As American cities struggle to recover from the pandemic, Denver’s problems spill over onto its buses
DENVER — Suna Karabay touched up her eye makeup in the rearview mirror and leaned against the steering wheel of the bus to say her morning prayers. “Please, let me be patient,” she said. “Let me be generous and kind.” She walked through the bus to make her final inspection: floor swept, seats cleaned, handrails disinfected, gas tank full for another 10-hour shift on the city’s busiest commercial road. She drove to her first stop, waited until exactly 5:32 a.m., and opened the doors.
“Good morning!” she said, as she greeted the first passenger of the day, a barefoot man carrying a blanket and a pillow. He dropped 29 cents into the fare machine for the $3 ride. “That’s all I got,” he said, and Suna nodded and waved him onboard.
“Happy Friday,” she said to the next people in line, including a couple with three plastic garbage bags of belongings and a large, unleashed dog. “Service pet,” one of the owners said. He fished into his pocket and pulled out a bus pass as the dog jumped onto the dashboard, grabbed a box of Kleenex, and began shredding tissues on the floor.
“Service animal?” Suna asked. “Are you sure?”
“What’d I tell you already?” the passenger said. “Just drive the damn bus.”
She turned back to face the windshield and pulled onto Colfax Avenue, a four-lane road that ran for more than 30 miles past the state capitol, through downtown, and toward the Rocky Mountains. Forty-five years old, she’d been driving the same route for nearly a decade, becoming such a fixture of Denver’s No. 15 bus line that her photograph was displayed on the side of several buses — a gigantic, smiling face of a city Suna no longer recognized in the aftermath of the pandemic. The Denver she encountered each day on the bus had been transformed by a new wave of epidemics overwhelming major cities across the country. Homelessness in Denver was up by as much as 50 percent since the beginning of the pandemic. Violent crime had increased by 17 percent, murders had gone up 47 percent, some types of property crime had nearly doubled, and seizures of fentanyl and methamphetamine had quadrupled in the past year.
She stopped the bus every few blocks to pick up more passengers in front of extended-stay motels and budget restaurants, shifting her eyes between the road ahead and the rearview mirror that showed all 70 seats behind her. In the past two years, Denver-area bus drivers had reported being assaulted by their passengers more than 145 times. Suna had been spit on, hit with a toolbox, threatened with a knife, pushed in the back while driving and chased into a restroom during her break. Her windshield had been shattered with rocks or glass bottles three times. After the most recent incident, she’d written to a supervisor that “this job now is like being a human stress ball.” Each day, she absorbed her passengers’ suffering and frustration during six trips up and down Colfax, until, by the end of the shift, she could see deep indentations of her fingers on the wheel.
Now she stopped to pick up four construction workers in front of “Sunrise Chinese Restaurant — $1.89 a Scoop.” She pulled over near a high school for a teenager, who walked onto the bus as she continued to smoke.
“Sorry. You can’t do that,” Suna said.
“It’s just weed.”
“Not on here,” Suna said. The girl tossed the joint onto the sidewalk and banged her fist into the first row of seats, but Suna ignored her. She kept driving as the bus filled behind her and then began to empty out after she passed through downtown. “Last stop,” she announced, a few minutes before 7 a.m. She was scheduled for a six-minute break before turning around to begin her next trip up Colfax, but when she looked in the rearview mirror, there were still seven people sleeping on the bus. Lately, about a quarter of her riders were homeless. The bus was their destination, so they rode until someone forced them to get off. “Sorry. Everyone out,” Suna said again, speaking louder, until the only passenger left was a man slumped across two seats in the second row. Suna got up to check on him.
“Sir?” she said, tapping his shoulder. He had an open wound on his ankle, and his leg was shaking. “Sir, are you okay?”
He opened his eyes. He coughed, spit on the floor, and looked around the empty bus. “We make it to Tulsa?” he asked.
“No. This is Denver. This is the 15 line.”
The passenger stumbled onto his feet. “Do you want me to call you an ambulance?” Suna asked, but he shook his head and started limping toward the doors.
“Okay. Have a good day,” Suna said. He held up his middle finger and walked off the bus.
