Earworm Weekly: Waiting for the Bus with the Violent Femmes

Not all earworms are top-40 hits. Some songs never catch fire with the general public, but nonetheless find just the right niche in your personal inner jukebox. Unlike the chart-toppers, it's hard to share the joy or despair of having a relatively obscure earworm with your friends and acquaintances. On the other hand, maybe sometimes those songs become that much more precious and personal in feel as a result.

[jump] I don't have a driver's license. I didn't lose it; I never got one in the first place. I took driver's ed in high school but it was a rather traumatic experience and I have basically never been behind the wheel of a car again. Instead, I use public transportation to get around. This means I have spent a large chunk of my life so far standing at bus stops. And I have a little soundtrack for those all-too-frequent moments when the bus is off-schedule for one reason or another: the Violent Femmes' “Waiting for the Bus.”

Really, it's just a two-minute-long sarcastic little ditty by an '80s acoustic punk band about how little fun it is to be stuck at a bus stop for a long time, and how the situation doesn't always improve much once the bus actually arrives. The song, written in 1981 when lead singer Gordon Gano was still in high school, was a standard part of the Femmes' live shows for decades, but was never an official album track outside of compilations. There are several other worthy “waiting for the bus songs” out there, by the likes of bands such as ZZ Top and Satellite High. But none of them hit my sweet spot the way the Violent Femmes did. I think the song has stuck with me for so long at least in part because of the convergence of two factors: A) I am a lifelong non-driver and B) like the Femmes themselves, I am originally from the upper Midwest.

It's not uncommon to find adults from New York City and, occasionally, other coastal urban centers like Boston or San Francisco who never learned to drive a car because they never needed to. It's much more rare to find someone who grew up in the expansive spaces in the middle of the country who depends solely on public transportation. (I never learned to ride a bike, either. But if you need advice on the best walking shoes in town, give me a call.) Along comes a song played by three guys from Milwaukee about the bus stop blues. Hooked for life? Apparently so. If I've been waiting more than 10 minutes at a stop, this song inevitably pops into my head.

For me, the crucial loop (which, in classic earworm fashion, actually consists of two halves of two different verses welded together by my imperfect memory) is this:

Let's call the mayor, let's complain
Seems like the city's done it to us again. 
Looks like somebody forgot about us
Standing on the corner, waiting for a bus.

If only the mayor was likely to listen. Those who depend on public transportation often (and rightly) feel like they're an afterthought in this car-centric culture of ours, and bus riders doubly so. In these days of chronically underfunded infrastructure, our bus fleets are dirty, bumpy, and prone to breakdowns – and, yes, chronically late. There are plenty of people out there who will take BART or Caltrain or even a MUNI streetcar, but vocally refuse to ever set foot on a bus. Buses – the public kind, not the shiny wi-fi-enabled corporate harbingers of the apocalypse that crowd out municipal buses at their own stops – are for other people. Unimportant people. Teenagers, the elderly, the crazy, infirm and poor – and for “poor,” read “not white” and add a reflexive pearl clutch. At least, that's the stereotype. I can tell you from experience that the reality is a lot more interesting. (Not to mention comfortable; I'll take a cushy transbay bus over a sardine-packed BART car any day of the week.) I have had my worst urban experiences on the bus, and my best. I've been harassed for the way I look and, once, for the way I cover my cough. I've had a man tell me about the neighbor who died in his arms. Another man gifted my children a pair of immaculate basketball shoes. And once, a maniacally cheerful driver serenaded the rush hour crowd with a capella renditions of Queen songs and offered to drive us all the way down to L.A. if we wanted to go. Forget your troubles! And your timetables! “Let's all be like the hippies but without the weed,” he said. “God bless.” Now that was a ride worth waiting for.

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