The big ride

Trotting down Coxe Avenue, I make it to the Transit Center and onto the Route 12 bus at the next-to-last minute. Sinking into my seat, I’m grateful that it’s cool and shady inside, in contrast to the heat and slime beyond the glass. My fantasies of moving to Iceland temporarily assuaged, I glance around. A handful of passengers sit patiently as we wait for the bus to get started. It’s relatively quiet, except for one chatty woman who’s talking to the driver. I gather from their conversation that she’s a landscaper taking the day off.

The bus heads down Asheland Avenue, then McDowell. As he navigates the busy streets, the driver gives a running commentary, citing every single moving violation committed by the vehicles around him. He sounds like a cross between a football play-by-play announcer and a traffic cop.

It’s a little after noon, and no one appears to be in much of a rush to get anywhere — except for one man, who seems to be suffering from “a case of the Mondays.” He looks as though he woke up on the wrong side of the bar, and he holds his arm (which is in a cast) in front of him as if it were a weapon.

“Right here! Right here!” he bellows at the driver, who lets him off on McDowell Street.

After his welcome exit, I turn to two ladies sitting nearby and ask what they have planned for the day.

“This is my mother, and we’re going to visit my daughter,” Shirley Mitchell replies.

“You’re her mother?” I ask, surprised (the two look to be about the same age).

“Yes,” says Sarah Hill, smiling. recovering from two strokes and a heart attack, is trying to relax with family. “I’m visiting from Forest City. I like it here real well; I’m really enjoying it.”

They go back to looking out the window, admiring houses and flower gardens. We stop at the River Hills Shopping Center to pick up a few folks outside a Food Lion. Everyone I talk to says they’re shopping or visiting friends. At the Somerset Apartments, some passengers get off. A young woman boards and snuggles up to a young man who’s been riding since the Transit Center. They catch me looking at them and I quickly avert my eyes; they’re obviously very happy to see each other.

After a swing through the apartment complex, we head back toward the Transit Center. A van parked outside the Polar Bar on Hwy. 25A sports the slogan “Polar air conditioning,” evoking the image of out-of-work hockey players knocking back pints of Molson Ice, gumming stale peanuts, and showing off their scars. Could this be the last refuge of the now-defunct Asheville Smoke?

At the intersection of Biltmore Avenue and McDowell Street, I ask to be let off.

On the prowl

Having an hour to kill until the next bus, I decide to explore Biltmore Village. Built between 1895 and 1925 as a place for Biltmore Estate workers to live, it was designed primarily by estate architect Richard Sharpe Smith. Now an upscale shopping mecca, it boasts many shops and restaurants.

Within moments of stumbling off the bus, I spy a four-leaf clover. I look around suspiciously, certain it must have been planted there for the tourists. After stashing it in my notebook, I wander into Vitrum Gallerie on Lodge Street.

The glass art on display is amazing. Admiring a piece by Yaffa and Jeff Todd, I check the price tag: $10,000. That’s more than my car is worth. And I can’t help but wonder whether some of my fellow bus passengers make that much in a year.

Gallery director Oksana Stark answers all my questions. She’s really friendly — even after I tell her I’m not interested in buying anything. Although the gallery mostly showcases works by regional artists, many of the buyers come from elsewhere, she reports.

Back on the street, I cruise past assorted upscale boutiques and small cafes inviting shoppers in for a cup of tea. (Quiche seems to be a featured menu item hereabouts.) Still killing time, I enter Once Upon A Time (on All Souls Crescent), which sells children’s clothes, books, educational materials — and pet supplies. Spotting a copy of my favorite children’s book, The Phantom Tollbooth, I buy it for a friend’s son. (In the story, killing time is actually a crime, I remember guiltily.)

Waiting at the bus stop, I wish there were a bench to sit on. I’m also grateful it’s not raining, because there isn’t any shelter.

“Not only that, but some stops need to have crosswalks,” notes regular rider Rochelle Pittman. “Near my house, I have to cross four lanes of traffic; it’s really dangerous. The buses also need to run later. A lot of people who ride the bus have to work late and have to find another way to get home.”

Pittman also says she worries about the lack of lighting at the bus stops because, in the winter months, it’s fully dark by the time the last bus rolls in (most of them seem to run until 6 or 7 p.m.). That’s the kind of improvement regular riders of Asheville’s mass-transit system are still waiting for.

Route 12: Oakley/River Ridge

Monday through Saturday, the first bus departs the Asheville Transit Center at 6 a.m. It reaches Asheville High School at 6:07, Biltmore Village at 6:10, and River Ridge Mall at 6:25. The route continues down Fairview Road, reaching N.C. 81 at 6:30 and the Somerset Place Apartments at 6:35. The return ride stops at Biltmore Village at 6:45, and reaches the Transit Center at 6:56. 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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