The Yale Shuttle stopped at every little stop, slowed at every yellow light and let every pedestrian pass. “Please, please, please go faster,” I whispered under my breath. I was about to be late to my class on the opposite end of campus, and the shuttle didn’t care. I sat at the edge of my seat and glued my eyes onto my phone, groaning whenever another minute passed by. From the corner of my eye, I saw people around me doing the same. We were sitting on a ticking time bomb. We rushed to get on and rushed to get off.
Yet, on one lazy Friday afternoon, I got on the shuttle and stayed. I saw students casually flipping through “Moby Dick” and “War and Peace,” and others bent over sheets of organic chemistry’s laws and principles in which the exceptions have exceptions and a pair of twin girls — wearing identical backpacks and identical ribbons in their blonde hair — turning to their dad and asking whether they were almost there, and couples with hands locked and heads leaned against one another and young children lifted by their moms to fly above the too-tall staircases when getting on. Since then, I rode the shuttle at least 672 more times with one thing in mind: the Yale Shuttle generally provides a pleasant experience, but only to those willing to look up from their phones.
In the morning, I get on the parked shuttle at Whitney/Canner. There, Yale Shuttles pause their service to give the drivers a 10-minute break. The rumbling of the bus stops, and the sudden quiet draws my attention to the world outside. The tiny birds sing as they fly in the open air. Kids chatter as they skip towards Hooker Elementary School right across the corner. Some days, I simply close my eyes and squeeze in a short nap. I wake up to the smell of the driver’s rushed breakfast. It’s usually a tuna sandwich on white, untoasted bread. Once the neon clock in the front of the shuttle hits 8:10 a.m., the driver wraps up the remains of his breakfast with one hand while turning on the engine with the other.
From the large windows of the shuttle, on the way downtown from East Rock, you can see the fairy lights decorating almost every backyard, and the pole of dried flowers commemorating the death of a neighbor, and the sign for discounted dry-n-fold laundry service. You also get to see a lot of dogs. And babies, too. Unfamiliar faces. Past a big hill, downtown New Haven begins once we pass that one father-like evergreen tree, the perfect backdrop for piercing sun or whipped snow or thick rain drops.
I soon see the grand dome sitting atop Schwarzman Center, a campus building named after Donald Trump’s confidant. Students jaywalk across streets, using their electric scooters or bikes or very fast feet. I recognize a few of the people rushing to class; I wonder if I should text them to catch up, but I keep my phone in my pocket knowing that it would only yield an empty conversation. I half-sit and half-stand to reach and pull on the yellow rubber string hanging off the sides of the shuttle: a refreshing buzz from it tells the driver to stop at the next stop.
I spend my early mornings and late nights on the Yale Shuttle, going to and from classes. Past midnight, when the last couple shuttles run, I’m usually the only passenger. In my worn out, forest green parka zipped up to the tip of my nose, I rush to the shuttle stop. My shivering distracts me from the fact that I am standing in the middle of a dark, empty street. Within just a few minutes of waiting, I hear an obnoxiously loud and angry growl, one that quickly turns to the sweet sound of hope. I see the shuttle swinging around the corner, plunging across the icy road, approaching my small hands waving desperately to be noticed. The shuttle stops right in front of my shoes. Those old, rusty metal doors open.
Evening shuttles require you to specify the street you’re getting off at. Over my double-layered mask, I yell “Whitney and Cottage” as I get on, hoping that my voice is loud enough to surpass the clear thick plastic wall around the driver and his seat. I get a thumbs up from the driver. Inside the toasty shuttle, I plop down on the blue leather seats and wipe my fogged-up glasses. I could see; I was found.
I almost never meet the same shuttle driver twice in a row. I most often see, however, the driver with a long beard and a wool flat hat over his gray ponytail. His wrinkles sit still in their place as he drives through the dark streets. He likes to accelerate quite a bit when the streets are empty, cutting my ride home short by at least three minutes. He plays the greatest playlist of all the shuttle drivers, packed with American rock songs from the early 2000s. He puts his music on so loudly that I’m wide awake by the time I get off.
He also has this magical sense where he somehow catches me on my worst days.
He yells over the loud music, “How was your day!”
In my head, I go through all sorts of responses. Instinctively, I almost say, “Great!”
But sometimes, I gather up the courage to pause and confess: “It was just okay. Actually, kind of bad. How was yours?”
“Meh. Yeah, sometimes, good days and bad days. That’s just life. It can’t all be good. It can’t all be bad. But there’s always tomorrow. Tomorrow it can be better,” he says.
I carry his encouragement with me the next day when I get on the morning shuttle.
The trip from my home in East Rock to classes in downtown New Haven is long enough so that every ride produces its own microcosm of Yale. Once a man with long, curly hair sitting across from me yelled at the driver for not stopping in front of his house. I remember his anger diffusing through the narrow aisle and the driver’s indignant response: “It’s not a stop. I’m not allowed to stop when it’s not a stop.” I remember the man’s small and round glasses, his plaid flannel, the way he stomped off in his chunky black boots when the shuttle eventually stopped at its rightful stop, just a block away from his house. I looked at the front of the shuttle to see if it had an Uber sticker somewhere on the front. Once a short woman with just a thin jacket — in the middle of January — limped over to her seat, pulled out her phone from a small black plastic bag and called her daughter, saying she’ll visit soon. Once a thin guy sat by the window all the way in the back with tears dripping down his face, and he didn’t leave the shuttle for quite a while. Once a middle-aged woman came onto a full shuttle with her tiny child, one holding her hand and one still in her belly, and everyone in the front got up without hesitation to let them sit. Once I ran into my roommates, my brief first-year fling, and my old professor whose lectures I both loved and hated.
As I watched the shuttle passengers come and go — some more quietly than others — the faces were as fleeting as usual, but their presence somehow lingered. On the shuttle, I have encountered book titles I have never seen before. I have heard conversations in Korean, Spanish, French, Arabic … I lost count. I ran into people whose confident demeanors I admired and whose shoes I loved so much that I found myself the same pair. I was humbled by those giving up their seats but also saw examples of the privileged acting out of false entitlement. I related to the heavy sighs around midterm season, the excitement on Chicken Tender Thursdays, the grumpy looks most salient on Monday mornings, the rush to run into the arms of a loved one waiting at the shuttle stop. What started out as a functional means to get to my biology class on time became a lens through which I see myself and Yale. Sometimes ugly, sometimes heartwarming, sometimes confusing, sometimes enlightening — the Yale Shuttle reveals to me pieces of life connected through intersecting streets. Leaving behind the last few seconds of “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” I step off the shuttle, waving with my back turned. I yell, “Thank you!”