Adventures In Busing.

Cute Couples.

There are a couple of high school students on the bus I ride home from work, a boy and a girl. They always sit together. They seem nicely matched: they both wear rumpled dark hoodies, and he sits and draws in a sketchbook while she reads graphic novels. Sometimes they don’t even talk for the entire trip, but every day, when her stop comes up first, they share a quick kiss. I don’t stare, but it’s cute and I’m happy for them. And it brings back memories from high school—specifically Juliette, who was in my Latin class. She also rode the bus with me.

Normally riding the bus was an hour of unbearable misery, but when Juliette and I started sitting together things got a lot better. We chatted and laughed and generally had a good time.

To say that when it came to looks Juliette was out of my league would be a gross understatement. Forget leagues. Metaphorically she would have been a football pro while I, with my acne and awkwardness, was bottom rung of a Tuesday night bowling team. And I had already learned a lesson that Harvey Fierstein put so well when he said, “See, an ugly person who goes after a pretty person gets nothing but trouble. But a pretty person who goes after an ugly person gets at least cab-fare.” It was a school bus, though, so Juliette wasn’t expecting me to pay for the ride.

If you are or have been a teenager maybe you’ll understand this: knowing I had no chance with Juliette in a romantic sense took all the pressure off me. With her I was a witty, charming, suave gentleman, whereas with any girl I was actually interested in and thought I had a chance at dating I was Hedorah the Smog Monster. And it didn’t bother me that Juliette talked to me about the guys she dated–she was extremely selective, because she could be, but still managed to get stuck with some creeps, while I could talk to her about a bad breakup I was going through and share really bad song lyrics I’d written, but that’s another story.

Somehow Juliette and I always found ourselves sitting behind Kate and Brian, a pair who weren’t quite as mismatched but vehemently denied they were attracted to each other, creating a whole will-they-or-won’t-they vibe. And then, after a band trip, it became clear they did and, as it turned out, would continue to for some time.

That first day after the band trip we watched Kate and Brian hold hands, kiss, and swoon over each other. Then Juliette turned to me.

“I’m so glad they got together. Aren’t you?”

I preferred their sarcastic bickering, but, yeah, if they were happy then bully for them. Juliette went on.

“Of course you and I would never get together like that.” A smile played across her dewy lips and she gave me an intense stare. “Right? I mean, it could just never happen between us.” She put her hand up and played with her hair a bit.

“Right!” I said, maybe a little too vehemently. “Not us!” It would be, I knew, what Bloom County‘s Opus described as a Billy Joel-Christie Brinkley match, and look how that turned out.

As an aside, yes, some of the most poignant and useful relationship advice I’ve ever gotten has come from a gay playwright and a cartoon penguin.

Juliette and I continued to ride the bus together and continued to laugh and talk, but gradually we drifted apart. I started getting rides home with a friend who had a car and she, well, I don’t know. I wanted her to be happy. I still hope she is, but I knew even our friendship wouldn’t last. We had so little in common beyond riding on the bus together and, silly as it may sound, it was my senior year and I was saving myself for college, where I hoped I’d meet someone more like me.

There’s a saying that as you get older your greatest regrets aren’t the things you did but rather the things you didn’t do. While there are a few missed chances I regret I’m still glad Juliette and I never went beyond friendship even if the tension of possibility remained out there. Sometimes it’s better to just leave a good thing as it is.

That’s a bit of advice I learned from Hedorah the Smog Monster.

 

Beautiful Dreamer.

The one thing I’ve never been able to do on the bus is sleep. Well, technically there are a lot of things I’ve never been able to do on the bus: microwave fish, run even a one-star hotel, or star in a Broadway musical, but even when I was taking a Greyhound bus from Nashville to Evansville on a regular basis, a four-hour round trip that I sometimes made really late at night, I couldn’t sleep. Now I have no problem falling asleep. In fact I can relate to Kristine at Mum Revised who said, “Waking up is hard to do.” In fact it’s disturbing that I can sleep almost anywhere. I’ve been known to fall asleep in hard-backed chairs in noisy sports venues—not while anything was going on, but because nothing was going on. I can fall asleep so easily I used to be naïve enough that I envied insomniacs until I learned that some of my friends are insomniacs and I’ve seen how hard that can be for them. The stress of insomnia can get so bad you can lose sleep over it, but that’s another story.

