By Weenta Girmay
My quest to ride a jitney for the first time and what I discovered after talking to a driver just trying to get back on his feet. (Audio featured)
I had arrived at a corner bus stop, a stop you only know about if you live in the neighborhood. The construction on the main street had caused a detour, and though there was no sign that marked this as an alternative stop, people just knew to wait here and the bus just stopped here. This is what I think of when I think of Pittsburgh public transit. It doesn’t quite make sense but you just go with it.
As I approached, there was an Asian woman waiting behind the imaginary bus stop, under the awning of a building. I asked if she was waiting for a bus to which she replied, “ I called a cop.”
“The bus didn’t come and I had to walk and walk.”
“So a cop is coming to pick you up?”
She corrected me. Her accent was thick–she was waiting not for a “cop” but for a “cab.”
“So now I have two rides,” she said.
“You know, cab service in Pittsburgh isn’t that reliable,” I started to say, and before I could elaborate she corrected me again.
“Well,” she said lowering her voice, “I use a jitney.”
She told me she lived just up the street and she used the guy all the time. He was reliable, and a ride to a neighborhood close by would go for around $8. Sometimes she would need a ride back from somewhere far out like Monroeville, that would cost her $20.
It was maybe 5 more minutes before she said she saw her “cab.” Her calling it a cab made me instinctually scan the street for yellow and as I scanned, she started walking away, drifting further and further, while still looking back at me, saying “it’s here,” me not knowing where or what car she meant. I walked back to the bus stop, peeking around the corner a few seconds later out of curiosity, but she was gone.
I’d never used a jitney before, but I’d heard about them often, even been solicited by one without knowing. I was waiting for a bus and he was stopped at the light. He’d asked, “need a car?” a typical phrase drivers use to introduce themselves. I’d said no then, but today I would seek one out, my first jitney ride.
The woman at the imaginary bus stop had given me the number of her guy, but when I called him from the grocery store, he said he wasn’t available.
I chose this particular grocery store, the Giant Eagle in East Liberty, because it had a parking lot commonly filled with jitney drivers, or so I’d heard, but I couldn’t spot a single one. The lot was peppered with guys sitting parked in cars, but people wait outside store parking lots all the time, I thought. I saw a guy walk up to meet a shopper out front, carting the shopper’s groceries to their car, but this also seemed normal. That guy could be a husband, a cousin, a friend. I couldn’t assume just anyone was a jitney driver—I’d look a fool. So I asked a few women waiting behind the store’s front doors whether they knew where I could get a jitney. They said they were out there, usually around the side, but that there were a lot of people waiting for them. Again, I walked out, this time further around the building, only to be met by a loading dock and some dumpsters, no cars idling, no people waiting. I was ready to give up, making my way over to the closest bus stop, but it was freezing. The “polar vortex” was in full force and it was the coldest day Pittsburgh’s had. So I asked again at the bus stop, “Do you know where I can get a jitney?”
A woman there assured me that if I just went back to the grocery store, or even the store next to it, holding my bags and looking like I needed a ride, someone would come up to me and ask, “need a car?” So I went back and scanned the parking lot again, until finally I saw three young people, teenagers maybe, hands full of groceries, being led by a guy to his car. “Need a car?” I’d heard him say, and I ran towards them. Turned out there were too many of them to fit—the driver had low bucket seats in the front that didn’t easily accommodate more than two, so I asked him “How much?” and he said “Seven” and I paused for a bit, until he said, “c’mon baby, it’s cold out, get in the car,” and he was right, it was cold, painfully cold, so I got in.
“Have you had much business today?” I asked.
“I’m a movie dude.” He replied, but I didn’t quite get it.
“How many rides have you given today?”
“I’m a movie dude,” he said again. “I sell movies. The movies are selling today. You’re probably… ride number 3.”
“You sell movies? From where?”
“Outta the back,” he said motioning towards the trunk of his car. “DVD’s, CD, I’ve got it all.”
Driving a jitney was more of his thing on the side. He drove me maybe a mile and a half up the road and dropped me off at my house. I said I might want to take a jitney again, so he shuffled around his car to give me his information.
“I can write it down,” I say.
“Naw, I don’t like writing,” and then he pulled out a stamp, which he pressed against a piece of scrap paper he’d rustled from the compartment between us, holding the scrap paper up against the steering wheel, pressing the stamp against it, making me an instant, if unofficial, business card. I shook his hand and we parted ways.
Movie Dude had been an intriguing first jitney ride, but I wanted to talk to a driver who made driving his true livelihood. So I went back to the same grocery store parking lot looking for another ride.
This time I brought a friend along, hoping to look more noticeable, and it worked. Almost the second we passed through the automatic doors into the cold, there was Lou,* asking us if we needed a ride. He walked us eagerly to his car, smiling, with a spring to his step.
In the car, he told us he had driven years ago and was just now back at it after losing his job. He was in school for civil engineering at a community college and he’d just gotten a D in his Philosophy course.
