A LOVE LETTER TO PUBLIC TRANSIT
Writer, Performer, & Composer | Ali Joy Richardson
Sound Engineer | Neil Silcox
Kjipuktuk, Mi’kma’ki. 2021.
[Sound: The hubbub of a busy ferry terminal - chatter, laughter, and coins clinking in the metal fare receptacle. The sound of the passenger safety video.]
Hi. I’m Ali. If you’re accessing this through the app, that means you’re at the Dartmouth Ferry Terminal in Mi’kma’ki, unceded Mi’kmaq territory. You’re at the edge of the water that gives Kjipuktuk, now also called Halifax, its original name. Kjipuktuk means “great harbour”.
When I was 19, I was a tour guide on the Halifax Harbour Hopper (ribbit ribbit) and I learned that they’ve found 45 shipwrecks at the bottom of this harbour.
Sorry to put that in your head if you’re about to get on the ferry.
You’ll be fine, though. You can trust the ferry. It’s the oldest salt-water ferry in North America, and the second oldest in the world. And, fun fact - one of our original ferry boats was powered by nine horses walking in a circle in the middle of the boat to turn a central paddle. Insert horse power joke here.
[Sound: The ferry boat horn.]
The newest ferry boat is named Rita Joe in honour of the beloved and renowned Mi’kmaw poet and songwriter from Eskasoni First Nation in Cape Breton. Rita Joe survived the Shubenacadie Residential School and she relearned her Mi’kmaq language when she was sixteen. When she died in 2007, her daughters found her last poem, “October Song”, on her typewriter. This is that poem:
[Sound: Piano, cautious and soft.]
“On the day I am blue, I go again to the wood where the tree is swaying, arms touching you like a friend, and the sound of the wind so alone like I am; whispers here, whispers there, come and just be my friend.”
This land, Mi’kma’ki, is covered by the Peace & Friendship Treaties. These treaties were an early attempt to articulate reciprocal relationships between the Mi’kmaq, the Wəlastəkwiyik, the Passamuquody, and the British.
As a Maritimer from settler lineage, I’m thinking about how good relationships require action. A small step I can suggest is supporting the Eskasoni Immersion School, an incredible Primary to Grade 5 school in Cape Breton that immerses kids in Mi’kmaq language, culture, and community. As a writer, I know how much language matters. How can we protect what matters for future generations?
[Sound: Piano. Low, warm chords. Anticipating. Hoping.]
I grew up here in Dartmouth. My Mom’s family is from Cape Breton and Wallace, Nova Scotia by way of Scotland, France, and Lebanon. My Dad’s family has roots in Newfoundland - I don’t know enough about their history yet, but I’m lucky to have plenty of people I can ask - my Dad’s the youngest of 11 who grew up in the North End of Halifax, where I live now.
I moved away from here when I was 18 and I spent 12 years living and working as a theatre artist in Toronto. I loved it.
Then the pandemic hit, and I was turning 30, and I had more time to think. I realized I felt a strong pull to come home. My fiancé Neil and I talked about it for about a year and then made the move in June 2021. Neil is the sound engineer for this piece by the way.
[Sound: “Hi!”, from Neil]
So. This is my love letter to public transit from my teenaged heart. The whole piece is about 12 minutes long - that’s the length of a ferry ride. But my adventures on transit didn’t start on the ferry.
They started over in Crichton Park, where I’d catch the Number 10 bus behind my house and our elementary school soccer field.
We lived so close to the school that my sister and I could make it in 51 seconds if we sprinted.
[Sound: Feet running fast on crunchy playground gravel.]
The bus stop was between the soccer fields and a baseball diamond.
[Sound: Traffic on a wide street in summer.]
That’s the sound of the bus stop. Neil and I biked over there when we were done our 14 day quarantine. There was an absolutely ferocious preteen softball game happening.
[Sound: Preteen voices chanting and cheering at a game.]
I started taking the bus when I was in grade 9.
I got one of those tall, narrow paper bus schedules that would instantly turn to pulp if it got rained on, which it always did.
It felt sacred to me, and I remember being shocked that they were just handing them out for free.
That damp, dog-eared bus schedule was my bible. I carried it with me at all times. I highlighted my favourite passages and marked pages with paper clips for ease of reference.
This was, of course, before smart phones. I did have a cellphone. It had T9 texting and an antenna I’d pull out with my teeth like a real cool person.
The next magical item required to summon the power of public transit was a fold of neon orange bus tickets, each one a satisfying little square. I’d carry these beauties in the pocket of my corduroy blazer.