The other day when I was on the bus there was a guy in the very back sound asleep. I’m surprised he wasn’t snoring. He was completely out of it and I wondered, what happens if the driver goes past his stop? Maybe he’d do what I’ve done sometimes in heavy rain and just ride the bus to the end of the line and then get off at the right stop on the way back. Then the driver stopped.

“Hey!” he yelled. A few people looked around. “This is your stop!” he yelled again.

Then he got up, walked to the back of the bus, and tapped the guy on the knee and said, “Come on, wakey wakey, this is your stop.”

The guy rolled over, slowly opened his eyes, stretched, yawned, and ambled off the bus.

I think the least he could have done is thank the driver for the wakeup call.

Hey You!

This picture has nothing to do with the story. It’s just funny to me to think these guys are undoing each others’ work.

In a common area of a college campus I saw something interesting: little plastic stands with a picture of Joey from Friends saying, “How you doin’?” I assume this is his catchphrase or maybe one of them because I’ve never watched Friends and in fact if you added up all the bits and pieces of the show I’ve happened to catch while flipping through channels or waiting for something else to come on they wouldn’t even add up to a full episode and I’m not even all that sure “Joey” is the character’s name, but that’s another story. Anyway the stands were on a table with a sign explaining that if you were sitting alone but open to a stranger starting a conversation with you the stand would be a signal. And I think this is a great idea. I don’t know how many students used them or even what they thought of them, and it does seem kind of weird to say, “I’m open to having random strangers come up and talk to me,” but then I’ve had some really interesting conversations with random strangers.

Anyway I was on the bus and it stopped at a red light right next to a restaurant that has an open patio and, this being spring, there were people sitting out on the patio. There was a couple and I thought the guy was looking in the direction of the bus so I waved.

Yeah, that sounds pretty goofy, but a sudden impulse seized me and I thought, why not?

He didn’t notice. I think he really wasn’t looking at the bus and then he turned away, but then he turned back so I waved again. And he waved back.

The light changed and the bus moved away, so I didn’t get a chance to act on my next sudden impulse which was to open the window and yell, “How’s that burger?” or “What are you drinking?” or maybe just “How you doin’?” Maybe that’s just as well and maybe it’s just as well that the circumstances that allowed me to wave in the first place are unlikely to coalesce ever again, but at least he was open to sharing a moment with a random stranger.

This video is just long enough that after watching it I’ve now seen approximately half an episode of Friends.

Numbers Game.

Also why does 2041 come between 2013 and 2014? Your math department could use some work,

Dear Nashville MTA,
I’ve been using you app for almost a year now and it’s pretty nice. I even wrote a glowing review about it back when I first started using it, which was about a year after it was released. Your PR department could use some work, you know. I really like being able to see that a bus that’s scheduled to arrive in five minutes is running late and won’t make until sometime next week. Since I move around to a lot of different stops–some bus drivers have even commented that they never pick me up in the same place, because I get bored waiting for the bus and now with the app I know exactly how much time I have to get to a different stop on the same route. Anyway the thing I’ve noticed is that in the app all stops are numbered but none of the stops themselves, not even the new fancy ones that y’all are so proud of, have numbers anywhere on them. Sure, I could look at the street signs to confirm that the “nearby stop” has a geographic location that matches where I am, but when the stop is in the middle of a block it can be hard to see the street names. And also I’m one of those people who doesn’t navigate particularly well by street names. I prefer landmarks and have even been complimented on the clarity of my directions, or at least I was before everybody started using map apps and GPS devices. Back in those days whenever someone asked me for directions it was a chance to repeat that old joke that Bob Hope told when he entertained the troops starting with the War of 1812 when he opened with, “Well, when I got into Mobile this morning I asked someone where the USO stage was and he said walk straight toward the stockade, turn left at the burning building, and keep going past the riot. You can’t miss it.” It was even better when the person who asked me for directions was traveling through an actual war zone, but that’s another story.
Anyway, can I get your number?

