Dan Rodricks

Eavesdropping, people watching, and the bus was on-time, too

The prevalence of the smartphone means that Americans hear a lot of one-sided conversation. On Friday, aboard an MTA bus, I overheard a young woman with a bun in her hair and an iPhone at her ear say the following: “No, he did not. No, he did not. He did not. He didn’t. Oh, God, no.”

And she started laughing, almost uncontrollably.


I was tempted to lean forward and ask what was so funny but decided just to enjoy her giddy laughter. It was the start of the holiday weekend, sunny and 67, April in February, and the Baltimoreans on the bus seemed to be in a good mood for a change.

The northbound Silver runs from Curtis Bay to the north side of the city, to either the Johns Hopkins campus or to Morgan State. It is part of BaltimoreLink, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s effort to improve bus service after he killed the Red Line light rail plan. BaltimoreLink launched in 2017, and while it has received generally mediocre reviews, I can say one thing for sure: The opportunities for people watching and eavesdropping remain consistently good.


There’s something else I can say about BaltimoreLink: It’s mostly on-time. By on-time, I mean the bus comes when the GPS-based Transit app says it will come. Transit app provides real-time tracking of the buses, and I have found it to be reliable, down to the minute. So I now pay almost no attention to scheduled time. The MTA considers their buses to be on-time if they arrive within seven minutes of the scheduled time. A lot of riders still rely on posted schedules because they do not have smartphones. But many do, and if they’re not using Transit, the app should be better advertised. The MTA also should let the commuting public generally — not just bus riders — know that real-time tracking exists. If more Marylanders knew about this, more would try mass transit.

That’s important because, as various reports in this newspaper and elsewhere have indicated, Hogan’s BaltimoreLink system has not done much to increase ridership. It’s one thing to revamp a grid, create new maps and bus-only lanes. It’s another to do it in a 21st-century way that gets more people using the system. Otherwise, it looks like an expensive project for modest gains.

Back to Friday’s bus ride: There was a lot of chummy chatter among riders. Two young women, who had parked strollers at the front of the bus, compared notes on their babies. An old man with deeply sunken cheeks made funny expressions to get a laugh out of the baby seated across from him. I heard two high school boys talk about a classmate’s prospects for a college basketball scholarship.

Above it all, I could hear the woman with the hair bun get another call.

“Hold on, what?” she said. “Oh, the police told my sister, ‘You can’t leave,’ and so she pushed him out the way, and they got in a tussle. Now, she’s getting processed out ...”

I took this to mean the woman’s sister had been locked up for disobeying a police officer and was about to be released. (“They told us what we needed to do to get her out ...”) But I cannot say for sure because the woman was taking multiple calls, using the northbound Silver for “executive time,” so there was no real opportunity to conversate.

While people who take phone calls on buses can be annoying, it is possible to derive pleasure from picking up the fragments of a story and letting your imagination fill in the blanks. John Waters, the auteur and raconteur, is a professional eavesdropper. “I try to eavesdrop and spy on people,” he once said. “My job is to go out and report to the unwashed public, my fans, the unfathomable behavior of Americans.”

Our driver took the bus through South Baltimore, up Light Street, then past the old Southern District police station on Ostend, then up Charles toward Cross Street. Two establishments, Wayward Smokehouse and Mother’s Grille, had opened their sidewalk seating so customers could have lunch outdoors. The whole area seemed to be crawling with people who had started their holiday weekend early.


The bus filled with more riders as it moved north. At Baltimore Street, a man with a thick gray beard stepped aboard. He wore a dark cap of the 101st Airborne, Robert-Duvall-Apocalypse-Now sunglasses, a lightweight camo jacket and matching pants, backpack and combat boots. A very tall person, with very tall hair and earrings the size of hula-hoops, sat next to me.

The woman with the bun was still talking on the phone when she stepped off at Penn Station. I got off near Hopkins to transfer to another line. The Transit app said my next bus was a minute away, and so it was, and right on time, and what’s not to like about any of that?