Adventures In Busing.

We Need To Walk.

IMG_3138Recently Nashville’s Channel 2 News did a story about pedestrians. More than one-hundred and twenty pedestrians and bicyclists were killed in 2015. I didn’t get interviewed for the story even though I’m an amateur professional expert on local transportation and they filmed it right in front of the building where I work. I think I was too busy working. I can relate to a lot of what the interviewees said. At least once a week while I’m waiting to cross the street a car in the lane closest to me will come to a screeching halt and the driver will give me that condescending little hand wave, oblivious to the fact that there are cars speeding by in the other two lanes. And then the driver will get impatient, give me the not-so-condescending finger, and peel out, leaving me to wait until I have the right of way. Or when a delivery truck is parked right in front of my building, blocking the view of the other two lanes, I’ll just go the long way around–through a parking lot where I have to dodge drivers who don’t bother to look when they pull out. A few blocks away there’s an intersection with a traffic light where a friend of mine was hit by a driver who didn’t think the red light applied to him. My friend survived but the accident caused some memory loss, so some of us put together a care package that included a DVD of Total Recall, but that’s another story.

And I know that a guaranteed way to start a fight on the internet is to post any story about a pedestrian or bicyclist being hit or almost hit by a car with people in the comments section quickly veering off-topic to compare each other to Tamerlane, sniping about who believes the Earth is only forty-two years old and banana-shaped, and resorting to everything from cogito in absentia attacks to tin man fallacies.

With that in mind I’m going to take a firmly ambivalent stand in favor of the drivers because I’ve seen some fellow pedestrians do some really stupid things. I’ve seen people step off the sidewalk and stare down oncoming traffic and run out in the middle of the street mid-block. I know Nashville is not pedestrian-friendly. It’s not like New York City where having a license and car is more of a burden than a convenience. When I didn’t have a license people regarded me with suspicion and assumed I must have had one at one time and got it taken away for doing Dukes of Hazard-type stunts in a stolen minivan. And in spite of the addition of bicycle lanes and even bicycles you can rent most of the city isn’t really bike-friendly. The buses have bike-racks that only hold one bicycle at a time because the idea that more than one cyclist would need to take a bus at any time is almost as ludicrous as the addition of bike lanes because all the bicyclists I see use the sidewalks. I love it when I’m walking along and they come up behind me and scream at me to get out of their way.

Hey, the roads and sidewalks are there for all of us and we all have to use them responsibly. Now let the comments section fight commence.

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Changes.

IMG_3112Last month I had to renew my driver’s license. I’d renewed it before, but this time I had to get an entirely new license. It seemed a shame to have to give up the old photo taken when I had fewer years, fewer wrinkles, fewer pounds, and a little more hair. Once or twice when I’ve been asked for ID the person who’s taken it has said, “Wow, looks like you got a haircut”. Most of the time though they don’t even look.

The DMV was crowded the day I got my learner’s permit, prior to getting my license. A gray haired man swept the room with a steely look and said, “See y’all in five years.”

As I’ve mentioned previously I was rather late getting my driver’s license. Unlike most people I know who got theirs when they were sixteen I waited until…well, the important thing is you might be wondering why it took me so long. My wife thinks I might have had a fear of driving that stems from when I was nine and saw a friend get hit by a car. Maybe she’s right. It was a traumatic experience. Maybe it changed me.

Renewing my license reminded me of how things have changed. Before I’d taken the bus to the DMV. This time I drove to a nearby police station. It was Saturday so it was deserted. All alone I stood at an automated kiosk, paid a fee, and the machine took a selfie.

I wonder what the next five years will bring.

We Need To Talk.

Most of the time I don’t just go for an empty seat on the bus. I go for an empty seat surrounded by empty seats. I sit as far away from other people as possible and keep my head down. It’s better that way, right? No one really wants to talk to me because we’re all strangers. It’s very rare that I see the same people, or even the same person, on the bus from one day to the next. Even the drivers change on a regular basis depending on everything from their schedules to mine. Sure there have been exceptions. I’ve had several conversations with a guy named Jerry whom I see regularly. He and a woman named Diane are sometimes talking when I get on the bus and after they’d seen me a few times we’d make eye contact and they’d both smile and say “hi”. One day I asked Jerry about a history book he was reading and we spent the entire ride discussing World War II and debating whether the Battle of Britain was a significant turning point or a minor skirmish. I argued it was a major turning point, but that’s another story. Sometimes Jerry and another man named Amit will sit and talk during their commute, and some days I’ve boarded the bus to see them sitting together, Amit reading the paper, Jerry reading a thick book, both of them surrounded by empty seats.