* * *
Five days a week she drove back and forth on the same stretch of Colfax Avenue, stopping 38 times each way, completing every trip in a scheduled time of 72 minutes as she navigated potholes by memory and tried to make sense of what was happening to her passengers and to the city that she loved. She’d started reading books about mental illness and drug abuse, hoping to remind herself of what she believed: Addiction was a disease. Homelessness was a moral crisis. The American working class had been disproportionately crushed by covid-19, rising inflation and skyrocketing housing costs, and her passengers were among the victims. She thought about what her father had told her, when she was 19 years old and preparing to leave her family in Turkey to become an immigrant in the United States. He’d said that humanity was like a single body of water, in which people were made up from the same substance and then collected into different cups. This was her ocean. It was important not to judge.
And for her first several years in Denver, that kind of compassion had come easily to her. She felt liberated driving the city bus, which Muslim women weren’t allowed to do back home in Ankara. She loved the diversity of her passengers and built little relationships with her regulars: Ethiopian women who cleaned offices downtown, elementary-school children who wrote her thank you notes, Honduran day laborers who taught her phrases in Spanish, and medical students who sometimes asked about her heart ailment. But then the pandemic closed much of Denver, and even though Suna had never missed a day of work, many of her regulars had begun to disappear from the bus. Two years later, ridership across the city was still down by almost half, and a new wave of problems had arrived in the emptiness of urban centers and public transit systems, not just in Denver but all across the country.
Philadelphia was reporting an 80 percent increase in assaults aboard buses. St. Louis was spending $53 million on a new transit security plan. The transportation union president in Tucson said the city’s buses had become “a mobile refuge frequented by drug users, the mentally ill, and violent offenders.” The sheriff of Los Angeles County had created a new transit unit to keep passengers from having to “step over dead bodies or people injecting themselves.” And, meanwhile, Suna was compulsively scanning her rearview mirror, watching for the next crisis to emerge as she began another shift.
Two teenagers were burning something that looked like tinfoil in the back of the bus. A woman in a wheelchair was hiding an open 32-ounce can of beer in her purse and drinking from it with a straw. A construction worker holding a large road sign that read “SLOW” sat down in the first row next to a teenage girl, who scooted away toward the window.
“This sign isn’t meant for me and you,” the construction worker told the teenager, as Suna idled at a red light and listened in. “We can take it fast.”
“I’m 15,” the girl said. “I’m in high school.”
Suna leaned out from her seat and yelled: “Leave her alone!”
“All right. All right,” the construction worker said, holding up his hands in mock surrender. He waited a moment and turned back to the teenager. “But do you got an older sister?”
Suna tried to ignore him and looked out the windshield at the snow-capped peaks of the Rocky Mountains and the high-rises of the city. She hadn’t been downtown on her own time since the beginning of the pandemic, and lately, she preferred to spend entire weekends reading alone in her apartment, isolating herself from the world except for occasional phone calls with her family in Turkey. “I used to be an extrovert, but now I’m exhausted by people,” Suna had told her sister. Increasingly, her relationship with Denver was filtered through the windshield of the bus, as she pulled over at stops she associated mostly with traumas and police reports during the pandemic.
There was Havana Street, where, a few months earlier, a woman in mental distress had shattered the windshields of two No. 15 buses, including Suna’s, within five minutes; and Billings Street, where, in the summer of 2021, a mentally unstable passenger tried to punch a crying toddler, only to be tackled and then shot in the chest by the toddler’s father; and Dayton Street, where Suna had once asked a man in a red bikini to stop smoking fentanyl, and he’d shouted “Here’s your covid, bitch!” before spitting in her face; and Downing, where another No. 15 driver had been stabbed nearby with a three-inch blade; and Broadway, where, on Thanksgiving, Suna had picked up a homeless man who swallowed a handful of pills, urinated on the bus, and asked her to call an ambulance, explaining that he’d poisoned himself so he could spend the holiday in a hospital with warm meals and a bed.
“Hey, driver! Hit the gas,” a passenger yelled from a few rows behind her. “We’re late. You’re killing me.”
