The thought of public transportation scares the living daylights out of me. No – the thought of getting lost using public transportation scares me. Given both my impressive navigational abilities (see: sarcasm) and the fact that I’m small and therefore easily mistaken for a child, I’m an easy target for kidnappers, drug dealers, pick-pocketers, and all other sorts of loonies that ride on public transportation. Right?
But to be fair, in Virginia – where I’m from – I’m used to driving everywhere, and the only thing to be afraid of is the occasional deer and/or small Asian driver (I’m kind of a bad driver, don’t worry about it). Regardless, I spent the better half of this past Thursday facing my fear of the Maryland Transit Administration. I had an interview for a potential design internship for spring semester in Towson, and figured that I might as well learn the MTA routes and explore Baltimore outside of the Hopkins bubble.
For those of you who don’t know, there are several options for students looking to get off campus. Cabs are the easiest way to get around, but can also be expensive. The JHMI shuttle is free for Hopkins students (there’s a stop on St. Paul outside of the Barnes and Noble), and will take you to the Med School campus, Peabody, or Penn Station. The Blue Jay Shuttle is more like a van service and runs after 5:45 p.m. at certain routes around campus. After 11:15 p.m., it reverts to an on-demand, point-to-point service and students can call the number to be picked up/dropped off anywhere around campus.
To get to Towson, however, you can use the collegetown shuttle, which is free, but doesn’t come as often, or the MTA, which is $1.60 each way but stops more frequently. Since the mall in Towson is only 15 minutes away, driving is the most ideal mode of transportation, but with a few exceptions, freshmen typically aren’t allowed to bring cars.
So on Thursday morning, I found myself on the corner of 33rd and N Charles, huddled against the freezing cold
with my friend Julia, who
I bribed to agreed to come with me to Towson. After a few false starts (Google Maps will try to tell you that the 11 Bus Stop, which is the one to Towson, is on 34th and Charles. It’s a filthy liar), we made our way to the bus stop right in front of Charles Commons and decided to wait. Luckily, I had gotten up aggressively early just to be safe, so even if the bus was a little late, I’d still make it to the interview on time.
As we were waiting, we started chatting with an eccentric middle-aged Baltimorean man who was waiting for the same bus. If it sounds sketchy, don’t worry – I thought the same thing too, at first. Julia and I listened and nodded politely, exchanging quick side glances and raised eyebrows as he filled the space between us with his life stories and advice. A part-time cab driver originally from New York, he told us about how he makes the most money when the Weather Channel predicts snow, which stop we should get off at in Towson, how to get back (the 11 drops you back off in front of Commons, and the 08 will drop you off at Greenmount, which is a few blocks away and less safe). He told us how to avoid getting ripped off by cab drivers, the cheapest places in Fell’s Point. Even as we all got onto the bus, he never stopped talking.
He has a car, but chooses to take the bus on his days off when he goes to the library in Towson to read. He still visits his sister in New York, and once won $7,000 betting on horses at the racetrack using their birthdays as numbers. The next day at the train station, his sister randomly bought a scratcher while they were waiting and cried when they won another $10,000. He said he hated his sister’s husband for leaving her and then coming back, that even though he can afford not to, he takes the bus because he wants to. He told us to do things in life because we wanted to, not just to spite other people.
When he said that, I felt bad for my initial skepticism, however brief. A huge part of Hopkins is that it’s in the middle of Baltimore, and up until that point I had viewed the city with the guarded curiosity of a tourist, not realizing that the Hopkins community and the Baltimore community are – whether we acknowledge this or not – oftentimes interchangeable.
In my Intersession class, “The US-Latino Experience in Fiction,” we talk about borders – whether or not they exist, and how we define them. For some Hopkins students (myself included), there seems to be a clearly defined border between Homewood and the rest of Baltimore. Granted, there are several parts of Baltimore that you wouldn’t want to wander through alone at night, but that’s all part of getting to know the city in which you live. Borders, my professor said, are largely idealized spaces – mental, moral, and sometimes physical constructs that are nonetheless porous and fluctuating.
As we bumped and lurched towards Towson, the strange and nice man went up to the bus driver and arranged for him to drop us off in front of the mall so we wouldn’t get lost. Then, he said goodbye and got off at his stop. The moral of this story isn’t to talk to strangers, or that I’m now a master at using public transportation (I’m not saying it’s a big deal, but it’s kind of a big deal). It’s just that these interesting and genuine moments are just as likely to happen during an Intersession class as in the middle of Baltimore, with friends or strangers (or, in my case, both), in a setting as foreign and unlikely as a bus stop.