“So how long does it take you to get to school?”
I get asked this more often than what my major is or what my plans are after graduation. When I tell people I live an hour away, they usually guess that I drive and park somewhere near campus. I don’t drive. I take BART and the bus every day, in differing proportion to each other, based on how much money I have.
I live an hour away from campus for a few reasons. The first is that rent is cheaper outside of Berkeley, and Fremont is even cheaper than Oakland. The second is that I live in a communal household whose members commute to San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Corte Madera, Newark and Berkeley. Simple math: Traveling from Fremont BART to Downtown Berkeley and back every day costs $8.70. With class every day of the school week, that’s $43.50 per week — or $174 per month. This is cheaper than the combined costs of gas, parking, insurance and vehicle maintenance, but let me be frank and tell you that there are times that I just ain’t got it.
Enter the life-saving Class Pass. Most Cal students use the card to get around town, to catch a quick ride to class and to make those trips out to Target and Ikea a little cheaper overall. For some of us, however, the Class Pass makes the difference between getting to school and missing out. There have been quite a few days so far when I’ve traveled 60 miles for $0, paying only in lost time.
Riding BART is a mixed bag. Sometimes it feels luxurious and urbane. Everyone is quiet — headphones in and books on their laps. Every morning, I see people praying or meditating. In the afternoon, I see people nodding off or taking off uncomfortable shoes to switch to sneakers at night. Sometimes it’s chaotic, with drunk Raiders fans or gaggles of kids on field trips. Sometimes there are ranting crazies or people vomiting, and the ride hardly seems worth what I’ve paid for it.
Long bus rides are entirely different. The bus lines that snake down the East Bay pass through a dozen school districts in six cities and towns. Teenagers are on and off at every corner. The homeless pile on quietly, tucking their carts and bags away, meekly seeking passage or a place to sleep for a while. The glass and aluminum bus rattles and beeps and thumps over roads in poor condition, and we lurch and careen across country roads as we crawl through downtowns and in and out of BART. It was hard at first to train myself to read, to concentrate, to block it all out and to focus on something to not only pass the time but to make use of it. After a year of commuting, the bus could catch fire before I put down my book. I can sleep through three towns with my bag wrapped around my knees to protect my laptop. This road is mine; we know each other.
Last semester, I was having a conversation with a new friend. He and I came from very different places, and the more we talked, the more apparent our differences became. He asked the constant question: How do I manage to live so far away, and how do I commute? I told him that I normally took BART but that I was flat broke that particular week and had to ride the bus to and from school.
“Wow,” he said. “How long does that take?”
“Three hours each way,” I told him, breaking off eye contact. “But I get all my reading done for class, and there’s not much there to distract me. It’s not so bad.”
He laughed a little and made a small, futile gesture. “There’s no way I would do that. It’s not worth it.”
I didn’t know how to respond at the time. All of my experience flooded into me: dropping out of high school when it wasn’t worth it and working retail, year after year, on my feet and without a voice. I thought about the sacrifices I made to go back to school and the years in community college spent working full-time and hardly sleeping at all, fueled by the promise of transfer. I thought about the hours I’ve spent waiting for buses and trains to come, counting the hours and minutes before I’ll be late to class; I thought about the winter mornings when I leave the house before dawn and get home after sundown and the summer days on buses with no air conditioning and tiny, scummy windows.
I wish I had told him then, and I hope that he reads this now. This is my story. This is how I get to school every day. This is not a complaint, because attending this school is worth it. If I had to walk, if I had to camp out in People’s Park, if I had to ride the bus for twice as long, it would be worth it.
Meg Elison writes the Monday column on financial issues affecting UC Berkeley students.Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].