Beth Simon (left) and Rachel Simon, waiting for the next bus. Beth has built a community around her city's bus system. She rides the buses six days a week for fun, talking with drivers and passengers.
Beth Simon, left, at age 5, and Rachel Simon, at 6, on a family vacation. Born 11 months apart, the sisters were close as kids. As she turned 40, Rachel wanted a bigger part in her sister's life, so she started riding buses with Beth.
Books of Note
Riding the Bus with My Sister
, by Rachel Simon (Houghton Mifflin, 2002 ). Read an excerpt. Special Siblings
, by Mary McHugh (Paul H. Brookes Publishing, 2002). Read an excerpt.The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling
, by Jeanne Safer (Free Press, 2002).
Joseph Shapiro, NPR News
Beth Simon chats with bus driver Gary Klemmer. She always sits in the front, right side passenger seat — it's the best seat for talking with the drivers. She boards the buses bearing Tastykakes and company gossip she's gathered from other drivers.
Six days a week, Beth Simon rides the buses in her Pennsylvania city. If they ran on Sundays, she would ride them then, too. She's not really trying to get anywhere on the buses; she's turned them into a community. Beth Simon is 42 and has mental retardation. She uses the buses — and their drivers and passengers — to try to find her place in the world. As NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports, it's a common challenge as record numbers of people with retardation move into small group homes or live on their own.
Simon once lived in a group home and used to work alongside others with retardation. But she wanted to be part of the larger world. Riding buses became a way for her to do that.
Her days start early. Just after 6 in the morning, she hurries to the city bus terminal. As her first bus comes in, she pushes to the front of the line and climbs aboard. Every day, on each bus, she heads for the same seat, the right-side, front passenger seat. It's the best place for chatting with the bus drivers.
On the day Shapiro visited Simon, Jody Weidel was the bus driver on the first ride of the morning. Many of the people who climb onto his bus are poor, old and disabled. And for some of his passengers, Weidel is a kind of social worker. He knows where to send the elderly for free medications, and pregnant teens to adoption agencies. Weidel has become one of Simon's best friends.
"She gets just as excited every day riding the bus as the day before, which is amazing," says Weidel. "You've got to admire that. How she stays so pumped up."
On some days, her sister Rachel Simon joins her. Born 11 months apart, the sisters were close as kids. But as they grew older, with Beth preferring the Osmond Brothers to Rachel's Led Zeppelin, the sisters drifted.
As they turned 40, Rachel, who teaches writing to college students, wanted to rebuild her relationship with her sister. So she started riding the buses with Beth.
"After riding with her a long time I came to see her as an artist," says Rachel. "She's sculpted a life out of material most people didn't realize existed. Bus timetables and the world of the buses. I came to think of it as quite ingenious."
Rachel's written a book about the experience, called Riding the Bus with My Sister.
Beth says she rides the bus simply because she likes to, but Rachel says it's deeper than that.
By building a community on the buses, Beth, who lives in her own apartment now, has learned how to get around in the world.
"It's complete freedom," says Rachel. "You can get anywhere and be with anyone. And if you don't like any situation you're in, you leave it and get on another one. The world is in the palm of your hand."