Adventures In Busing.

Take A Stand..

An article over at CityLab looks at seat design for public transit around the world, taking in the good, the bad, and–in the case of the Los Angeles bus lines–the psychedelic designs. Many use moquette, which is the peculiar fabric so popular on planes, trains, buses, and and occasionally hotel pillows, although as I’ve mentioned previously Nashville’s new WeGo buses have plain plastic seats that may be easy to clean but are also slippery and with their complete absence of any design are just begging for a permanent marker makeover, although I haven’t seen any redesigned just yet. And there are the moquette-covered seats with a musical design, pictured at left, which is an interesting idea–Nashville being known as Music City–but the printing job was so badly botched no one can name that tune.
The article’s author, Feargus O’Sullivan, gets a bit snarky–a Warsaw, Poland bus seat design evokes “some biblical rain of blood”, Boston’s old MBTA trains have a seat design that “looks like a diagram of a serial killers brain synapses”, and seats on Dublin’s Luas light rail have a design that suggests the city’s “monuments apparently sinking Titanic-like into a sea of fire”–and those are some of the nicer descriptions. He acknowledges the difficulty seat designers face, though:
Seat-cover fabric designers have to create something that looks pleasant for—or at least doesn’t actively offend—the eyes of hundreds of thousands of people. That’s an all-but-impossible task. It’s somewhat cheering that fabric intended to please as many people as possible ends up being not bland, but often wildly eccentric. If nothing else, the interiors of these public vehicles are certainly way more interesting than the interior of almost any private car.
Almost any private car. I think we’ve all had that friend–or maybe I’m just lucky–who eats a lot of fast food and has never cleaned the interior of his 1976 Dodge Dart so when you hitch a ride with him your feet rest on a decade-old detritus of drink cups and burger boxes.
And distinctive seat design–whether creative or horrifying–does serve the function of drawing attention to public transit, which it desperately needs. With increasing traffic congestion public transportation is increasingly important. As a guy I used to work with would say, “People really should use public transit. It’s better for the environment, better for the city, and I’d have an easier time finding a parking space.” And I’d look at him and think about suggesting he should get rid of all those burger boxes on his floorboard, but that’s another story. It just has to be the right kind of attention. An important thing about seat design, O’Sullivan says, is it “shouldnt be so bright and busy that it turns stomachs”. The reason for that is practical as well as aesthetic. A lot of riders of public transit–kids, pregnant women, people too drunk to drive–are already likely to be sick, and a dazzling design could just serve as camouflage. With some designs I’d rather stand and admire them than worry about what I might sit in.

Perfect Timing.’d rather have a root canal than go to the dentist.
Maybe that’s not exactly true, but I did have a dental appointment for a regular checkup and cleaning, so I left work early to catch the bus. The Nashville MTA app is now defunct. It used to show riders when specific buses were due to arrive. Now it just lists the scheduled arrivals at different stops which is pretty useless because its rare that buses are ever on schedule. I was reminded of this when I was standing on one side of the street and the bus I wanted, not due for another ten minutes, pulled up to the stop across the street, paused for a microsecond, and went on its way. Once on that side of the street I set off on my merry way with plans to catch the next bus or walk to the dentist’s office, whichever came first. Fortunately I did catch the next bus, and when I got on the driver said, “Nobody’s ever at this stop at this time of day,” and I said, “Well, someone was today!”
Then at the dentist’s office the hygienist asked me if I were feeling better and I asked, “Was I feeling bad six months ago?” I’d forgotten that I’d had a dental appointment the week before but had to reschedule because I had a cold, which is how my short term memory is, but that’s another story.
When I left the dentist’s office I checked the bus schedule, thinking I’d catch the bus going back, and while I was doing that the bus, due in about five minutes, sped by, so I started walking.
As I was standing on a corner waiting for the light to change a young guy and his large black Labrador Retriever came and stood next to me. The Labrador Retriever looked up at me and I asked the guy, “What’s his name?”
“Oliver,” he told me.
“Hello, Oliver,” I said, and Oliver wagged his tail and rubbed his head against me, and I petted him, which made us both pretty happy. And I was actually glad I missed the bus because if I hadn’t I wouldn’t have met Oliver.