Then I’d pack my backpack with the final key items:
Crushed granola bar that I’d promise myself I’d eat to save money and would always buy a samosa at the Paper Chase instead.
And my iPod of Tegan and Sara
[Sound: Thrum of a jangly, minor key chord on a guitar]
The New Pornographers
[Sound: Orchestral, upbeat folk pop]
and The Mountain Goats
[Sound: Driving acoustic guitar with thumping drums]
I kept my Mom’s old digital watch clipped to the shoulder strap of my backpack so I could check the time really easily - again, real cool-like - in order to know exactly how much time I had before the next bus. Now, the bus did not run with the precision of my mother’s old watch. But that was fine. I was keeping up my end of the bargain.
So, with backpack packed and blazer on, I’d walk to the bus stop by the baseball diamond. I’d stand in the wind, iPod playing, and then – I’d see her.
[Sound: Driving, low piano notes; soft but building]
Bending around the curve of Micmac Boulevard, the Number 10 bus would appear like a salt stained rocket to freedom. My heart would pound.
For a kid who couldn’t drive, that bus was a wheezy, wondrous chariot of independence.
I’d rattle across the bridge to Halifax and I’d feel like I was crossing a portal into a new world where I was more myself.
I’d get off on Barrington street and head to wherever I was meeting friends. The usual haunts were:
JWD Bookstore, where you could never find what you were looking for, but you’d always find something.
The Paper Chase cafe, where I once lost the mathematically shortest game of chess possible.
Little Mysteries Wiccan Bookstore where I bought a tigers eye stone that I wrapped in wire and wore around my neck for five years.
Dressed in Time, the vintage store where I got a floor length wool coat that I wore with a leather belt on the outside like a lanky, steampunk governess.
Sometimes the destination was the perfectly named Bus Stop Theatre, where I learned that theatre could be more than Shakespeare and that there were people like me who genuinely wanted to talk about the play for the entire bus-ride home.
I used to catch the Number 55 bus to my best friend Jenna’s house along Waverley road. This was a high stakes trip - there was only one stop near her street, and if you missed it, you’d over shoot it so far you’d be tramping through knee deep snow for 20 minutes trying to get back. This was before buses announced the next stop or anything like that. So it was just me and my lazy eye squinting through the salty window for the house with the crazy Christmas lights that was my cue to pull the cord. When it wasn’t Christmastime, I was a goner.
I usually took the ferry with my friend Najet. I think it cost us $2 when we were in grade 9. I’d find a spare twonie in the front hall table and hold it in my hand, like Frodo holding the ring, thinking of all it represented. A day in the city to wander and talk and feel my future getting closer.
Public transit connected me to the places where my heart was hiding. It gave me that crucial distance and autonomy that I think teenagers need to learn where their families end and they begin. Even coming from a family as great as mine – I sometimes needed a bus-ride across a bridge to figure out what I really thought about things.
Just a few years later, I’d find myself on a bus in Mississauga, Ontario listening to The Rankins and wishing so badly I could be back in Dartmouth running to school with my sister.
Part of what was special about going to Halifax as a teenager was the queer community. I didn’t realize I was a part of it yet - I just knew that I felt most like me when I was hanging out with people who pushed back against gender roles and whose crushes didn’t follow any rules.
For my 30th birthday, my partner Neil surprised me by hanging a pride flag outside our home. I’ll be honest - my first reaction was panic. It felt super vulnerable. But then I thought - maybe there’s a kid in our neighbourhood in a corduroy blazer who could use seeing a pride flag. Hell, maybe there’s a 30 year old who could use it.
[Sound: Warm, comforting piano chords.]
If you’re listening to this through the app, you’re probably on the ferry now. Maybe you’re almost across.
If you’re listening in another way, here’s a little taste of the ferry.
[Sound: The churning, splashing water around the ferry while it moves across the harbour.]
Coming home is complicated. As somebody who really values forward momentum, I worry sometimes about what this return means. This is usually the part where the story ends, right? The hero comes home. Roll credits.
But this doesn’t feel like an end.
On good days, this feels like a new adventure
[Sound: Driving, low piano notes; soft but building]
Neil and I talk a lot about our responsibility to find the places where our gifts are needed.
Going away helped me learn what my gifts are.
A global pandemic helped me realize this is where I
want to give them next.
So I’ll leave you with this hope.
May your backpack be packed with what you need.
May you have music and a snack for the long road.
May a friend be waiting to meet you where you’re going.
And may you trust the route you choose and recognize when to pull the cord.
[Sound: A single piano note rings like the ding of a “stop request” bell on a bus.]