Adventures In Busing.

The Change Stays The Same.

The other day my boss said, “When we go back to the office…” Obviously I’ve spent the last ten months thinking about that although the longer things have gone on the stranger it’s seemed. In spite of everything slowing down I feel like I never really stopped to consider things, like the fact that it was a March 16th, 2020 that I used Zoom for the first time, and March 18th, 2020 that I had my first case of Zoom fatigue. And, well, that’s pretty much all I can think of at the moment but it has been a year of big changes.

My wife decided she’ll be working from home even after things get back to normal—whatever normal looks like, and that means we won’t be riding to work together most days. It also means I won’t be riding the bus home most days. It’s the end of my adventures in busing, a change I always knew would come eventually but I never really thought about it because I never knew when it would come.  It also means I need to find a new parking space—we always used her parking permit and I had about a half mile walk to work. I’m still working out the details but my new parking place wherever it is will be closer to my building. I’ll have a much shorter walk, although I think I’ll still walk. The difference is it’ll be voluntary. I won’t need to walk to the bus.

All this made me realize that my daily routine never was routine. Every day was slightly different. We went to the same parking garage but rarely parked in the same place from one day to the next.        We never arrived at exactly the same time. I walked different paths every day. If it was raining or really cold I cut through a lot more buildings which slowed me down but I was fine with getting to work a little later if it meant I could be a little warmer or a little drier. On my way home no bus ever arrived exactly on schedule, and even when I rode with the same bus driver from one day to the next there were different people on the bus, different seats where I sat.

Every day was slightly different, but the differences were something I could count on, which is why I overlooked them. The differences have always been part of my routine.

Stair Down.

Source: Architectural Record

I went to pick up a prescription which feels kind of like practice for when I eventually go back to work because the garage where we park for work just happens to be across the street from the same place where I pick up most of my prescriptions. And on the ride there I was listening to an episode of The Hidden Brain about The Bullitt Center in Seattle that has what its designers describe as “the irresistible staircase” which encourages people to take the stairs with an inviting wood design and great views of the city. They even say the best views in the building are from the stairs, and that people have spontaneous meetings on the stairs which allow them to be more productive in their work.

And, yeah, I’m gonna be that guy who points out that not everyone can take the stairs so those people are missing out on the advantage of spontaneous meetings, among other things. I also thought about how I regularly took the stairs at the office where I work, and I might have missed out on some spontaneous meetings, but I also got the advantage of the exercise which is why I did it even though the staircase in the building where I work is terrible. It’s completely enclosed and cold and for years the doors into the stairwell were locked from the inside so once you were in there the only way out was to go to the ground floor, and the ground floor stairwell door was locked from the outside. It seems like that would be a violation of the fire code but—this is absolutely true—one day when I was taking the elevator for a change I heard the building manager tell someone, “You can do whatever you want if you pay the inspector enough.” For a while I also had a coworker who was in a wheelchair and once when we all had to go to the basement because of a tornado she had to literally be carried down the stairs, which seemed pretty stupid to me, and probably to her too. I understand that the elevators shut down for most people in the event of an emergency but they should still be an option, at least for a short time, for people who can’t take the stairs and need to get out of the building in a hurry, especially if you have an office manager who’s violating the fire codes anyway.

Anyway when I got to the parking garage I parked on the top floor and took the stairs down and then going back up. I was a little out of breath on the way back up which reminded me I need to take the stairs more often, or at least just get more exercise, but the good part is I was completely alone on the stairs and didn’t have any spontaneous meetings.

It’s All Connected.

Source: Wikipedia

So a bomb blew up in downtown Nashville early on Christmas morning, near the AT&T building that’s also known as “The Batman Building” because, well, if you see it you’ll understand. It’s a feature of the Nashville skyline and although I can’t see it from where the building where I work–or rather where I worked until last March when everything shut down, and where I’ll eventually go back to work sometime in the coming year–I could go to the roof of the parking garage next door to where I work and see The Batman Building from there. For all that Nashville has grown and is still growing it’s still got a fairly compact downtown area, easy to get to and, in normal times, easy to walk around in if you don’t mind the crowds. Needless to say these aren’t normal times and when the bomb went off a lot of people just sighed resignedly and said, “Thanks for one more thing, 2020.”
Although why the bomb in an RV was sent off downtown is still a mystery at least it went off early on Christmas morning when not many people were out and about–and it even made an announcement that it was a bomb and that people should get out of the area. For all the damage it did to the surrounding businesses, and as much as it would have been better if it hadn’t gone off at all, at least there’s a bright side.
It’s also interesting to me that Nashville made it to the front of The New York Times, which we still get in actual print, delivered to our driveway, on the weekends, the day after Christmas because of the bombing and also on Christmas Day because photographer Ruth Fremson made a trip across the United States to document the way various cities around the country were celebrating the season in these not so normal times.

