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Taken for a Ride

On the road: DPS students could be riding RTD next year.
Brett Amole

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 King twice, 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.

At 4:15 the following Thursday, I sprint out the front doors of East High School, trying for the 4:21 eastbound #15 at Colfax Avenue and Fillmore Street. I've got to catch that bus. If it shows up early, as it sometimes does, I may be able to make the #40 northbound on Colorado Boulevard, which is supposed to arrive at 4:19 but is often late. Catching the first #40 would make a world of difference; the next one isn't scheduled until 4:59 p.m.

I make it to Colfax with two minutes to spare. Across the street, the All Inn Motel stands enormous and pink, with rooms available for $29.99 a day, free HBO and Cinemax. Above my head, a large banner proclaims that this two-block stretch is officially Greek Town. The bottom bar that weighs the sign down has come loose and swings threateningly, ready to drop on some unsuspecting bus rider. I move to the far side of the bench. Behind me, Pete's Greek Town Cafe is busy churning out deep-fried odors that sting my nose and cause my eyes to water.

I see the #15 lumbering toward me and grip the five quarters in my pocket. But I don't get to take them out: The #15, crammed to the windows, blows right by me.

At 4:27, another #15 pulls over. It, too, is packed, and after getting a transfer ticket from the driver, I wedge my way into the crowd, jockeying for a position where I can hold on to an overhead bar. Stuck tight between a woman named Sandra, whose name tag reads Gift Shop Supervisor, and a man whose eyes couldn't point in more disparate directions, I wonder how throngs of East High Angels will handle this come next fall. The bus has the usual signs about polite usage of cell phones, and I imagine sixteen-year-old girls mockingly sending phone pictures of the signs to each other, screaming into their cells about what the boys' soccer team did at lunch and what a prick their physics teacher is.

A woman whose makeup could only have been dispensed from a shotgun smiles at me as the bus reaches Colorado. Just in time. I get off as hordes of would-be passengers push and shove their way onto the #15, brazenly ignoring the international laws of bus etiquette. But there's no time to lecture them; I need to get to the bus stop diagonally across both Colorado and Colfax. Spotting a break in southbound traffic, I dart to the median, where I wait for a lull in the rush of vehicles coming from the opposite direction. In the short time it takes for the light to change, four DPS schoolbuses pass. I can't help but feel slighted.

At 4:33 p.m., I finally make it to the northbound #40 stop, sandwiched between a 7-Eleven and a souped-up gas station. Across the street is the gloriously derelict Royal Palace Motel, where two men take turns spitting off the fourth-floor balcony. A homeless man, asleep beneath a blanket and wearing no shoes, has claimed the bench inside the covered bus stop. So about eight of us wait outside, even though it's quite windy and starting to rain. A young girl, middle-school age, waits patiently for the bus. She's wearing a backpack and clutching a bright-yellow piece of posterboard with a timeline on it and a bright-red circled "A" at the top.

A #40 pulls up at 4:44 p.m. I'm beginning to sense a theme to RTD "schedules," which really list "suggested times." I show the driver my transfer ticket and take a seat near the front of the relatively empty bus. Everyone on it seems tired. On the padded bench opposite me, in the space reserved for the elderly and people with disabilities, a man in a striped Swingle Lawn Care shirt, clutching a stack of ten more identical shirts, sleeps with his head against a plastic guard. Minutes later, he miraculously awakes for his stop at Colorado and Martin Luther King Boulevard and shuffles off.

I take his seat and ask this driver what he thinks about having high school kids ride RTD buses.

"Job security," he says to me with a laugh, echoing the words of my earlier driver.

Keeping his eyes on the road, he then admits that he has some concerns. More passengers mean more problems, and with high school students, that maxim is multiplied. "We already have plenty of high school students riding RTD buses," he says. "And sometimes their parents will call in complaining, saying their kid is being harassed, someone keeps harassing their kid on the bus. There's nothing we can do about it, though. I'm all the way up here, driving. Maybe they'll put some security people on the buses, but I worry about liability issues."

I think about all the girls I saw at East, cute girls in short -- repeat, short -- skirts and belly-baring T-shirts, and try to imagine them wedged up against the peanut gallery on a #15 bus.

A woman with a strong Chinese accent rings the bell. As she walks past me toward the door, she stops. "High school kids are scary," she says. "Very dangerous."

The #40 bus turns right at 48th Avenue, beginning the eastbound portion of its route, before it heads north again, off into Commerce City. At 4:58 p.m., I finally disembark at 48th and Ivy Street, next to an empty field and several nondescript warehouses. I thank the driver for the ride and start to walk toward the residential area where students living in the northernmost point of the East High School attendance district reside. It's seven blocks away.