She stared ahead at a line of cars and checked the clock. She was two minutes behind schedule. She inched up toward the brake lights in front of her and tried to focus on a mural painted on the side of a nearby building of a woman playing the violin.
“Hey! Do you speak English?” the passenger yelled. “Get your ass moving or get back to Mexico.”
She kneaded her hands into the steering wheel. She counted her breaths as they approached the next stop, North Yosemite Street, which had been the site of another episode of violence captured on security camera several months earlier. An intoxicated and emaciated 57-year-old woman had jumped out in front of a moving No. 15 bus, shouted at the driver to stop, and then pushed her way onboard. She’d started cursing at other passengers, pacing up and down the aisle until a man twice her size stood up in the back of the bus and punched her in the face with a closed fist, slamming her to the floor. “Who ain’t never been knocked out before?” he asked, as the woman lay unconscious in the aisle, and then he stood over her as the other passengers sat in their seats and watched. “Here’s one more,” he said, stomping hard on her chest. He grabbed the woman by the ankle and flung her off the bus, leaving her to die of blunt-force trauma on the sidewalk. “We can keep riding though,” one of the other passengers had told the driver, moments later. “We got to go to work, man.”
Now, Suna pulled over at the next stop and glanced into the rearview mirror. The belligerent passenger was out of his seat and moving toward her. She turned her eyes away from him and braced herself. He banged his fist into the windshield. He cursed and then exited the bus.
Suna closed her eyes for a moment and waited as three more passengers climbed onboard. “Thanks for riding,” she told them, and she shifted the bus back into drive.
* * *
Each night after she finished making all 228 stops on Colfax, Suna went home to the silence of her apartment, burned sage incense, drank a calming herbal tea and tried to recover for her next shift. Meanwhile, many of her passengers ended up spending their nights at the last stop on the No. 15 route, Union Station, the newly renovated, $500 million gem of the city’s transportation system and now also the place the president of the bus drivers’ union called a “lawless hellhole.”
The station’s long indoor corridor had become the center of Denver’s opioid epidemic and also of its homelessness crisis, with as many as a few hundred people sleeping on benches on cold nights. The city had tried removing benches to reduce loitering, but people with nowhere to go still slept on the floor. Authorities tried closing all of the station’s public bathrooms because of what the police called “a revolving door of drug use in the stalls,” but that led to more people going to the bathroom and using drugs in the open. The police started to arrest people at record rates, making more than 1,000 arrests at Union Station so far this year, including hundreds for drug offenses. But Colorado lawmakers had decriminalized small amounts of drug possession in 2019, meaning that offenders were sometimes cited with a misdemeanor for possessing up to four grams of fentanyl — enough for nearly 2,000 lethal doses — and then were able to return to Union Station within a few hours.
The city’s latest attempt at a solution was a mental health crisis team of four clinicians who worked for the Regional Transportation District, and one night a counselor named Mary Kent walked into Union Station holding a small handbag with the overdose antidote Narcan, a tourniquet and referral cards to nearby homeless shelters.
“Can I help you in any way?” she said to a woman who was pushing a shopping cart while holding a small knife. The woman gestured at the air and yelled something about former president Barack Obama’s dog.
“Do you need anything? Can we help support you?” Kent asked again, but the woman muttered to herself and turned away.
Kent walked from the train corridor to the bus platform and then back again during her shift, helping to de-escalate one mental health crisis after the next. A woman was shouting that she was 47-weeks pregnant and needed to go to the hospital. A teenager was running naked through the central corridor, until Kent helped calm her down and a transit police officer coaxed her into a shirt. During a typical 12-hour shift, Kent tried to help people suffering from psychosis, schizophrenia, withdrawal, bipolar disorder, and substance-induced paranoia. She connected many of them with counseling and emergency shelter, but they just as often refused her help. Unless they posed an immediate threat to themselves or others, there wasn’t much she could do.
