The Boston Secor Houses in the Bronx, where signs warn “No Loitering in Hallways” and “Most Important, NO DRUGS,” seem a long way from the lavish colonial homes and Tudor cottages of Bronxville in Westchester County. But these two communities are a mere six miles apart, and their shared secret is that they can’t function without each other. Monday through Friday, the Bronx and Bronxville merge, brought together by mutual need. Working-class people, mostly women, leave the clustered homes and abandoned warehouses of Mount Vernon and the Bronx for the sprawling landscape of wealthy Westchester suburbia. The aorta of this give and take? A bus line.
About 1,100 people ride the Westchester-operated B-52 Bee Line bus every weekday, 95 percent of them women, says Owen O’Malley, a Bee Line bus driver for 27 years. “You have a lot of domestic workers, housekeepers, mostly blacks and Jamaicans,” says O’Malley, an Irish immigrant whom colleagues call Double O. Originally used for shuttling suburbanites to the subway, the route was extended in the late 1970s when the Boston Secor housing projects were built. At the request of Westchester residents, it later started running from the Bronx through Mount Vernon and Fleetwood to Bronxville to provide transportation for their domestic workers.
At 6:30 a.m., the B-52 begins its route. It winds around Bivona Street, Secor Houses’ only through-road, to its first stop. Stepping away from the wrought-iron fence that encircles the four brick high-rises, passengers walk out of the cold morning darkness and onto the bus. Some school kids use government-subsidized vouchers, but most riders feed the $1.40 fare in cash directly into the box.
Riders gaze out the window as the bus passes Happy Jewelers and 99-Cent Dreams in Shopwell Plaza, then stops at a used car dealership. On the corner of Bivona Street and Boston Road, a large spray-painted mural commemorating Damon Williams, who died at 22, serves as the bus stop’s backdrop.
Dyre Avenue’s elevated subway station, near 233rd Street, is the B-52’s fourth, last and most popular stop in the Bronx. Even at this hour, this last and first stop on the 5 train buzzes with newspaper hawkers and school children. Outside of the elevated terminal, some elderly men congregate on the trash-strewn sidewalk, exchanging jibes with the curbside drivers of unlicensed livery cars. “You need a ride?” asks one man leaning on a rusty maroon van, his dreadlocks bobbing beneath his knitted hat. Some subway riders, hustling to the next leg of their commute, opt for the instant warmth of the cars. Most brave the cold and wait for the B-52.
Five days a week, at 5:45 a.m., a cautious and somewhat shy 36-year-old woman from Bangladesh leaves her sleeping 11- and 13-year-old children to go care for the children of a television news executive. While her husband was able to find work as a mechanic in their Bronx neighborhood, she has to cross the city line for a decent-paying job. By the time her workday is over, she will have crossed it, both ways, four times: from the Bronx to Bronxville, then back to the Bronx, back to Bronxville, then finally home again.
She’s afraid to give her name, but admits that her commute is taxing. There’s no bus at the hour she first leaves her house, so her employer sends a car to pick her up at home. Once in Bronxville, her morning duties involve getting the kids ready for school–something she hasn’t been able to do for her own children since moving to the United States six months ago.
By 8:45 a.m., she’s at the Bronxville train station, the B-52’s last stop, waiting for the bus to take her to the 5 train, which she will then take home. She makes that hour-long return trip daily, to make sure she’s home to clean the apartment her family shares with her brother and sister-in-law and their kids. After finishing those chores, she must be back in Bronxville by 2 p.m. for her afternoon shift watching the kids when they get home from school. At the end of a typical 13-hour day, she has spent about four hours commuting, three cleaning her home and a mere six working for pay.
Just as the Bangladeshi woman gets on the Bronx-bound bus at the Bronxville station, headed to her midday shift at home, Winsome Malcolm gets off.
For Winsome, 30, a typical weekday morning begins at 5. Her grandmother, aunt and two daughters are still asleep in their Mount Vernon home while she tidies up the living room and kitchen, prepares breakfast and makes their lunches.
Winsome begins her commute with a walk to the B-42 bus, transfers to the B-52 in Fleetwood and ends up on the B-26 at the Bronxville train station. By 9:15 a.m., she’s at the Bronxville home of the 99-year-old woman she bathes and keeps company five days a week.
She got the job through an agency that leases out home health care aides. She’s not sure how much her boss pays the agency, but knows it’s “a lot of money”–substantially more than the $6 an hour plus basic health care benefits that she gets. Her employer also pays for half her $50 monthly bus pass.
Despite her time and financial constraints, Winsome makes sure that her daughters eat well. After work, she makes jerk pork, fish or oxtail with stewed peas and rice, while her four-year-old daughter does her homework.
“I come home and I cook and then I start all over again,” she says. “Sometimes you’re like, ‘Wow!’ but what you going to do?” Over dinner, she and her daughter catch up on the important things: what happened at school, who got in a fight. Usually everyone is asleep by 9.
Maxine Reynolds and Jackie Reynolds–no relation–are about the same age as Winsome, but they have much more free time than her and many other bus riders. “By the time they get home, we’re ready to go out,” Jackie says. “We do know how to party, even though we like to work.”
Maxine, 30, is single, has no children and shares a two-bedroom apartment with her sister. Because her sister owns the building, Maxine doesn’t have to pay rent; her major monthly expenses include utilities, phone and food. She vacationed in England a few years ago and later went to Jamaica for her mother’s 74th birthday party.
The woman she babysits for pays her $10 an hour plus bus fare. “I have no reason to complain,” she says. But bosses are always generous in the beginning, she points out. “Hopefully it’ll stay that way,” she adds, laughing.
Jackie, a 32-year-old mother of two, has to work two jobs to support her family. She babysits a 13-month old on Tuesdays and spends the rest of the weekdays watching a one-year-old. Living with another mother helps Jackie maintain a social life and afford rent and bills.
Both women take the B-52 to Bronxville every morning around 7:15 because they couldn’t find good jobs in their own neighborhoods. “They’re not going to pay you what they pay you here,” Maxine says, pointing at the Volvos and Jeep Cherokees whizzing past the art galleries, pastry shops and flower arrangements lining Parkway Avenue. “It’s a lot of work,” Jackie admits. “But we gotta do what we gotta do.”
Mayita Mendez is a staff photographer for Newsday. Carol E. Lee is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer.