I take the BV and BX buses to Denver pretty regularly and, as long as I make sure to check that the bus is going to Denver, not Boulder first, I’m okay. (I’ve learned that lesson the hard way—twice—but that’s another story).
I’ve even take the Denver city buses a few times without any problems. I don’t like to drive to Denver because of the traffic and I don’t mind taking the bus. When the system works, it works, and I’m pretty confident about getting where I need to go.
But yesterday, the bus stop I needed was closed and the sign was a little vague about where the route would detour. Being a literary type, I never like vague signage. It almost always spells trouble.
I was coming from the national Oral History Association conference way out on the east side of Denver off Quebec. I’d taken the 38 bus to the conference the day before, a 50-minute ride on a busy bus with a kind and implacable driver named Irma. Young moms with strollers, older gentlemen with health problems, and kids coming home from school got on and off every few blocks. Two moms got on with three children between them and I offered the pregnant one the space next to me. “No, I won’t fit, “ she said, but the other mom put the smallest girl up on the seat and I held onto her arm so she wouldn’t slide off if the bus stopped quickly. They got off before me and we wished each other a good day.
When I reached my own stop on 38th and Pontiac, I asked Irma where I should catch the bus going the other direction and she pointed across the street. No problem, I thought.
But when I got to that stop the next day, the sign said I needed to go to 36th for a temporary stop. It didn’t say 36th and what but I figured I’d find it if I walked south. As I pulled my little suitcase behind me, an older man who appeared not to have anywhere in particular to go noticed I seemed to be going somewhere and told me to take a right at the end of the block to get the bus. “Thanks,” I said. “Appreciate it.”
When I got to 36th, the temporary bus sign was on my left, so I walked over there instead. It was an official red RTD sign but it didn’t say the route number, which made me a little nervous. After a couple minutes, my helpful friend came by again. “Sorry, I told you the wrong direction.”
“No problem. I’m just waiting.” He nodded his head and loped off.
With no buses in sight on a quiet street, this stop seemed a little dubious. I called RTD to make sure I was in the right place for the detour.
The dispatcher helpfully confirmed that the bus should come up 36th right past me and, in fact, as we were speaking, I saw the bus approaching. But it stopped two blocks down and then turned the corner. It didn’t stay on 36th but went north instead, toward the old bus stop. What was going on? I told the dispatcher and she was disturbed as well. She said she would call the next bus driver and tell them to be sure to pick me up. She apologized that I would have to wait 20 minutes and promised to file a report about the incident.
After I hung up, I thought I’d walk east to see where the bus had stopped and there I found another temporary bus stop sign. I hadn’t been able to see it before because a tree limb hung over the sidewalk, blocking the view. I decided to wait at that stop instead since I’d seen the bus actually stop there.
With another fifteen minutes to wait—and dubious about that prediction—I called John to let me him know I was stuck waiting for a bus. I didn’t need to be anywhere until later that evening, so I wasn’t worried about time, but I was standing alone in a pretty deserted residential area, not a dangerous neighborhood by any means, but I’d feel better if someone knew where I was.
About ten minutes later, as I was telling John about the conference, I saw the 38 approaching again and I waved my arms at it, telling John I needed to go. But before I had quite hung up, I saw the bus turn on Pontiac. “Gotta go!” I ran toward the bus, hoping it would see me and slow down. No luck. This bus hadn’t even stopped at the first temporary stop like the previous one had. Now what?
As I stopped running and put down my suitcase, a young man pulled up at the house next to me. Shaking his head as he got out of the car, he commiserated. “I know how you feel, man. The buses in this neighborhood SUCK.”
Then a police car came down the street so I waved to him and he stopped. I explained the situation and where I was trying to go. He thought a moment and then told me to put my suitcase in the trunk in that polite but deadpan officer voice they all use.
I’m not always trusting of police officers, particularly when I’m at political rallies, but I’m a white, well-dressed woman and I wasn’t breaking any laws, so I did it, figuring he’d take me where I needed to go.
As I got into the car, he was calling his dispatcher, I suppose to say he was going off route. “I’m assisting a female in distress,“ he told them. Distressed female? Me? I looked at him as he gave the dispatcher his ID. Was I distressed?
I replayed the story I’d hurriedly told him when I’d flagged over his car: “The buses are supposed to come up 36th but the second one just turned on Pontiac. I’ve been waiting for 50 minutes and they’re not stopping. I called the dispatcher after the first one didn’t stop and she said she’d tell the next one to stop but it didn’t. I’m not sure what to do now. Do you have any suggestions?”
