Adventures In Busing.

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.

 

Christmas Surprise.

Nowawadays travel is easy, or at least easier than it used to be. You can use the web to look up schedules, maps, points of interest, and even estimate times–you can plan out a whole itinerary without leaving your chair. This doesn’t prevent accidents from happening or things going badly–the best laid plans of mice and travelers, you know–which is something I thought about while listening to “The Holiday Coping Mechanism Spectacular” episode of The Hilarious World Of Depression podcast. Host John Moe shares a story about the year he and his wife decided to skip seeing their families for the holidays and take their young children to Sequim, Washington, which, as soon as he mentioned it, I added to my list of places I want to go, which, admittedly, covers pretty much the entire planet, but that’s another story. The trip wasn’t exactly disastrous, but it wasn’t as happy as they hoped either. No spoilers–go listen. You won’t regret it.

And it took me back to a place I’ve visited several times–metaphorically, since I haven’t been able to go really go back since I last passed through in 1991. While I’ve mentioned the little Welsh town of Carmarthen in previous yarns about my pilgrimage to the home of Dylan Thomas I’ve never given it the space it deserves. It was purely an accident that I found myself there, and even though I was just passing through I kind of fell in love with the place.

The first time I even heard of Carmarthen it was just a dot on the map, the end of the train line but close to my intended destination. And also I’m very much a freewheeling traveler. The best thing on any trip, for me, is to be surprised, which is why I set off on so many journeys without a clear idea where I’m going. The best part of any journey is the journey itself when you don’t have a destination. So I left Swansea on a rickety train that I’m pretty sure dated back to, and may have even been built by, George Stephenson. It was dark and cloudy most of the trip and then pouring rain by the time we pulled into the Carmarthen station. It was late on Saturday night and without realizing it I’d taken the last train. It was in the train station that I found the information I’d need for my second, and more successful, trip to the home of Dylan Thomas. Still I was stuck spending that night in Carmarthen and, because everything in Wales shuts down on Sundays, I wouldn’t be able to take the train back until late the next afternoon.

On that second trip I was, of course, better prepared: I made it to Dylan Thomas’s home and then took the last bus back to Carmarthen. I struck up a conversation with a guy on the bus who informed me he’d never met an American before. We made plans to meet up later at the pub, although we didn’t specify which pub and Carmarthen, small town that it is, has about fifty pubs. And anyway when I got off the bus I stepped right into an enormous crowd. I wouldn’t be surprised if the entire town was there because it was the lighting of the town Christmas tree. The mayor of Carmarthen was there with the city council and he made a nice speech wishing everyone a happy holiday season then turned on the lights. Everyone cheered and started milling around and going to pubs. I went in to one too and spent the rest of the evening talking to several nice people who informed me I was the first American they’d ever met. Before that I shook hands with the mayor, although I didn’t get to talk to him, unfortunately, because I might have been the first American he ever met.

It was a month before Christmas but being there for the lighting of the Carmarthen tree, to be able to spend an evening with the people who lived there, to share in their holiday spirit and their pride in the little Welsh town at the end of the train line, was a fantastic gift. And the best part is I hadn’t even planned it.

Citation Needed.

Source: Harlaxton Manor

My alarm hadn’t gone off, but I was up and wide awake anyway. Maybe this was because, for once, I’d gone to bed at a reasonable hour after an evening of diligent work and studying.

During my higher education I spent a semester overseas in Britain, living in and going to classes in Britain’s Harlaxton Manor, which has been featured in several movies and TV shows, including the new series Victoria in which it played a chateau in Normandy, and I wonder what the original owners would have thought about being moved to France, but that’s another story.

I won’t claim to have been a model student. Harlaxton was a womb with a view and it was really hard to not get caught up in getting an education in things that had nothing to do with, well, getting an education, but there were times when I really tried. As the end of the semester approached I really did start to buckle down and work hard, frequently going so far as to carry my textbooks with me to the pub. And there were also scheduled school activities outside the school, like the class trip to Stratford-On-Avon which, as you know, is where Shakespeare was born and had a family and now boasts some of the biggest gift shops in all of Britain. We’d be touring Shakespeare’s home, having lunch at Shakespeare’s pizza place, and then in the evening we were scheduled to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I thought was kind of a strange play for winter, but, hey, it’s better than The Winter’s Tale.

