"Steve, how you doing back there?" asks Kenton Strehlou, a Citylink bus driver for the past 12 years. "I can turn off the AC if it's too cold for you."
Strehlou says this as he departs for his 11:50 a.m. run from Riverstone to the Coeur d'Alene Casino Resort. Steve sits in the back row with three or four other people, all resort casino employees, who chat about their planned weekend exploits. Elsewhere on the bus, another conversation starts.
"I guess Dot's not going up today. She must have went yesterday."
This voice belongs to a woman sure to be someone's favorite grandmother. She sits near a group of eight senior citizens who populate the front half of the bus. They're talking about the restoration of Coeur d'Alene's carousel and reminiscing about their childhoods on the lake.
"I can't believe they found the original one," an older man sporting a Seahawks Super Bowl hat said. "I'm going to take my granddaughter to it."
And there's a pretty good chance that, if and when the carousel returns to Coeur d'Alene, he will be able to take her there on a Citylink bus.
More than 33,000 people use one of Citylink's five fixed bus routes that service Kootenai and Benewah county residents, which is funded by the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, Kootenai County and Kootenai Health. The busiest route, the Link, offers stops at Kootenai Health and the Coeur d'Alene Casino Resort. Kathie Feek of Coeur d'Alene said she likes to take this bus to the popular attraction twice a month to play for a couple hours.
"It's nice to have somebody drive me places," Feek said. "Otherwise, I probably wouldn't go to the casino."
Patrons can board Citylink's rural route at the casino to reach destinations in Worley, Tensed, DeSmet and Plummer, which can also be reached by an express bus route that departs Coeur d'Alene each morning and returns late afternoon.
The final two fixed routes provide two-way service to the commercial and residential areas surrounding Interstate 90. The B Route provides stops in Post Falls, while the C Route services Coeur d'Alene, Dalton Gardens and Hayden.
Citylink driver Tony Harroun said the routes are generally on-time and uneventful, with the exception of C Route.
"It's always behind," Harroun said. "You can't get caught up. I don't like to race around town."
Harroun said increased traffic and riders, the large number of stops and increased likelihood of wheelchair-bound patrons who access the bus via hydraulic lift all contribute to C Route's consistent tardiness. He said the route is late every day except Christmas, particularly in the afternoon, and it's often crowded and loud. Because of this, Harroun said he prefers the peace and quiet of the B Route.
"Everyone on B route, for the most part, seems to be really adult about riding the buses," Harroun said. "Once in a while you run across the kid who has something to say that's not important."
"Did you ever see me and Batman at the same place? Just saying," said Tony, a 24-year-old riding the bus with four of his friends on the back of the C bus. One of those friends is bragging about his 11 felonies, most of which resulted from a string of car robberies last summer that netted him $5,000.
"Probation (expletive) sucks," he said.
He said he's quitting marijuana in eight days, just enough time to flush out his system before his drug test. He collected the detox from area soup kitchens and advised his friends to do likewise. The group then talked about how they missed going to Youth Group and getting wasted on the drugs or alcohol that "everyone" was sneaking in. They started discussing law enforcement (group consensus: they're stupid) and school safety as they prepared to exit the bus.
"You're not supposed to bring guns to school. I did anyway," Tony said. "It's my personal right to be safe. What, they're going to try to take that away when I go to school so someone can kill me there?"
The group ambles off the bus at the Zip's stop near downtown Coeur d'Alene. They pass a family of four up front, each member clutching a towel in preparation for an afternoon adventure on the beach. The hooligans are soon replaced in the back by two men loudly discussing ways to make the game of golf less boring by adding extreme elements like land mines and defensive linemen.
Everyone has an opinion on what can make Citylink better. Some recommend they should add more bike racks to the buses since each one can only accommodate two bicycles. Others wish they would change back to one-way loop routes to avoid scheduling confusion. Others pine for Citylink service to Spokane.
Rafael Rodriguez, a homeless retired Marine Corps veteran who said he rides the bus 15-20 times per week to travel to the library and various services available for veterans, said he thinks Citylink should be expanded.
