Growing Up In New Orleans- Latch Key Kids On The Bus

This morning, my sister and I vented our frustrations with waking up our girls for school. As you know, the past year school has been in the home via the internet. Each morning it seems we have to beg them out the bed, beg them to wash their face, brush their teeth and force them to open up their laptops. We couldn’t figure out why and wondered if any other parents struggle with this.

Memories of growing up in New Orleans took over our conversation. We were latchkey kids most of our childhood. My Mama had to work, and we had to take care of ourselves while she worked. It was just that simple. The welfare or childcare assistance for most families in New Orleans was slim to none back then, and it hasn’t changed much in decades. Living in New Orleans or any city in Louisiana means working and working long, hard hours. My Mama worked as a cook in the French Quarter. She would also sew for people and hosted Suppers as a side gig. There was no particular shift that she did or didn’t work that didn’t leave us home alone. We would either have to wake up, get ready for school, come home, and get ourselves ready for bed. On the weekends, we went by our Daddy or Momo house, and we spent summers were at our cousins. As the oldest, I was responsible for my little sister, who is two years younger than me. My Mama would call at a specific time to make sure we made it in. We had her work number as well as emergency numbers. Our neighbors and my Momo were always available. We knew the importance of not playing on the phone and what to do in an emergency. I believe my Mama checked her list, dotted her I’s, and crossed her T’s before leaving us alone. The steps she took ensured that we were safe.


Early beginnings on the RTA

I was very young when I was entrusted to venture the streets of New Orleans. I was six years old and tall, almost five-foot frame, and very mature for my age. Of course, my Mama didn’t just say go catch the bus at six years old. She taught me just as she did when she had to work. Actually, I started riding the bus years before I was left in charge. But, we took several trips before I was able to go alone. I had to pass a few tests as well. My Mama or someone in my family would watch from a distance. Or follow behind the bus in a car and so on. I was taught about dangerous situations, to rely on my senses and discernment. I was encouraged not to be embarrassed or afraid to ask for help. Looking back, I feel I was well prepared just, plus it was the late 70s early 80s. Life was very much different then, and someone’s Mama or Auntie was looking out for us. Back then if you were caught doing bad by any adult there was no waiting to tell your parents. They whipped your butt on site. I didn’t have to worry about that because I was a delightful little girl. I was always complimented on how well behaved I was.

My first experience riding on the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority or RTA was in the first grade when I attended Lockett Elementary in the Ninth Ward. We lived a few blocks from the school in the Florida Projects, but my Mama worked, and my Momo, Auntie, and Uncle lived across the tracks in the Desire Project. It was under a five-minute bus ride; the walk to the bus stop after school felt longer and was more stressful. I possibly would have been allowed to walk had there not been older kids, the train tracks, or streets to cross.

I remember this one time I had to dodge Coke Cola bottles thrown at me by my classmate, who I shall name Lucifer because he terrorized me. I just made it out the fence and I heard two bottles break as they hit the blacktop. I turned around just as he attempted to throw another one when I heard a teacher yell for him to “stop or else.” He not only stopped, but ran. The next day he was suspended. Before that day, he would just tease me. You know the typical Lil boy teasing, never anything violent until that day. I remember the day I finally was free from him bullying me. It was raining after school one day as I started walking out of the gate, and I didn’t have an umbrella. And there he was, running behind me with a broken umbrella, screaming that he would walk me to my bus stop. He apologized as he kept me covered with the broken umbrella, as he took what more than likely was his bath for the day. He would say that he wasn’t trying to hit me and that it was a dare. I’m not sure if he grew a heart or scoped out that I always stopped at the sweet shop or Frozen Cup Lady before I caught the bus. My Mama always gave me extra quarters just in case I lost my bus ticket, and if I didn’t, it was my reward. As you can guess, I never lost my bus ticket, which meant after-school treats for me and sometimes a friend, and that day he was that friend. I didn’t offer to buy him anything, but he asked if I could buy him a Butterfinger once we got into the store—a Kingsize one at that. I paid for our items, and he walked me to my bus stop and kept me dry for the most part as we waited for the bus. After that, we became friends, but not for long. We moved shortly afterward, and I was transferred to Allen Elementary in Uptown, New Orleans.


