Justifying this Post
Are you ready for my chain of logic as to why a post about taking the bus belongs on this blog about tech writing?
- If you’re reading this you might be a tech writer or some other kind of technical communicator, or you might care about the field for some other reason.
- If you’re in tech comm, unless you are specialized, self-employed, or very experienced, you probably make less than many other professionals at your company. According to the STC 2008 Salary Database, the median tech comm salary in my area is about $63K. That’s roughly median experience level, too. So if you are only a couple of years in at a company that doesn’t particularly value tech writers, you are making less than that. Compared to the average salaries that product specialists are reporting on Glassdoor.com or Salary.com, it’s less. I’ll take a guess and say that disparity grows if we’re comparing ourselves to engineers or system architects.
- Again, since you’re reading my blog about working as a tech writer, I’m assuming that if you are a tech writer, you probably like what you do and want to hang in there until you can make some more money. In the meantime, it would be nice to pay bills and get ahead in your financial life.
A couple of weeks ago I sold my Montero Sport and bought a bus pass. What it boils down to is that it’s such a big change for me that I have to talk about it here.
Taking the PSTA, Leaving the Laptop at Home
The bus system where I live in Pinellas County, Florida is called Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA). I’ve taken the bus a bit in Tampa, Florida, too, and neither system seems to be heavily used by professionals for commuting to work. From what I’ve seen, the bus system is used mostly by people who can’t drive. Either they can’t afford cars or they aren’t allowed to drive. That’s not any different than other cities, except it’s relatively cheap to get a car here. You usually won’t have to pay for parking. Traffic isn’t terrible in most places. It’s doable for many people to have their own cars.
I’ll take some leaps here: that means the income level of those riding the bus is lower than in Chicago or New York, which means the riders are generally going to service jobs and other low wage jobs. Which means if I’ve got my laptop open on my lap while I’m riding I stick out. I really haven’t seen a single other person doing it. And I have to wait at bus stops in the dark by myself—sticking out is uncomfortable at this stage in my commuting experience. So I bring a book or a magazine, instead, for now.
It’s a Little Dirty
The header image on the PSTA site has a woman in a white suit sitting on a bus stop bench, which is ridiculous. Bus benches get rained on, spit on, peed on, spilled on. Kids eat ice cream cones and drip them on the seat. Ants make ant hills on the bench legs and crawl all over the bench eating what people have dripped there. I won’t be wearing white pants or skirts and sitting on bus benches. The only reason I sit on bus benches at all is because I carry a lot of stuff and I want to read my book, and germs are good practice for the immune system, as George Carlin says.
On the bus is not much better. People are smelly. Every round the driver makes on his or her route is a new round of smelly people with their food and drinks. I remember the night I realized that the bus seats were almost as dirty as the bus benches. I wasn’t sitting anywhere near anyone—it was late and the bus was almost empty—but it smelled like pee. Eventually I was the only person on the bus and it still smelled like pee. So I am going to get a little dirty sometimes.
It’s a Little Dangerous
Some of my stops are on road shoulders that poorly lit and don’t have sidewalks. I bought a little flashlight I can clip to my clothes so that the drivers will see me. These are stops that are on roads that are busy enough to be dangerous for pedestrians but too small to get sidewalks on both sides of the road. One could argue that the “dangerous for pedestrians” part warrants the “sidewalks on both sides of the road” part, but apparently there are other criteria.
Sometimes the people on the bus are the scary thing. One of my first mornings riding, an elderly woman asked a big, tall, loud young woman to turn down her music, which was not supposed to be playing without head phones on the bus, anyway. The driver backed her up, asking the woman to turn it off. The woman spent the rest of the ride cussing the little old lady loudly. The lady moved up to the front of the bus, the young woman kept cussing her, and the driver did nothing.
The driver was a short, slight woman in her fifties. Was it her physical disadvantage that kept her from being queen of her domain? I don’t know, but I can imagine it was the type of experience that would make a rider who didn’t absolutely have to be on the bus from using the bus to commute to work.
