Adventures In Busing.

A Simple Plan.

The water heater was leaking and taking cold showers or heating up pans of water on the stove and standing in a tub in the middle of the kitchen was getting old so I stayed home one morning to wait for the plumber. He said I could expect him between 8:30 and 9:00 and then at 9 o’clock on the dot called to say he’d be at the house in half an hour, and he was. Then he installed a new water heater which required the use of a blow torch and after he was done the basement smelled like birthday candles which was weird because I’ve seen the same model of blow torch used to make crème brulee so I expected the basement to smell like caramelized sugar, but that’s another story.

And then once he was gone, taking the old water heater and a sizable chunk of our checking account with him, I started walking up the sunny side of the street, or at least it was sunny until it started raining, up the corner where I’d catch the bus. I had a simple plan. I could have waited half an hour for the regular bus that would drop me two blocks from where I work, but instead I decided to wait five minutes for the express bus that could drop me off a mile and a half from where I work or I could just ride it all the way to the terminal and then catch a bus that would drop me off right in front of where I work.

The total amount of time either way would probably be about the same, but taking the express bus meant I could relax and put my feet up, at least until the people in the seat in front of me complained.

I’ve never ridden the express bus all the way to the terminal before so I didn’t think it was unusual when the driver, instead of continuing in a straight line on the most direct route, took a sudden left turn, then a sudden right turn, and suddenly we were in an open area about three blocks from the terminal and surrounded by other buses.

“Everybody needs to get out,” the driver told us.

“What’s goin’ on?” a woman yelled. “I paid for a trip downtown and I want to go downtown!”

Well, we were pretty close to downtown, or even in it, depending on how you define it. We just hadn’t gone to the usual stopping point and the driver had already disembarked.

I got out and wandered around. Buses from every route were parked on all four sides of an intersection. No one, including the drivers, knew what was going on, just that we’d been ordered to this stop. I wandered around and found the bus that, according to its number, would drop me off at my office. We sat for a few minutes then drivers started yelling to each other, “All clear!” and a voice over the radio announced that drivers could resume their regular routes. So we went to the terminal which, I later learned, had been temporarily shut down because of a “suspicious package”. When the bus pulled in lots of people were coming out of the terminal doughnut shop, which is apparently the safest place to go during a bomb threat.

I did eventually get to work, but the elevators were shut down for repairs. And then my computer had to run a half hour update.

I’m still not sure whether staying home would have been the safer.

Call Me Maurice.

When I was seventeen it was a very good year, especially that summer. I took a trip across Europe thanks to my parents and a student ambassador program called People To People. One of my teachers–and to this day I don’t know which one–nominated me for it. This was before the internet, at least as we know it, and it was only by dumb luck that I stumbled–or rather was pushed, willingly, into it. We went through seven countries: Switzerland, Austria, Czechoslovakia back when it was still called that, one night in Germany, France, Spain, and finally Portugal, or, as I like to think of it, Spain’s Canada. We were about thirty teenagers crawling down the Iberian peninsula by bus, stopping in cathedrals and learning the culinary alphabet from Wienerschniztel to calamari, and along the way each of us was dropped off for short stopovers with families in Austria, France, and Spain. There are at least a dozen stories I could share, but for now I’ll stick with my time with the French family and le cheval terrible.
The French family lived just outside of Toulouse in a wonderful rustic farmhouse, and were really nice people. We exchanged Christmas and joyeux Noel cards for several years after my visit. They had a teenage son with whom I shared almost everything in common except a language, although he spoke a decent amount of English and I, well, I could do a passable Maurice Chevalier which cracked him up. In fact I entertained the whole family, especially their two Spaniels, one of whom was so taken with me she left a little present by my bed and I put my left foot right in it. They told me there was a local saying that a man who puts his left foot in le merde will be successful in life and I told them a dumb joke about how my friend came in with le merde in his hand and I said, “Why are you carrying dog shit?” and he replied, “Would you believe I almost stepped in this?” They thought this was worthy of Moliere and had me repeat it for guests which makes me think I could have pursued a career as a Franco-American standup comedian, but that’s another story.

