American Times Washington, DC: Comings and goings on a mystery tour

YOU JOIN me at 8.45am at my local bus stop. It is not fully upright, thanks to the lorry that tried to do a U-turn in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue after making a delivery to Papa John's Pizzas. The stop is shaded by an oak tree - a good thing, given the heat of Washington summers; and diversion comes from two black squirrels who live in its branches. This is good too, because the arrival of "my" bus cannot be predicted.

One other feature of the bus stop is that in common with many others in the District of Columbia, it has no identifying label or number - though you could try "25th and Pennsylvania, North-West" or some combination thereof. To divine precisely which buses stop there, or where the ones that do stop will be going is also difficult, because neither the stop nor the front of the bus make much effort to tell you.

Washington buses are reserved for a select group of travellers who are in the know. I know, for instance, that "my" buses are the D5 and the 38B. Sometimes they say "Farragut Square" on the front, sometimes not, but that is where they go. Don't ask me what the numbers signify. All the other buses that stop here are numbered in the 30s but they fork off at a crucial junction. I also know that any of these buses, including those in the 30s, will take me home if it is too hot, too cold or I feel too lazy to walk. In one of those vagaries of the DC route system, the street grid and the one-way system that makes them take separate routes out, but the same route back.

Like me, the cognoscenti of DC bus routes know just as much as they need to know, but no more. I was recently party to a conversation that went something like this:

(Girl passenger, new to route, to her neighbour): Do you know what number this bus is and how often it goes?

(Neighbour): No, sorry. I just know it goes down K Street.

(Passenger across the aisle): I don't know either, but it comes about this time most days and I take it to 18th.

(Other passengers, shaking their heads and joining in): Number? Time? Sorry.

I had to admit the same. It could have been a 38B or a D5. But where it comes from, when and how often it ran, that was superfluous.

Washington bus passengers are a refreshing group. They represent a racial and social mix rarely found in the city that whites call DC and blacks the District. They are quiet, polite and tolerably sociable, mainly with the driver, who welcomes them on board and wishes them "a good one" as they leave.

Sometimes the driver sings out the stops - the only time you are likely to hear their names - sometimes a recording does the honours, interspersed with instructions about leaving front seats for the disabled or elderly and not eating on the bus. On official holidays, the buses sport two little national flags up front (like buses in the old Soviet Union).

The fare is a flat rate - one dollar 10 cents (in exact change, dropped into a theft-proof container) - and you get a ticket only if you pay a further 15 cents for a "transfer" to another line. There are times you don't even need the dollar 10. When the local Met Office declares an ozone alert, the bus is free. This is supposed to encourage people to leave cars at home. It doesn't, but it makes us regular bus patrons feel we are performing a public service.

You could note in minutes a host of desirable improvements to the bus service in the city that likes to call itself "the capital of the free world". They could post routes and timetables on the stops. They could illustrate the route inside and outside the bus. They could indicate where the bus routes and the underground metro intersect, or install devices at the stops to show the length of your wait.

But maybe not. Shambolic as they are, Washington buses constitute a rare preserve of spontaneous social contact in a divided city. They offer a haven of small-scale civility where your neighbours will not munch, slurp or try to sell you something, and where someone will hold the door as you get out, and you may do the same for them.

It is 9.05; we have reached Farragut Square, and there are only five people left on board. "Bye," I say to the driver. "Have a good one," he says. "And take care."

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