Even small talk with strangers makes my day better, and a study from last year by University of Chicago professor Nicholas Epley confirms that’s the case for most people. And once the small talk starts it’s usually easy. So why is it so hard to get started?

For me at least the answer is obvious: how do you start talking to a stranger? I know that’s a question, not an answer, so let me put it another way: I don’t know what to start talking to strangers about.

Maybe I can start with, “Hey, have you heard about a study done by a psychologist at the University of Chicago?”

I’ll add, though, that at least in my personal experience it isn’t necessarily me talking with somebody that brightens up my commute. Overhearing other peoples’ friendly conversations makes me happy even if I’m not taking part. So if you see me sitting in the back of the bus and you don’t know what to say to me talk amongst yourselves.

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It’s Chipmunk Season.

A few years ago Nashville finally got a bona fide public bus station. It’s not much, but it’s a building with a roof and spaces for vending machines and offices and benches all surrounding a large circular center where the buses come and go. Before that the “bus station” was really just a bunch of small shelters and benches on the sidewalk of a single block. If you wanted to buy a 7 or 30-day bus ticket or were looking for the lost-and-found there was a kiosk that was open for approximately seventeen minutes on alternate Tuesdays.

One winter night my wife and I were walking up the street to see a show at TPAC and there was a man standing in one of the shelters belting out “Beautiful Dreamer” in a lovely bass baritone so that night we really got two performances for the price of one, but that’s another story.

Homeless people would also sometimes sleep in the shelters and probably sleep in the bus station too. I’d be happier if they could get help, but I’m glad they’ve at least got someplace to go that’s out of the elements.

The Bournemouth Borough Council in the UK feels a little differently, though, so at the Bournemouth Coach Station they’ve been playing songs by The Chipmunks from midnight to 6AM as “part of a wider strategy to deter anti-social behaviour and rough sleeping”.

It’s a bit of a change from the bagpipe music they had been previously playing, but what if you like that kind of music? Okay, I know, no one really likes The Chipmunks, not even small children who only pretend to like them, but I can sleep through anything.

And there are ways to make them entertaining.

Thanks For The Lift!

004While waiting for the bus I never pay enough attention to the cars that go by to recognize any. I’m at the same bus stop at the same time most days of the week so chances are good that some of the same people go by. I just don’t notice them and chances are good they don’t notice me either unless one of us is doing something unusual.

I was literally seconds late getting to the bus stop. I saw the doors close and the bus pull away. I started running. Remember the scene in The Graduate where Dustin Hoffman chases a bus until it gets to the next stop? That was me and that was my plan. There was a red light up ahead. If I could get there while the bus was waiting I could get on.

Then the light turned green.

I kept running. There was another green light up ahead. If it turned red before the bus went through I could catch up to it and get on then. I was a pretty good runner and it looked like I was going to make it.

It only turned red after the bus had gone through. I stood on the corner panting. Then I heard a voice to my left.

“You tryin’ to catch the bus?”

There was a guy in a compact car stopped at the light. He had his window down.

“Yeah.”

“Climb in. I’ll get you there.”

Now was the time to ask myself a serious question. Should I wait twenty minutes for the next bus or take a chance on a ride with a complete stranger?

I took a chance. His name was Mike and he’d seen me running. When he saw I wasn’t going to make it he felt bad for me. He explained all this as he deftly passed the bus and managed to get three blocks ahead of it. He pulled over at a bus stop.

“Have a good day!”

Thanks to Mike it was a good day. I thanked him profusely and only realized after he’d sped away that I hadn’t thought to notice what he was driving. Maybe I see Mike every day and don’t realize it. I wish I knew so I could wave at him as he went by.

Do You Know Where You’re Going?