 

Das Bus.

Look carefully and you can see the water dripping. What kind of bonehead designs an emergency exit that leaks?

When I got the bus stop it was starting to rain, but this didn’t bother me because I had an umbrella. It was just a few drops, and the weather report had said there was a 50% chance of precipitation which always tickles me because that sounds like the weather reporters are really hedging their bets, but then someone always has to get pedantic and tell me that they’re 100% sure it will rain and that it’s expected to cover about 50% of the area which takes the fun out of it, but that’s another story.

I walked down the street to the next bus stop where there were some trees and a business with an awning that I could stand under if the rain got really bad, which it did. It started to really pour. It was like I was standing behind a waterfall and a woman who worked in the shop asked if I’d like to come in, which was nice because I was getting wet from the spray and I’m pretty sure the awning was eroding. And then the bus arrived and thankfully there was a stop sign there so I ran out into the rain and knocked on the door, then pounded on the door, then I had to run around to the front of the bus and jump up and down in front of the driver because he couldn’t hear anything over the rain and the way it was coming down I’m surprised he could see anything, but he opened the door and I ran in, swiped my bus pass, and went right to the back of the bus because I was cold and wet and the backseat sits right on the engine so it’s usually warm, and also there was no one back there. And then as everyone picked up their oars and started rowing and the bus lurched forward I realized the reason no one was in the back was because there was an emergency hatch in the roof and it was leaking. So I moved to a seat closer to the front which meant I had to help row, but I didn’t mind as long as we were going forward, or at least taking me closer to home, and it didn’t matter that I’d left my umbrella at the shop because this was umbrella-destroying rain. And I remembered that when I was a kid I thought humidity could never reach 100% because I thought 100% humidity was solid water, but then I learned that it was really just the maximum amount of water the atmosphere could hold, but maybe I’d been right all along because by now the bus driver was looking through a periscope and all the stop announcements were in German and I was seriously starting to wonder that I was going to have to leave through a torpedo tube.

And then, amazingly, by the time we got to the stop where I got off, the sun had come out and I wished I had my umbrella to protect me from the glare.

 

Rights And Responsibilities.

Technically I’ve never been kicked off the bus. Like any rider I’m responsible for sticking to various rules: I’m not allowed to smoke on the bus (even if I smoked),

or play loud music (I prefer using earbuds to listen to podcasts),

or eat or drink,

although there seems to be quite a bit of flexibility on this last one, judging by the number of empty bottles, snack wrappers, packages, and other detritus I find on the bus. Once I sat down in the back and found a little pile of chicken bones resting on the windowsill, but that’s another story.

I say I’ve technically never been kicked off the bus because I was once ordered off the bus by a driver, but so were all the other riders. And this was not one of the usual situations. There was no emergency or anything wrong with the bus. Sometimes I have had to leave a bus because it broke down and we were all allowed to get on the next bus to come along and continue on our journey.

No, on this particular occasion the reason we were all thrown off the bus is because the driver would go about two blocks then pull over in the middle of the block and get out his cell phone. Bus drivers are supposed to keep their cell phones in a metal box at the front of the bus that blocks cell signals, but he was ignoring that rule. He also glanced at his cell phone while driving, ignoring the road ahead.

Someone finally complained about him pulling over. Instead of doing what he was supposed to he made us all get off the bus, which we did. The next bus wasn’t far behind, and in fact once we’d all flagged it down and boarded it went past him. I don’t know how long he stayed there playing with his cell phone.

