Adventures In Busing.

Train Pigeons.

The other day I read a story about London’s urban foxes and felt cheated. I spent a lot of time in London—although not nearly enough, which is oddly reassuring because as Samuel Johnson said, “When a man is tired of London he is tired of life,” but that’s another story. In all the time I spent in London—in all the time I spent in Britain, in fact—I never once saw a fox.

I did, however, see a lot of pigeons which, as someone who watched Mary Poppins about a dozen times before the age of eight and is still not tired of it because when you’re tired of Mary Poppins you’re tired of life, tickled me. I even bought the little cups of seed to feed the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. I don’t know if this has changed but at the time the seed came in little plastic cups that you then returned to the vendor. And I was taking an empty cup back when a pigeon landed on my arm and looked at the cup and looked at me and I swear that bird was on the verge of speech.

And then there was one afternoon when I was standing in an underground station and a train pulled up and a couple of pigeons walked out.

Yes, they walked, and looked around like they were a couple of tourists. I even imagined them having a conversation.

“Are you sure Earl’s Court is where we wanted to get off?”

“I think so, Nigel. Mind the gap!”

Of course they were British pigeons, perhaps visiting London from Oldham or Kent. The idea of American pigeons in London would just be ridiculous.

I swear this really happened but the story has been a point of some contention between me and my wife because she doesn’t believe me. Even though other people have said they’ve seen the same thing—pigeons walking off trains—she doesn’t believe me. Why would I make up a story like that?

Admittedly I have been known to feather my stories with exaggerations, embellishments, and outright fabrications, but if I were going to make up a story like that it would have been more elaborate. At the very least they would have actually spoken.

And been American.

 

 

Follow That Bus!

So I dropped my wife off at the airport and headed to work. Well, not directly to work. First I circled around the airport and made a short-term trip through long-term parking before I finally found my way out and even though I don’t often drive to or from the airport–the last time I made the trip solo was at least four years ago–I managed to turn in the right direction, unlike the last time when I turned the wrong direction and drove along for half an hour trying to figure out where I was going before I realized I didn’t know where I was going.

Let me pause here to explain that I’m one of those people who avoids driving on the interstate if I can. I prefer to take the long way around on mostly residential streets even though it’s supposedly slower although every time I have been on the interstate something’s happened to cause traffic to slow down to a crawl and everyone heads for the exits to take the long way around but that’s another story.

This was also the first time I’ve ever driven out through that area in the dark.

And as I was moving down Donelson Road toward Murfreesboro Pike I noticed a brightly lit bus stop in the middle of what appeared to be nowhere. As you can see from the picture made with the help of Google Maps it’s not really the middle of nowhere. There’s a small residential area and a Tennessee Department of Transportation office and something called Airport Liquors where after just a couple of drinks you’ll be flying. And as I was approaching that bus stop a bus went by, headed in the exact direction I needed to go. It distracted me so that I accidentally went right through the intersection, after a complete stop of course, and continued down Donelson and by the time I managed to turn around and head back in the right direction the bus was gone. But that was okay. I turned on to Murfreesboro Pike and headed in the right direction, except that after what seemed like three days but which was probably not more than ten minutes, I started feeling really unsure that I was headed in the right direction. After going under a few overpasses and over a few underpasses I started looking for the bus with the plan of following it. Then, as I was contemplating all this, I suddenly emerged from terra incognita to terra familiar, onto Broadway in the middle of downtown Nashville, and probably ahead of the bus which, as buses usually do, might have taken the long way around.

From there it should have been easy. I could have turned left and gotten to work easily but for some reason I kept going and within a couple of blocks went from knowing exactly where I was to not having a clue where I was. But then I just kept going and did find my way back to where I was going.

That’s the lesson here: if you’re lost and don’t know where you are keep going until you do. Or maybe it’s, if in doubt, follow a bus.

 

Sun Gets In Your Eyes.

The sun, constellation Capricorn, and Mercury. Picture made with SkyView app for iPhone.

As the sun moves across the sky a terrible thing happens to drivers going down, or rather up, since they’re climbing a hill, a particular stretch of road. The sun’s position is such that it’s right there at the peak of the hill and it hits us right in the face, blinding us. It’s a temporary phenomenon. Even during the times of year when it’s in just the right position, or rather just the wrong position, it’s there less than an hour because, when you think about it, the sun moves pretty quickly, even relatively speaking, or rather the Earth moves pretty quickly, turning so the horizon rises up to meet the sun, but during that time it creates a dangerous condition. The builders of ancient monuments like the pyramids or Stonehenge thought about the positions of the sun and stars. The Mayan temple of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza has a famous “serpent” effect during the spring equinox, all developed because the position of the sun was important to people and they also had a lot of time on their hands because they weren’t driving anywhere. Whoever decided where the road should go didn’t seem to think about this, and they probably didn’t have much choice because roads go everywhere so it’s unavoidable that some of them are going to face straight into the sun.