Source: Wikipedia

One evening they thought it would be nice to visit some relatives who lived on a neighboring farm and share my scatalogical humor. And while the mother and son were taking the car they thought it would be fun if father and I went on horseback. I’d ridden a horse maybe twice in my life before then so I assumed I was well-prepared, although there’s a world of difference between impersonating Maurice Chevalier and being even a passable chevalier. And they assured me their horse Coquette–so aptly named–was very nice. She seemed to be nice, too, and very pretty with her dusky coat an flowing blonde mane, although gentlemen prefer brains. She ignored me and ate grass while I introduced myself and when I climbed aboard and said “giddyup” she ignored me and ate grass. And then when I tugged on the reins a little she ignored me and ate grass. When I said, “How do you put this thing in drive?” she lifted her head and started galloping down the road.
The farm, by the way, was adjacent to a French main highway. In the distance I could see a car coming in the opposite direction. “Whoa!” I told Coquette and then behind me the father started shouting “Pull to the right!” In English, amazingly, although even on the back of a galloping horse I think I would have known my gauche from my droite and none of us wanted to turn this into a scene from Equus. I pulled hard on the reins and Coquette suddenly stopped, trotted off to the side of the road, and proceeded to eat grass.
She was taken back for her paddock, the car was sent back for me, and the family kept assuring me “Coquette really is a very nice horse, but she doesn’t speak English.” Which I knew was half true, since I’d already learned she didn’t speak English.


Side Walk.

Work in progress.

Sometimes I take the bus in the mornings. Even in the summer I sometimes get up early enough that it’s still dark outside and make the long trek up my street. A neighbor’s dog, a Great Pyrenees, will sometimes come out and bark at me. I wave and say, “Hi, Arthur,” which always makes him get quiet. I have no idea what the dog’s real name is but he looks like an Arthur, although I did find out that he is really a she, which means she looks like Bea Arthur, and now whenever she barks at me I think she’s saying, “God’ll get you for that, Christopher,” but that’s another story.

It’s kind of nice walking through the neighborhood in the morning. Sometimes I see Venus setting in the southeast, and sometimes I pass by neighbors whose names I don’t know who’ve gotten up for an early morning jog, or I see lights come on in houses as other people wake up and start their days.

And then I turn on to the main street and have to walk a couple of blocks to the bus stop, which is one of those plexiglass-walled rectangles. It’s not one of the ones that was targeted for an upgrade even though it desperately needs it and could really use one of those new towers that signals an oncoming bus because when it’s still dark I pretty much have to step out in front of the bus and wave a flashlight back and forth like I’m signaling a train.

Really they all look like they should be named “Arthur” to me. Source: Wikipedia

Also both keep coyotes away. Source: YouTube

That’s not the biggest problem, though. The biggest problem is that there is no sidewalk on the main road. Well, there is a sidewalk, but it’s conveniently placed on the other side of the road which means if I want to use the sidewalk I have to cross the road—in the dark—which would put me in the perfect position to catch the bus going in the opposite direction. I don’t want to do that so I’m stuck walking a narrow gravel trail between a ditch and the roadway, and walking with the flow of traffic. That means fast-moving vehicles zip right by within inches of me and I understand why in school we were taught to walk on the side of the road facing oncoming traffic, but I can’t do that for reasons already discussed.

Now, however, there are apartments going up along the main road, and that’s prompted the installation of sidewalks. It also means more people and more traffic, but at least we have some place to walk.

Just The Two Of Us.

One of the tough things about public transportation must be that buses never stop running. Well, they do very late at night–in most cities I think it’s between two and five a.m.–but as long as the drivers are working they’re stuck in a non-stop loop. They’re not like taxi drivers who can sit in a queue at the airport or a hotel and maybe get a quick nap before someone jumps in and asks for a ride. Bus drivers have to keep going, burning fuel, even if they’re not carrying anyone.

I thought about this the other day when I got on the bus and I was the only passenger. This was a bit of a shock. There are always at least three or four other people already on the afternoon bus when I board it. And it’s not as though this was a different driver who was running on a weird schedule, causing everyone who normally caught the bus to miss it. In fact just the day before there was a substitute driver, a guy I’ve never seen before, who showed up at my stop about ten minutes early and the bus was packed.