“I will never take a Philosophy course again,” he said, explaining that he had studied the wrong text for the final, which made up the entirety of his final grade. I liked this guy. He had personality.
He charged us $10 for a shorter ride than Movie Dude, but after interviewing him about his current circumstance, I wouldn’t blame him for it.
He’d been let go from a housekeeping job at a hospital for veterans. “I know I’m cleaning up feces and urine, but I’m proud to serve those people, they fought for our country,” he said. He was wearing an official United States Veteran hat when we sat down for an interview about jitney driving and his struggle to find employment. I am excerpting parts of the interview here because I believe too few people ever hear these drivers’ voices.
Part 1: “I says ok, this gonna be my new next time job.”
How Lou got his start and what driving was like over 20 years ago.
Part 2: “They called the police on me.”
Competition amongst jitney drivers.
Part 3: “Do you see the position I’m in right now?”
Why Lou just can’t get a break.
Part 4: “No one wants to go in the hood and get robbed and all that…”
Are jitneys a good thing? Lou’s opinion.
What intrigued me about Lou was that although he himself had never been robbed, he recounted the days when drivers, usually younger men in their teens or twenties, were robbing jitneys, or passengers were getting in jitneys to rob drivers, though he said generally, drivers and passengers trust each other. I asked him if he ever thought about the threat of violence, as in the past, jitney drivers have been shot and killed and recently a female passenger reported an attempted rape.
Lou’s only protection against violence is his street smarts, and it’s merely a preventative measure at that. “You got instinct. I’m not gonna put no 2 or 3 dudes in the back looking real quiet. You read it from being in the streets,” he said.
The threat of violence is overtaken by the need to make a living. “It’s something I’m not thinking about being that I’m desperate right now to make it,” he said.
Soon after I met Lou, I rode the 89 bus through Garfield for the first time. I met a woman on that bus who had just moved from Garfield to Homewood. I told her about this blog and asked what changes she would like to see in her neighborhood.
The one thing she mentioned: she would like the 74 bus to Homewood to run later.
The 74 bus that runs from Squirrel Hill to Homewood out to East Liberty stops service at about 10:58pm, with no service on a Sunday.
The 89 has similarly bad service. It’s the only bus that runs through the Garfield neighborhood and it’s an extremely short route—I rode its entirety within 15 minutes. Its service runs until 10:45pm at the latest, with no service on Saturday or Sunday.
Homewood and Garfield are both neighborhoods with frequent jitney drivers and jitney customers.
I was surprised to find however, that unlike Garfield, there are 4 buses besides the 74 that go through Homewood. The 71D gets you to Homewood outbound from Oakland or Downtown. The 86 will get you to Homewood on the way from East Liberty through Bloomfield to Wilkinsburg. The 71D and 86 have service going as late as 1:30am and 1:45am.
The 77 goes right by the East Liberty Giant Eagle and through Homewood by way of Frankstown Ave, but like the 74, its service is poor: on a Saturday and Sunday when you might be doing your shopping, it comes once every hour.
The P1 Busway is also right by the Giant Eagle in East Liberty. Its service is fast, frequent, goes late, and can take you from the Homewood Busway Station directly to the Giant Eagle in East Liberty or Shadyside. Homewood Station is central, but with bags in your hands, it may not be close enough.
Shopping poses a particular quandary: there are those who are elderly and can’t carry their groceries on the bus. There are those who can’t afford a bus pass and multiple bus trips to the grocery store instead of one big trip. There are those who have kids to bring along with their shopping bags.
Then I’m reminded of something that is all too often assumed: that people would have to travel outside their neighborhood for amenities–that there isn’t a grocery store in Homewood and there isn’t a grocery store in Garfield, and there isn’t one in the Hill District, where jitneys are also popular.
Still, I found my mind wandering back to those 3 young teenagers who almost got in Movie Dude’s jitney. They were young and able-bodied. They had only a few bags in their hands. They could have easily gotten on the bus. So why didn’t they?
I asked a young man from Homewood, who has a long list of jitneys he used to use before he got a car, why someone like him or someone like those teenagers would choose a jitney over the bus. He simply said, “It’s convenient. Why pay $3.50 on the bus, when you can pay someone $6 to get you to your door?”
Our bus system is one of the highest priced compared to other cities in the country, high-priced enough that jitneys can compete.
Jitneys might have started because “Yellow Cab wouldn’t go into the ghetto,” as Lou said but they’ve become much more than that. They are a service that has become casual because it’s affordable and convenient, two markers of great transit. They’re a service created and managed by these communities to serve their own people’s pressing needs, and that they endure is remarkable. Maybe this is why, when I asked Lou in part 4 of our interview if there was a better solution to how people from these communities get around, he couldn’t come up with one.
In the words of Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. “… There’s a niche and people have filled that niche. I don’t know that it’s a good thing, but people have to get around.”
*This name has been changed to protect my source.