The New York Times, December 25th, 2020. Nashville is the city with the Grinch.

The New York Times, December 26th, 2020. Below the fold but still on the front page.

That reminded me of when I was a kid and I’d been with my parents to the Tennessee Performing Arts Center downtown to see, of all things, CATS. As we were coming out we heard a woman say, “You know, this town reminds me of New York thirty years ago.” My mother groaned and said, “Oh please no,” and about twenty-five years later when my father retired my parents moved to Florida which is the most New York thing they could possibly do, but that’s another story.
One of the down sides of the bombing is because it affected the AT&T building it’s left a lot of people not just in Nashville but even in Tennessee and Kentucky without internet access. It’s left a lot of people, in other words, disconnected at a time when they want and need to be connected. It’s only temporary but here’s hoping it can all be restored before the end of the month–here’s hoping people will have a chance to say, thanks for bringing us back together, 2020.

Snow Day? Yes Day.

There’s been some talk that because so many kids are learning virtually the snow day would become a thing of the past because of course there has to be one more reason for 2020 to suck. That reminds me of one year when I was in college and we got what seemed like three feet of snow. Evansville is a pretty small town and the University of Evansville has a pretty small campus with everything within easy walking distance of everything else, and most of the professors lived within just a few blocks of campus. In fact that year I was living in a professor’s house with three other students while the professor was overseas, and when he found out we were using his house he was pretty mad, but that’s another story. Anyway we had an easy walk to campus and shared a backyard with another professor. So when we got all the snow I said, “What are they gonna do? Cancel classes?”

They cancelled all classes for three days.

There was also the time I was in my final exam right before Christmas break and it started snowing. Then it turned into a blizzard. I could hear people who’d finished all their exams outside screaming and laughing and having a great time. Snowballs were sailing past the windows  and sometimes hitting the windows, and when I got my exam back after the break the professor had written, “Your answers to the final questions were disappointingly cursory,” because he’d forgotten what it was like to be a kid. Or even a young adult who still took joy in snow. Getting snow right as the break was about to start was almost as bad as getting snow over the break when we were already out of school.

Growing up in Tennessee of course  school days were a rare treat because we rarely get snow, which is why pretty much any sign of it would shut down school, and sometimes when we were sitting in class all being very quiet some jerk in the back would get a laugh by yelling, “It’s snowing!” and we’d all turn around and look before we remembered it was May.

I think it’s pretty cool that in West Virginia a school superintendent declared a snow day for kids doing virtual learning, telling them, “go build a snowman”. And some school districts in other parts of the country are leaving open the possibility of snow days. It’s good to know there are still adults who remember what it was like to be a kid, or who just take joy in the snow, and for the kids who aren’t getting snow days, well, they should be forgiven if their final exam answers are disappointingly cursory.

 

Moving Traditions.

One of the things I’ve missed about not taking the bus this year, specifically this season, is seeing the decorations. I’ve missed my afternoon commute getting darker as the days get shorter but brightened with the lights that decorate houses and shops along the way. Most years my wife and I will also drive around the neighborhood to see how houses we pass by without a thought most of the year are decorated, taking on a new distinctiveness. There’s at least one house we used to go by on our way to work each morning that had both a giant inflatable Santa and an inflatable Hanukkah Bear, and it always made me smile even though I had another day at work ahead of me, but that’s another story.

Some years too we’ve driven out to the country to see the Geminids. It was too cloudy this year but I knew they were still there, and most nights I can look to the East and see Jupiter and Saturn getting closer and closer to conjunction, something that hasn’t happened in almost four centuries, and a reminder that even when we’re staying still the world under our feet and the universe we’re part of keeps moving.

This year especially these traditions hold out the hope that next year will be better.

 

 

The Voice.

Source: NPR.org

There’s a voice you hear on public transportation. Riding buses around Nashville I’d regularly hear a guy who sounded oddly like John Hamm making announcements like, “Next stop, White Bridge Road, transfer point for the number three route.” And it was really weird to me that this voice that came over the bus loudspeaker would know exactly where we were and when. I thought maybe the drivers just managed to time things really well, or maybe they activated the announcement, but then someone told me the buses have GPS devices and the announcements come on automatically based on where the bus is. Sometimes I don’t hear it, though—I think drivers can turn it off if they get tired of listening to the same announcements over and over again and they guess riders will know where we are.