An elderly man with a cane tapped her on the shoulder. “Somebody stole my luggage,” he said, and for a few minutes Kent spoke with him and tried to discern if he had imagined the suitcases or if they had in fact been stolen, both of which seemed plausible. “Let’s see if we can find a security officer,” Kent said, but by then the man no longer seemed focused on the missing suitcases, and instead, he asked the question she got most of all.
“Where’s the closest public bathroom?” he said.
“Oh boy,” she said, before explaining that the one in Union Station was closed, the one in the nearby public park had been fenced off to prevent loitering, the one in the hotel next door had a full-time security guard positioned at the entrance, and the one in the nearby Whole Foods required a receipt as proof of a purchase in the store. The only guaranteed way to protect a space from the homelessness crisis was to limit access, so Union Station had also recently approved a plan to create a ticketed-only area inside the station to restrict public use starting in 2023.
Kent walked outside onto the bus platform, smelled the chemical burn of fentanyl, and followed it through a crowd of about 25 homeless people to a woman who was smoking, pacing and gesticulating at an imaginary audience. A few security officers walked toward the woman, and she moved away and shouted something about the devil. Kent pulled a referral card from her bag, went over to the woman and introduced herself as a clinician.
“What can we do to support you right now?” she asked.
“Nothing,” the woman said. She walked to the other end of the platform, threw a few punches at the air and boarded the next bus.
* * *
The job, as Suna understood it, was to drive and keep driving, no matter what else was happening to the city, so the next morning, she pulled up to her first stop at 5:32 a.m. and then made her way along Colfax, stopping every few blocks on her way downtown. Billings Street. Havana Street. Dayton. Downing. Broadway. She finished her first trip and turned around to start again. A woman with an expired bus pass yelled at her in Vietnamese. Two passengers got into an argument over an unsmoked cigarette lying on the floor. Broadway, Downing, Dayton, Havana, Billings. She shifted her eyes back and forth from the rearview mirror to the road as she made her second trip, her third, her fourth, her fifth, until finally she reached the end of the line at 4:15 p.m. and turned around to begin her final trip of the day. She stopped at Decatur station to pick up three women, closed the doors, and began to pull away from the stop.
“Hey!” a man shouted, standing outside at the bus stop. He wore a basketball jersey and a backward cap. He banged on the bus and Suna stopped and opened the door. “Hey!” the man repeated, as he climbed onboard, cursing at her. “What the hell are you doing pulling away? I was standing right there.”
“Watch your language,” she said. “Where’s your bus fare?”
He paid half the fare and then cursed at her again. He walked to the first row of seats, sat down and glared at her.
“What are you staring at?” he yelled. “Go. Drive the damn bus.”
“I’m not your pet,” she said. “You don’t tell me what to do.”
She pulled out from the bus stop and looked away from the rearview mirror toward the mountains. She counted her breaths and tried to think of what her father had said about humanity being a single body of water. She’d dealt with more difficult passengers during the pandemic, including some earlier that same morning, but that was 11 hours and 203 stops ago, and as the passenger continued to rant, she could feel her patience beginning to give way.
“You’re so stupid,” the passenger said, and she ignored him.
“You idiot. You’re just a driver,” he shouted, and she pulled up to an intersection, hit the brakes, and turned back to him. “Why are you calling me names?” she asked. “F-you. F-that. You don’t know a single good word.” She told him to get off the bus or she would call the police. “Go right ahead,” he said, and he leaned back in his seat as she picked up her phone and gave her location to the officer. She hung up, squeezed the steering wheel, and continued driving toward her next stop.
“You dumb ass,” he said. “You bitch.”
“Just shut up!” she shouted. “You can’t talk to me that way.” Her hands were shaking against the wheel and she could feel the months of exhaustion and belittlement and anger and sadness welling up into her eyes, until she knew the one thing she couldn’t do for even a moment longer was to drive. She pulled over to a safe place on the side of the road. She turned off the ignition and put on her hazard lights. She called a supervisor and said that she was done driving for the day, and that she would be back for her next shift in the morning.
She opened the exit door and turned back to the passenger. “Get off,” she said, blinking back tears, pleading this time. He stared back at her and shook his head.
“Fine,” she said, and she stood up from her seat and walked off the bus.