know why. At first I thought they were preparing to get off so that they approached right to get near the door, but they seemed to be comfortable with the new seat afterwards and showed no sign of leaving.

The drive along Riverside was peaceful, and quiet. All greens outside the window, the glass was masked by the raindrops. There were not much to see though. Few people got on and the bus became cooler due to the loss of density.

The bus kept moving and turned right at 135 street while it was suddenly crowded with mid school kids. Laughing and talking loudly, they filled the bus with energy again. The ride had last for over 90 minutes and I was already at the edge of falling asleep. I stopped taking notes and noticed that the driver had already shifted.

It was until then that I realized why people are avoiding sitting on the left. The rain caused the temperature drop but the A/C was still on and blowing cool wind. I bet it was already below 70F inside the bus. I was not sure whether it’d be better sitting on the right but the A/C outlet above my seat was blowing really hard.

I checked my bus map, George Washington Bridge was just a few stops away. I decided to stay and endure.


When I sat down on the southbound bus, I was half wet and freezing. The rain might not be necessarily caused by the hurricane Hanna, but I was pretty sure that my umbrella was not capable of stopping it from pouring.

Now the bus was going downtown and my mood descends too. And the god-damn A/C is still on. Upset though, I didn’t want to give up my observation now that I still had two hours’ ride to go.

The “STOP REQUEST” light at the front lit and went off from time to time. It reset itself while the bus actually stopped and would be triggered on again while a passenger pressed on the stripe attached to the window edge. Watching it doing its duty actually made me smile. It looked like yelling “STOP REQUESTING” at people who kept pressing on the stripes regardless of the already lit sign. There are signs written as “STOP REQUESTED”, which is more comprehensive however more machine-like.

It was around 6 p.m on Friday, supposedly rush hour. Seats were soon taken and there started to be people standing. While the bus was taking its turn down the central park to 5th avenue, it’s no longer an empty transportation vehicle but a real life bus carrying people. People squeezed their way through the crowded, noisy and moist compartment. I no longer felt freezing, I felt like home.

Once I truly integrated in this city I guess I would not be able to observe it like a stranger as this time, or at least it needs more effort and courage to do so. But that’s what artists do, to keep watching, and imagining, that they are always strangers.


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