007While I was waiting at the bus stop I noticed a guy weaving in and out of traffic, crossing five lanes of a very busy street. I could feel a sense of urgency from him as he stopped in the middle of the street, looked both ways, waited as cars zipped right by him, then moved on. Yes, I’m going to call it a sense of urgency because I wanted to think “what an idiot” but I could also sympathize. I don’t have the bus schedule memorized and even if I did they never show up exactly on time so I have no idea when the bus is coming. Sometimes I run to the bus stop just so I can stand there panting for fifteen minutes. I couldn’t entirely blame him for not wanting to walk half a block—a really long block in fact—then wait for a light to change so he could cross safely. In that time a bus could come and go.

Then he hit the sidewalk and kept running.

“Hey man, what time does the bus come?”

I told him any minute. That may or may not have been true. I don’t have the schedule memorized but I’d been standing there for about fifteen minutes.

He pulled out his phone and pulled up a map on the screen.

“Can you tell me if the bus goes near here?”

I didn’t want to reach out and take his phone but it was kind of hard to read. There were street names but not a lot of landmarks highlighted. There was a dot labelled with the name of a small Korean restaurant that I recognized but the fast food place and major grocery store at the next intersection weren’t on the map. Go figure. But I did recognize the spot.

“Yeah, the bus goes right past there. It’ll circle around behind that block but when it comes out at the intersection you can get off there. Where exactly are you trying to go?”

He didn’t answer me but just looked at the map again.

“So it goes right by there?”

“Yeah…are you trying to get to a specific place?”

He looked at the map then put his phone away. “How soon will the bus come?”

“Any minute now.” I wanted to say, hey, I don’t have the schedule memorized, and even if I did…

His phone rang. He pulled it out.

“What? Where do you want me to meet you? Where?”

He started walking down the street in the opposite direction of where he’d shown me on the map. He walked so fast he’d disappeared a couple of minutes later when the bus pulled up.

I’ve never seen him again. He left me with the feeling that I’d answered him but all he’d left me with were questions.

Never Tell Me The Odds.

schooledIn grade school I had the world’s best bus driver. That may seem like damning with faint praise but I’m serious. We were let out of school late one day when it started snowing and she did her best to get us home through covered streets, maneuvering around stuck cars. Most of us had to be dropped off at the bottom of a hill and ended up walking farther than usual but she took down every kid’s home phone number and when she got home called all our parents to make sure we’d made it safely.

That’s not the story I want to tell now.

The story I want to tell now is about the world’s worst bus driver who I had to deal with only one day in grade school.

I was in first grade and still not quite used to riding the bus by myself. Each route was assigned a very specific bus number but I hadn’t bothered to memorize it. I’m not sure why. I just looked for my bus driver. She was a distinctive woman with an enormous head of bright red hair and she always wore dark glasses.

What are the odds she’d have a twin sister who also drove a bus? At least I got lucky and got stuck with the good twin most days. But really what are the odds I’d not only end up with someone who looked just like the driver I knew?

I had a funny feeling something was up when a kid I only knew from school saw me on the bus and said “Hi Chris!” I didn’t know where he lived. All I knew is he didn’t live anywhere near my neighborhood. I’d never seen him on the bus before. But I was still new to riding the bus. I’d only been in first grade about a month or so.

I felt even funnier—okay, maybe “funny” isn’t the right word for it—when I was the last kid on the bus and the driver asked me where I lived. I told her. She laughed and said, “Where is that?”

That’s not a question you want to hear when you’re six years old and the last kid on the school bus.

She started pulling over and asking people she saw in their yards if they knew where my street was. And what are the odds I’d end up with a driver who didn’t know her way around well enough to find a street on a different route?

“I got this little girl here…”

Oh yeah, I had to remind her I was a boy. I realize small children can seem androgynous but you’d think after three times she’d remember that I wasn’t a girl.

Obviously this story has a happy ending. My mother had noticed I didn’t get off the bus with the other kids and was driving around looking for me. She found me while I was standing in a stranger’s yard reminding the bus driver for the seventh or fiftieth time that I was not a girl. We were two blocks from my street—within walking distance actually.

