By Eve Hyman. Photos by Sam Campbell Translation Gustavo Toba
Like an enormous low-rider, buses in BA come replete with their drivers’ propio personal style. We´re talking airbrush art, framed pictures of saints, dedications of amor to wifey, and windshields with bangs.
The roar of passing buses is familiar sonic territory here in BA. Shuttered apartments keep out the boom upstairs, while street-level noise and a massive carbon footprint put some wear and tear on the city. But with a limited subte in a sprawling metropolis where only a sliver of the population owns cars, the privatized, diesel-run bus system is a major people mover. Lucky for us, bus culture adds art noise to the pistons popping off in your ear.
I´m a train person, avoid the traffic, enjoy the smooth ride. Living here, one can´t avoid the buses, they dominate transit. If it makes sense to jump into the collective, I join the queue and wait it out, for people watching on the bondi.
On board, the bus bounces, lurches and sways while Suzanne Vega sings “My Name is Luca” on the overhead radio. The driver has set up his area like a mini disco. The windshield has a royal blue, velvet fringe border along the top with airbrushed silver frost fileteado (tango style, curly-cues) detail. The chofer spends his workday with 3 mirrored spheres hanging from the ceiling, in a cluster of papa ball, mama ball, and baby disco ball. The vinyl blue passenger seats make for mini thrones, the bus is swathed in personal touches, where Zorro meets Saturday Night Fever. Riding the 39 from San Telmo to Palermo, I´m in plan disco-gaucho territory, with an easy listening soundtrack on blast.
The subte system in Buenos Aires was built by the Brits in 1913 and does wonders for the city´s quasi first-world image. 1,400,000 ride it daily, compared to the over 8 million Argentines that hit up city buses, coming in from the city limits. The bus system handles the bulk of transit without intervention from city officials, since buses are owned by private companies, making any regulation (like bus transfers) near impossible. The situation also makes for a strange monedas black market of sorts. The bus companies hoard the change they receive. Since everyone has to have correct change to ride, demand for coins is high. An artificial deficit of spare change then makes price rise. That explains how a roll of coins at the bank or supermarket is 12 pesos for 10 pesos worth of coinage in BA, and why no one has change for a twenty.
The 152 stops in La Boca and this driver has gone ultimate bordello on his physical space. A telo on wheels bringing sexy back to commuters, the red velvet fringe, air-brushed hearts and love poem posted above the rear-view mirror are in stark contrast to the chofer´s macho swagger.
The crowd is made up of all ages, they´re quiet and sleepy after an urban workday, minding their business and looking out the window, as we fly down the street.
A couple of girls in leggings and long, fitted tees chat by the back exit. The doors pop open, still moving, and they get off the collective mobile. It barely stops and continues into the cluster of cars without lanes, the mass of zooming buses with theme windshields and a profit margin to meet. Phil Collins plays overhead; I think of how unusual it is that a municipal transit system has taken on the twist of a kitsch stretch limo company. And how cool for the spectator with proper change.