There’s also London’s famous “Mind the gap” message that you hear in certain Underground stations, and which I’m surprised to learn is also used worldwide, and way back when I was in Moscow there was a woman’s voice that announced what station we were in, and now that I think about it I want to ride every subway and bus route in the world just to hear what the different voices they use. Especially the New York Subway system where this summer they hired Rosie Perez and Chris Rock to do public service announcements telling people to wear masks. I only just heard about this on the latest episode of the radio quiz show Ask Me Another. And she said that when she was asked to record the announcements she asked, “Are you sure you wanna use my voice to have, you know, the riders hear it every single day every eight minutes?” Well, why not? Okay, I’m not that naïve—I get why not. It seems like most places, at least in my experience, get someone who, well, sounds like John Hamm to do recorded announcements for public transportation and in airports too. But Perez is adamant about getting roles that wouldn’t normally go to someone like her. She says in the interview that she was determined to get, “the Jessica Lange roles.”

And my last rep told me, “Well, you’re no Jessica Lange,” and I go, “Not yet, honey! I haven’t had the opportunity! She was a model, I was a dancer, what? I was a college kid, what? What’s the difference? The color of my skin? This is ridiculous.” And they said, “We got you.” And I said, “You get me in the room, I will do the rest. And if I don’t get the role, that’s on me.” And they got me into those rooms. That’s how things change.

That’s brilliant. In fact the only thing I’m wondering about is how I haven’t heard about this before. Sure, I haven’t been anywhere for most of the year—I haven’t ridden a bus since early March, and I certainly haven’t been to New York City, and, oh, well, I guess it makes sense, but I’m glad I’ve heard it now.

There’s Always Next Year.

Carmarthen Christmas decorations. Source: Wales Online

Thirty years ago, almost exactly—it was 1990 and even in late November—I attended the Christmas tree lighting ceremony in the small Welsh town of Carmarthen. It wasn’t something I’d planned, although it was my second time in Carmarthen so I had a slightly better idea what I was doing than I’d had the first time. The first time, on my pilgrimage to the home of Dylan Thomas, I’d set out from Grantham, England early on a sunny Saturday morning and ended up in Carmarthen in a rainstorm in the dark about twelve hours later. After wandering the streets for about another hour while eating some fish and chips I met a couple of guys coming out of a pub. I explained that I was lost and, having finished my plaice, I was looking for a place to spend the night.

“Well pilgrim,” said one of the guys, doing the worst John Wayne impersonation I’ve ever heard, “it sure does sound like you’re not from around here.” And then they directed me to the Old Priory Guest House which, I’m happy to see, is still running, and probably still has the room where I stayed that looked out over a cemetery, and has also added a website which they didn’t have when I stayed there.

The second time I set out from Grantham early on a sunny Friday morning and arrived in Carmarthen in the cloudy afternoon and caught a rickety bus to Laugharne, where Dylan Thomas spent his last years and wrote his best poems, and where I had a pint at his regular pub, which now has a website which it didn’t have when he drank there, and visited his grave. Then, in the dark, I caught the last rickety bus of the night back to Carmarthen and, on my way to the same fish and chips place from my previous trip, I joined an enormous crowd. The mayor was on a dais at the town center announcing the beginning of the Christmas season. Then he flipped a switch and the Christmas tree and lights all around lit up. Everyone cheered and then we milled around and I think mulled wine was handed around, and I got to shake hands with the mayor, and his John Wayne impersonation was pretty good, but that’s another story.

The unplanned nature of it—for me, anyway; I’m pretty sure the people of Carmarthen put a lot of work and planning into it—made it special, but someday I’d like to go back. Maybe I’ll even plan it, but this year they’ve cancelled the big events. It’s sad but it’s still the right decision, and is the right one not just for Carmarthen, and will be part of the history of the area. Since I couldn’t remember the name of the mayor I shook hands with I went looking and found a list of Carmarthen mayors dating back to around 1300. That’s more than seven hundred Christmases, and I’m sure they’ve had their ups and downs.

Maybe next year, pilgrims.

Staying Put.

So my wife and I are staying at home for Thanksgiving, not something we originally planned to do, but it seemed like a good idea, and I also decided to take the week off from work–not something I originally planned to do, but then it’s been kind of hard to even think about taking time off. I’ve tried to keep home life and work life separate, maintaining a regular schedule, but at the same time it’s hard when my commute is less than fifty feet and most days I don’t get farther than the mailbox.
In normal times when I’d take time off it was usually because my wife and I were going somewhere, so doing it when I’m not going anywhere is already a major change from routine, but it also got me thinking about vacations in general, and I realized that all my vacations have had one thing in common: they’ve all ended. Most have ended too soon. I’m sure there have been a few where I must have said, “I can’t wait for this to be over so I can go back to work” but I can’t remember them. Well, there was one time when I was in college when I went home for Thanksgiving break and when I came back the fish I’d had in my room had died and I thought maybe if I hadn’t been gone so long it would have lived but then I thought, I have no idea how old it was and it might have croaked five minutes after I left, not unlike my relationship with the girl who gave me the fish, but that’s another story.
Anyway the other thing I realized about most of my vacations is I went into them with very little planning. I’m just not a planning kind of guy. I like to let things happen and be spontaneous and go with the flow and I keep thinking I’ll figure out how to finish this sentence if I just keep typing long enough. And I always end up feeling like I missed something I might have been able to do if I’d had at least a vague schedule. For this vacation I really should have a plan. Well, Thursday is Thanksgiving so that’s covered, but that leaves me with, er, a bunch of other days. Under normal circumstances if I had a staycation like this I’d probably jump on a random bus route just to see where it goes, and spend some time at my favorite coffee shop, but these aren’t normal times. I’ll probably take a hike one day, and, well, I’m sure I’ll figure something out for the rest of the week. I would let you know how it goes but that would require a plan.

I’m Never Late.

A school in Avignon, France, has asked parents to stop throwing their children over the fence when they’re running late. For security reasons the school closes and locks its gate at eight a.m. which, actually, makes some sense, and it still sounds funny that some parents were actually resorting to throwing their kids over the fence. If people can just throw whole children over the fence that seems like the school still has a security problem in spite of the locked gates.

It also reminded me that in four years of high school I was only late once and even then I was only technically late. I remember it because my school had a policy that you got two extra points for perfect attendance and, well, in algebra those two points could mean the difference between passing and failing, which is pretty much the only math question I could get right. And the worst part is I wasn’t even really late. It started the previous afternoon on the bus ride home. A bunch of kids got rowdy and decided it would be funny to throw books. I know our science books had lines like “Someday man will reach the moon” and a chapter on how demons cause disease but still it was a pain if you had to replace them. One hit me in the head, I threw it back, the bus driver stopped the bus and yelled at me, and I got off and walked the rest of the way home.

The next day I was in my first class of the day which of course had to be gym. It was a terrible way to start every school day, and it got even worse when I was called to the office. Class had already started. Why couldn’t they call me before class started, or at least early enough that I wouldn’t have to sit in the office in my gym shorts and t-shirt. The gym teacher hadn’t taken attendance yet but I explained that I had to go to the office. He sort of waved me away because he was busy dealing with a bunch of runaway basketballs. I went to the office and the assistant principal said, “So I understand you were throwing books at people on the bus yesterday.”

I calmly and quietly explained what happened and I have to admit the assistant principal was a reasonable and understanding guy and dropped the whole thing, and also actually trying to prove anything would be too much trouble.

It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I learned the gym teacher had marked me absent for the day and it was really too much trouble to try and prove I’d really been in that day, so I just accepted barely failing algebra.

Sleep Talker.

When I was a kid the time between Halloween and Thanksgiving was always the dullest period of the year. School had fallen into a steady groove, which meant I’d gotten past the initial rush of starting a new year and new classes and had now slipped into just barely managing to pass everything, my once neat notebooks scratched and battered and shedding homework as I went through the halls. It was also the time when winter finally kicked in and the weather started to get seriously cold, but not cold enough for it to snow so there was no chance of school being cancelled.

The one break to the doldrums was the occasional field trip. Most of them were day trips, to the theater to see a local production of a Shakespeare play, for instance, or to a local park to collect specimens for biology class. Still there was the occasional overnight trip, usually to somewhere out of state. We’d all pile into the bus and set off. Sometimes we’d go to an all-day, or even all-weekend event. I was taking Latin and would go to Junior Classical League events that would run from Friday through Sunday, usually on a college campus where the undergrads must have been really surprised to see a bunch of kids wandering around in togas and even more surprised we weren’t reenacting any scenes from Animal House, but that’s another story. Because it was late in the year and the days were getting shorter it was often dark long before we’d get to the hotel or dorm where we were staying and the trips could get pretty long. We’d all find creative ways to keep ourselves entertained, trading seats, telling jokes, singing songs. I was so proud when we all finally managed to get to the very end of “Ninety-Nine Bottles Of Beer On The Wall”. Or rather I finally got to the end of it. There was gradual attrition and the only other guy who was still with me dropped off around eighteen bottles but I carried on by myself and finally got to zero bottles of beer. On a few of the longer trips most kids, and teachers, would drift off to sleep, but not me. I had trouble sleeping even under the best circumstances but on a bus rolling through strange territory even if I didn’t have anything else to think about I worried that the bus driver hadn’t had a chance to get a nap before setting off and would fall asleep at the wheel. And it was because I was still awake on one trip that I heard my friend Trav talking in his sleep.

“She was born into the world nude,” he muttered.

This was the same guy who got me in trouble for pointing out that the Latin word for river, “flumen” sounds a lot like “phlegm” and anyway I can’t resist talking back to people who talk in their sleep because they usually say the funniest things, so I said, “Isn’t everyone?”

“No!” Trav was still slumped in his seat but he practically shouted this. “Sometimes pregnant women swallow bits of lint and yarn and the babies knit it into mittens and sweaters and Big Bird stocking caps.”

I’m pretty sure my laughter woke up everyone on the bus, especially the driver.

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