Anyway I woke up early. As it turned out I woke up very early. I was stumbling through the hall when I bumped into John G., the only other person up at the time.

“What are you doing up this early, Chris?”

Good question. John G. was a big guy, an athlete, and always got up earlier than everyone else so he could spend forty-five minutes in the shower. He was one of those guys who could shave his chin completely smooth and would have a five o’clock shadow by the time he came downstairs. So I knew why he was up. Why was I up? Breakfast wouldn’t be served for an hour and a half and we wouldn’t leave until at least an hour after that. I muttered something and went back to my room, thinking I’d grab just another half hour of sleep.

When I woke up the manor was empty. Somehow my half hour had turned into a solid three hour doze and everyone was gone.

While a taxi was on its way to pick me up I grabbed a quick shower, got dressed, and guzzled a cup of tea. The taxi dropped me at the train station and I guzzled a couple more cups of tea while waiting for the train to Stratford-On-Avon. As I said I wasn’t a model student but I really wanted to go on this trip and while I wasn’t sure my absence had been noticed I hoped my dedication to catching up to the group would be appreciated. And, in fact, some time that evening as we were getting settled into our seats to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of my professors would glance my way, raise his eyebrows, and say, “I’m glad you could join us, Mr. Waldrop.”

On the train I somehow fell into a conversation with an older gentleman who was amused by my experience, and then we started talking about Shakespeare. He told me he was a scholar and had studied Shakespeare at Oxford.

“Do you know what the secret is to truly understanding Shakespeare?” he asked me, his blue eyes vivid over his half-moon spectacles.

“No,” I said. “Please tell me.” I had a paper due soon and final exams coming up. I needed anything that would help.

He raised a finger and said, “GUINNESS!”

Well, at least I was justified in taking my textbooks to the pub.

 

People In Your Neighborhood.

There was a jogger coming down the street and I was immediately faced with a dilemma. Should I wave or not? On the one hand I wanted to be friendly. On the other hand he seemed very focused and I could see he had earbuds in from the white cord hanging from his ears down the front of his red jacket, which told me he was probably wearing the standard Apple earbuds which kind of annoyed me slightly because it reminds me that I apparently have unusually shaped ears. I can’t run or even walk wearing Apple earbuds because they keep falling out, but that’s another story.

There are quite a few people I’ve met in my neighborhood on my afternoon walks home from the bus. On those rare occasions when I’ve walked to the bus in the mornings I don’t meet that many, usually because it’s still dark out when I leave the house, although I can tell from the flickering lights in the houses that people are up and already have their televisions on even if they’re not out. And it seems like I pass more people out walking in the spring and fall, when the weather’s nice, than I do in the middle of either summer or winter. There’s the couple I always see out walking their Greyhounds, and there’s the woman I met because I stopped one day to talk to her dogs, and I’ve gotten to know one of my next door neighbors because she’s usually out walking her Schnauzer, and inexplicably I’ve always resisted the temptation to say, “Schnauzer? I hardly knew her!” And I just realized that I know the dogs in my neighborhood better than I know most of the people. I’ve also gotten to know my other next door neighbor quite well because one day I noticed him wearing a Doctor Who t-shirt and I commented on it and an hour and a half later my wife came looking for me. And there was also the young woman I got to know who lived a couple of blocks over and I got to know her because we rode the same bus and walked the same route part of the way home, and it turned out we worked for the same university, although she worked in bimolecular research and would occasionally wear t-shirts to work like this one:

Source: Snorg Tees

Which is absolutely fantastic and I thought if I worked in research I’d probably wear cool t-shirts too, and maybe I should anyway just because they’re apparently good conversation starters.

Anyway I wasn’t sure whether I should wave to the jogger and potentially break his concentration or just go on, but then, when he was about a hundred feet away, still too far for any kind of acknowledgment, he turned down a side street and I felt incredibly relieved.

Hoofing It.

I used to walk a lot on my way to catch the bus. Since I never knew when the bus was coming I’d walk along the route–sometimes toward home, but most of the time toward downtown. I figured it was getting me closer to the oncoming bus, although there were days I’d walk more than a mile and a half and still end up waiting for the bus. Now that I think about it a mile and a half doesn’t sound like that much. I’ve hiked many miles through the woods, although usually not in search of a bus. Somehow, though, a city mile seems so much longer than a mile in the woods, especially when cars are rushing by. Somehow other people moving at such high speeds really puts things in perspective.

