Blessed Be the Bus Riders | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Blessed Be the Bus Riders 

Saving Sunday bus service for another year could take divine intervention.

Martie Hall's been up since 4:30 a.m., and checked into the Port Authority's East Liberty garage at 5:18. This week is his 14th anniversary as a bus driver. But when it comes to the early hours, he says, "Oh, you never get used to it!"

His long legs fold like a very sturdy piece of origami into the bouncy driver's seat. He's chugging the last of his protein shake. "My New Year's resolution is the same as all the other years: Lose weight," he says.

His first run this morning was a nice long trip to warm up, the first pass of the 86A East Hills. During the week, he's mostly on the 81A Oak Hill and the 67F Trafford. Now, he's ready for a little Sunday driving -- on the Church Hill Loop.

Hall grew up on the Hill himself and often sees his mom as he's driving. "If I'm hungry she'll bring me some food," he says. Sometimes his 4-year-old nephew takes a quick ride. On one pass, he points out a famously enormous house on the Hill that his father, with the help of Martie and his mother and sisters, built from scratch; a single fireplace and passive solar energy heat the entire home.

"I know the people, I know who gets on where. I feel at home here," Hall says.

He's been driving the Church Loop for about eight years. This Loop -- one of four non-Downtown "loops" serving the Hill -- is a tangled Slinky, popping on and off the Hill's main drags in order to connect more directly with the churches -- especially for the sake of their senior-citizen congregants and Oak Hill residents, who are somewhat isolated from both the central part of the Hill and neighboring Oakland.

According to Port Authority service planning supervisor Fred Mergner, a 1976 schedule indicates that the Hill Church Loop and the regular, everyday Hill Loop began as projects of Lyndon B. Johnson's Model Cities program; a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development subsidy allowed the Port Authority to charge a fare of just 10 cents. In those days, the two buses didn't even have Port Authority route numbers, but were known simply as the Model Cities Loop and Model Cities Church Loop. By the early 1990s, the federal subsidy had apparently dried up, and the Port Authority named both routes the 84C, incorporated them into the regular system, and began charging standard fares.

The Hill Church Loop is still an extremely localized institution. It makes just eight-and-a-half rotations of about five miles each, and only on Sunday mornings. It doesn't have its own label on the "Bus Stop" signs -- like so many things in Pittsburgh, everybody assumes everybody knows. And because the Church Loop still shares a number with the 84C, the Port Authority doesn't keep separate statistics for it. Still, says Port Authority spokesman Bob Grove, considering all the service cuts in the last few years, "If it didn't get ridership it wouldn't still be here."

In 2003, hasty Republican passage of Gov. Ed Rendell's bare-bones bluff budget -- which included a deep cut in statewide public-transit funding -- would've driven fare hikes and service cuts for the third time in just three years. Most dramatically threatened were service on Sundays and all other service after 9 p.m. "It was pretty interesting," Hall says of his passengers' reactions. "They were trying to figure out who to complain to."

A few budget tricks -- internal trims, switching some major maintenance costs to the capital budget, a last-minute transfer from not-yet-needed highway funds -- rode the Port Authority through the end of 2003. Finally, in the last days of the year, Rendell was able to sign a budget restoring the funds for the remainder of the fiscal year, until July 1, 2004.

But that doesn't mean the Hill Church Loop is safe. Grove warns that without a sustainable, predictable funding source from the state, Port Authority and the rest of Pennsylvania's transit agencies could easily be replaying the same funding crisis next summer. Already, the agency is anticipating a $27 million deficit. Though the Church Loop has a loyal constituency, it's a small route -- roughly two dozen people on a winter Sunday morning, a mere handful compared to the 2,400 passengers who might take the EBA (East Busway - All Stops) on its more than 100 Sunday trips.

Hall has a favorite bus joke: "People say, ‘Martie, when's the last time you've been in church?' I say, ‘I do God's work, taking people to church.'"

What will happen to the Port Authority in the hands of the state legislature, though, God only knows.

At 8:43 a.m., Martie Hall begins his roll down Kirkpatrick Street. He's only in the "old Hill" for a few blocks -- over a block on Rose and scooping up Elmore Square -- before catching Bentley Street up through the woods to Oak Hill, tucked between Soho and Oakland. On his way, he picks up his first passengers of the morning: two guys coming home from night jobs at the airport. They're very damp. It's still rainy, gray and dark at almost 9 a.m.; even though the bus is still practically empty, the windows are drippy with steam.