There Went The Sun.

It’s been raining. We’ve had heavy rain, rain that’s caused the backyard to flood, that’s sent cascades of water down the stairs leading to the driveway, rain that’s caused me to say, “Why didn’t I bring an umbrella with me and do I really want to go back and get it because I’m already soaked?” And we’ve had light rain, rain that’s barely even wet, the kind of rain that’s caused me to say, “I don’t need an umbrella if this is as bad as it’s going to get,” and then it gets worse, it turns into moderate rain that’s not that bad but it might as well be heavy rain because I’m probably going to be out in it for a while. There have been a few short periods when the rain stopped but during those times it turned really, really cold and still overcast, and people in the elevator would say, “Can you imagine what it would be like if all this rain were snow?” Yes, as a matter of fact I can imagine that and I’ve been through ice storms and I’m glad that even though the combination of cold and rain isn’t pleasant it could be so much worse.
Finally there was one day last week, the first of March, in fact, which is supposed to come in like a lion, a saying that always confuses me because lions are hot weather creatures. If March comes in cold and wet then the animal it should come in like should be a polar bear, since it’s going to maul you and maybe have a liver with toxic levels of vitamin A. Then, the saying goes, March goes out like a lamb, which makes sense for a month that seems to shit on everything, but that’s another story. This day, though, was not only dry but the sun came out, which was a real kick because most of us had forgotten what it looked like. It was warm too. Well, warm-ish. The temperature went up to almost sixty, Fahrenheit, which is in Celsius is, I think, the square root of 17.2. I left the office in a mood almost as bright as the weather and had a nice walk to the bus stop. There were lots of other people out walking too, and people jogging. Once I got on the bus I saw even more people out walking, jogging, just out enjoying the day. We passed a restaurant with a patio that’s been a pond for the past month, and I’m pretty sure the inside was empty because everyone was sitting outside.
For the first time in weeks I was looking forward to the walk home. Then we got to my stop, I got out, and it started raining. I didn’t need an umbrella when I left.

Dream Ride.

So I’ve been battling a cold: runny nose, sore throat, and feeling like I’d just like to crawl into bed and sleep for three or four days. Or rather that’s what I should do, but life goes on, even when it’s being invaded by a virus. When I was a kid colds seemed to have a perverse way of hitting me on days when I wanted to go to school, when there was a special event or a friend’s birthday happening. And in the morning I’d wake up with a sore throat and I’d sneak to the bathroom and practice saying “I feel fine” to make sure I sounded fine. And then I’d get panicky and not say anything except “I feel fine!” I’d be on the school bus and my friend John would sit down next to me.
“Hey, Chris, have you got an extra pencil?”
“I feel fine!”
As an adult I have even more responsibilities and there’s no way I can let even a cold get in the way. I have to get by on tea and cough medicine and various remedies and I have to get sleep when I can, which reminds me that I’ve never slept on a bus. Sure, the list of other things I haven’t done on the bus is almost infinite, but it’s kind of weird that I’ve never slept on a bus, not even on long bus trips from one city to another. That’s weird because on road trips in cars I never have any trouble going right to sleep as soon as we get on the highway and get going, which tends to upset people if I’m the one driving, but that’s another story. On buses I’m just always worried that if I fall asleep I’ll miss my stop and end up at the end of the line or, worse, in a weird repair depot or wherever it is they take buses to refuel them or do repairs, or just shut them down for the night. I can be a pretty heavy sleeper so there’s no telling what I might miss.
Once riding home from work I sat down across from a guy who was slumped back against his seat with his mouth open. He even snored a little, deep in Morpheus’s embrace. Lucky guy, I thought, but then I wondered where he was going. I assumed he’d ride the bus all the way to the end of the line, but you know what they say about assumptions: they’re like armpits. Everybody’s got a couple and some of them stink. We were several miles from the end of the line when suddenly he woke up, looked around, and pulled the stop cord. The bell dinged, the driver stopped, and the guy got off and walked away. I wish I could do that even when I don’t have a cold.