It was the regular driver the day the bus was empty, a guy who’s considerate and recognizes passengers–he always pulls up a few feet past the actual bus stop to drop me off at the corner where I cross the street–but never talks to anyone. The rule is no one’s supposed to talk to the driver, but some drivers, even most, are chatty. They carry on conversations with people. Sometimes they even interrupt other peoples’ conversations to offer their own opinions. Once, as I was waiting at a stop, a driver went right by me without stopping. He then ran a red light and stopped on the other side of the street. I guess he thought this would compensate for his moving violation. I ran and had to tap on the door to get his attention because he had his body turned halfway around so he could carry on a conversation with someone sitting behind him.

It’s never really bothered me that the current driver on my route never talks. The other people on the bus act as kind of a buffer. If he’s not talking to them I just assume he’s not interested in talking to anyone and I can sit in the back and listen to my podcasts. With just the two of us, though, I was suddenly in a difficult position. What if he’s lonely? What if he’d like to talk to someone but just has trouble starting conversations? He and I may be strangers but we pass by each other on a daily basis. Maybe I should say something. I didn’t, though. I stuck to my routine. I sat in the back and listened to my podcasts, but unsure the whole time.

When we came to my stop he pulled a few feet forward. I walked up to the door and, as I always do, said, “Thank you very much.”

Normally he just nods at me. This day he said, “You’re welcome. See you tomorrow.”

Maybe that’s all he had to say.


My Two Cents.

There were a bunch of pennies on the sidewalk. Why someone left them there is beyond me, and I could have just left them, but instead I picked them all up. Hey, if you see a penny and pick it up all the day you’ll have good luck, right? And even though the day was mostly over and I was headed home I figured maybe it’s a twenty-four hour good luck and maybe it’s cumulative so picking up all those pennies I’d get nine or twelve days of good luck. I couldn’t use the pennies to pay my bus fare, unlike that time several years ago when I poured exact change–all in pennies–into a bus fare collector, but still pennies add up. That’s at least one reason I think the US Treasury keeps producing pennies, unlike our neighbor to the north Canada that abandoned the penny a few years ago. And that’s one of the few things Canada has done that bugs me a little. When I was a kid I was bitten by the numismatic bug, although the doctor gave me a shot and I got better. It was finding Canadian pennies in change that got me interested in coin collecting; it made me feel in touch with the rest of the world. Years later I’d get a job in a mailroom and the foreign stamps that came in turned me into a bit of a Johnny-come-philately, but that’s another story.

Coins even helped teach me some history, like when I first found a 1967 Canadian penny which, unlike the regular maple leaf penny, has a  dove. So it doesn’t bother me that my collection of Canadian pennies, large as it is, is still barely worth a loonie–even less than that, now that the pennies are no longer legal tender. It’s a shame the 2017 Canadian coins, which celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Canadian Confederation, won’t include a penny.

Still I wish Canada good luck on the sesquicentennial. Hey, here’s a penny.


Window Seat.

I like the window seat. In fact I prefer the window seat, even on airplanes, in spite of the possibility that on a long flight I might need to go the bathroom and potentially inconvenience the person sitting next to me, but that’s never happened. Maybe if I flew first class where they give you unlimited beverages and fresh fruit and play soothing waterfall sounds it would be a problem, but I usually fly steerage where the one ersatz soft drink and package of salty pretzels has never been enough to even wake up my bladder. The only time I’ve ever had a problem with my seat on an airplane is when we flew over the Grand Canyon and the captain tilted the plane so everyone on the left side could get a good look. I was on the right side and all I got a good look at was clouds and sky and tried to ask him if he could circle back around, but that’s another story.

On the bus I like the window seat too, but it bugs me that most buses are now covered with advertisements. Sure, they’re perforated so I can see through, and if I wanted to stick my tongue out or make other rude gestures at drivers going by they probably couldn’t see me. The seats on the bus sit higher than most cars so I get to look down on people in their cars and think, “Playing Words With Friends, eh? Did you notice the light changed?” And I like to watch the neighborhoods and businesses roll by. Things are always changing and it’s fun to see a new business or building going in or sad to see an old one go.