One of the men, the quieter of the pair, says he's going home to change, then will be back on this very bus to go to church.

"I know that's gonna be rough -- I'm'a hold my own church," the other says slyly.

A tall guy staggers on. He's trying to bear up but is sopping wet, in a green down coat and a small-billed black cap; rainwater's squished the cap's crown flat and more rain sheds off the coat's vinyl shell, almost in curtains. As he plops down, a flurry of soft, snow-white feathers poofs up all around him. When he speaks, he smells like booze. "It's slow," he says of the bus. He's been waiting at the stop for a while. "It's slow," he says again, and, clutching the vertical "grab bars" to steady himself, he gets up and zig-zags off the bus just a couple of stops later.

The first churchgoer of the morning gets on in Oak Hill and prefers to be known just as "Ms. Walker." Her neat navy wool coat is buttoned to the top but soaked through, while her feet are bundled up in black booties. Her large round glasses are as wet as the bus' windshield. She'll be one of the younger riders today -- her face looks as young as 30 -- but one of the most "proper" in her demeanor. She's calm and serious, and she's headed to the Pentecostal Temple Church of God in Christ in East Liberty. To get there, she'll get off the Hill Church Loop to catch the 81B Lincoln, one of the Port Authority's busiest routes and a workhorse that slowly lurches along Centre Avenue all the way from the Mellon Arena until it finds Lincoln Avenue on the far side of East Liberty.

Ms. Walker struggles to arrange her belongings -- a crammed-full canvas tote bag and a heavy black roller suitcase. She finally settles in, poised almost primly behind the driver. In a few minutes, water begins to steam off her wool coat. A few small curls spill onto her forehead.

Hilda Johnson, 73, is on her way to Calvary Baptist at Wylie and Francis. Johnson declares that she's been riding "since May 1, 1972" -- the day the Hill Church Loop began.

"When it started it was 10 cents," she says, seating herself in the "shotgun" spot popular among the Loop's church ladies, the only seat that commands a view as nice as the driver's.

Charles Wilson of Oak Hill boards around the same time as Johnson. He moves midway back, ceding the front to the ladies. He's on his way to the Rising Star Baptist Church, with Rev. Richard Jones. Wilson says he's been aware of the transit budget scare this last year. "We need the bus on Sunday," he says. "You can call a jitney, but it's not there."

"A lot of times you don't have jitney money," one of the church ladies chimes in.

Though the Church Loop's busiest trip hasn't begun -- that's the 9:53 trip, Hall says -- Pearl Gilliam is already on her way home to Oak Hill. She hops on at Wylie near her church, Central Baptist.

She says she's been riding for "a good while," but not always this bus. "Whatever bus comes, [it] comes right in front of my door."

Gilliam is serene, holding her leather-covered Bible in the crook of her elbow, with that morning's service program tucked inside. She doesn't seem the type to get fired up about possible bus service cuts, but, she says, both her ride and her visit to church represent "peace...and praying for everybody." She's taking the long way around the loop, which means a brief layover along a section of Webster Avenue currently torn up with redevelopment. Normally, the Loop would be pausing even farther up on Bedford, but that street's hard to negotiate because of the construction. After parking the bus, Hall cuts the engine. It's so quiet you can hear the ping of raindrops on the roof.

Gilliam continues: "Well, you notice there ain't no noise! The bus drivers are good, not just this one" -- she pitches her voice up to Hall -- "but all of them."

While they ride, she says, "People talk to each other, you know, about church or food or what's going on." Probably unlike most passengers, "When I get on the bus, I say a prayer. ‘Watch all of us riding, drive safely....No accidents,' all of that." She says she even hums her favorite hymn as she gets on -- one she made up herself -- "Thank you, Jesus, thank you, Jesus," she murmurs.

Hall just about misses Keely Clemons hurrying as best she can down one of the new-and-redeveloped sidewalks of Oak Hill, but stops in time, making the bus' air brakes sigh impatiently. Clemons is a member of "the old Holy Trinity [Church], they call it St. Benedict the Moor now....I got married down there. I went to school at St. John the Baptist. I'm a widow now, and I guess I'll probably be buried in Holy Trinity too.

"The bus," she says, "that's our main means of transportation. I hope they do not" cut any service.