"I still think it's pretty good in that it's a free service and all, so I understand how they limit themselves to such a degree as they have," Rodriguez said.
Citylink is gathering such feedback to determine if it needs to amend its services. Citylink posted a survey on its website, http://citylink.transit-survey.sgizmo.com/s3, to gather this information, and recently chose David Evans and Associates to conduct a Service and Fare Equity Analysis to determine the feasibility of changing Citylink routes and possibly implementing a fee.
"We have begun holding meetings to gather input from the public and we are anticipating a positive outcome to benefit the residents of Kootenai County," said Kimberly Hobson of the Kootenai County Transit Office. "The Service and Fare Equity Analysis will give us a plan by which we can design a phased-in approach to a multi-modal transit center, create an effective system design and implement an ITS system to allow riders to access information relevant to bus schedules and locations, as well as providing a tool that will help clients with special needs more easily understand and utilize Kootenai County's fixed-route system."
Citylink has not announced any plans to provide service to Spokane. The Spokane Transit Authority (STA) proposed to extend bus service from Liberty Lake to Coeur d'Alene in its STA Moving Forward 10-year plan, however Washington voters narrowly rejected the proposal in an April special election. STA asked for a 0.3 percent increase in the sales tax rate to assist paying for the program.
Regardless, some resourceful people have managed to travel from Spokane to Coeur d'Alene and vice versa by combining Citylink with one of the free shuttle services the casino provides to the Spokane area. Patrons are not supposed to use both Citylink and the shuttle service consecutively, although such restrictions are rarely enforced.
"I know a lot a people really want to utilize that, transferring to where they could use this bus system, link up with them up out through the casino without having to feel like they need to trick or make it look like they're really from Spokane," Rodriguez said. "We feel like we need to sneak around to do that."
A person familiar with Citylink operations said such access to Spokane has led to increased instances of drug trafficking on some of the Citylink buses. The person said drug dealers will sit toward the back of the bus and rip holes in the back of the chairs. A different person will place money in the tear and switch seats. The dealer returns to the seat, replaces the money with drugs and then moves to a different seat so the buyer can return to the seat to retrieve his or her haul.
"I'm 24 and living with my parents 'cause I just got out of prison. You don't want to be like me."
An IHOP employee shares this information with one of his co-workers in the back of the C bus. The two of them are lamenting the night shift that runs from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. After berating an absent friend of theirs for having the audacity to complain about a job whose night shift didn't last all evening, the conversation drifts toward a familiar subject of adolescents everywhere: Sex.
Right on cue, a father and his two young daughters enter the bus. None of the seats toward the front of the bus are available, so they find themselves a seat toward the back. It's impossible to tell whether the co-workers noticed their arrival, as their conversation did not deviate from its course; rather it became more explicit as one of the pair started texting a girl.
"Did you call her a slut?"
"I call it like it is."
He said it was OK to say this since he's a guy, and it's socially acceptable for men to be sexually promiscuous. They continue talking about their sexual exploitations for a few minutes. Before getting off the bus, he tells his friend he'd be happy to smoke weed with him in "three months once I get off randoms."
According to survey data compiled in 2008, more than 80 percent of Citylink's riders said they use the bus system to travel to and from work. The next highest category, recreation/fun, was only selected by one-third of the respondents. More than 90 percent said they use public transportation because of high gas prices, while just under half listed convenience as the reason.
"It's good for people with low income," said bus driver Kenton Strehlou. "It only takes a few bad apples to ruin it for everyone."
These "bad apples," listed as "intoxicated riders" on the survey, are one of the main reasons why people said they don't use Citylink. Despite the disruption this crowd brings, only 28 percent of survey respondents said it prevented them from using Citylink; almost 90 percent claimed the bus schedule kept them from using Citylink.
"When are you coming through again? I don't feel like waiting," a woman wearing a crisp black sun hat asks the driver of the Rural Route as it idles just outside the Early Childhood Learning Center stop in Plummer. Since it would be another hour before the bus travels to DeSmet and returns to continue north to the casino, she decides to board, though she's not happy someone is sitting in her seat just behind the wheelchair lift.
That person is me, so I move to the other side of the bus. The bus's sole other passenger whispers "she's the witch of the reservation."
