The big ride

On the first authentically crisp day of fall, a cheerful man in a motorized wheelchair glides through the Asheville Transit Center.

“It’s got a bite in it today,” he remarks to another man waiting for a bus on this breezy day.

“Yes,” the other rider agrees.

Moments later, the No. 15 bus (which traverses parts of west Asheville and Leicester) cruises in shortly before noon, piloted by veteran driver Freddie Waters.

I climb aboard and strike up a conversation with Waters, who guesses he’s been driving a bus longer than I’ve been alive. (He guesses wrong, but his low-ball estimate may give a hint as to why he’s so popular with riders.)

Waters — an Asheville Transit driver for 30 years — graduated from the all-black Stephens-Lee High School back in 1963, years before integration reached the Asheville schools. Stephens-Lee now serves as a city recreation center, which is “OK,” Waters allows.

“It’s one of those personal things: Pride of the name is gone,” he laments, adding almost wistfully, “It’s still a castle on the hill.”

As he maneuvers the bus around Pritchard Park, I ask if he remembers the so-called riots at Asheville High during those early days of integration. A city bus driver by then, Waters well recalls the hullabaloo surrounding a particular incident. Because students rode city buses to school, he and the other drivers were frantically dispatched to pick up the kids early.

“I don’t think it was totally as bad as everybody wanted to project that it was,” observes Waters. “One of the lessons my parents taught me: Parents make things worse than the kids.”

He stops to pick up a woman waiting for the bus on Haywood Street.

“I’ve had a horrible weekend,” she announces to Waters as she plops down next to me. “How was your weekend? Hope it was better than mine.”

“Oh yeah,” he says mildly. “Very restful.”

The woman, who gives her name as Nora Petrie, says she’s on her way to work on Patton Avenue in west Asheville (she’s a telemarketer for Blue Cross Blue Shield). And she can’t resist needling Waters just a little bit.

“All the women love him — and that just inflates his ego,” she says, adding, “There are a lot of really nice bus drivers working for the city.”

But like other riders interviewed by Xpress, Petrie has a standing gripe about buses not running in the evening or on Sundays. The lack of evening service means she can’t take a second-shift job or attend night classes at A-B Tech. And since a lot of employers don’t want to hire full-time employees (because they’d have to provide benefits), that leaves part-time workers like Petrie in a bind.

“If you depend on public transportation and the buses stop at 6 o’clock — go figure,” she explains.

Glancing around the nearly empty bus, Petrie observes that on days like this, the fares collected probably don’t even cover the cost of the gas. But some days, there are more passengers on this run, so both Petrie and Waters place the blame on timing — it’s the end of the month, and government checks don’t come in until the first.

After Petrie departs, we roll past the strip malls and fast-food joints of Patton Avenue, hanging a right on the New Leicester Highway.

A neatly dressed man wearing slacks, a sweater, shirt and tie sits down across from me. In halting English, he reveals that his hometown is Mexico City, though he’s lived here for two years. For the past two weeks, he’s been attending A-B Tech, studying English as a second language. But since I don’t know any Spanish, I can’t successfully ask him his name before he has to depart.

In the Deaverview public-housing complex, we pick up several riders, including a young woman with a blond ponytail who’s pushing a stroller. Dolores Osborne — “Everybody calls me ‘D'” — shows me her sleeping baby, 2-month-old Bryan. On this day, Osborne’s mother is looking after her 4-year-old daughter, Adriana, and her 2-1/2-year-old son, Brandon, while she takes the bus over to the Woodcroft Apartments (off Merrimon Avenue) to apply for subsidized housing.

“I think there’s just a lot less activity [there] than there is over here,” she explains. “And I have small children, so I think it’d be better for them.”

In between chatting with a friend, Osborne whips out photos of her sunny-faced children, noting that her daughter had been in Head Start but it got too expensive.

As for Asheville Transit, Osborne says: “I really like the bus system. … It’s very convenient.”

Her friend, however, echoes Petrie’s wish that the buses ran later in the day.

As the No. 15 pulls back into the terminal, Osborne and her friend spot her connecting bus (the No. 2, bound for Merrimon Avenue). In no time at all, they’ve wheeled the stroller off the bus and Osborne is briskly propelling her sleeping baby toward their destination.

Route No. 15 – Patton Avenue/Deaverview

Monday through Friday, the first bus departs the Asheville Transit Center at 6 a.m. (On Saturdays, the first bus leaves the terminal at 7 a.m.) The bus heads up Asheland Avenue, takes a right on Patton Avenue and a left on Haywood Street to Montford Avenue. From there, the bus takes Interstate 240 to the Westgate Shopping Center. It then travels back to Patton Avenue, reaching Regent Park (and the Social Security office) at 6:08, and heads west on Patton to New Leicester Highway. The bus travels to the Meadows Apartments (except for three runs listed below, which stop at the Eliada Homes instead). The bus continues to Old County Home Road, Baker Drive, Rash Road, Oakmont Terrace and Johnson Boulevard. From there, it takes Bear Creek Road to Deaverview Road, stopping inside the Deaverview Apartments complex at the half hour.

The bus continues on to Pisgah View Road and then back to Deaverview Road (at the Ice Service Store). It backtracks to New Leicester Highway (without stopping at the Deaverview Apartments this time) and continues to Patton Avenue. From Westgate, the bus takes Patton Avenue to Coxe Avenue, returning to the terminal. The last bus leaves the Transit Center at 6 p.m.

Special note: The buses leaving the Asheville Transit Center at 8 a.m., noon and 5 p.m. go to Eliada Homes via Compton Drive and don’t enter the Meadows 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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