I got on the bus tonight, coming home from a dental appointment. It was the OC Transpo number 7. It’s a route that travels through a good deal of the city, starting from Carleton University southwest of downtown, then through the city core and then eastward over the Rideau River, not far from the Ottawa River and then it heads south again and ends at what used to be the biggest shopping centre east of downtown, St. Laurent.
I started riding this route regularly in the fall of 1979, as I travelled from Manor Park to my downtown high school. I was out of district by about three hundred yards so I had to lie that it was imperative that I took some enriched course that wasn’t offered in my district school. I can’t even remember what it was now.
Anyway, about nine years ago my wife and I bought a house not far from where I grew up and on occasion I find myself on the same bus, along the same route, that I began riding as a thirteen year old.
A lot has changed along the route but maybe not as much as one might expect. Some of the houses that I remember being fairly new in the old days are now nearly forty years old. I still pass by the same corner store that was the neighbourhood favourite for generations of kids like me. It’s been run by the same couple for well over forty years.
I pass the street where I lived for most of my youth. The street from where, as an eight year old, I would walk to get to another closer corner store to buy my mother cigarettes. She would write a note in beautiful penmanship that I couldn’t possibly have pulled off and it would have a list. A quart of milk, Craven A Special Mild and Kotex. One of these times I told the lady I didn’t need a bag and I carried these items home just in my hands. My mother was mortified when she saw that I was kicking the box of pads down the street like a soccer ball. I didn’t know what they were.
The most interesting thing about this bus route for me is that at one point it travels down a street called Beechwood that separates one of the richest neighbourhoods and one of the least affluent ones. As the bus leaves downtown and the crowd starts to thin out a bit, I like to play a game with myself and try to predict where different people will get off. Some are easy. The young mom who doesn’t seem to be dressed warmly enough for the weather, she usually gets off on the side I would have guessed. The high school kid with braces and the $500 winter coat is an easy guess too. I’m pretty good at it because I know all the neighbourhoods so well and where the schools are and how expensive some phones are.
But more often than not, I’m really surprised by some of the departures. I always felt a little embarrassed by where I used to live so I’m always careful to watch for the kids who get off the bus at the stop I used to. And I wonder how they feel about it, after having watched them cavort with their friends who got off five minutes earlier where there are nothing but million dollar properties. I bet that dynamic hasn’t changed very much. That’s the way it was for me. The longer you were on the bus, the poorer the neighbourhoods got. And I was always the last off of my friends.
In bigger cities, where driving and parking is next to impossible, I find that taking public transportation is less stigmatized. I have friends in Toronto who make good money and they take the subway to work. But in Ottawa, there’s still a class delineation when it comes to taking the bus. Not for kids or students but when I step on a bus at the age of fifty-one, a little part of me wonders what the hell went wrong?
And as I settle into my seat on the old number seven, 38 years after it was essentially my school bus, I wonder what my thirteen year old self would have thought of my fifty-one year old self seated across the aisle. I have a feeling we wouldn’t have noticed each other. The past and the future seated together on a bus. Sometimes I think the past is almost as unrecognizable as the future is unknowable.