The "witch" apologizes as the bus resumes its route, saying she prefers the seat because she can use the metal bar that runs from the floor to the ceiling to help her stand up to exit the bus.
She rides in silence for awhile, but finds a conversation partner when an older woman with an equally large sunhat (though white) enters the bus on the return trip through Plummer. The two similarly aged women chatted and shared nearly identical stories - they both were born and raised in the area and left to explore the world.
The newest bus passenger said she went to New York City to be a dancer. She auditioned for the Rockettes in her young days. She said they told her she was "flat-chested and had no ass" so she did not get hired, but she had better luck in Las Vegas.
"Why'd you want to be a Rockette? They're dumb."
Worse things have been said on the bus, by people not called a witch.
The "witch" tells the woman she lived in San Francisco, got her master's degree and wrote five books, one of which afforded her the opportunity to go on a 32-city signing tour. She said she eventually returned to Plummer when her daughter got sick. Her love for her granddaughter kept her there.
"Here we are, back in Plummer, Idaho," the "witch" said. "I don't think I ever thought I would get old."
In addition to its five routes, Citylink also provides door-to-door bus services for persons with disabilities, functionally unable to use the wheelchair accessible fixed-route bus system. It's because of this and other benefits that Post Falls resident Dale Smith said Citylink is a positive force for service and change.
"It's remarkable how much they accomplish with the assets that they have," Smith said. "You couldn't have less equipment and get more done. The bus overall is serving a lot of people very well."
Smith said people should not be too quick to judge Citylink or the people who frequent the service, claiming he knew a few millionaires who patronized the service and that sometimes people who look "homeless" are actually landscapers. He used an analogy to prove his point.
"It's like a washing machine," Smith said. "You put in garments. The water looks dirty, but you take the garments out and everything's clean."
Despite the appearance or actions of some patrons, Smith said Citylink provides a mechanism for resolving focused problems in individuals. He said he's met 40-50 people on a Citylink bus who had resolved the trouble in their life, be it procuring employment, VA assistance or stable shelter.
"I would say it [the bus] doesn't facilitate the problems, it magically resolves them," Smith said.
He said without the bus, many people might not be able to access area services and benefits. As a result, "a lot of these people start dying."
Smith said, "I would say the bus is not only keeping a lot of people alive, but in pretty good condition."
Life isn't easy for Kim.
It takes roughly 30 seconds for her large body to ascend the steps onto the B Route bus, the difficulty evident in each step. She looks like the epitome of a person living a hard life. In addition to her walking problem, she's also deaf, which makes communication challenging. She scowls as she enters the bus.
She's recognized by one of the bus patrons, a pleasant, attractive woman sitting with her baby girl. The woman tells everyone her daughter just celebrated her third birthday. The day took a turn for the worse when the little one burned her hand when she grabbed a curling iron her older sister was using as a "microphone." The girl's hands were still wrapped.
After the story, the woman asks Kim how she's doing. It takes a while, but Kim eventually reveals that there have been some people teasing her.
"I'll kill anyone who is mean to you," the woman says. She repeats this several times until Kim fully hears what she has said.
And for the first time, Kim smiles.
Riders on Citylink quickly learn there is no uniform experience. Each ride is different, and most of them are quiet. Most rides are quite forgettable, unless the ride is shared (for better or worse) with an interesting personality. There's only one almost-certain guarantee: That all patrons will be exposed to a diverse cross section of socioeconomic and educational backgrounds.
Citylink has welcomed all since 2007 - whether you're a Catholic Northern Ireland Royal Army veteran undergoing a Wounded Warrior charity walk to Albuquerque, a student with a handful of library books and DVDs, or a teenager who emphatically hopes for a zombie apocalypse so he can "see what a flamethrower does to a zombie."
There's only one absolute: Citylink can get you where you want to go locally. Just plan for it to be a little later than scheduled if you're using the C Route.
Paul Devore mounts his bike on the front bike rack of a Citylink bus.
A makeshift transient shelter at a Citylink bus stop near WalMart in Post Falls.
According to some riders, tears in bus seats are used to transport drugs.