Still I get it that in order for public transportation to continue serving the public it has to be profitable and that fares–currently $1.75 per person–don’t come close to covering even fuel. So buses get to be moving billboards, mostly advertising lawyers which sometimes makes me wonder if I could sue for an unobstructed view. I’d probably have better luck against the airline for depriving me of a view of the Grand Canyon.

This post brought to you by DuBrow’s Hard Gravy. Celebrate summer responsibly by pouring it over fruit or your other favorite foods. Or drink it straight from the can. As long as you don’t sue us we don’t care.


Waiting To Go.

Even when I drive to work I have a pretty good hike to where my office is because my wife and I both work for the same major university, but we work on opposite sides and park in the lot nearest her office. And we have a parking sticker that only allows us to park in that one lot without being ticketed, towed, or getting one of those big metal boot things stuck on one of the wheels, which I have seen happen and I hope it doesn’t make me a terrible person that I’ve laughed and said, “That’ll teach you to park on the sidewalk, schmuck!” but that’s another story.

So my wife had the day off and I was flying, or rather walking and driving, solo. When I came out of the building where I work there was a bus parked right across the street, and this bus, I knew, would take me by the lot where I’d left the car.

It was also starting to rain. Who am I to turn down such convenience when it offers itself? I climbed on board, took a seat, got back up and swiped my bus pass which is a step most drivers won’t let you skip, then took a completely different seat just for a change of view because I was the only person on the bus. And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

It was a Friday afternoon and I was eager to get home.

Maybe it was because I was the sole passenger, but this has happened before. There have been many times when I’ve been on a bus and the driver has pulled over and stopped for what feels like an hour but has been, according to the clock, a staggeringly long five or six minutes. I can’t explain why but I’ve never asked the driver why we’ve stopped. There was one time that I sat behind a guy who whipped out his phone, called customer service, and demanded to know why we weren’t going forward. Why he was asking someone in a call center at least ten miles away when the driver who knew why we weren’t going forward was just a few feet away is something I can’t explain and I doubt he could either. I’ve never asked because I assume the drivers know what they’re doing. I assume they’ve gotten a few minutes ahead of schedule and are stopping out of courtesy to the people at stops up ahead who expect the bus to arrive at or even after a specific time, not before it. And at least the bus drivers aren’t blocking traffic, unlike a jerk UPS driver who used to park his delivery van in the vicinity of my building. There’s an alley that’s slightly bigger than a single vehicle and he liked to park in the middle of it and sit there. The one time I overheard someone ask him if he could move he replied, “Figure out another way around,” and used his hand cart to carry away his obviously heavy load of a single box about the size of a McDonald’s Happy Meal.

Anyway after what seemed like an hour but was probably only a staggeringly long ten minutes, time that allowed several people who greeted the driver by name to board. And then we finally got moving.

I was tired and impatient to get going, but I couldn’t be angry at the driver. Besides, by the time I got off it had stopped raining.


In The Madding Crowd.

Sometimes when I pass by the various apartment buildings that have started to dominate Nashville now that so many people are moving in I wonder what it would be like to live in one, especially if it’s one along a bus route because, hey, as long as I’m imagining I can also imagine I’m pragmatic and somewhat civic-minded. It’s not that I want to move, although my wife has said that if we win the lottery we’re moving out of Nashville and away from the crowds. If that happens I hope to travel frequently so I won’t care where we call home, except on its birthday when I’ll call it “Jimmykins”, but that’s another story.

There’s one I pass by regularly that has patios built facing the sidewalk which I think is a really cool thing. I like the idea of being so close to passers-by, of having interactions with them, or at least being part of the comings-and-goings. So far I haven’t had interactions with any of the people who live in these places although a large chocolate Labrador retriever has popped his head up over the edge to watch me. I’ve said “Hi!” to him and, true to his breed, he’s wagged his tail and is probably wondering why I don’t stop and give him something to retrieve, but I’m not usually carrying a Labrador.

Recently I noticed that one of these places was empty so I stopped for a better look, and somehow I never realized before just how tiny the patios are. They’re designed so anyone who sits on one would have to sit sideways. They’re not welcoming, they don’t really create a sense of community. And that’s the down side of the population boom. There’s been so much attention given to building for numbers that people are being forgotten. It’s all pragmatics and I couldn’t imagine living there.


