At the beginning of her journey, Rachel Simon doesn’t just lack close personal relationships—she also lacks any sense of a broader community. But this is by design: while she views her writing and teaching work as an important public service, she also believes that achieving the “Big Life” will require her to avoid tying herself down to any particular place or group of people. And she emphasizes that her experience isn’t unique—rather, it’s part of a longstanding pattern of weakening communal ties in American life. In fact, Rachel’s sister Beth lives in a mid-sized, formerly industrial, gradually declining Pennsylvania city where buses are one of the only remaining public spaces for residents to have natural, spontaneous encounters. As a result, the buses become a key place for the city’s residents to connect—and Beth, more than most contemporary Americans, manages to find a robust sense of community through the bus system. Thus, Riding the Bus with My Sister offers a lesson in the value of community, or meaningful and sustained connections with a wide group of people who live in the same place or share the same interests. Specifically, Rachel shows that building community is often a more sustainable, rewarding pathway to living a meaningful life than the individualistic achievements (like success, power, and class status) that contemporary American culture often prioritizes.
Rachel’s lifestyle and her observations of Beth’s city show how local communities are gradually eroding across the U.S. First and foremost, Rachel’s own life exemplifies this: for four years before her research began, she did almost nothing but work. Even though her job was to tell other people’s stories, she had virtually no relationships of any sort outside of work and her immediate family. Moreover, because of her workaholic, car-centric suburban lifestyle, she almost never interacted with people outside her own social circle and class. Thus, Rachel’s life exemplifies how modern American culture encourages people to live disconnected individual lives, rather than participating in a broader community. Meanwhile, Beth’s city shows how socioeconomic forces have accelerated this trend. Rachel frequently overhears bus passengers talk about the stores that used to line the main street, the parks and theaters where people used to congregate, and the factories where they used to work. But after industry left the city, it began shrinking and growing poor. Now, it feels desolate, lacks strong social and economic institutions, and is full of desperately lonely, aimless people. This reflects the broader decline in American communal life over the last half-century.
By riding the buses with Beth and meeting new people, Rachel rediscovers the value of community. First, public transportation provides one of the few truly collective spaces still left over in cities like Beth’s. At home, Rachel never takes public transit and almost never shares space with unfamiliar people. In contrast, when she rides the bus with Beth, she’s often surrounded by a crowd, and people spontaneously strike up conversations with one another. For instance, a group of women on Estella’s bus gets into a long discussion about men and romance. This makes Rachel dread returning home to her lonely apartment, because it shows her that she’s missing out on the chance to participate in larger communities. Meanwhile, Beth uses the bus system to plug into a particular “traveling community” of her own: the drivers. She knows them all by name, and they turn to her for gossip about the bus company and one another, just as often as she turns to them for their wisdom. For instance, Beth chats with Melanie about cute celebrities, with Jacob about morality, and with virtually everyone about her crush on Cliff. The drivers all have their own opinions about Beth, but by committing to riding the buses, she claims a place within a community of people who care about her.
Rachel’s experience shows her how people can find a sense of purpose and meaning by consciously building communities. First, Beth and Rachel find a sense of company and camaraderie on the buses, which they lack in their largely solitary lives. For instance, Estella’s passengers love her primarily because she’s a kind and generous listener. Even if she can’t help them solve their problems, she’s always willing to listen and make people feel less alone. This shows that a trusted community is a valuable resource in itself. In addition, community can help people access the specific resources they need. For instance, the bus driver Jack explains has directed passengers to rehabilitation programs, and Rachel becomes a resource too—she helps Rodolpho learn acting skills and make a career change. This shows that there’s no contradiction between individual success and connection to the community—on the contrary, community support helps people succeed. Community also passes on collective wisdom, memory, and morality. The bus drivers and passengers do so in the form of advice and stories. For instance, Bert is full of stories about driving buses in New York, while Jacob talks about his own liver transplant to illustrate the Golden Rule (treat others as one wants to be treated). These stories create a sense of continuity within communities over time, and they pass down shared values. This shows that building sustained community relationships can help people lead richer, happier lives, especially in declining places like Beth’s city.
While the sense of community that Rachel finds on the buses doesn’t undermine the value she places on her work, it does help her see the folly in dedicating herself entirely to work. After all, work is fundamentally about contributing to society, or playing a meaningful part in a broader community. Without connection to that community, therefore, even the most fascinating and important work can start to feel like meaningless drudgery. By seeing how Beth has created such a connection, Rachel realizes how she can reinvigorate her own work with a sense of meaning. Just as Rachel contributes to her community through writing and teaching, Beth contributes to her own by riding the buses, offering friendship and companionship along the way.