Stopping And Starting.

So I caught an early morning bus and thought, hey, I’ll get to work early and be able to leave early. And the bus sped through the pre-dawn light, but then stopped to pick someone up. I couldn’t complain. That’s what buses do, and if the bus didn’t stop to pick up someone else it might not have picked up me either, and then I’d be really late getting to work. Then the driver started up again and rolled on to the next stop a couple of blocks ahead. There was no one there but the driver stopped anyway. Then went to the next stop and stopped there too even though there was no one to pick up. And I get it. Buses are supposed to run on a schedule. It’s the nature of public transportation, especially in a city like Nashville, which doesn’t have a lot of public transportation but is spread out. Most people drive their own cars, and pretty much have to. I once asked a friend if she ever took the bus and she said, “Well, I would if I didn’t have to walk three miles along busy roads with no sidewalks.” And even if she could get to the nearest bus stop that particular route only runs once every two hours so missing one could wreck her schedule for the day.
So I really appreciate it that some drivers are considerate enough to want to keep to the schedule. Not everyone does. Once I was on a bus that stopped for about fifteen minutes at a stop. I guess the driver had gotten more ahead of his schedule than he meant to. While we were sitting a guy in front of me started fuming. He didn’t step up and say anything to the driver; he just sat in his seat muttering, “Why have we stopped? Why aren’t we going anywhere?” Then he pulled out his phone and called the MTA customer service. I’m not sure what he thought they were going to do. Maybe he thought they’d send a message through to the dispatcher who’d radio the driver to say, “Get moving!” but by the time that was all done we’d be moving again. At one point when he was talking to customer service he said, “I work for the MTA!” Well, I thought, then he should know that buses are supposed to stay on a schedule.
Anyway I couldn’t be too annoyed when I ended up being a little late getting to work.

In Memory.

Every once in a while I get lucky and ride one of the buses with the small plaque to the memory of Rosa Parks over the seats on the left side at the front of the bus. I wish it were larger, and I wish it could somehow make clear that anyone who rides the bus can sit wherever they want. Rosa Parks played a large part in making that happen.

Recently, though, I read an article about the movement for women’s suffrage and how much women of color, especially in the 19th century, were a part of it—a part that’s largely been erased from the history of the movement. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (September 24, 1825 – February 22, 1911) was a writer, journalist, teacher, abolitionist, and suffragist. In May 1866 she delivered a speech to the Eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention in New York City and cited, among other things, her treatment on public transportation. Here’s part of her speech:

You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs. I, as a colored woman, have had in this country an education which has made me feel as if I were in the situation of Ishmael, my hand against every man, and every man’s hand against me. Let me go to-morrow morning and take my seat in one of your street cars-I do not know that they will do it in New York, but they will in Philadelphia-and the conductor will put up his hand and stop the car rather than let me ride.

Going from Washington to Baltimore this Spring, they put me in the smoking car. Aye, in the capital of the nation, where the black man consecrated himself to the nation’s defence, faithful when the white man was faithless, they put me in the smoking car! They did it once; but the next time they tried it, they failed; for I would not go in. I felt the fight in me; but I don’t want to have to fight all the time. Today I am puzzled where to make my home. I would like to make it in Philadelphia, near my own friends and relations. But if I want to ride in the streets of Philadelphia, they send me to ride on the platform with the driver. Have women nothing to do with this? Not long since, a colored woman took her seat in an Eleventh Street car in Philadelphia, and the conductor stopped the car, and told the rest of the passengers to get out, and left the car with her in it alone, when they took it back to the station. One day I took my seat in a car, and the conductor came to me and told me to take another seat. I just screamed “murder.” The man said if I was black I ought to behave myself. I knew that if he was white he was not behaving himself. Are there not wrongs to be righted?

