I spent four-and-a-half hours on a Saturday night C1 bus and lived to tell the tale.
Every Duke student knows well that a long bus ride is a bad bus ride. Most have suffered through a long wait for the C1, only for it to hit every stop before that class that's in five minutes.
It's fair to say I have no sympathy for those gripes now.
Unless it fails to come or takes too long to leave, the C1 from East Campus to West Campus is an afterthought. Its countless trips across campus fade into the past with no fanfare as we, Duke students, lose ourselves in work, play and life. It’s 10:18 p.m. I got on the bus to capture a few of these stories.
I post up at the back of the bus, not quite sure of what to expect from the night. As the bus makes its first stop on West, I figure out who the star of the show will be—Big Mike.
The man is a campus icon. Always willing to talk and eager to find any way to make each student’s day a bit better, the Big Mike has amassed a reputation for his kindness and passion. He laughs as I introduce myself to him and let him know that I’ll be keeping him company tonight. I sit down, the doors close and we head to East.
Back on East, I return to Big Mike’s cockpit.
“So, what should I look out for tonight?” I ask.
Big Mike tells me there are two main kinds of people to keep an eye out for—those still lost in their studies and those trying to escape them. He tells me that the weekend night bus features students coming back from Perkins and students “getting a few drinks.”
“I’m not advocating for drinking,” Big Mike says. “But it's important to let off steam.”
Big Mike added that there are usually a few messes that happen on the night ride.
“And let me not forget the spillage of drinks and the leaving of food, like donuts, on the bus," he says. "And, of course, the aftermath of regurgitation.”
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I have a lot to look forward to.
A girl walks on the bus with her umbrella open.
“It’s a safety hazard,” Big Mike warns her. “But I still love you.”
It’s 10:40 p.m., and I immediately see that Mike’s characterization of bus riders is correct. Across from me, two tired students discuss classical music as instrument cases sprawl before them. To my right, I hear another student declare that “tonight, we drink to forget.” I wonder what must be forgotten.
In between trips up and down Campus Drive and conversations with Big Mike, an array of people color the bus.
A pack of high schoolers board. They tell me they are here for Robertson Scholars finalist weekend, and I can see bits of excitement, nervousness, hope and fear in them. A few of them are brave enough to talk to me.
At 11:50 p.m., I see the first sign of night life—a girl stumbling onto the C1 in a black crop top.
On the next loop, my friend Ben hops on. He tells me it's snowing, and I squint to see weak white flakes falling outside the foggy glass window.
At 12:15 a.m., Jeremy, who lives down the hall, boards. We talk about housing reform, and he sticks around to keep me company. Back on West, some of the guys I took my first voyage across campus with get back on. They spent a few hours holed up in the BC. It’s 12:35 a.m., and they are free. The bus rolls forward.
Dozens of people have given Big Mike fist bumps and high fives tonight. I ask him about his relationship with students and he smiles.
“It’s a part of who I am, I’m a people person,” he says.
Big Mike thinks that part of his role as a bus driver is to break down social barriers. His greetings could make someone's night.
He says a great deal with the words he uses, and usually adds one of his many slogans to a thought for good measure. “It’s all love.” “Life is good.” “And that’s real talk.”
Back on the road, Viraj heads to East House after a long night of studying for a computer science midterm. David Elias and I talk about housing at Duke, and Chamo and Deigo board bound for Edens to play Fortnite.
Sharik tells me he meant to study, but ended up having a two hour long conversation in Pitchforks. Daniel and I reminisce over our high school debate careers as he journeys to meet a friend. Alison tells me to #SwipeRightForCardi.
I ask Big Mike what he thinks about his job.
“Don’t make me cry,” he says
He tells me that he loves to drive and he loves to talk, so its the perfect job for him.
“I love my job so, so much. It truly is the best job I’ve ever had," Big Mike says. "I’m vocationally skilled to do other jobs that pay better.”
He pauses to gently tell a girl to put her feet down and lets me know that "it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” He takes a moment to think.
"I hope I never leave this job," he says.
On East Campus, some seniors bump fists with Big Mike and head to the back. They wear wristbands and are reluctant to talk as I approach them. “Are you recording me?” one asks.
They open up and tell me that the fashion show they went to was solid, but Shooters was better. They ask me one more question as they get off at Central.
“You want a beer?” I decline.
A few rows back another duo retreats from Shooters. They deny earlier reports of a parent laden dance floor, but show me a video of a bride and groom dancing to Trey Songz’ “Say Aah” next to them.
“Goals,” one of the girls whispers to herself.
On my last trip to East, I am the lone passenger. I stand at the front of the bus, behind the yellow line, and talk to the pilot. He tells me about the deer, owls and coyotes he sees on his late night treks. At a stop, he takes a call, smiles and says, “I love you more.”
Big Mike has told me about the strength students gave him and his wife as they battled family tragedy, shared a few of his many little philosophies and values with me, and offered a barrage of hot takes on the challenges we face as an evolving world and community. Students have explored the intricacies of housing reform with me, given me in depth analysis on the night’s Shooters vibe, and sat around to catch up with me.
Earlier, a friend pointed out to me that this may be the only part of Duke where we are all forced to be together. Big Mike liked that understanding of the bus—the C1 as a microcosm of our school. I do too. My long bus ride has taught me a lot about this place. If this is what our school is, I decide, then I love Duke.
We pull up to East. I go to shake Big Mike’s hand and end up giving him a hug. The door opens. I look down at my phone and see that it’s 2:37 a.m. Four and a half hours later, I step off the bus.