It’s a Little Unreliable: Also, I’ll Take any Chance I Get to Remind you that Greyhound is Evil
I once used Greyhound to get to L.A. and back from New Port Richey, Florida, and I was appalled. The ticket seller misinformed me, I saw a driver misinform a fellow rider about his bus, and when he misplaced two valuable guitars as a result and became upset, they put him out of the terminal in a strange city. They put me out of a terminal in the middle of the night in a strange city when I had a layover due to their misinformation. An employee let another girl stay overnight in the same terminal because she was flirting with him.
People will keep taking Greyhound even though it sucks because they are the only cross country bus company. As long as people can’t afford plane trips and keep having to travel long distances, Greyhound can do what it wants.
Most of the PSTA drivers have been helpful, but the atmosphere still reminds me of Greyhound, to a lesser degree. If you want to ride Greyhound, you better not ever let your stuff out of your sight, and you have to double check everything you are told. If you can’t afford a car and it’s too far to bike, you better learn the unwritten rules of the bus routes you take.
Some buses run 10 or 15 minutes late, some run 10 minutes early. If the stop is used by multiple routes, and a bus stops that is not your bus, be ready and visible to flag down your bus if it comes while the other bus is stopped—some drivers don’t pull up and wait behind the other bus. They’re supposed to, but it’s the wild west out there.
Another reason I don’t write on the bus is because I have to pay attention. I’m learning the stops and the intersections because I need to know how soon my stop is coming and what street I’m on. The drivers don’t generally call the stops, which is unfortunate. It would be helpful for those of us who are not completely familiar with the route, or who have been reading or talking. On the other hand, I am starting to get more familiar with the terrain between my home and work, which is useful. And by the time I get to work I’m alert and energized.
Chalk Me Up as Eccentric?
I am getting a consistent mixed reaction of admiration and polite incredulity at work, and even one offer of help. I’d bet money that some of those polite people assumed I was one step out of the poor house, or else not allowed to drive.
Credit card debt was part of my incentive, but I don’t have a shocking amount, I don’t think. I sold the car, which was financed, to start making a dent in that debt. I sold it so I could have things that I care more about than the ability to jump in the car any time I want without planning responsibly. Things like a nice wedding present for my sister, and the STC Summit in May. The day I sold my car, I filled out a 401K form so I could start maxing out the employer match again, like I used to before my ex and I split up and I got my own place. I sold my car to get breathing room and peace of mind and other stuff that I enjoy more than traffic and hating on the slow drivers in front of me.
I’ve only been a tech writer for a few years, but really, I make enough as a single person without kids to get by and have some nice things. I just can’t have everything. So I have ditched my car for the time being.
Okay, Now for the Tips
I’ve had a little bit of experience on buses in various cities, but nothing this hardcore. Some of these I stole from my Chicago friends. If you have more, let me know in the comments.
It’s all about gear:
- In Florida it’s rain gear: umbrella, hat, pants, coat, boots. A trash bag and towel at your desk for the rain gear.
- Comfy shoes to walk to and from stops, and to walk to lunch.
- A place at work to lock up your laptop somewhere instead of taking it home.
- A small flashlight or a flashing light like bicyclists use. That way the bus driver can see you well ahead of time at night and you can see in your bag to find your bus pass.
- A cell phone. A smart phone is nice, since you are saving so much on gas and insurance. Then you can tweet and look up bus routes.
- Good coffee that you can make at work, since you won’t be stopping at Starbucks on the way in.
- Change to buy a newspaper.
- Individually-wrapped hand wipes.
- Talk to the bus driver if you’re not a hundred percent sure about your stop or your transfer. If he or she is not super nice, other riders might be able to help. But I think bus drivers are mainly pretty helpful.
- Do not sit anywhere near the sleeping drunk people. They have gas.