Award–winning journalist Andrea Bernstein is the Metro Editor for WNYC News. She has previously served as Political Director, Director of Transportation Nation, and Senior Reporter.
New York, NY –
It's 6:30 in the morning, and most New Yorkers are still in their pajamas. But it's a party on the B51 bus in downtown Brooklyn. I take a seat. Someone else's it seems.
"Miss, I don’t mean to be rude," a rider named Della tells me, "but people on this bus do have OCD. If you're sitting in a seat that somebody is sitting in, I’m serious! I’m being honest! We are family on this bus!"
The B51 goes from Downtown Brooklyn, over the Manhattan Bridge, to Chinatown, the courthouses, and City Hall. There are people on this very bus who have been riding it since 1985. After this week, the B51 dies.
The passengers here tick off the names of their fellow riders. People with disabilities, knee injuries, asthma, anxiety, the elderly. Cheryl, a court worker, explains the bus carries lots of senior citizens. "Except for me. Oh my God, Why did I include myself?"
Nine hundred people ride the B51 bus every day, compared to a system average of about 13,000. The cost to the MTA per rider is about three times the fare paid. Still, the passengers don’t want to see the line die. A lot of them went to a meeting with the MTA. An MTA representative told them trains also serve this route, and in a time of huge budget gaps, priorities need to be set.
"He was like, 'We already came to the conclusion,'" Della and Cheryl told me together. "Did he not look at his watch and say at 6:14 on 6/14, at 6:30 pm, 'We’ve already used all of the allocations.'"
Those calculations don’t take into effect the social unit that’s formed on many of these buses. "Hi, Family!" is the standard greeting as passengers embark. Also heard: "Good morning, sweetie! You okay, Pookie?"
There’s a lot of anxiety about what will happen. As I ride the B51, Anna, a city worker, clutches her chest as she thinks about what she’ll do next week. Sixty-year old Maryse Pascal isn’t sure. "I love the ride. In the afternoon you feel like you’re on a mini vacation. I love the view. I can’t go underground, after September 11 I just feel so panicky."
Pascal says she hasn’t been able to go into a tunnel since that day, where she watched "the whole thing" from the nearby Verizon building. In 1993, she was working in the Twin Towers when a van-bomb detonated. Pascal says she thinks she’ll walk some days over the Manhattan Bridge, though she doesn’t think she can manage both directions. Other days she considers retiring. But, she says, "I need to work. I have a mortgage. Things are slow for my husband, work is very slow -- he hardly works because he does carpet, and who wants carpet in this economy?"
As the line pulls into one of it’s final stops near City Hall, a woman called TJ tells me Friday, the last weekday run of the B51, there will be a real party, with fried chicken. "I’m going to do a prayer, sing a little gospel song, ride on. We going to bring some food and go out right."