Wednesday, March 31, 2010

If buses were burgers

I've compared transit to meat before; today I'd like you to think of a bus ride as a hamburger. In the past, these ground-up mixtures were considered low class, in part because they were used to disguise undesirable cuts of meat. A hamburger was meat, which put it ahead of plain bread or beans, but it was the cheapest kind of meat available.

Because it was inexpensive and eaten by the working class, a hamburger was thought of as inherently inferior to just about anything else. Hamburgers were served at fast-food joints and diners. Some middle-class bars offered decent burgers, but they were still not high class. The idea that anyone would choose a hamburger over anything else was ludicrous. in an attempt to escape this pigeonhole, restaurants rebranded hamburgers as "Salisbury steak," but not too many people bought it.

Around the year 2000 that started to change. Some gourmet chefs set aside conventional wisdom and realized that you could make a hamburger with prime cuts of meat from well-fed cows and it would taste good. According to Time magazine, the first high-class burger was made by Sang Yoon in Santa Monica, but the fad took off the following year here in New York when Daniel Boulud sold a sandwich with ground sirloin stuffed with braised short ribs, foie gras and truffles for $27. That was followed in 2004 by Danny Meyer's Shake Shack in Madison Square, which attracted long lines of well-dressed professionals, and in 2006 by Laurent Tourondel's $62 Kobe beef burger. Nowadays there's hardly a high-class restaurant in the US that doesn't have some kind of fancy burger on the menu, and the trend does not seem to be fading yet.

So why is your Cap'n spending so much time talking about hamburgers? Mmm... burgers. Ahem! The point is that when burgers were low-class food, they were often made cheaply. When low-quality meat was thrown together by people who didn't care, the result was pretty crappy. A lot of people assumed that the form of the dish had something to do with its quality, and they couldn't imagine a burger made with good cuts of meat, let alone Kobe beef or truffles.

It is the same with transit. In many parts of the US, transit is used by poor people, and it's done on the cheap, with inconvenient routes and schedules, undependable service, bad-tempered drivers, hard plastic seats, no room for bags, infrequent cleanings, surly staff, drafty or nonexistent bus shelters and long maintenance cycles. That's the crappy burger that you get at an institutional cafeteria. Greyhound is the kind of burger you get at a highway rest stop. Chinatown buses are like cheap Chinese takeout: unsatisfying and unpredictable.

The New York City buses that are (nowadays) generally well-maintained, frequent and clean are kind of like a burger at a good diner. Free public buses in college towns like Amherst and Chapel Hill are dining hall burgers. The commuter lines running new buses with wifi to New Jersey and Upstate are pub burgers. Bolt Bus is Wendy's and Megabus is Five Guys. The Hampton Luxury Liner and the Limoliner are Father's Office or the Shake Shack.

What would the DB Burger look like? Maybe something like the Argentine double-decker cama suite service that includes a meal and champagne. The Kobe burger? I'll leave that to your imagination.


Unknown said...

The Kobe burger would, of course, be a train.

D Morse said...

ha ha ha! Good one.

Alon Levy said...

$62 per person? Ugh.

MB94128 said...

Thanks for the "cama suite" link. It needs a bit of tweaking because somehow a loose quote crept in at the end of the URL.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks, MB! It actually turned out to be a missing quote at the beginning of the URL.

Walter Sobchak said...

I'm guessing one of those heritage trolleys would be a Louis' Lunch burger?

Cap'n Transit said...

Maybe so, but we're talking an actual streetcar like the F-Market in San Francisco, not a bus dressed up to look like a trolley. Those would be a veggie burger or something.

MB94128 said...

How about one of those motorized, FAKE cable cars with the extra safety bars ? That might be a textured, soy protein patty with Velveeta on Wonder Bread.

P.S. Righteous Burger :
Whole-grain or sourdough bun/roll;
bacon sauteed onions + mushrooms;
top-quality FRESH ground beef or bison;
sharp cheddar;
salsa fresca (chopped tomatoes, etc.);

George K said...

In NYC, the local buses are used by all types of people. If that were not the case, there would be no buses in neighborhoods like the Upper East Side. Yet, there are many of them, and some of them are among the most efficient routes in the system.