Sisterhood Responsibility

Throughout my school years, I rode the city bus with my little sister. I was the oldest and felt honored to be entrusted with making sure my sister and I ate and left out for school on time. My routine revolved around watching my morning cartoons. We were dressed and eating breakfast as we watched the Flintstone’s and as soon as the Jetson’s theme song went off, it was time to go. I would feed our dog and lock up the house with the key I had around my neck on a ribbon. Depending on what type of shoe I had on, I would put the key in my shoe, but I didn’t like how it felt. My sister didn’t want it around her neck or shoe, so my Mama would put the key on a big safety pin and pin it to the inside of her backpack.

Riding the city bus was fun some of the time, but we had to be very careful. I’m not sure if I was more afraid of getting hit by a car than of strangers. But overall, it was a great experience without any major incidents. I appreciated riding the same routes. Familiar faces and landmarks brought us comfort. It was a treat when we lucked up and be on the same bus as our friends.

My sister and I sat with each other at all times. We were felt safer in front of the bus closest to the bus driver. We barely spoke to each other while riding as we knew to stay in tune with our surroundings and bus stop. While in elementary school, we were always on the bus with teenagers who sat way to the back but spoke loud enough to drive the bus driver crazy. They were either using their mouths to cuss, fuss, and disrespect grownups or kissed and gave each other passion marks.

A fed-up bus driver would often pass up the complete stop due to students acting up on or off the bus. Yes, the driver would pass up kids waiting on the bus because the driver didn’t want to deal with their rowdy behavior. I have to admit I used to be happy and even cheered on the inside when it happens. We were good girls, plus I had to look out for my little sister.

Oh Lawd, then there was the drunken stinky man who would stand in front of us and ask for our transfers. Or the person who was suffering from mental illness but back then called them crazy because they talked to themselves, and sometimes they would speak to you. Riding the city bus was no school bus ride by far.

I didn’t know what a yellow school bus was until I moved to Minnesota and had a child of my own. I was happy to know that children from the same neighborhood and school rode on the same child the only bus. I can only imagine how nice it is to ride the school bus with friends versus riding public transportation with strangers. There was no sitting by friends on the RTA. It was pure luck to be on the same bus with someone from your school, especially in the morning. After school was the best because we were all on the same buses for the most part, for fun, sometimes we would walk down to catch the Streetcar, which wasn’t that crowded if we didn’t lollygag around. We loved riding the Streetcar; actually, we still do! The Streetcar made us feel like we were going somewhere! Somewhere fun, fancy, and fabulous!


Bus Tickets

Did I mention I had to keep up with my bus ticket? Once a week, teachers would hand out manila envelopes with a week’s worth of roundtrip bus tickets. Parents had to sign along the dated lines confirming receipt of the bus tickets. The envelope needed to be turned in before Wednesday. If I not, the students wouldn’t get bus tickets for the following week. The bus tickets were equal to cash. If the tickets were lost or stolen after the parents signed the envelope, the parent would have to provide bus fare. There were, But most of the time, the child was switched to daily bus tokens. The schools implemented this policy because adults were using the bus tickets. Years later, the bus tickets were replaced with student-only bus cards similar to the bus cards sold now.

In addition to keeping up with our bus tickets, some of us rode more than one bus. The bus tickets did not include a transfer which was a quarter, and parents covered the cost. Bus transfers were made of the things cheapest paper with perforated tear-offs that allowed riders to transfer to up to three buses going in the same direction. Transfers we’re just as valuable as bus tickets. I can’t count how many times some stranger asked us to give them our transfer. On average, we caught two buses. If a part of the transfer was missing, expired, or you lost it, you were out of luck unless.

In the 80s, we were enrolled at Allen Elementary, and we rode the Magazine St and Napoleon Ave buses through Uptown. The buses connected, but we had to cross the busy intersection to get to the other. One morning, as we were exiting the Magazine St bus and the Napoleon Ave bus, we attempted to take off as if the driver didn’t know that students needed to get on the bus or be late for school. Not wanting to be late for school, I grabbed my sister’s hand, waved my left hand in the air to get the bus driver’s attention, and attempted to dash out in front of the bus we got off. The light turned green in an instant, and as I put one foot past the big old city bus, a truck flew past us. I felt the wind of it brush across my face and push us back as if it grew arms. We could have been killed had I not stopped to look before crossing. We had perfect attendance, and I didn’t want to disappoint my Mama. My heart was racing as I looked down to make sure my hand was still clasped with my sisters. A sense of relief and comfort came over me as we continue to the bus, but it would soon be replaced with embarrassment.

