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Riding the 1 bus: An unguided tour to East Oakland

photo by Julie Caine

One way to get to know a new place is to ride public transportation – especially the bus. It’s like taking an unguided tour – a tour in which there’s often as much to see inside as there is out the windows.

The most popular buses in Oakland are the 1 and the 1R. The 1, which is the local route, makes 105 stops in three different East Bay cities. It’s a trip that takes four hours from start to finish.

More than 22,000 people ride these bus routes every single day. Most don’t own cars – this is the only way they get around. The buses travel right through the heart of the Fruitvale and San Antonio neighborhoods along International Boulevard, also known as East 14th.

Whatever you call it, it’s a road, and a part of Oakland, with an identity all its own. As part of our reporting project about the Fruitvale and San Antonio neighborhoods in Oakland, I got on the 1 to find out what riding the bus says about a community.

When I first got to Fruitvale, I asked a young woman outside the BART station where to catch the bus. She looked me up and down, slowly, and then she said, “The 1 over here on this side – that goes to East Oakland. You don’t want to go over there.”

The 1 bus has a reputation, just like the East Oakland neighborhoods it traverses. You never know what might happen. The day can turn from peaceful to deadly without warning. Crime is high, and people are poor.

But today, the streets of Fruitvale and San Antonio are vibrant and full of life. Ice cream vendors’ bells blend with hip hop pulsing from passing cars, and Mexican Banda music seeps out the doors of dark neighborhood cantinas. The people speak many languages: Vietnamese, Spanish, Chinese, and English.

People tend to keep to themselves on the streets, but on the bus, everybody comes together.

At the front of the bus, an elderly lady sits with a tight grip on her purple shopping cart. A woman speaking Spanish to her kids wrangles shopping bags and a stroller toward the middle section, where there are more empty seats. Towards the back, young men slouch low in their seats, listening to music and looking out the windows.

Robert Hawkins is behind the wheel.

“It's like a switch turns on in your head,” Hawkins tells me about his job. “Because you know that you're getting ready to deal with a bunch of mess. Or the potential for a bunch of mess out here.”

Hawkins has been driving the 1 bus for five years. Drivers with more seniority tend to avoid this route.

“You know, I actually used to live in the Fruitvale, in the 20s,” he tells me as he drives. “Basically I was raised by the street. I recognize things that an ordinary person on the bus is not going to recognize driving through those neighborhoods. So when I’m driving, I just try to focus on what I’m doing and nothing else. Answer people’s questions if they have them. And just try to make it through the day as peacefully as possible.”

Rosa Lopez is sitting in the middle of the bus with her two daughters––backpacks and shopping bags at their feet. Lopez takes the 1 every day.

“I take it to my appointments, to school, to my immigration in San Francisco,” says Lopez. “It gets packed, but it takes you where you have to go, and it’s cheap.”

Like Hawkins, Lopez also grew up in the neighborhood, and says it doesn’t really deserve its reputation.

“Oakland’s always known as bad, you know,” she says. “But it’s good, actually. If you get along with everybody, everybody gets along with you. Everybody out here, you know, is friendly. If you’re friendly to them, they’re going to be friendly to you.”

One of her daughters reaches up and pushes the button for their stop. And Lopez gathers their things and shepherds the little girls out the back door.

Out the windows of the bus, the signs are in Vietnamese, Lao, Spanish and English. We pass by all kinds of mom and pop businesses—restaurants, flower shops, Western wear stores, beauty parlors. A storefront church with a hand lettered-sign butts up against a deli advertising burritos and Vietnamese Bahn Mi sandwiches.

I get off the bus for a few minutes at 29th and International. A Vietnamese man is at the bus stop, sitting in the sun. He lives in the San Antonio, in a neighborhood called ‘Little Vietnam,” and he’s on his way home.

I ask him if he likes living here. No, he tells me. It’s not safe, he says, but the housing is cheap. So it’s just poor people living in the neighborhood. Behind him, in the shade of an awning, a woman named Laurie Greenway is crocheting a bright pink baby sweater. She’s not waiting for bus. She lives on a fixed income, and sits here most days, hoping someone will stop to buy something that she’s made.

She says she feels a sense of community in the neighborhood.

“They've gotten used to seeing my smiling face,” she says. “So a lot of the ice cream vendors, fruit vendors, even just people that I see on a regular basis, if I’m not where they're used to seeing me for a couple of days, they'll ask my girlfriend who they see and they know both of us. Or when I do feel well enough to be back out, it's like what happened? Are you okay?”

That tension – the worry if someone is okay – is in the air in the neighborhood. It always feels like something might happen. In the same way, the 1 has a reputation for being a wild ride. I get back on, still expecting something crazy to happen. Towards the back of the bus is Addy Ortiz. She rides the 1 to and from school every day. I ask her if she has any crazy stories about riding the bus.

“I remember this one time we were riding the bus, and this little girl was sitting right by the door. And her mom came with three other babies. And she was just standing there. And the little girl got off. She got off when the door opened and the mom was right there not paying attention to her … And then she's like, ‘Where's my baby?!’”

In the end, everything turned out okay. The woman got off the bus in time to rescue her daughter. But the experience stuck with Ortiz.

“It was funny, but crazy,” Ortiz tell me. “It was scary.”

In the very back, a couple rows behind Ortiz, a man sits, gazing out the windows. His name is Julius Conley, and he’s on his way to work.

When I ask him to tell me what it’s like to ride the 1, he laughs and then tells me a story.

“I got on here one time, and it was late at night, and this guy got on with a duffel bag and started tripping, and trying to make people get up out of their seats and trying to punk ‘em and stuff. He was just like, 'Do you know what I got in this bag?' ‘Do you know!? You don't know. Get up! You don't know what I got. You don't know what's in this bag.’ I was just sitting there like damn! Like, you don't know! ‘I got a chopper.’ So, that's what it's like. Yeah, you don't know what's in the bag. Ride that 1. You’ll find out. Ride that 1, you’ll find out what’s in the bag.”

Most everyone on the bus has some kind of story of how just when they thought they’d seen it all, something new and unbelievable happened. But on the day I rode the 1, what I saw was something much more ordinary—regular people traveling through the neighborhood, getting to work, to school, to the doctor, or just getting out of the house.  In that way, the 1 is kind of like East Oakland itself – a place with a wild reputation that a lot of people call home.

This story originally aired on May 30, 2012.