In retrospect I wish we’d all gotten out our cell phones–which riders are allowed to use–and reported him. Just because he had a uniform and the keys to the bus, just because he was in a position of authority, doesn’t mean we had to do whatever he said. We had a right to expect a driver who would carry us safely, who would obey the rules. And since he wouldn’t do that we should have done what we could to hold him responsible.

 

Someone Else’s Two Cents.

Back in the old days when I first started riding buses you had to pay with exact change, which I thought was a terrible idea because it’s hard sometimes to have exact change, and also the bus driver really had to pay attention to make sure you were putting in the right amount of change, and bus drivers have enough on their minds with just driving the bus. Although it was kind of fun that time I dumped the exact change, all in pennies, into the fare collector. And there were a few times that someone got on and didn’t have exact change and would plead with other passengers and ask if anyone could break a five and I always felt guilty because if I had any change at all it was only exactly as much as I needed to get wherever I was going which I carefully sorted out before I left, but that’s another story.

Now you don’t have to have exact change. If you pay too much the driver can give you a card with your change on it that you can use for your next ride. You can’t really get any money back, you just get credit that you can only use on the bus. Back in the old days I remember getting gift certificates for bookstores and other places I liked and if I didn’t spend the full amount they’d give me exact change. Now you get a gift card and if you don’t use the exact amount then you end up paying them. Or you throw away the card with some unused money still on it, which is why I seem to find change cards all the time on the bus.

Needless to say I think it’s a terrible idea but I can’t think of what the alternative would be, although I’m more confused about how someone ended up with exactly two cents left on a card when all bus fares end in either five or zero. The fare collector doesn’t even take anything smaller than a nickel anymore. So obviously throwing away that fare card was a great idea.

Let’s Go Over This Again.

It must be because the warm weather brings out so many people walking that I feel I have to go over this once more. In front of the building where I work there’s a crosswalk. In Britain they call them zebra crossings, or that thing the Beatles were in blocking traffic for the Abbey Road album. Anyway this seems to cause an immense amount of confusion. I’ve seen fellow pedestrians step right into the street and glare at oncoming traffic which has to come to a screeching halt, and I’ve seen drivers come to a screeching halt when there are pedestrians on the sidewalk patiently waiting for the traffic to go by so they can safely cross the street.

Also “sidewalk” is a U.S. term. According to Wikipedia’s Simple English it’s also called “a footpath (Australian English, Irish English, Indian English and New Zealand English) or footway (Engineering term)”, all of which make sense and in Britain it’s called a “pavement” which makes no sense because pavement is what streets are made of and the Beatles could have walked on it without blocking Abbey Road, but that’s another story.

Anyway here are some terrible and unhelpful diagrams made with the help of Google Earth that I hope will clear up confusion about everything except why the British call a sidewalk a “pavement”.

In this first diagram I am represented by a blue dot in the middle of a tree. Actually I would be standing on the sidewalk because the trees really aren’t that good for climbing. As long as I am on the sidewalk the oncoming car has the right of way and the driver doesn’t have to stop and give me that condescending little hand wave. As you can see in the picture there’s also a bus stop that looks like it’s out in the intersection. The bus really stops right in front of where the blue dot is which I’m sure is convenient for people who want to get out on that side of the street but buses tend to sit there so pedestrians who want to cross can’t see oncoming traffic and vice versa. Thanks, bus drivers!

 

In this next diagram I am again the blue dot on the other side of the street even though I’m not that round and haven’t been that blue since one Halloween. Again the oncoming car has the right of way. Also that redbud tree I appear to be standing in has been cut down so it’s even worse for climbing but Google hasn’t updated the picture yet.

In this next picture I am represented by the blue dot in the middle of the intersection. I now have the right of way but should only step out into the crosswalk, zebra crossing, or Abbey Road thingy when there is no oncoming traffic.

In this picture the oncoming traffic is a triceratops. If you’re riding a triceratops you always have the right of way even though they’re slow-moving and will probably stop to eat the trees.

A Matter Of Time.

There’s a clock on a pole across the street from where I wait for the bus most afternoons.