Since my stop was coming up I had moved to a seat near the driver.

“That sun is brutal,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said, “and I’ve got a sun shade here, but it’s but it’s broken so I can’t pull it down.”

I’d noticed that. Bus drivers don’t have a sun shade like most cars but a fabric screen they can pull down part of the way to block the sun. When the sun is low enough, though, when it’s right in the middle of your field of vision, no shade helps.

“At least it’ll be behind me when I turn around and head back,” she said.

And I remembered something I learned as a kid, an Irish blessing.

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face…

Obviously the Irish didn’t drive a lot.

What’s the best way to deal with sun right in your face? I can think of a couple of ideas: pull off the road, turn another way and go somewhere else for a bit until the sun is in a different part of the sky, and, if you’re riding a bus, don’t talk to the driver while they’re trying to concentrate on the road.

Don’t Take Rides.

It was a Saturday. I was taking the bus somewhere, possibly to a movie or just gadding about. There had obviously been a wreck on the interstate because the main road was bumper-to-bumper with people trying to get somewhere, or just gadding about. On Saturdays only half as many buses run as on weekdays and the sudden surge of traffic had already put it well behind schedule, meaning I’d been standing on the side of the road for half an hour. And then a car pulled up next to me and stopped. The tinted window rolled down.

“Chris! What are you doing out here?”

It was my sister-in-law. In a weird coincidence she’d been on her way somewhere–she’s not usually one for gadding about–and the stop-and-go traffic had brought her to a halt right next to me. And maybe it was because I’d just been standing out in the sun inhaling auto fumes for so long that I didn’t hesitate. I climbed right into her car and closed the door. I gabbled away about how I’d been waiting for the bus, it looked like it was never going to come, had there been a wreck on the interstate? And I was so glad to her for offering me a ride.

It was only after she’d dropped me off at an intersection a couple of miles down the road, where two bus routes intersected, basically doubling my chances of catching a bus even on a day when the wait times were twice as long, that I realized she’d never really offered me a ride. It was sort of okay because she was headed to that intersection. Just beyond it was an interstate on-ramp that she was hoping would get her past the accident and back up to speed, but she still had to pause to drop me off. And I felt guilty about it although I’ve never thought to apologize and it’s been so many years now she’s probably forgotten about it entirely.

Anyway “don’t take rides from strangers” is a good rule of thumb, unless you’re hitchhiking in which case you use your thumb, but that’s another story. Another good rule, though, might be that you shouldn’t take rides from people you know either–at least not unless they explicitly offer a ride.

 

A Little Less Conversation.

I like to talk to people. Yes, I’m one of those who’ll happily engage in small talk with just about anyone, although most of the time I have a problem starting conversations with strangers. I get that small talk bothers a lot of people and I respect that. The last thing I want to do is impose on someone who’d rather be alone with their own thoughts. There’s nothing wrong with silence. There are a couple of guys I see regularly on the bus who always sit together. Sometimes they’re talking; sometimes they’ll have extensive discussions that draw in three or four other regular riders, the conversation only dropping off as everybody gets dropped off at their regular stops. And sometimes these two guys just sit together, side by side, one with a thick book, the other with a newspaper, in total silence.

I always feel a little awkward when I’m the only rider on the bus. Does the driver want to talk? How do I know? If the driver’s been laughing and talking with other riders who then got off that’s a pretty good sign that, yes, the driver does want to talk, that they’re one of those drivers who really likes to talk. Most of the time if they’re that type they’ll start up the conversation with me which takes some of the pressure off, but until that happens I’m not sure. Bus drivers run the spectrum. Some want to talk, some want to be left alone, and some are okay with talking but have trouble starting conversations.

There were only three of us on the bus: the driver, an older guy dressed in jeans and a ragged flannel shirt, and me. There’d also been a teenage boy, but he’d gotten off at the last stop.

“Did you have a good day, Jim?” the driver asked loudly.

The older guy didn’t respond. He just sat in his seat staring at his hands.

I’m not sure how long the silence went on but then the driver said, “I guess it’s a ‘don’t talk to Cathy’ kind of day.”

She chuckled, and I said, “Maybe he didn’t hear you.”

The driver didn’t say anything. I felt really awkward, like I’d accidentally intruded on a private conversation. Either that or for some reason the driver thought I was Jim.

 

If Wishes Were Buses…

Most of the things people leave behind on the bus are things they don’t want: empty bottles, grocery bags, pieces of paper. Once I found a small pile of bones left over from chicken wings carefully balanced on the edge of the window. I thought about sliding open the window and throwing them out but there are some things even I won’t pick up, and I didn’t want to risk throwing chicken wings into the windshield of an oncoming car. A bus driver once told me that she had a kid who threw a milkshake into the open sunroof of a car in the next lane which I thought took some amazing skill but was also a criminal waste of a milkshake, but that’s another story.