When other people are waiting at the bus stop it also makes me wonder what they think of me just passing by, and sometimes I want to stop and explain that it’s nothing to do with them; it’s just that rather than sit silently with them at a bus stop I’d rather continue walking silently down the street, and hopefully there’ll still be a seat for them when they get on the bus.

Lately though I’ve managed to time my arrival at the bus stop so that I spend only a few minutes waiting. This is mainly thanks to the MTA app. I’ve sung its praises before but it’s kind of a mixed blessing, especially now that the weather is getting cooler. All that walking was good exercise and on cold days it helped warm me up.  And then the other day, after waiting an unusually long time, I checked it.

Since there were no alerts I had no idea why the bus was running almost half an hour late, but the one thing I did know was that it was time to start walking.

Riding The Route: #3.

As part of my plan to ride every Nashville MTA route I recently hopped on the #3 bus, which is easy because it passes near my office. The #3 bus goes down West End, one of the city’s major thoroughfares, and it shares most of the route with the #5 bus, so you’d think buses are frequent. And you’d be absolutely wrong. My dentist’s office is also near West End and there have been several times that I’ve set out for an appointment thinking I’ll catch the bus and ride the dozen or so blocks and arrive early, only to end up walking the whole distance without ever seeing a single bus and also five minutes late.

West End passes by Centennial Park, home of the Parthenon and lots of events. It was where the summer Australia Festival used to happen before its organizers moved away. A few blocks and across the bridge over I-440 is Elmington Park where the summer Australia Festival used to happen before it moved to Centennial Park. Elmington Park was described by the Nashville Scene as “basically a huge field that dips into a ditch, with good parking”, but it’s a nice, big, open space that’s popular with food trucks.

Farther down, past where West End turns into Harding Pike, because sprawl has welded several of Nashville’s streets together without changing their names, the #3 takes a sharp right turn onto White Bridge Road, and that’s where it diverges from the #5. Back when I first started riding the buses regularly, before they got fancy digital displays, this was a source of confusion even among drivers. Once I got on a bus on West End, asked the driver if he was going down White Bridge Road, he said yes, then, three blocks later–I’m not kidding–stopped the bus and said, “Oh, wait, I’m not.” Fortunately I was still able to get out and catch the right bus.

And that got me thinking on this trip. Because West End is one of the main thoroughfares there’s a lot of stuff. You can stop almost anywhere and there are restaurants, hotels, parks. And that’s true of White Bridge Road too. Well, there aren’t any parks along there, or hotels, but there are plenty of restaurants, businesses, and homes and apartments. There are the adjacent campuses of Nashville State Community College and the Tennessee College of Applied Technology and Nashville Technical School. There’s a funky little place that was an aquarium and fish store for several years, then a porn shop, and now it’s a psychic. The route ends near Fat Mo’s Burgers.

There’s been a lot of debate and discussion about how to improve Nashville’s public transportation and how to encourage more people to use it. Here’s an idea: add a few more buses on the #3 route to speed up service. There’s a lot of stuff along the route, so make it easier for people to get there. And make sure the drivers know where they’re going.

 

Break Time.

Before I even got on the bus I knew he was a new driver because he was early. If you ride the bus long enough and regularly enough you start to recognize the signs of someone who’s not just new to the route but new to driving a bus professionally. New drivers are always a couple of minutes early because they’re so focused on sticking to the schedule, and the buses they drive are almost completely empty. I don’t know whether this is because the regular riders aren’t expecting the bus to be quite so early and get to the stop after it’s gone by or whether the driver’s focus on sticking to the schedule means there are a lot of people along the line who got passed by. And when I got on there was only me, the driver, and a woman with a baby in a stroller and her son, who was probably about four.

So we zipped along. I sat back and listened to a podcast and counted the number of shocked people standing at bus stops we passed. Then the bus lurched and he pulled over in front of a bus stop. He got out, looked at something, then came back in and pulled out his phone and called someone.

