The big ride

Jim Valentine drives a bus for the Asheville Transit Authority. He’s made the No. 18 loop around downtown Asheville about 40,000 times: eight times a day, five days a week for 30 years. He says he pretty well has it down now.

Two blocks from my home on Highland Street, I board the No. 18 bus at Mt. Clare and Hillside. It’s 6:30 a.m. on a cold, rainy day; still dark outside, too early for conversation. It’s warm and comfortable in the bus; two kids on their way to Asheville Middle School are asleep on the back seat.

When we reach the Asheville Transit Center at Coxe Avenue, I spot my friend Chris Wilson. He’s on his way to A-B Tech, where he’s studying for a liberal-arts degree. Living without a car in Asheville for eight years has been challenging, he concedes — particularly since Serena, his 4-year-old daughter, came along.

Although many locals complain about the limitations of the bus routes, Wilson says the schedule works well for his and Serena’s needs. He boards the No. 22 bus (which runs every 30 minutes) at his home in Montford, then transfers to the No. 18 at the Transit Center for the 10-minute ride to A-B Tech. In the afternoons, after classes are done, he picks up Serena at her preschool near the college where they board the bus for the ride home.

When Leroy Baxter climbs aboard at Oakland and Hibernia, the sleepy passengers become more animated.

Valentine says it’s Baxter’s job to wake everybody up in the mornings, so they don’t miss their stops. Reminiscing about the old days, Baxter entertains us with lively vignettes of life on The Block, back before all the homes were razed. Trolley rides cost 10 cents, and 75 cents bought a big fish sandwich at Breeley’s Cafe.

Baxter exits at The Mediterranean on College Street. “If the sun shines again, I’ll see you then,” he promises Valentine, hustling into the restaurant before commencing the day’s list of odd jobs for assorted downtown residents and business owners.

“He’s the best bus driver I’ve ever known,” Mary Adams declares after boarding the bus on Martin Luther King Drive.

That’s quite a compliment coming from Adams, who’s been riding public transit into downtown since 1942.

Five days a week, Adams (who used to work at the old Woolworth’s on Haywood Street) journeys by bus to the Vanderbilt Apartments, where she cares for an elderly woman. “She doesn’t want to go to a nursing home, so we talk and walk and play all day,” says Adams, laughing.

Valentine, meanwhile, beams with pride — as well he should. He pays strict attention to safety of both his riders and his bus, as he has for the 30 years he’s been driving for the ATS. Only fellow-driver Fred Waters has been there longer (by two months). And, for the most part of 30 years he’s been servicing route No. 18.

Valentine couldn’t be more familiar with the route, which covers most of the area where he grew up. Waiting for riders to board at the Overlook Apartments, he points to where he once played Little League. As we pass Walton Park, he reminisces about the community-sponsored carnivals held there every summer to help raise money for the ball teams. “An exciting time for the black community,” adds Valentine.

As we swing by McCormick Field, I tell him about the times in the late ’50s and early ’60s when I traveled with my family from Hendersonville to watch the Asheville Tourists play. Not to be outdone, he shared tales of hanging out with the players in the dugout and cleaning the dirt from the cleats of Willie Stargell, Bob Bailey and Gene Alley. Also, he and his buddies chased foul balls in the parking lot and home run balls in the bushes behind the outfield fence. They polished the balls with Carnation milk to restore their luster, then sold them to fans for $1.

Besides taking care of his customers, Jim Valentine also watches out for his fellow drivers, serving as president of Local 128 of the Amalgamated Transit Union.

“This is a bus where everybody knows everybody!” exclaims Jeannette Moore as she hops off the bus. Waving goodbye to her friends, she crosses Haywood Street to begin her day at the Flat Iron Building, where she runs the old, manual elevator.

Route No. 18: Erskine Street/Flint Street/Broadway

Monday through Saturday, the first bus departs the Asheville Transit Center at 6 a.m. It reaches the Asheville Housing Authority at 6:05, the corner of Depot and Oakland at 6:15, A-B Tech at 6:20, the Erskine Street Apartments at 6:25, the Mountain Side Apartments at 6:30, the Civic Center at 6:42, the corner of Mount Clare and Hillside at 6:45, the corner of Flint and Magnolia at 6:50, and returns to the Transit Center at 6:56 a.m. The pattern repeats every hour, with the last ride of the afternoon pulling into the Transit Center at 6:56 p.m.

For Asheville bus schedules, go to Ashevilletransit.com or call 253-5691. For information about local transportation options, visit www.gettingaround-wnc.com.

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