Just a few days ago I got on the bus and went straight to the back just as I always do, especially at this time of year because the motor is in the back and it’s the warmest place to sit. And I found this:

A

wishes1At first I thought it was a child’s school assignment. When I was in school we had to do things like this all the time because being able to cut pictures of stuff out of magazines and paste them to a piece of posterboard was a valuable skill that, like the quadratic formula, I have never once needed in my adult life. But then I looked at it more closely.

wishes2

It looked like a shopping guide. Someone had been calculating and comparing prices. They wanted a cell phone, a bicycle, a small motorcycle, and a Nerf gun. I couldn’t tell whether the pictures really matched the exact items or if they were just guides.

wishes3

What I really wanted to know, though, was, who were they? Who made this thing and left it behind? Was it a Christmas gift guide? Maybe it was and with the holidays over they didn’t need it anymore. That’s the best possibility. The worst possibility is they were a student and this was an assignment that they accidentally left behind. If that’s the case they probably ended up getting a F on it, although if they had turned it in the grade wouldn’t be much better. That’s some really sloppy work there. Don’t they teach kids the proper way to stick pictures to a piece of posterboard  anymore?

wishes4

Seeing Stars?

spaceHave you ever looked down and seen stars? Chances are you’re saying “No” unless you’ve been in space or simply extremely disoriented, probably due to some form of intoxication, and even then you weren’t technically looking down because, first of all, when you’re in space and loosed from the surly bonds of gravity “up” and “down” become meaningless and second, if you’re so intoxicated that you can’t tell up from down your feet should be firmly planted on the ground, unless you’re in a bed, and even then someone should make sure you stay on your side or stomach until you have been once again ensnared by the surly bonds of sobriety.

Let me start over.

I was standing at the corner waiting for the bus to arrive and I looked down and saw stars. Just off the edge of the sidewalk, in the curb, there was a rectangular object with stars on it. Now I’m not the sort of person who goes around picking up trash. Well, sometimes I am. If there’s a piece of paper or an empty can on the sidewalk and there’s a trash can nearby I’ll pick it up and throw it away. If someone’s left a half-finished cup of coffee on the bus bench I’ll move it. Once when I was on the bus a half-full bottle of something rolled from one end of the of the bus to the other for two miles before I finally picked it up and put it in the garbage bag behind the driver’s seat. Why no one else did is a mystery but I decided someone had to.

Anyway I couldn’t get over my curiosity about what this thing with the stars on it was. My best guess was that it was a poster of the stars or possibly even a Star Wars poster, and since it had been raining it was soaking wet and likely ruined but I still had to know. First I waited for a lull in the traffic because I didn’t want the anonymous strangers driving by to think I was the sort of person who picks up soaking wet trash. Then I picked it up and, well…I’m still not sure what it was. It was a multi-panel piece of cardboard with stars on one part of it.

And then I realized the bus was coming. The driver had very likely seen me and was thinking of me as the sort of person who picks up soaking wet trash. Or something. I don’t know what she thought. She smiled and said hello when I got on the bus and I realized that some guy picking up a mysterious object off the street was probably not the strangest thing she’d seen. In fact I’m pretty sure that for most bus drivers seeing strange things is common.

Warm-Up Act.

Source: Google Maps

Source: Google Maps

In downtown Nashville, on Fourth Avenue, between the capitol building and the river, there used to be a couple of blocks of bus shelters. For every bus route this was the end of the line–or one of them, anyway. There was also a rectangular shed with maps of every bus route and schedules and a customer service/help/information window that was permanently closed.

The shelters have since been removed and the end of the line is now a covered bus depot and I kind of miss them. The depot is safer and depending on the weather I guess most people are happier to be under a roof, and depending on the weather they were a place where anyone walking from one part of downtown to another could stop. And even when I had to wait for the bus I wanted I could stand around and watch the other ones go by. At almost any time there were at least a couple of buses dropping off, picking up, or just waiting for their scheduled departure.

And then one night there was the singer.

It was one of the coldest nights of the year, which isn’t saying much because it was still January, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t get much colder in any other month, not even August. For once I hadn’t taken the bus downtown. My wife and I had parked a few blocks down the street because we were on our way to the Tennessee Performing Arts Center to see Garrison Keillor. This was not A Prairie Home Companion but just Keillor himself telling stories from his new book The Book Of Guys, but that’s another story. Or stories.

Anyway we were walking past the bus shelters and under one of them stood a tall black man. He wore a dark wool coat and a dark hat. He might have completely blended into the shadows if he hadn’t been belting out “Beautiful Dreamer” in a lovely, loud bass baritone.