I know this was a violation. Bus drivers aren’t supposed to use their phones, even when they’re not driving. In fact there’s a little metal box that blocks cell signals at the front of the bus. They’re supposed to kep their phones in that, rather than in their pockets. Still we were early, and I even thought that might be why he’d stopped. Bus drivers, especially new ones who are conscientious about the schedule, will often pull over and stop for a few minutes so they don’t get too far ahead. The minutes ticked away. Then another bus on the same route passed us. He’d finished with his phone call so I went up to the front and asked when we’d be underway.

“We’re not going anywhere,” he said. “Got a busted mirror.”

He even showed it to me. While driving too close to the curb he’d hit it against a pole.

Source: imgflip.com

The woman with her young son and the baby in a stroller got out. Lucky for her she only had a little over a block to walk, although that’s still a pretty good jaunt with two kids. And lucky for me another bus came along in a few minutes and stopped.

As for the driver, well, I could have reported him for pulling out his phone instead of calling the dispatcher so we could catch the next bus to go by, but I figured he was new and probably pretty rattled by the experience. I know I would be. Whatever punishment he was going to face for breaking the mirror was going to be bad enough. We’ve all been new in a job and screwed up something. I figured he’d had one bad break that day and deserved a good one.

 

Prepare The Transit Beam.

I was home from college because it was Fall Break, a holiday that doesn’t get nearly the credit it deserves, barely even heard of, unlike the flashy, high-powered beach-hopping, binge-drinking, rowdy Spring Break. It was after 2:00am on Sunday morning, just hours before I’d be heading back to school and I needed to get home and pack and maybe get some sleep, but for now my friend John and I were on the road between Franklin and Nashville, having just gone to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. We were having our usual post-Rocky debate, which we’d had thirty or so times before, but which we always had even though the singing, dancing, and general rowdiness left us exhausted. The debate was about whether there was any meaning to the movie. John argued that it was a nonsensical assemblage of songs and silliness, that it was almost random and certainly meaningless, which you’d think would be an argument-stopper, but he loved to debate. John was studying to be a lawyer, and had known he was going to be a lawyer while most of us were only thinking about whether the school cafeteria was going to be serving pudding that day. Even before starting high school John had a life plan: what classes to take, where he’d go to college, where he’d eventually go to find a law firm and what kind of cases he wanted to take. His plans didn’t always pan out but I envied him for having plans. Anyway my side of the post-Rocky debate was that there was a theme running through the movie of innocence subsumed by darkness and cynicism, as foreshadowed by the opening in which Brad and Janet sing their way to an engagement while the wedding decorations are replaced by funeral ones. It was a bleak and bitter interpretation even though I didn’t think of myself as a bleak and bitter guy, but still it was the best I could do. And then on this particular night I added something else: that innocence is fleeting and that once it’s lost we have to struggle to find meaning in amidst the uncertainty of the world. It was a bit heavy-handed, but still, at the very end, when the Criminologist says we are “some insects called the human race, lost in time, and lost in space, and in meaning” he leaves the globe lit. There is still a light in the darkness.

John was considering his response when the car shuddered and the engine knocked. He pulled over to the side of the road and the tires crunched over gravel before coming to a stop.

“Oh,” he said, “we’re out of gas.”

Source: IMDB

We were in sight of Exit 69, and John set out for a nearby gas station, leaving me with the car. Alone. A cop car came by and shone a spotlight on me without stopping. I waved, unsure what to do. At that point I felt unsure about everything. My sophomore year of college was not going well. I’d just ended a long relationship, some good friends I’d made as a freshman had transferred or dropped out, my classes were boring and I felt like I wasn’t learning anything new, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, what I wanted or what I could do. I was literally and metaphorically stuck and the road ahead, also literally and metaphorically, was dark. The woods were tempting. I started thinking about a childish fantasy I’d had for years, that I retreated to whenever things got tough. I thought I could slip off into the woods, abandoning everything. I could build a fire, make a shelter, find food and water. What else did I need?

I stepped back out of the woods when a pickup truck pulled up on the other side of the road and stopped. A guy got out of the driver’s side and John got out of the passenger’s side, carrying a gas can. We thanked the guy and he brushed it off, saying he was going our way anyway, and a few minutes later we were back on our way.

And without really knowing why I suddenly felt better about the road ahead. It was still dark, metaphorically but not literally, but all I’d needed was to stop and refuel.

 

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