Adventures In Busing.


Supposedly there’s a Chinese curse that says, “May you live in interesting times.” I say “supposedly” because I once asked a Chinese scholar about that and she said, “I’ve never heard any such thing in my life.” It’s probably an expression some guy cooked up and to make it sound more interesting he decided to claim it was a Chinese curse. Uninteresting times can be a curse too. Recently I took a trip by Greyhound bus to Cincinnati. I made the same trip last year and then it was interesting because it had been about a quarter of a century since I’d taken a Greyhound bus anywhere and things had changed significantly. This time all the things that were different before were still the same. Well, almost all the same. The men’s restroom had just been repainted and I went in there and literally watched paint dry. Then, because I have a smartphone and the station had free wifi, I went out and looked up “watching paint dry” in Wikipedia. Smartphones mean we never have to be bored ever again, and I had mine loaded up with podcasts and music, and even if the battery went dead I had my bag with my journal and copy of Mark Twain’s Life On The Mississippi. I didn’t expect my battery to go dead, of course, because I knew from my last trip that the bus seats have plugs you can use to recharge your device.

I got on and grabbed a seat and a young man in a purple hoodie sat down next to me and we both had our phones out and that’s when I noticed there were no plugs at the seat I picked. My phone died about half an hour out of Nashville so I followed Twain’s progress to New Orleans while I went northward.

When we stopped in Louisville I went into the restaurant/gift shop to get coffee. Then, still holding my coffee, I wandered out then tried to go back in. “Sir!” yelled the man behind the counter. “This is for customers only! Once you go out you can’t come back!” This was more baffling than it was interesting.

Back on the bus I found a seat with wall plugs and my phone was full and so was my bladder by the time I arrived at the Cincinnati Greyhound station where the men’s room had not been freshly repainted because such a coincidence would have been too interesting for this trip.

I went to Cincinnati, by the way, to see some old friends and a talk by Neil Gaiman which was extremely interesting. There’s an old saying that’s also been attributed to the Chinese that the journey is more important than the destination, but sometimes it really is the destination that matters, especially when it’s the destination that’s interesting.

Rides From Strangers.

It was early in the year and early in the morning so I was standing at the bus stop in the dark. This was before a new bus shelter with a light had been installed–I was just next to the BUS STOP sign, and while the bus drivers always stopped for me I wondered how they even managed to see me there in the dark. Traffic zipped by so fast I figured I was a passing blur while I waited to be a passenger, but whenever I saw the bus coming I stepped up and waved to make sure I’d be seen. I was standing back, though, when a guy in a white pickup truck stopped and rolled down his window.
“You wanna ride?”
I wasn’t hitchhiking or even walking–there were times when a neighbor would see me walking home and would pull over to offer me a lift since they were going my way. And this got me thinking about hitchhiking, something I’ve never done. It’s funny that I can only think of two hitchhiking stories, both fiction. There’s Roald Dahl’s The Hitch-Hiker, which is a fun story about how he picked up a hitchhiker with an extraordinary talent (there’s an audio version here), and also Larry Niven’s The Deadlier Weapon, which is a fun story about a guy who picks up a hitchhiker who puts a knife to his neck, but it turns out the driver has, well, the title kind of gives it away. Anyway I thought it might be interesting to have a story of my own from the rider’s point of view, and while some people would have good reason to not hop into a stranger’s car I felt like I’d be able to take care of myself if things took a wrong turn. And I knew that, as a driver, I often see people at bus stops, some of whom I recognize from having ridden the bus with them, and I think about offering them a lift, but only if I happen to be going their way.
Then I realized I didn’t recognize this guy, but at the same time what were the odds that someone with nefarious intentions would happen to be just passing by me at that moment? And it’s not like I was standing on a streetcorner in a miniskirt at two in the morning. I’m not sure I’ve got the gams for a miniskirt so I’m going to wear something at least knee-length, but that’s another story. I was doing all this mental calculus at a rate I’m sure exceeded the speed limit–it probably took you longer to read all this than it took me to think it is what I’m saying, but while he was waiting for an answer I saw the bus coming along.
“No thanks,” I said.
“Sure.” He sped off down the road, which kind of confirmed for me that it was a friendly offer. If he’d wanted something, I reckon, he would have been pushier.
The bus stopped and I got on.
“If that truck hadn’t made me slow down I might have gone right past you in the dark,” the bus driver told me as I got on, and I sent out a mental note to the guy in the pickup truck. Thanks for the ride.

Lost & Found.

So I found a Fleetwood Mac CD while I was walking home from the bus. Maybe whoever it belonged to tried to fit it in their smartphone and realized it wouldn’t play so they threw it out in frustration, or maybe they were fighting off hordes of attackers, although I would have thought Tusk would be a better weapon. It reminded me of the time I found an egg along the same route, which still baffles me, and also generally how much trash I see strewn alongside the road, usually when I’m on my way to or from the bus. A lot of what I see is expected: paper, fast food containers, bottles. My pottery instructor uses blue glass in some of her works so whenever I see a blue bottle I pick it up and I realize that probably looks weird to people driving by to see a guy walking along carrying a big vodka bottle, but I try to make it look less weird by carrying a big bottle of orange juice in the other hand. Sometimes I find unusual things, like the time I found a nice dress jacket, maybe worn by someone whose job interview went badly, or odd little containers or toys, that I think I might take home and turn into an art project, and also just to a little bit of the trash off the street. It’s surprising that an average of four large cargo containers are lost at sea every day but less surprising that I found one while walking home and I can’t tell you how hard it was to pick that up and carry it home, but that’s another story. I think you can understand that the lesson here is that you can pick your friends and you can pick up trash but if you’re picking up your friend’s trash a guitar player should always have a pick.


Ride Along.

An article over at Mobility Lab got me scratching my head with this: “When public transportation makes a rare silver-screen appearance, it’s often the butt of a joke.”

How rare are the silver-screen, or, for that matter, small-screen appearances of public transportation? It’s not hard for me to think of movies that have scenes set on public transportation, and not all of those make where the actors put their butts a joke. And then I thought a little harder and it occurred to me that pretty much every movie and most of the TV shows I can think of that has at least one scene set in public transportation has another thing in common: New York. The major exception would be The Fugitive—the film, not the TV show, in which Chicago’s “L” train is an important element in at least two different scenes. So it’s not surprising that the article notes that New York’s subway system averaged one filming request per day just in the first two weeks of February and the Chicago Transit Authority allowed 152 in 2017. There must be a lot of filming on Chicago trains and buses that I’m missing.

Meanwhile most movies and TV shows set on the west coast—Los Angeles specifically—depend on cars because the LA public transportation system is, from what I’ve heard, an even bigger joke than the traffic-clogged freeways. I have ridden a free bus around Long Beach, but it only went about five blocks before I had to pay so I got off, but that’s another story.

I get it. I’m even sympathetic. One of the reasons I write about my adventures in busing is because I hope to encourage more people to ride buses. As the article says,

Featuring public transportation on TV shows and movies normalizes it. Characters riding public transportation makes transit another setting – a place where life happens. Seeing it on screen makes it easier to envision it in your life.

And I don’t want to sound like a starry-eyed idealist but I think public transportation helps create a sense of community. I’m not just talking about making places accessible. And I’m not saying you have to strike up conversations with strangers on buses, but public transportation gives you an idea what other peoples’ lives are like.

At the same time I sometimes need to get away. Sometimes I need to go to places that aren’t easily accessible, where there aren’t other people around, and I know other people feel that way too. That’s one reason I also drive. Right now Nashville is considering expanding its public transportation, but I think there are reasons we have not so great system we have that aren’t completely accidental. There’s a lot to be gained from better public transportation, but there are some important things we’d also lose.

Pod Person.

My father loves talk radio. On long road trips we listened to a lot of NPR, and when we were out of range of that he’d switch to the eccentric local preachers who had their own radio shows on backwoods stations all across the southeast, and who’d ramble on about how Mikhail Gorbachev’s birthmark, if viewed from the right angle, would form a clear 666, and I swear I’m not making that up. Broadcasters with weird conspiracy theories are not a new phenomenon, only the way some of them have managed to go global, but that’s another story. And since this was before I got my first Walkman, or, even after I got one, after the batteries had run dry, I’d sit in the backseat and beg for some music other than the admittedly catchy theme song for All Things Considered. So of course now that I’m an adult and can choose what I want to listen to, especially on my afternoon commute, I listen to a lot of podcasts. I listen to people talking, in case I need to underscore the irony for you, which I probably don’t but for some reason I can’t seem to shut up.
The importance of this really hit me about a month ago when I downloaded an update for the Apple podcasts app which had been working fine for years. The update came out in September so I don’t know why I didn’t do it sooner, or why I did it at all since people discovered almost immediately it was awful and, on my phone at least, crashed frequently because in the computer world if it ain’t broken some developer will have to tinker with it until it is.
Anyway I switched to another non-Apple podcast app and just because here are some of my favorite podcasts that frequently make me wish my commute were longer and glad my phone at least has a pretty long battery life:

Snap Judgment is mostly true stories with each show taking a theme. Some episodes offer multiple stories from different people, but a few are devoted to a single speaker. Host Glynn Washington also seems to have a bottomless series of his own life stories that he uses to introduce each show. And I’m pretty excited that a live event is coming to Nashville, to the Ryman Auditorium of all places.

Says You! is an NPR show that’s also available as a downloadable podcast. Says You! is a series of word games and puzzles. Recorded live its two three-person panels of supposedly educated and well-informed people who nevertheless don’t know what a bream is. It was sad when the show lost its original host and creator Richard Sher, but the current host Gregg Porter has filled in nicely.

The Dork Forest is comedian Jackie Kashian’s long-running podcast in which she has guests on to talk about what they dork out about although the conversations tend to get off into the weeds. The other day I was listening to the Labyrinth episode with comedian Virginia Jones while walking to my stop and I swear I thought I was going to miss my bus because I was laughing so hard I had to sit down.

The TED Radio Hour features snippets of three TED talks. Speakers are also interviewed by host Guy Raz and I always get a kick out of how they tie sometimes seemingly disparate topics together.

Lightspeed is a podcast of science fiction stories read aloud and even though they’re contemporary they take me back to my youth of devouring science fiction stories. It’s interesting to compare how authors, styles, and themes have changed since Mikhail Gorbachev was a world leader.

The Hilarious World Of Depression is usually hilarious and sometimes depressing as host John Moe talks mostly to comedians, although sometimes other sorts of performers, about their battles with mental illness. Also, completely unrelated, I have a humor anthology called More Mirth Of A Nation with a piece by John Moe in it, and I tweeted to him, “I’m sure you hear this all the time but” and that I loved his piece in that book,” and while it’s true I love his piece, “Terrible Names for Hair Salons”, I assume no one else has ever mentioned it to him. And he tweeted back that it was his first published piece, he was really glad I like it, and no one else has ever mentioned it to him, and now I feel incredibly embarrassed and if I ever meet him in person I’ll feel stupid and awkward and he will have completely forgotten it and I’ll feel compelled to explain it and start the cycle over.

In Our Time is a BBC podcast in which host Melvyn Bragg talks to three experts in a field about topics ranging from feathered dinosaurs to Picasso’s Guernica and I can feel my IQ tick up a few points just listening to it. Bragg is a longtime broadcaster who, every time he comes on the radio, always starts with, “Hello,” maybe because he wants every listener to feel they’re being addressed individually. A recent episode was about Moby Dick and it was kind of weird listening to three British scholars talk about Melville’s work as an example of The Great American Novel.

A Creative Mind Fiction Podcast is another podcast of fiction with authors Alice Nelson and Carrie Zylka doing most of the writing and other heavy lifting and a recent featured story, Hello. This Is Siri, by Nelson, really stuck with me for reasons that should be obvious once you listen to it.

Anyway those are just a few from my weird and eclectic listening list. What are some of yours?

The Conversation.

It’s difficult for me to talk about race, mostly because when I do I realize how little I know. As a white kid growing up in the suburbs my parents never had to have The Talk with me. I didn’t even know about The Talk, which many African American families call a matter of life and death, until a few years ago.

On some, but not all, Nashville buses there’s a memorial plaque to Rosa Parks, and when I see it I remember my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Turner, who taught us the story of Rosa Parks. This is the version we were given: Parks had a long, hard day at work and was sitting in a seat close to the front on a bus. A white passenger asked her to move to the back and she was so tired she couldn’t get up so she was arrested. Her case ultimately led to a boycott of the city buses and, after a court decision, city buses were no longer segregated.

That is more or less how it happened, but when the teacher told us that I wanted to ask, isn’t there more to it than that? I thought, and still think, Parks was very brave for refusing to give up her seat, but I couldn’t believe she did it just because she was tired on that particular day. I believed she was tired of having been asked to give up her seat repeatedly, and I wanted to know if she’d committed a deliberate act of civil disobedience which, I thought, and still think, would be even braver.

Since then I’ve learned that the story of Rosa Parks we were taught, while true, was also more complicated. She was a secretary for the NAACP at the time of her arrest and had attended a social justice training school. Her refusal to give up her seat was a decision she made in the moment but, in a sense, she’d been preparing for it for a long time.

But I didn’t ask, and I’m still not sure why. One of the things that made Mrs. Turner a great teacher is that she loved it when we asked questions. If she didn’t know the answer she’d tell us to go get a book and we’d read it together because she believed learning should be interactive. Mrs. Turner was also black and grew up in a segregated area. She told us how once, when she was very hungry and out with her father, she didn’t understand why they couldn’t stop at a particular restaurant, and why, when they went to another restaurant, they couldn’t go inside but had to sit out back. She wasn’t shy about sharing her experiences. I wish I hadn’t been shy about asking questions, not just about Rosa Parks but about Mrs. Turner. Had she always wanted to be a teacher? Did she ever imagine, growing up, that someday she’d be teaching kids of all races?

What Rosa Parks did, and Mrs. Turner sharing her own experiences, have one thing in common: they created an opportunity for conversation, and I’m responsible for being willing to take part.

Wake-Up Call.

An all-day pass on Nashville’s MTA will allow you to ride until 2AM the following day which has always made me think it’s slightly misnamed. If you buy one at 2PM you get to ride for twelve hours; if you buy one at 10PM you only get to ride for four hours, but you also get to hop on and off as many buses as you want for $3.25 so I’m not going to quibble about it.

I was contemplating all this while I sat on an early morning bus waiting for the driver to get a cup of coffee and come back. I think it was her first run of the day so I didn’t mind the wait, especially since I can’t really get the day started without a little caffeine buzz of my own, but that’s another story.

Then she came back and we started talking. We talked a bit about coffee at first; she liked hers plain with a little cream, and added, “You know, those expensive foamy things are for people who don’t like coffee. They want a milkshake.” That made me laugh and then I asked if this was her first run of the day.

“Sort of,” she said, then explained that she’d spent the night at the downtown bus depot which I didn’t realize had sleeping quarters and showers for drivers.

“I worked the end shift last night and then the first shift this morning. Between the hour drive home and the hour drive back I’d have maybe an hour to sleep at home so I just stayed over.”

I did some mental math based on the schedule. Staying over had gotten her at most three hours’ sleep which still wasn’t enough but at least was better than only one.

She went on to tell me she was working extra time to earn money to build a pool, an unusual thing to have in Tennessee, but she’d moved here from Cleveland so even January’s worst in this neck of the woods must seem balmy compared to northern Ohio.

It was just the two of us for most of the trip, but by the time I disembarked several more people had gotten on. I thanked her on my way out.

“Thanks for helping me wake up,” she said.

Next time I’ll buy the coffee.


Ich Bin Kein Berliner.

I wear sneakers most of the time. They’re comfortable, they go with almost everything, and while I used to only wear plain white sneakers in the past few years I’ve started branching out into more striking grays and browns.

Yeah, fashion may not exactly be my thing, although I do have the snazzy red pair for when I want to dance the blues, and I also tend to go for what I can find on sale because I walk a lot and a pair is going to last me six months at the most.
Still I’m kind of tempted by a new Adidas sneaker made in collaboration with Berlin’s transit authority BVG, or at least I would be if they were available anywhere near me. They’re being sold exclusively in only two Berlin stores, they’re limited to a run of 500 pairs, only two shops in Berlin will be selling them, and, while I dig the design that’s based on the Berlin transit upholstery even though it’s meant to discourage graffiti–actually it looks more like a “we can’t beat ‘em so let’s join ‘em” design to me, but that’s another story, I couldn’t take advantage of the footwear’s primary feature.

The sneaker’s tongue will include a feature that’s arguably more striking—a fabric version of the annual BVG season ticket. That means the wearer gets free travel on subways, trams, buses, and ferries anywhere within Berlin public transit zones A and B— which cover almost all of the city—from January 31st to the end of the year.

That’s financially a pretty cool deal and it’s fantastic that Berlin is encouraging the use of public transit, even if only five-hundred people will get the golden ticket. I’m jealous, and also jealous that Berliners don’t just have buses but also subways, trams, and ferries, proving that sneakers really do go with everything.

The Law Of Averages.

The most popular New Year’s resolution is to lose weight, according to the Institute For The Study Of Stuff That Happens Annually, or at least that’s what I read in their bimonthly report last week. It’s also the most broken resolution, or at least would be if those people who still think it’s worthwhile to make resolutions bothered to remember them beyond mid-January. The only resolutions I remember are ones I made and then broke a long time ago, like my resolution to make notes of things so I wouldn’t forget them, and I even went to the extra effort of writing it down, but then I forgot where I wrote it down. And I’d think losing weight in the middle of winter would be an easy thing to do because I have a theory that in cold weather your body burns calories just to keep warm. After all it’s called “burning calories”. And consider this: have you ever seen a fat Canadian? Maybe you have, but there are also a lot of skinny Canadians, even though their national food is fried potatoes and cheese slathered with gravy, but that’s another story.
This year I’m doing something a little different and making a completely different resolution to get fat. In spite of the cold weather I suspect this’ll be an easier resolution to stick to, although I’m not doing it because it’s easy. If anything I see it as a challenge, and I do love a challenge, especially if it involves poutine, but the main thing is I’m looking to make a major change. Currently I’m not really skinny, but I’m not really fat either. I’m about average, and I’ve realized that pretty much sums up everything about me. If I ever commit a crime I imagine the description the eyewitnesses give the police will go something like this:

Police: What was his build?
Eyewitnesses: About average.
Police: How about height?
Eyewitnesses: About average.
Police: And his general appearance?
Eyewitnesses: That was average too.
Police: Okay, so we’ve got to put out an APB for someone who looks like everybody else.

Or maybe the police will say, “This guy’ll be easy to find. Anyone that average is some kind of freak.”

There’s nothing good about being average. There’s nothing bad about it either, though, which is part of the problem. Average people never accomplish anything, and they’re never anything major, except for Major Major in Catch-22, and Joseph Heller says, “people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.”

The other thing is, as I was contemplating this resolution, I remembered an article I read many years ago when the internet was still young and I was too, sort of, in an average way. It was by a self-described fat guy and he was making a case that being fat really has its advantages. It was easier for him because he was a guy and, let’s face it, from Henry VIII to John Belushi society has celebrated fat guys, although I hope we’re now moving toward a world where everybody, regardless of gender, can be accepted and even celebrated for who they are. Anyway, because this was before blogs and comment sections I sent the guy an email directly and told him I really liked his article and asked if he’d ever heard Allan Sherman’s “Hail To Thee, Fat Person.” He replied, which was a really exciting thing to me because he was a published author, a group I desperately wanted to be part of, and he was reading my words. He said he hadn’t heard Allen Sherman’s bit but that he’d look it up and signed off with, “Rock on, sexy fat brother!”
And I thought about replying to him and letting him know I wasn’t really fat but I didn’t. I felt like we’d had a moment, albeit electronically. I felt guilty about being mistaken for something I wasn’t but I also felt accepted, like I belonged. Even if it was only in someone else’s imagination I was still part of a group that was cool.
So now I want to do something to really be part of a group, and I invite everybody like me to join in. Come on, fellow average people, let’s do this!

Bustin’ Loos.

It was an early morning in late December. I was in Heathrow Airport, leaving London for the last time–so far, anyway. Someday I shall go back. I’d been out late the night before saying goodbye to some favorite spots, including the fountain in Trafalgar Square where, the previous New Year’s Eve, Big Dave the taxi driver had gone for a swim.
“Wasn’t the water cold?” I asked him.
“Nay,” he said. “I kept my clothes on. And I was really drunk.”
When I stopped laughing I asked, “Weren’t you really cold when you got out and walked home?”
“Nay, not until I woke up the next morning and my clothes was still soaking wet.”
My final farewell to London was bittersweet: sweet because I had two lumps in my morning tea, and bitter because I had two pints of ale at the hotel bar before I left for the airport. Then I had a few more at the airport. It’s not that I’m afraid of flying. At the time I was more afraid of not being able to find a decent pint of Guinness on the American side of the pond, although what I’m really afraid of on airplanes is what the Brits charmingly call “the loo”, a term I’d learned shortly after my arrival when a friend asked a bartender where the bathroom was and he replied, “Why? Do you want to want to take a bath?” but that’s another story. No matter the airline, no matter the design of the plane for that matter, whether it’s a loo, a head, a john, a toilet, a throne, a potty, a water closet, or a bathroom, it’s a room with the dimensions of the monolith in 2001. And I like to sit by the window on planes, which often means squeezing by two other people.
So naturally before boarding I took care of business and before the doors even closed a flight attendant came by and asked if I’d like a drink.
It’s been a long time since I’ve flown British Air–although last year I was looking for a flight to Chicago and they were offering a really great deal, but the layover in Kuala Lumpur would have cut too much into my schedule. I’m sure like many airlines they’ve made significant cutbacks in the last quarter century, but at the time free drinks were offered from one end of the plane to the other. I would say they were de rigeur, but that’s only true if you’re flying Air France. So of course I gratefully accepted a whiskey. And two more since the flight was delayed. Then, once we got up in the air, lunch was served, and lunch included a half bottle of wine. Per person. Even then I didn’t care for fortified grape juice, but I was young and would rather decline two German verbs than a drink. Then I had a small bottle of Cointreau with coffee for dessert, and washed that down with a whiskey.
We were just beginning our descent, six or seven hours later, when I finally regained consciousness. Amazingly I’d made the entire trip without once having to squeeze past the people in the seats next to me. I felt fine. Then we landed and began the slow disembarkation. The same flight attendant I’d seen when boarding smiled at me.
“Have a nice holiday! Don’t drink too much!”
I thanked him as hastily and politely as I could and ran for the airport, suddenly in need of a good old fashioned bathroom, not because I needed a bath but because I was in danger of soaking my clothes.


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