In the meantime, one of the men who had been returning from the airport earlier this morning climbs back aboard. He says his name is Nathaniel Brown. In just a couple of hours, he's transformed himself from quiet working stiff in a damp winter cap to a distinguished, pillar-of-the-community type, carrying a full-size umbrella and wearing a three-piece pinstriped suit.

"They can't do that," Brown says, in response to Clemons, his voice so low and serious that it sounds like he's declaring the plain, unarguable truth. "They'll cut out the Lord. They'll be hurting the wrong people if they cut out Sundays. There's only four Sundays in a month; it can't hurt the budget that much."

When state budget reductions threatened massive service cuts last year, "We complained among ourselves," Clemons says, "But we should get up some petitions or something."

Beverly Kilgore is off the bus almost as quickly as she got on it, returning from the 8 o'clock Central Baptist service like Pearl Gilliam. Pink lettering on her canvas tote bag reads "A VIRTUOUS WOMAN. Ruth 3:11."

Hall fires up the bus again. It's time for Trips Three and Four, the big ones.

First on is Elmira Higgins, a member of the Warren United Methodist Church -- "and I'm one of the oldest members: I'm 90 years old!

"I've been a regular since I couldn't drive anymore, so I use the Church Loop -- especially when I go to church," she says cheerily. Almost as soon as she gingerly finds her way on, Higgins is off already.

Hall promptly and carefully glides up to the next waiting passenger, one Reverend Dolores Wilkerson. "This is the matriarch; she's like the head honcho," Hall explains. "We clashed at first," he remembers, when he first started driving the route. "I can't remember why, maybe I accidentally passed her up. She's one of my favorite passengers now."

Wilkerson is ready, and Hall kicks the bus into "kneel" mode, which lowers the front end slightly. Hall disappears into the bus' doorway. Emerging first is Wilkerson's walker, its front legs cushioned by two bright-yellow tennis balls. Then up comes Wilkerson, smiling under salt-and-pepper curls, wrapped in dark red and topped with a velvet burgundy scarf, clipped with a rhinestone pin. She centers the walker beside the front seat bench and plops down: "Ah!" Her pointy-toed, tappy-heeled little black boots slide out from under her on the wet floor. To come to 10:30 Sunday school and the service that follows it, "I started getting ready at 7 o'clock this morning," she laughs.

Wilkerson says she goes to the House of God church with Rev. Booker T. Dunmore. Compared to some of the old, architecturally impressive buildings on the Hill, the House of God is modest but very neat, a one-story cinderblock building with glass-block crosses set into the walls and a shiny, bright red door. Hers is a "holiness" church, Wilkerson explains, "They have a lot more shouting -- but everyone's shouting now," she says, even those who didn't in the past, "the Baptists, the Methodists, the Sanctified. Some clap their hands, some stamp their feet, some say, ‘I give up!' Nowadays, everybody's shouting." But shouting, she says, "is a gift from God, it's something you can't do yourself."

Although Port Authority transports the faithful, it hasn't had tremendous success at delivering converts, Wilkerson says. "One time, a lady was on the bus," Wilkerson says. "She went once, but we never saw her again."

"We scared her off!" chuckles the woman across the aisle wearing a checkered wool coat.

While Wilkerson chats, Elview Poole is preoccupied, peering out the foggy, dripping windows for her stop. After catching the bus at Oak Hill, she has to ride the 81B Downtown, then transfer again to go to Liberty Word Ministry on the North Side. Meanwhile, the rain hasn't let up -- if anything, it's gotten comfortable and decided to settle in.

"Oh, here!" she says suddenly. "Is this Centre? I think this is it..." Hall starts to slow down.

Wilkerson and the Checkered-coat Lady chime in: "You want the 81?"

"No, honey, go on down little further."

"It goes all along here."

"There's a little shelter coming up."

"Keep you out of the rain!"

Wilkerson was mad last summer when there was talk of losing Sunday bus service, and, naturally, she's not looking forward to the inevitable rerun of those threats this spring.

"Don't cut this one!" she says, of the Church Loop. "I'm a regular rider. When can I put in a good word for the driver? We'd like to keep him. He's polite, anything I can say to boost him! We need this bus. I've been riding since it started. I don't think it's changed. Just the drivers. It's been taking the same route."

Just like the church, Wilkerson wants the bus to be there and ready when people decide to come to God. "Those that have a made-up mind and want to serve God, got the bus," she says.

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