The big ride

The Asheville Transit Center seems an unlikely spot to discuss F. Scott Fitzgerald’s glittering 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby.

But here we are — 17-year-old Chris Hewitt and I — making conversation while the PA system squawks announcements about incoming buses, and harried riders dash to make their connections.

Wearing a New York Yankees ball cap, mesh button-up shirt, baggy jeans and glasses, and carrying a black Nike drawstring pack, Hewitt initially appears more athlete than scholar. And in fact, the rising Asheville High School senior does play three sports: football (wide receiver and outside linebacker), wrestling (in the 145-pound weight division) and track (as a middle-distance runner). But he’s also intent on attending a four-year college and allows that his favorite subjects are English and history.

Which brings us to The Great Gatsby.

“It made me look at how people were treated back then and how people are treated now,” observes Hewitt, cradling a small cell phone.

The more highly regarded characters in the novel, he notes, are those who inherited wealth. Today, he maintains, those who work hard to earn money are thought of more favorably.

“It’s like, vice versa,” he concludes.

And then there are those of us who ride the bus rather than a chauffeur-driven limo. Taking a city bus to and from school, says Hewitt, saves him money. (He can’t take his regular school bus these days, because he’s temporarily living outside the school district.)

Working for a living

Less than a dozen people climb onto the Route 8 bus, which departs about 4:30 p.m. from the Asheville Transit Center downtown. On this trip, it’s a mix of ages, ranging from three young children with a tired-looking mother in tow to the certifiably elderly woman across the aisle from me. Racially, blacks outnumber whites by a wide margin.

On Biltmore Avenue, we pick up an older man wearing a red Chicago Bulls tank top and a T-shirt. He eyes me and my notebook as I wonder what’s in his brown-paper packages.

Most folks sit quietly, seemingly lost in their own worlds. The elderly woman (wearing a rose-colored knit hat, despite the day’s warmth) loses control of a huge paper bag. Hewitt gets up to set it straight for her.

In Biltmore Village, we turn left onto Lodge Street. (A right would have taken us toward Biltmore Estate, whose lavish setting would rival anything found in Fitzgerald’s fictional East Egg.) We pick up one rider, Joyce Lewis, who’s just finished an interview for a job at the new Target store, due to open soon in Asheville.

“I don’t have a car, so I rode the bus,” she reveals.

Lewis says she just moved to Asheville from St. Petersburg, Fla., to be closer to her daughter (who lives in Bryson City). She’s putting in job applications around town and has nothing but praise for the Asheville Transit employees who’ve helped her negotiate the bus system.

“The only thing I miss was the Sunday bus,” Lewis says wistfully, thinking back to the St. Petersburg bus system. “That’s the hardest thing for me.”

Hang a right at the bear

A right turn at The Polar Bar — a business on whose roof stands a towering (what else?) polar bear — sends us into the Shiloh community.

One man (who attached his mountain bike to the rack on the front of the bus) shoots the breeze with driver Tim Summey while perusing a Performance Bicycle catalog, lingering over the pages devoted to suspension forks. Just before his stop, he tells me he’ll probably volunteer with the Mountain Sports Festival coming up this weekend. He disembarks, unloads his bike and takes off.

Eventually, the route veers onto Hendersonville Road, then back into a residential neighborhood. Along the way, Mary Ray has boarded the bus, headed home from her job at Chammies Car Wash. I admit that I haven’t washed my car in quite some time, and she kindly hands me a coupon for discounts at Chammies.

A Burnsville native, Ray now lives at Hillcrest Apartments in Asheville, as does her mother. She says people often get the wrong idea about Hillcrest, a public-housing complex situated off Interstate 240 overlooking the French Broad River.

It’s a quiet place, says Ray; in the year-and-three-months she’s lived at Hillcrest, she hasn’t seen or heard of any major incident (such as the shooting at Deaverview Apartments that had made the Asheville Citizen-Times the previous weekend).

“There’s a lot of nice people that live there,” Ray explains. “What it is, is everybody makes it out to be a bad place, but it’s not. … Everybody just thinks it’s a bad place because it’s an apartment complex.”

For Ray’s part, she prefers to stay home and watch TV, although a friend did persuade her to go to a downtown drumming performance last weekend. It’s a place she doesn’t usually hang out.

“You see a lot of weird things and weird people,” she comments.

But Ray has no complaints about the city buses, which she finds to be “real convenient” and usually on time.

That assessment certainly rings true on this occasion. We’re back at the bus station by 5:27 p.m., ready for the penultimate run of the day.

And I’m left to think about just how efficient a bus can be — especially when it comes to moving people out of their comfort zones.

Route No. 8 — Biltmore Avenue/Shiloh

Monday through Saturday, the first bus departs the Asheville Transit Center at 6:30 a.m. It reaches Lodge Street (at McDonald’s) in Biltmore Village at 6:40 a.m. The bus turns right on London Road and continues to West Chapel, White Avenue, Shiloh Road, Caribou Road and Hendersonville Road. The bus proceeds to Rock Hill Road, left on Sweeten Creek Road, then on to West Chapel, Rock Hill and Hendersonville roads. With a right on Hendersonville Road, the bus takes Forest Street to Caribou Road and enters Laurel Wood Apartments at 7:05 a.m. The bus returns to the Transit Center via Caribou Road, Shiloh Road, White Avenue, West Chapel, London Road, Lodge Street, Biltmore Avenue, Hilliard Street and Asheland Avenue. The pattern repeats every hour, with the last ride of the day pulling into the Transit Center at 7:26 p.m.

Special notes: The 6:30 and 7:30 a.m. outbound buses stop at Thoms Rehabilitation Hospital, as does the 2:30 p.m. inbound bus. Also, the 8:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. trips serve Wal-Mart on Hendersonville Road (at 9 a.m., noon and 3 p.m., respectively) but not Rock Hill Road or Laurel Wood Apartments.

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

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