You can read the entire speech at Black Past, and note that she shared a stage with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Harper was speaking out eighty-nine years before Rosa Parks took a stand by remaining seated, which adds depth and context to the history of the civil rights movement, which is something to consider even now, when there are still wrongs to be righted.

Chance Encounters.

One of the downsides of riding the bus is I’m on someone else’s schedule. If I’m not at a stop at a specific time, or at least close enough that the driver can see me waving, the bus ain’t gonna wait around for me, especially in Nashville where the minimum wait time between buses is at least fifteen minutes and usually more. A little over a year ago when I was in Chicago I happened to notice that buses went by about every five minutes and there was the El that went by almost as frequently and I thought, what magical place is this? but that’s another story. Most of the time time isn’t a problem–I know when to leave work, and about when the bus will arrive–but then I have chance encounters with people on the street that make me wish I had a little more flexibility. For a long time there was a guy who stood on the corner across from where I work selling The Contributor, which is a newspaper written by and about people who are homeless in Nashville. It’s a way for them to earn money and find some support. I always felt guilty having to hurry by this guy and if I had a dollar I would stop and buy a paper from him, but mostly our interactions were limited to, “Hey, how’s it going?” He’d found a really good corner to sell newspapers, right at the intersection of two major streets, and close to a cluster of fast food places. A couple of them gave him free food in exchange for telling people how they helped him or giving out coupons with the newspapers. Sometimes he’d tell me he had a new issue and if I didn’t have a dollar I say, “I’ll get it tomorrow,” and the next day I’d make sure to have a dollar. After a few times he learned to trust me. And one day he stopped me and said, “Hey, I’ve got a new issue and this one’s really special. If you haven’t got a dollar today take it now and you can pay me tomorrow.” I said sure, and then he showed me that he’d written the front page article. It was all about how he’d finally saved enough to marry his girlfriend. There was a even a large picture of the two of them, he in a suit and she in a wedding dress. I read the article on the bus. They were planning to move back to his home state, temporarily at least, so he could take care of some legal issues he’d left behind when he became homeless. I really made sure to have a dollar for him the next day, and to congratulate him; I already felt like I’d missed a chance to get to know him, and I didn’t want any lingering debts. He disappeared not long after that, and I still wonder sometimes what’s become of him.
I was reminded of him when I had a very different encounter last week. I was standing on a different corner, waiting for the light to change, and I had three or four library books in my arms because I was researching something and I still like to use old fashioned books to do at least some of my investigating. And a guy came up to me, in jeans and a denim jacket and a woven cap, and he said, “Hey, are you a perpetual student like me?” I just stammered out a yes, and before I could say anything else he walked away, and even though he was going a different direction I thought about following him. I wanted to say, “Hey, what did you mean by that? And could you please tell me everything about you?”
Instead, when the light changed, I crossed the other street and went on to the bus stop. I still regret not following him even though it would have meant being late getting home. How do you prepare for such an unexpected encounter?

You Haven’t Got Mail!