I’ve never bothered to calculate exactly how much time I spend waiting for the bus, and it varies from day to day. Some days I sit for five minutes, some days it’s half an hour, and it’s a little annoying that I always rush to get to the bus stop but the bus driver isn’t necessarily in as much of a hurry to get to me. There was one driver who was consistently late and every day loudly complained that it was the driver before him who’d been running late causing a domino effect. I noticed whenever there was a substitute that driver would be on time.

Not that waiting is necessarily a bad thing. I used to sit and read books. Some days the wait was just long enough for me to read, really read, a poem. Or I’d pick up the free newspapers like the Nashville Scene which, for a while, published a poem a week.

Now I mostly listen to podcasts which I feel has kind of brought me back to when I was a kid. My father always listened to talk radio in the car. In some parts of the country, some pretty close to home, he could pick up bizarre preachers expounding on their theories of how Mikhail Gorbachev’s birthmark was really a 666, or how the prevalence of triangles on the show Buck Rogers was a Satanic plot. For more serious fare he listened to public radio, so I’d sit in the backseat and hear stories from the BBC or the news. Some mornings we’d listen to Dick Estell’s Radio Reader, which was both fun and frustrating if we got wherever we were going before the story ended. Or, since Estell tended to read long books, I’d hear a chapter and say, “Yeah, so what happened then?” I also remember when they ran the original radio version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and an audio adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings, although those came on early enough on Sunday mornings that I could listen at home and never missed an episode, but that’s another story.

So it’s actually good if I have some time to wait, although one of the nice things about listening rather than reading is I can do it while walking. My usual stop isn’t one of the fancy ones with a digital display that tells me exactly when the next bus is coming. It’s just a standard old bench where I can sit and watch the clock.

Except that the clock hasn’t worked in months, maybe even years. It’s permanently stuck at 2:55, so while a broken clock is right twice a day it’s never right at a time when I’m there.

 

Transference.

The Nashville MTA has asked for a budget increase that would include the restoration of transfers. I think this is a great idea even though these days all my bus rides are one way, and also my employer pays my bus fare as long as I’m going to and from work, but that’s another story. For me riding the bus is an option, and I’m lucky it is because Nashville really isn’t a bus-friendly city. Or a pedestrian or bike-friendly city. Several people have told me they’d take the bus if they didn’t have to drive to the nearest stop.

If you’ve never ridden the bus or have only ridden it in places where they don’t offer transfers–like Nashville in the last fifteen years or so–a transfer is a ticket you can get with your regular bus ticket that allows you to get on another bus route without having to pay the full fare again. Back when they had them the cost of a transfer was a pittance–when Nashville got rid of them a transfer cost ten cents, a price that had probably been maintained since the ‘70‘s, even though in those days a dime was worth a lot more. A transfer was also technically only good for half an hour and would be stamped with the time you received it although I never knew a single bus driver who bothered to look.

The price of a regular fare at the time was $1.75, but you could also get an all-day pass for $3.50, so if you were going more than two places the pass was actually the better deal by twenty cents and you didn’t have to worry about some driver suddenly deciding to enforce the half-hour time limit. Now the regular fare is $1.70 and an all-day pass is $5.25. Go figure.

As I said Nashville is not a particularly bus-friendly city but I’m in favor of transfers because quite a few people who ride the bus depend on it because, to be blunt, they can’t afford a car, and really could use every little bit of money they can save. In fact I remember the first time I learned about transfers. It never occurred to me that you wouldn’t have to pay the full fare every time you got on the bus. One day, when I was in college and living off-campus, I took the bus downtown to drop off my rent check. I came out of the office and waved down the bus going my way. I was close enough to the end of the line that the same driver who dropped me off had just dropped me off and was turning around.

I got on and started to put my fare in when he said, “Hey, didn’t I just drop you off? You could have just gotten a transfer.”

I wish he’d said that before I started handing over my money. I really could have used that dollar.

 

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