I learned an important lesson that day. You’re probably thinking I learned I should always make sure I got on the right bus and not to just make superficial assumptions, and you’d be wrong.

What I learned is you can beat the odds.

Know Your Driver.

001As I was getting off the bus the driver said to me, “See you tomorrow.” And that’s when I realized she was the same driver I’d seen the same day every week. I don’t spend a lot of time looking at the bus driver. When I board I’m only really concerned about getting to a seat before the bus lurches into motion and throws me to the floor. This particular day that was especially true because it looked like someone had dropped a burrito in the middle of the floor and someone else, or maybe the same person, had then stepped on it so there was a big squirt of refried frijoles and red sauce, or maybe blood, smeared along the floor.

Someone had lost their lunch and I’m just glad I mean that literally and not metaphorically. It didn’t smell like anything. It just looked awful.

When the driver said “See you tomorrow” I turned around and recognized her but also realized she’d changed her hair style. That made me feel even guiltier for not at least saying hello when I got on the bus instead of just thinking she was a different driver as I barely looked at her while boarding. I couldn’t tell you her name but I feel like I get to know certain drivers who stick with the route for a while, and who I see on a daily basis. And it always surprises me when they recognize me too. I figure bus drivers must see dozens, maybe even hundreds of different people every day. How could they pick a single guy out of the crowd?

I made a mental note to say something nice about her hair the next day, and I would have too if she hadn’t been wearing a hat. At least I said hello this time.

My Favorite Curse Word? All Of Them.

There are a lot of different paths I can take to the bus stop. That’s one of the advantages of being a pedestrian: I can cross parking lots, greenways, weave all over sidewalks, cut through parking garages, and even jaywalk if I want to. But there are also places where I’m hemmed in. Once I start down a particular path there are locked buildings, fences, walls. If I decide to go another way I have to go all the way back the way I came and then I’m gonna be late for the bus and I’m getting tired just writing this run-on sentence.

I don’t mind taking a detour if I have to but the other day this happened.

blockedIn case it’s not clear the whole sidewalk on the right side has been blocked off for about six months now for some kind of construction that the crew doesn’t seem to be in any great hurry to finish. And now there’s some kind of construction on the left side of the street.

There was no easy way around it. I had to backtrack several blocks and if you’d been with me on that detour and heard what I said you might have thought I was suffering from de Tourette’s.

The Connection.

Source: Wikipedia

Bus stops are public spaces so I shouldn’t feel uncomfortable when sharing them with other people but I always have this very low level nervousness when I’m not alone at one. Who is this person? Are they thinking anything about me? Did I remember to zip up my pants? Sometimes I’ll see the same person over successive days, even weeks, and that makes me even more nervous. Should I say something? What should I say? Maybe it’s better if we just pretend we’re each alone here.

I’d never seen the guy who rolled up in a motorized wheelchair before. He had straw colored hair and blue-tinted glasses. The sound of his wheelchair had made me turn and we accidentally made eye contact so I gave him a polite “hello” nod. Good save there.

“Anybody ever tell you you look like John Boy Walton?” he said.

All my nervousness melted like an ice cube under a blow torch.

“No,” I said, smiling. “Never heard that one.”

“You’re kiddin’! You look just like him only younger.”

I almost wanted to hug the guy. I’m pretty sure being compared to Richard Thomas is a compliment. He certainly made it sound like one. I thought about telling him about the time in high school when a girl broke my heart when she told me I reminded her of Jim Belushi. If she’d said John Belushi I would have taken some comfort in being compared to the funny one but even though this was when Jim Belushi was an SNL cast member himself the comparison still felt like the kiss of death. Or rather just death since there was no chance she’d kiss me, but that’s another story.

“So where are you from?”

I told him right here in Nashville and he was surprised again. We chatted some more and learned we’d both been born in the same hospital, albeit a few years apart, which we could see from the bus stop.

Then the bus pulled up and I stepped back and let him board first. He had a large sign on the back of his wheelchair advertising a cell phone company. Funny that, I thought. He’s probably making money carrying a sign for a way people communicate, but he and I made a brief connection.

Being compared to Jim Belushi still smarts. Somebody please tell me there’s no resemblance.

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