Where’d You Come From?

Most of the time I’m alone at the bus stop, and I’m okay with that. I don’t mind company, and I even tell myself I’d be fine with the company but, well, my brain is a puzzle of contradictions. Let me illustrate that: I know a lot of people aren’t comfortable with small talk, but I kind of enjoy it myself. At least I feel uncomfortable sitting next to complete strangers in complete silence and feel like I should say something. There’s also a guy I see at the bus stop once every three or four months and he’s seen me often enough that the last time we were sharing the bench he apparently felt like he should say something and while I did my best to hold up at least half the conversation I felt like I had a mouthful of alum. So I feel uncomfortable not talking and I feel uncomfortable talking and really what I want to do is bombard people with questions like “Who are you? What are your hobbies? What do you do when you’re not riding the bus? Can I write down your life story and publish it on my blog?”

Back when I was in college I had a button I always wore that said “What’s this cat’s story?” that I found in a box at a music store and it seemed to help break the ice because anytime someone would ask me about it I’d turn it around and use it as an excuse to ask their story.

Anyway lately there seem to be a lot of people at the bus stop. It’s a wide range of people too: young, old, men, women–suddenly everyone is taking the bus. I’ve gone from being alone to being one of the crowd. At least I no longer feel uncomfortable about making the bus driver stop just to pick me up, but that’s another story. Now I feel uncomfortable because I’m surrounded by all these cats and all I want to know is their stories.

Getting Around.

Whenever I travel I always find how other places emphasize public transportation. Or don’t. In Chicago, for instance, I noticed that buses ran frequently. Every minute on every street there was a bus going by, sometimes more than one. I was standing at the edge of Millennium Park looking one way when I saw an “L” train pass between two buildings.

“I wish I’d gotten a picture of that” I said to a friend who was with me.

“Wait a minute,” he said. I did and in about a minute another one went by.

Sure, Chicago is a much bigger city than Nashville, but it’s still amazing to me that where I live the minimum time between buses on any route is fifteen minutes, and some routes run as little as twice a day.

Chicago’s profusion of transportation can, however, cause some confusion. I was sitting in O’Hare Airport which is larger than Nashville’s airport, and which supposedly has a monorail system. According to Wikipedia it’s 2.7 miles long, which is longer than some Nashville bus routes, and moves along at up to fifty miles an hour. Needless to say this sounds like a fun ride. I’ve also ridden the monorails in Dallas and Atlanta airports and wanted to add O’Hare to my collection. Once I had a long enough layover in Atlanta that I rode the monorail so many times people started asking me for directions, but that’s another story.

I say it supposedly has a monorail because I thought I walked from one end of O’Hare to the other and covered every terminal and never found the monorail entrance. If I were one of those people with a goal of walking ten thousand steps a day I’d be able to take a week off. I did find a very nice older woman at an information desk. She had an airport uniform although with her white hair in a bun and half-moon spectacles on a chain she looked more like the archetypal librarian. When I asked her where the monorail was she asked, “Do you mean the trains to downtown?”

“Er, yeah,” I stuttered. I thought the word monorail was pretty clear, and I had a sudden attack of shyness that prevented me from saying what I meant, which was, “No, I mean the O’Hare monorail which I want to ride back and forth because I’ve got some time to kill and I’m a goofy tourist.”

She took out a map and asked where I was going. At this point I felt I was too deeply committed so I blurted out “the Museum of Science And Industry” which I’ve been to once but that was more than twenty-five years ago and I’m a goofy tourist who digs that sort of thing. She then gave me detailed but simple instructions that even I could have followed. She then pointed to the exit and said, “Just go right through those doors and if there’s not a bus there already one will be along in a minute.” I thanked her and she said, “Oh, thank you. I love giving directions and helping people but so few stop and ask for help anymore. There’s so much to see here and I’m sure people miss most of it.”

I then left and tried to discreetly disappear into the crowd so she wouldn’t notice that, instead of leaving the airport, I was turning toward the terminal where my gate was. And I had to hurry because I’d shrunk to just six inches tall. I’ve saved the map, though. I don’t know when I’ll be back in Chicago but it should still be helpful, and if it isn’t I know where to go for directions.


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