So I was walking home from the bus and noticed a small envelope in every driveway. They were rectangular and about the size of any prepaid card. What’s this? I thought. A gift for all the residents of the neighborhood? Yeah, I’m not that naive; I knew it was an advertising ploy, and a cheap one at that. Whoever was behind it was too cheap to mail us their advertising. Instead of paying for a bunch of cheap postcards they could mail out they spent money on gas and time driving around the neighborhood throwing out a bunch of small envelopes they’d bought. At least they were smart enough to know they’d be breaking the law if they put the envelopes in peoples’ mailboxes. Mailboxes are only for stamped mail delivered by the postal service, although misuse of a mailbox isn’t exactly a frequently prosecuted crime. I do believe the FBI tried to pin it on Al Capone at one point but he successfully argued that he’d put a stamp on the mackerel wrapped in newspaper he left in the mailbox of his client, and the judge got the message. Here’s another fact about mail: if you get anything in the mail that you didn’t specifically order you’re under no obligation to pay for it. I learned this when I worked in a library mailroom and companies would sometimes ship unsolicited books to the library and expect to be paid for them, and I’d send back a nice letter referencing the specific law that addresses unsolicited mail. I still have that letter and occasionally send it to Nigerian princes who email me, but that’s another story.
Anyway I got a little excited as I got closer to home. I wasn’t going to steal an envelope from any of my neighbors, but I figured I’d find out what the advertising ploy was as soon as I got home. Except when I got home there wasn’t one in our driveway. It’s one thing to get a cheap sales pitch thrown in your driveway but I was too upset about being rejected to think of what the other thing could be. Why were we not good enough? What were we, chopped liver? Maybe not–I like chopped liver and I’m grateful to Ann Koplow for providing some background on that saying, which I think should be changed to, What am I, steamed broccoli?
Anyway the next day I found one of the envelopes in the street where someone had thrown it, or maybe they drove over it and dropped it somewhere. It was a business card some kind of house cleaning service and I felt better that they obviously felt our house didn’t need cleaning. It was exterior cleaning; if it had been interior cleaning I’d have gotten really paranoid about how they knew the inside of our house didn’t need cleaning. And there was a glass pebble in there to give the envelopes some heft for throwing.

And I want that company to know I’m keeping the pebble.

Under Cover.

There’s construction going on all over Nashville, along with prices, because, as I’ve heard some people say, Nashville is turning into Seattle, and it’s mostly people who’ve moved here from Seattle to get away from the high cost of living who say that and they’re the ones driving up the prices. It bugs me that there are so many places where construction has closed off the sidewalks and I have to make long detours to get wherever I’m going. The other day, for instance, I had to run an errand. Well, technically I had to walk the errand. I could have run, but it was a pretty long distance, and made even longer by the construction. I could have taken a bus but, well, Nashville buses are irregular, even on the main thoroughfares, and would have added at least another half hour to my errand, so I figured I might as well walk. When I got outside I realized it was raining, although I should have guessed it would be. We’ve had forty days and forty nights of rain this month alone since the weather obviously overheard people say that Nashville is turning into Seattle and decided Music City needed a Pacific Northwest soaking, but that’s another story. And I was too lazy to go back to my office and get an umbrella. The rain was only a light drizzle and I decided to take my chances that it wouldn’t get any worse. As I was walking along I passed this sign:It reminded me of the time I was on a Greyhound bus and before starting off the driver made some safety announcements. He didn’t say, “This is your captain speaking,” which I think would be a hilarious thing for a bus driver to say, but he did say, “Please do not open the windows except in the event of an emergency. The last person to open a window on this bus became the next emergency.” That was mildly amusing although it also made me a little worried since I was sitting in a window seat.

Anyway on my way back from walking the errand it started to rain a little harder, but for a good stretch the construction didn’t take me out of my way. This was the sidewalk:

I just wish they’d put in windows.


Riding Into The Future.

Some time in the 1990’s the Nashville Public Library put in an electronic catalog and I joked that it was great that they were finally moving into the 1980’s. I think I also threw in some references to Desk Set because there’s nothing like mocking technological advances with a film from before I was born, but that’s another story. Anyway the other day I had a similar experience when I found the bus I was riding had WiFi and I said something like, “Hey, the Nashville MTA is getting so 2012, and has anyone noticed our driver looks a lot like Spencer Tracy? I just hope he doesn’t drink like him.”

It was a lot better than having to rely on the WiFi signals around the bus. Sometimes it’s possible to get a signal from a fast food restaurant at a red light but mostly signals are touch and go.

And here’s a glimpse of my inbox. DON’T JUDGE ME!

It almost made up for the fact that the Nashville MTA’s bus tracking app seems to be permanently offline now. Well, it’s online. It just doesn’t track buses anymore. They even tell you that on the WiFi page.

And the next day I learned that not all buses have WiFi. Just the new purple buses with the slippery plastic seats. I learned it because I was picked up by one of the old standard buses that doesn’t have WiFi. On the bright side the driver looked a lot like Katharine Hepburn.


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