As we stepped on the bus, the driver scolded us as if it wasn’t his actions that provoked me to act impulsively. Some teenagers attended Fortier High School next to our school, sitting in the back of the bus laughing hysterically after another teen said, “You’ll was bout to get pancaked!” I do not know which experience was the worst, but the taunting from the teens affected me negatively socially. A few days had passed by since the incident, and those teens just couldn’t let it go. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I decided to stop riding the bus and start taking the Streetcar. We had to leave out earlier and walk about four blocks, but that was nothing compared to the taunting and teasing. Plus, a part of me felt horrible for putting my little sister’s life at risk. We loved catching the Streetcar, and we were classmates. The streetcar route allowed us to stop at the beautiful Latter Public Library. My Mama loved the idea as it decreased our home alone time. No, we did not tell her about neatly getting hit, but that the teenagers were always fighting and cussing.


Different Routes

Elementary after graduating from sixth grade. It was hard because we were more than sisters, but best friends. All we knew was each other. My sister and I knew the importance of being there for each other. The alone time we had together and the need to be responsible for each other deepened our relationship. To this day, we continue to have an unbreakable bond, and that came from knowing that we had to have each other’s backs. There was never any sibling rivalry, just love, and admiration for each other. But, I had to heed the call of teen hormones and go on my own route. For the most part, I still operated as usual as far as taking care of my sister, but my Mama was home more. She worked 9 pm to 6 pm, saw us off to school, and was home a couple of hours after we arrived home. Each morning I walked with my sister to the Streetcar, and we would meet up at the library after school.

As I transitioned into teenage life, I attempted to balance my new world with my sister. She was only two years younger than me, but sometimes those two years meant she was just too young. By the time I was in ninth grade and boy crazy, I found myself skipping class only to go to Pennyland Arcade on Canal St., or we would sneak into Loew’s theatre and kiss the entire movie away. Back then, the Ferry was free, so we would ride on it like it was a mini-cruise boat until school let out. But there was no way my sister could hang out with me while I was a juvenile delinquent. Like I was the oldest and her role model. I would get a transfer and catch the bus back just in a knick of time before meeting her at the bus stop.

Pennyland Arcade Room on Canal St
Arcade Room on Royal St

Loews State Theatre on Canal St

I faired out well.

As an older Latch Key Kid (I’m not sure if a teenager could be classified as that), I did not allow boys to come to my house because I refuse to get in that type of trouble. Plus, my Little Sister. No matter when we had the place “to ourselves,” if we broke any rule, we didn’t break the “DO NOT LET ANYONE IN MY HOUSE” rule. We may have slacked up on chores and homework from time to time, but we tried our best to be on good behavior for my Mama and each other.

That trust and independence allowed me to have one on one time with myself. I got to know myself, my likes and dislikes early on. At that time, I was able to engage with different people and explore the city. I learned the importance of eye contact, body language, and speaking up for myself. I believe that that time out in the world at such young ages toughened us up, taught us how to be responsible in public, and assisted in our social development skills. My Mama was a phenomenal role model who worked hard for us. We couldn’t help but respect and appreciate all that she was trying to do for us, especially as a single parent. She taught us about life by allowing us to observe all that she did and said.

I don’t recall ever feeling neglected, but I did miss my Mama especially when she worked the evening shift. When My Mama and Daddy was off they really made up for the time they spent away from us, especially My Mama. We were raised to appreciate the cultures that make New Orleans so eccentric and magical. We frequented festivals, art museums, parks, fancy restaurants (I started eating raw oysters at 6yrs old) and random walks through the city. Even though we were raised Baptist, we visited churches of different denominations. Both my sister and I played the violin and other extracurricular activities. I was an honor roll student throughout high school. Yes, Growing Up in New Orleans as a Latch Key Kid in New Orleans riding on the Bus was was tough and scary at times, but knowing that I we were left alone for a greater purpose made it worth it.

It all grew me into a well-rounded, possibly overly responsible adult.


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