Taken for a Ride

The bus stops here for Denver Public Schools.

At 7:32 a.m. Monday, I'm waiting for the B-line Boulevard Shuttle at Hampden Boulevard and Dahlia Street -- where a student living in southeast Denver would start his journey to West High School next fall if Denver Public Schools goes ahead with its decision to swap schoolbus service for RTD passes. The bus is scheduled to arrive at 7:35 and will drop me off at Cherry Creek Drive North and Colorado Boulevard, where I'll catch the westbound #1A, which will put me within walking distance of West High and the Center for International Studies, a DPS magnet program.

DPS is confident that RTD will get high school students to class on time. But this comes as little comfort to me. As a DPS high school student, I learned early on that there are only two things you can count on from the district: CSAPs at the end of the year and no snow days in the middle. Everything else is an indefinite maybe.

At 7:46, the #40 B-line pulls to a stop in front of me. There are bright pictures of smiling bees on the side of the blue bus, and I can only imagine how pleased the RTD bureaucrat who came up with this -- bees, B-line -- must be with himself. The door opens with that satisfying sound of release, like air quickly expelled from tires, and I hand the driver $1.25 in quarters and ask for a transfer.

The bus is small, more like an airport shuttle than a mass-transit vehicle, and the seats are soft and plush. Four people are already on the bus; they all sit quietly, reading, except for one guy who's gazing out the window. He looks so much like Vinny Castilla, I can't stop staring at him. But that can't be him, right? Vinny wouldn't ride the bus. Maybe after this season, sure, but not now.

As the bus works its way north up Colorado, Vinny gets off and more passengers get on, greeting first the driver and then each other in a scene that must repeat itself every morning. We pass the United Artists Theatre; if I were still a high school student, I could get off here, watch Return of the Kingtwice, then go home, with my parents none the wiser. (There are ways around the attendance office.)

At 8:05 a.m., the driver lets me off at the bus stop where the #1A westbound is supposed to stop at 8:26. I take a seat on the bench and think about all the places I could go other than school. The movies. The new Super Target just across the way. Shotgun Willie's, where I could greet strippers as they arrive. Down to Cherry Creek, where I could play Tom Sawyer and stomp crayfish out along the banks. Those options all seem a lot more attractive than waiting for an RTD bus to take me to school.

At 8:36 a.m., the #1A finally pulls up. I show the driver my transfer ticket and board. Since no one else is on the bus, I take a seat near the driver and ask what he thinks about chauffeuring high school kids next year.

"I'm not too enthused about it," he says. "But what are you going to do? I just have to roll with the punches. I guess if there is such a thing as job security, then this is pretty good for that."

By getting rid of school buses for older students, high schools will be able to move their morning bell from 7:30 to as late as 9 a.m. The driver and I agree that the more flexible schedule could be beneficial. Students will be able to take additional classes in the morning without missing sports or extracurricular activities. Or they can sleep.

"I still feel bad for the schoolbus drivers," the driver says.

I tell him what a former high school teacher of mine told me, how he'd brought up DPS's recent bus decision with two schoolbus drivers. They just stared at him, blinking. No one had told them that their jobs were about to change.

We roll on to where Cherry Creek Drive turns into First Avenue. Outside the Tattered Cover, an old woman dressed in black and clutching several plastic bags climbs on board. "Always good to be on the #1A," she says.

She winks at me as she shuffles past. A few feet farther along she hovers, slowly lowering herself into her chosen seat inch by inch -- until the bus starts with a jerk, and she's suddenly sitting down. She looks at me, surprised.

Continuing west, the bus takes a left on Washington Street, then a right again into the Baker neighborhood. As we near Santa Fe Drive, more and more passengers climb on, most of them Hispanic -- silent women with big bags, men with long black ponytails and leather jackets, small children who cling to their grandmothers. Two adolescent boys are looking through a magazine called Truckin' . When they notice me watching them, one flips me off.

At 8:59 a.m., the driver drops me off at West Tenth Avenue and Santa Fe, in front of Bud's Mufflers. According to the RTD Trip Planner, my route was supposed to take 75 minutes; I'm already well past that. I hurry through a neighborhood filled with barking dogs, spray paint and barbed-wire fences, past Inca, then Galapago, and finally to the back of West High School. By the time I make it to the door, it's 9:04 a.m. I'm late for school -- if I were in school, that is.

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