I’m still not sure what he was doing there. I thought, and still think, he might have been an opera singer or a member of a chorus headed home from a rehearsal. The strange thing is there were no buses around. This would have been around 7:30 at night and while pretty late the buses run from 5:00am to 2:00am. Even at that time of night there should have been a couple of buses around.

Yes, that’s the strange thing. A man standing in the middle of an empty sidewalk singing to himself, and to us but only just because we happened to be passing by, doesn’t seem strange to me at all. We smiled at him and he smiled back, glad, I think, to have an audience.

 

Traveler’s Rest.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

The life of a character actor seems like it would be hard but also rewarding. If you can accept the uncertainty and frustration, if you can accept rarely, if ever, being recognized, if you truly believe the saying that there are no small parts, or at least that having a part is its own reward, and if you love acting then being a character actor must be a pretty amazing job. Some character actors get around a lot–they get to travel from role to role, covering a wide range.

I thought about that when I heard about the passing of Bernard Fox, an actor who brought a big personality to small roles on the big screen and some big roles on small screens. Most remembrances refer to his recurring role of Dr. Bombay on Bewitched. He also had a recurring role as Colonel Crittendon on Hogan’s Heroes.

I was never much of a fan of either of those shows–I had no idea he had roles on them–but I remember him from two episodes of The Andy Griffith Show I first saw as a kid and which immediately became my favorites. I think I’ve always been an Anglophile but when the character Malcom Merriweather rolled into Mayberry he gave me an early impression of what British people were like. Okay, he was mostly a stereotype, but in his first episode he takes a job as Andy’s valet. Decades before Downton Abbey he gave a glimpse of what life downstairs, and upstairs, might be like as he tried to treat Sheriff Taylor like an English lord.

Yeah, it was pretty cheesy, and so was his return visit a year later when he steps up to assist Aunt Bea, but Fox was so charming he made it almost believable.

And what made the stories even more memorable to me is that Merriweather always arrived by bicycle, a freewheeling traveler seeing the United States and making money by picking up odd jobs in small towns–not unlike the job of a character actor.

It was an idea that made an impression on me too. I never did it but I always thought it would be a fun way to see the world–and get to know people, to go around taking up odd jobs. I sometimes rode a Greyhound bus between Nashville and Evansville and for some reason the bus took a lot of back roads, passing through the edges of small towns–what was normally a two hour trip by car took more than four hours by bus because of its strange route. And there were times I remembered Malcolm Merriweather, even though he was a fictional character whose travels were decades earlier, and I didn’t have a bicycle. Still I was sometimes tempted to step off in the middle of a small town and see if I could get a small job–and maybe move across the country that way.

Bernard Fox is also fondly remembered for his role in 1999‘s The Mummy as British RAF pilot Captain Winston Havlock, stranded and bored in Cairo, wishing for one more chance to fly, one more big adventure–also like any dedicated character actor, always in search of that next role, that next adventure, always moving to some new part of the world.

Hail and farewell Bernard Fox.

Update: Here’s “Valet”, the episode of The Andy Griffith Show that introduced Malcolm Merriweather.

 

Acquainted With The Night.

darkcommute

As the solstice gets closer I start going to work in the dark and coming home in the dark even though the times of my commutes are pretty much the same throughout the year. I don’t remember when I first noticed that the days got shorter in the winter, although I do remember noticing the movement of the sun from my bedroom window. My room faced west and my whole life I’d been taught that the sun comes up in the east and goes down in the west and that never changes. Like most things in life it turned out to be more complicated than that. The sun’s rising and setting positions throughout the year were not fixed, and while the setting sun blazed unobscured in the summer in the winter it gradually moved behind a stand of trees so it started to disappear even before it hit the horizon. No one else seemed bothered by this and no catastrophes resulted from the sun’s shifting position which told me it was a normal phenomenon. So the sun didn’t exactly set at due west and even though I rarely saw the sunrise because I liked to sleep late I assumed it didn’t rise at due east either. This was a valuable lesson: grownups are a bunch of liars who were afraid to tell me the whole truth, but that’s another story.

I don’t remember when I got the idea–maybe it was about the time that I learned Christmas and other midwinter celebrations were appropriated from the pagan solstice celebrations–that maybe people didn’t always know that the farther you got from the equator the more the lengths of days and nights varied throughout the year. Our very earliest ancestors, I think, emerged around the equator in Africa. Long before homo sapiens started spreading out, mostly heading north, they must have been accustomed to pretty regular days and nights. How quickly did they move north? Was their progress slow enough that they noticed that seasonal variation was a normal thing?

Even if they did there must have been some fear in the backs of their minds, especially when they got really far north, to the arctic circle and beyond, where in the very heart of winter the sun barely edges above the horizon, that the days just might keep getting shorter, that the sun might disappear and never come back.

That gives an interesting perspective on why we cluster so many holidays at the end of the year, still finding ways to celebrate the solstice.

 

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