Community vs. Individualism ThemeTracker
Community vs. Individualism Quotes in Riding the Bus with My Sister
“Every day right here in this seat, I have history riding with me.
And that’s what I like about it. There’s so much richness on a bus—really, so much richness everywhere—if you just develop the ability to look at life with a different eye, and appreciate the opportunities offered to you.”
I tell my friends I want to know what “their own kind” means. […] Okay, so she’s a tiny, sassy, roly-poly, Crayola-bright, nonpracticing Jewish chatterbox, and he’s a five-feet-four, bashful, sinewy, Lycra-clad, nonpracticing Baptist loner. Yet she makes sure he’s safer by buying him a bike helmet. He makes sure she’s prettier by shaving the hair that grows on her face. They scratch each other’s backs, and they accept each other’s moles. They argue over her queen bee ways or his reticence; they make up. He hangs his bike awards in her apartment. She keeps the redial button on her phone set to call him. They agree that they both want their own space and should remain unmarried, visiting in mornings or evenings, remaining alone with their dreams. I am still longing to meet my own kind, whatever that is, and I wonder who among these critics has met theirs.
The hostess, who is also the waitress, has shed all traces of her earlier inhospitality, and she doesn’t ignore Beth and Jesse, as some waitresses would do, waiting for me to act as the interpreter. Instead, she asks them what they want. It must be taxing for her, I think, as she pockets her pad and walks off; it’s perplexing enough for me. And how can she assess the proper way to behave, when my conversations with friends have made plain to me how little even the most enlightened of them knows about people like my sister? After all, until Beth’s generation, many people with mental retardation were shut away in institutions and attics.
Beth wipes a bread crumb from Jesse’s small mustache. I bite into a roll, so frazzled that my hand is trembling. Now I understand that it’s not just Jesse’s blind eye or mental disability that discourages him from accepting my offers to join us in restaurants. There’s so much separateness in this almost empty room that I can’t breathe.
“Don’t pay him no mind,” Jesse says quietly, having observed more than I’d realized. “People is gonna look all day, and they might say that they don’t think it’s right, but it’s not really for them to judge. As long as you be nice to a person, looks don’t matter. You in this world, and you gotta accept it.”
“Yeah,” Beth says. “Sometimes people give us looks, but I don’t think about it.”
I glance around, and realize with surprise that all the passengers happen to be female. Soon our chat in the front of the bus has rippled out to every unrequited teenager, too-young-to-vote mother, starry-eyed fiancée, common-law wife, football widow, three-time divorcée, golden-anniversary grandmother, and avowed single woman until the whole bus is talking together about men: the good, the bad, and their own choices.
[…] Maybe this is what it used to be like once upon a time. Maybe, when women gathered for quilting bees, or when men played checkers outside the general store, or when everyone came together at village dances and July Fourth picnics, this ease helped people feel less alone in their worries. Maybe, too, this was the swiftness with which neighbors became friends, and the simplicity with which one person’s tale became another person’s teacher.
Beth has sought out mentors in places where others might not look, and, moreover, taken the time, and endured the pain, to weed out those drivers who are decent and kind and reflective from those who are indifferent or hostile. The ones I’m meeting are, I realize as I quickly do the math, only about a sixth of the whole bus company. That took Beth a huge amount of trial and error—and, yes, determination. I shake my head, amazed at how much I’d somehow missed, and then, with a surge of optimism, wonder if one out of six people in any profession or community would also be exceptionally thoughtful. How could I really know? Have I ever spent this much time exploring the worldviews of my colleagues at school or the bookstore? Do I have a clue about whether my neighbors feel committed to the Golden Rule?
To Beth, every day is Independence Day. This was not true for the first half of her life, and for the next quarter it was more of a rebel war, with its own versions of boycotts (particularly at meals), Boston Tea Parties (I shudder to remember her efforts to overturn the order in her classroom), and a one-woman Minuteman regiment. Since she has lived on her own, though, each day her actions declare anew that all men are created equal, and have the inalienable right to life, liberty, and, especially, the pursuit of happiness. I love this about her, and, now that I have come to see her as proudly bearing the torch of self-determination, I regard her as courageous, a social pioneer.
There is just enough sun left for me to make out a silvery bus, moving like a fish, winding between the curbs. Maybe a bus where my sister sits. […] To the east, there’s another, and another, and another. Each one its own private history class, or luncheonette, or quilting bee, or schoolroom, or comedy theater—yet each one linked, one person at a time, to all the others. Because I can see, as Rick points it out, how they glide along, stopping for riders—riders who might have been on that run last year and are now over here, and riders from over here who might be transferring to a bus over there—and how the journeys seem separate, yet are constantly and inextricably joined together. I step back and take in all the buses coasting and turning and stopping and going—the enormous web of the world.