I guess I was in distress, in police parlance anyway. I wasn’t hysterical, though, just angry and upset. Perhaps he wasn’t used to being flagged down by someone with a suitcase on that street. Clearly, I thought it was his job to help me somehow and he seemed willing to do it.
He explained that many more buses ran on Martin Luther King Boulevard so he would take me to the nearest stop and I could catch any one of a number of buses downtown there. Sounded fine and that’s what we did. I got my suitcase out of the trunk and thanked him for his help. He almost smiled. “No problem. Have a good day.”
The first bus to arrive was the 43. The driver said he wasn’t going downtown but he could take me to the light rail station at Downing and California. “I’ve never ridden the light rail,” I told him.
“There’s a first time for everything,” he smiled, his long gray ponytail stretching neatly down his back. As with Irma, I got the sense that bus drivers see a little bit of everything on their route and the best ones take the ride as it comes.
“Okay, just tell me which one to get on and where to get off.” I didn’t want to go the wrong direction and end up even further from my destination.
As we headed west, I called RTD back to inform them that a second bus hadn’t come up 36th. “Didn’t you just call a few minutes ago?” a new dispatcher asked. “I heard you talking to my co-worker.”
I affirmed I was the same missed rider but I was now on the 43 so she didn’t need to let anyone know to pick me up, not that it had helped the first time. “I’ll issue a report, “ she assured me.
The bus driver told me exactly what to do at the light rail station but I asked an elderly gentleman at the gate as well, just to be sure.
“Where are you from?”
“Oh.” I could see he was trying not to smile. Boulderites are probably pretty flaky in his book and here I was lost in Denver, though only a little bit so.
“This is the end of the line for this track so just get on and it’ll take you downtown in about ten minutes. Get off at the 16th St Mall and you’ll be fine.”
And that’s what I did. The line went through Five Points, a historically Black neighborhood in Denver, and I spotted the club where our friend’s band had played recently. I was glad to know the light rail went past it in case he played there again.
I got off at the familiar 16th Street pedestrian mall, which stretches from Colfax near the State Capital building past downtown to the Union train station. I decided not to hop the free shuttle because I was hungry, so I walked down toward Market Street, where I would eventually catch the bus back to Boulder.
An artisan fair that I’d seen last May was open on one of the plazas. Maybe the young Navajo jewelry maker I’d met in May would have a booth there again.
It was, after all, my lucky day. She was there and her mother too. They’re talented jewelry makers who are trying to build a business for craftspeople on their reservation to sell retail rather than wholesale. The young woman is hoping to open a shop one day, but for now, she comes to Denver for these shows and others and has a website as well. I love her blend of contemporary and traditional designs using turquoise and coral in new ways that take advantage of each stone’s beauty. I bought a pair of earrings from each of them and promised to email the young artist to find out where she’d be next.
After a crepe at the café near the bus stop, I figured I didn’t have time to make the next Boulder bus so I strolled back leisurely. But when I got a block away, I suddenly decided I might be able to make the bus. I cut across a parking lot and ran across the street just in front of traffic, down the station stairs, and out the door to find the BX waiting. With 30 seconds to spare, I got my seat and we were off.
When I told my daughter the story of my afternoon, she couldn’t believe I’d flagged down a cop. “It’s not his job to take you to the bus stop, “ she said.
“Yes it is,” I countered. “I was in distress!”
I guess that shows a generational difference in perspectives about the role of police officers. She thought he probably had something more important to do than help me with my little problem and maybe that’s true in the overall view, but he didn’t seem too troubled in going out of his way. From my generational view, I know that assistance is dependent on varying factors and mine had been favorable that day. And I hadn’t asked him to take me anywhere. Information about the nearest bus stop was all I’d expected.
Sometimes missed connections take us places we hadn’t expected to go. I wasn’t happy being skipped twice on a bus route and having to spend an hour of a beautiful October afternoon waiting around for something I wasn’t sure would come. But when you head off the beaten track, you’ve got to anticipate that something may happen. It’s part of the adventure, even within a city. I learned a little bit more about Denver and my accidental route led to a serendipitous reunion with a young artist I admire.
The best part of my detour was the friendly people I met along the way, people who were willing to help with my small problem in the midst of their busy lives. I can even say it renewed my faith in humanity, to use that worn phrase, something that doesn’t happen every day in these hard times. I don’t like to depend on the kindness of strangers, but I like knowing that if I need to, I can.