I didn’t wake up one morning at the age of 14 and decide to become the architect of a payment avoidance scheme, defrauding our local transit commission of many thousands of dollars - it just sort of happened. Criminology would tell us it came down to two factors: motive and opportunity.
Back then, it was called Kitchener Transit and by all accounts it was the absolute fucking worst. Have you noticed how anyone who visits the capitals of Europe and East Asia returns home with a profound disdain for public transit in Ontario? And yet, as an untravelled teenager in 1994, it was clear to me that Kitchener Transit was broken. As a recent transplant to Waterloo from Kitchener’s Chandler Drive housing complex, I had to rely on that system.
What now lies West of Fischer-Hallman - Erbsville, parts of Westvale, Laurelwood - was either brand new or simply did not exist. Our move from a subsidized townhouse in Kitchener to a semi in Waterloo was a blessing, except it was in the middle of nowhere. For a pedestrian, navigating west of Beechwood Zehrs meant traversing a mountain of corn, running through wooded pathways, and hopping fences.
The nearby WASP enclave of Beechwood was better serviced. Not that they needed it - they drove cars, and their kids drove cars! WCI was the 90210 of Waterloo Region. So-and-so had the brand-new Mazda Precidia, what’s his name drove a Honda Prelude, and one kid even had a Lexus. While my Grandparents arrived in Canada 25 years prior, ours was still the “New Canadian” experience. We had one car. If we were getting off the bus in Beechwood, best believe we were going to steal some rich kid’s bike, double up on the handlebars, and ride like hell. We never kept the bikes, though. We’d always toss them in the creek, lest our mothers find them and beat our asses.
Today, you can tap your screen, and a driver will take you door to door. You don’t need to know anything about your route. In 1994, you couldn’t even begin to contemplate this unless you had the foresight to first procure a bus schedule. Planning a trip that required multiple buses? You’d best have all the schedules on hand and memorize the telerider number, which you could only call from a landline. None of this actually mattered, though, because the bus was, always, always late. Or always early. And, the bus driver was either racist, ageist, or both - either way, being young and Black did me no favours.
In 1994, the system was completely at odds with my existence. In spite of this, my social life revolved around the city’s public transit system. On any given day, my friends and I would cut class, ride around the city, and post up at Charles St. Terminal. We’d catch glimpses of queens with hoop earrings and link with homies from other schools. If they were the fucking opposition, we’d post up and ice grill. Fight, if necessary.
The terminal was an essential part of teenage life, made all the more crucial by our love for Hip Hop. Wu-Tang, Method Man, Nas, Snoop Dogg, Biggie, Pac -- I rode the city bus through the golden era of hip hop. Method Man’s 1994 video for Bring the Pain was shot on a city bus, no less. Riding the city bus was our opportunity to emulate the coolest guy in the world, so long as we did it with panache. Most importantly, riding the bus meant that I got to tag it.
Tagging the bus was a way to thumb my nose at the establishment, using one of Hip Hop’s core traditions. All art is political, but It was also an egotistical, public declaration: “look at me, I don’t give a fuck and I’m an artist.” Like most of my peers, I had an array of Sharpies in my numerous pockets: Magnums, ‘phatties,’ fine points, you name it. Every surface required a different approach, and the good vandal came prepared. To tag a bus seat, for example, you wanted that extra-large 5/8" wide tip to soak deep into the cloth. If you wanted lavish, then you’d whip out gold or silver paint markers, and rattle them around first like spray-paint to maximize viscosity. Some surfaces proved harder to deface than others, so we began incorporating stickers and tagging whole sheets in advance. We went nuts. Not much was sacred.
For us Black kids and hip hop aficionados, taking the city buses was a rich, cultural experience. And yet, relying on Kitchener Transit meant incurring extra costs and oppression.
Boarding the bus, I presented my transfer to the driver and sat down. Leaning back, headphones in and blaring, I discovered something curious in my coat pocket - a pristine, creaseless and untattered bus transfer. Moreover, it looked like the transfer I had just received to board this bus. What, then, had I given the driver? How was it that I was permitted to take my seat? I was dumbfounded until the answer jumped out at me.
These transfers were relatively new. I’m not sure what the powers that be were hoping to accomplish with this update. The transfers really only contained two pieces of information - the day of the week and an allotment of two hours to use for a connecting bus. Before this, a transfer either went into the garbage or to a driver. This time, the system failed Kitchener Transit. I had boarded the bus with a transfer from the week prior, for free.
The transfer I held in my hand was no longer a ticket stub. It was a Fiat currency. And so it was upon this transfer that I built my church. It took one week to confirm my hypothesis, and I began systematically collecting transfers. One for every day of the week, and one for every conceivable timeframe. I was architect, evangelist, and principal bull of a newfound exchange, trading within our circle. Soon, cats from other schools were trading transfers too. Before long, they became acceptable exchange for other products and services - the right combination of transfers might gain you entry into a blunt cipher. But with ubiquity came hubris. Perhaps if word had not spread so quickly, we could have prolonged the magic. We thought we built the perfect system.
Passing off an expired transfer took grace and logic. You couldn’t hop on a bus with a transfer from the other end of the city unless there was a connection. That took above-average savvy. Additionally, we didn’t anticipate human greed. Our idea was never to hoard countless transfers. Nevertheless, people began making up implausible excuses to use or hold on to their transfers, casting suspicion over everything. If you took the 5 Erb West home with a month-old transfer from the 12 Fairview, you had no reason to hold onto that transfer. You’d pass it on to the bus driver - there was nothing to transfer to. But some tried and failed. Further, many lacked restraint in determining when to present a transfer. You could present a month-old transfer if the transfer point and time was right, but it wouldn’t work if the bus wasn’t no longer running that day or had not been by in hours, as was often the case. Believing it would work brought scrutiny to the entire enterprise. Lastly, it didn't help that we were a productive lot, my generation. Tagging walls at school, shoplifting cologne testers and smoking weed, it really was only a matter of time before some fool got caught in possession of a grip of transfers.
I never got caught. Soon after I entered into our society’s ritual of car ownership, and haven't relied on public transit since. But not everyone was so lucky. Within less than a year of our racket’s inception, the new Grand River Transit Commission introduced a simple change on transfers - the day of the month. Following that, they began to employ randomized, unpredictable colours. They added QR codes with timestamps. Today, we’re swapping out paper for cards. With the advent of ION, I anticipate even more innovative methods of “transferring,” but as a well travelled young man, my disdain for public transit in Ontario has reached a limit. I could kind of care less.
If you one day find yourself aboard the ION, paying with your phone, take a moment to whisper a silent prayer of thanks to the disenfranchised children of immigrants that grew up on the fringes, hacking their way through the 90s. Had we not exposed the cracks in the Kitchener Transit system, your convenient little easyGO cards might not exist.
The story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed are fictitious. No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, buildings, and products is intended or should be inferred.