Adventures In Busing.

The Kindness of Strangers.

strangers

“Hey, how was the movie?”

I’d just stepped into the elevator and there was a woman already in there, slightly shorter than me with streaked hair and glasses with thick black plastic frames. There was something vaguely familiar about her but I work in a building where a lot of businesses and people come and go. And I’m sorry to say I don’t make a note of who’s coming and going unless I actually work with them.

So my brain was whirring with activity. Movie? What movie? There were a million little me’s running around pulling papers from filing cabinets screaming, “Everybody, boss needs information STAT!” Except over in one corner a group was arguing that I really should upgrade to a paperless system and another group was arguing that there’s no way my brain could be that organized and this was all an elaborate metaphor anyway. Oh yeah, I’d been to see a movie the previous Saturday.

“It was great,” I said, adding that it was at the Belcourt Theater.

“No,” she said, “about a month ago. When I saw you at the mall.”

More rushing around pulling files, except now the group that had been arguing for digitizing everything picked up a snack machine and threw it through a window. And that’s when I remembered where I’d seen this woman before. Or at least the last non-work place where I’d seen her. About a month earlier at the mall. And I didn’t remember her so much as the intense sense of awkwardness I’d felt.

At the time I still didn’t have a driver’s license. I didn’t get one until I was thirty-seven but that’s another long and complicated story. If I wanted to go see a movie my options were to hitch a ride with someone else or take the bus. Mostly I took the bus, but this meant a lot of planning. Most of the time it meant a trip all the way to the downtown bus depot for at least one transfer, all of which could take up to an hour. Because it was usually Saturday, a day when bus service is cut in half, I’d have to set out early and I’d arrive early for the movie, so I’d wander the mall or the various nearby stores. Going to see a movie would involve up to four hours of either riding or standing around waiting. It was while I was waiting that I ran into this woman who, for some reason, recognized me from the building where we both worked–on different floors and for completely different places.

“Hey, how’s it going?” she’d said. And while there was a large group in my brain that wanted me to say, “Who the hell are you?” but they were shouted down by the group that instead made me say, “Great! How are you?” I’m still half-convinced she didn’t really recognize me. A lot of people tell me I look like someone they know and we just happened to work in the same building because everybody in Nashville either has or will work in my building. But we still chatted politely although I was overwhelmed by an awkward feeling. I was embarrassed that I was dependent on riding the bus to get where I wanted to go. It hit me that riding the bus limited where I could go, what I could do. It made me dependent on someone else’s schedule.

I didn’t–and still don’t–look down on anyone who rides the bus. I still ride the bus regularly, although now it’s more a matter of choice than necessity. At that time though a lot of those me’s turned out to be right. An upgrade was needed.

Also I’m sure some of them escaped and that’s why strangers think they’ve met me before.

 

Everybody Wave!

tourbus

In my younger days I would sometimes stick my tongue out at people in passing cars. And my wife would say, “Stop that!” She had a point. It had been cute when I was four, not so much at the age of forty. Actually it may not have been that cute even when I was four although I do have an early childhood memory of my father was stopped at a red light and I stuck my tongue out at a couple of teenage guys in the car next to us. They laughed and stuck their tongues out at me which just encouraged me.

Anyway the other day I was walking along and one of Nashville’s many tour buses went by. This has become a booming industry even though most of the tours, as far as I can tell, are free–they say, “Hop on or hop off anytime you like,” and I will take one of these tours one of these days but that will be another story.

As the bus went by I waved to the passengers. Sticking my tongue out at them would be rude and juvenile and I think being rude and juvenile should be reserved for the locals. Visitors to Music City deserve to be treated kindly, especially since they might be someone I know. The brain behind the blog Rubber Shoes In Hell was in Nashville recently, along with her body and her husband who I assume also brought both his brain and body, although a couple of disembodied brains floating around the streets of Nashville would be quite a sight.

I was a little disappointed that of the tourists on the bus only one waved back–an older guy sitting at the very back who gave me a dull, tight-lipped look and a perfunctory wave–saying, I think, “Yeah, we see you.” And I wanted to say, hey, lighten up. You’re touring the city, taking in the sights, having a good time. The very least you could do is smile.

I was seriously tempted to stick my tongue out at him, but I think it’ll be a few years before I can get away with that again.

I really do think it’ll be cute when I’m eighty.

Source: Wikipedia

 

Listening In.

busstopYou never know whom you’re going to sit next to at a bus stop.
He was skinny but had full, round cheeks that were burned red. Scraggly straw-colored hair curled out from under the tan cap he wore, as though the wisps were growing up around it, or escaping. There were holes in his shirt and his thin arms were tanned with red spots.
“I just spent thirty days in jail!” he yelled at me after I’d sat down. I wondered if maybe I should have walked to the next bus stop but according to the schedule the next one would be along any minute now. I didn’t want to risk being between stops. This bus stop was also in front of a bank. A security guard stood in front of the door. I looked out at the traffic.
“Drunk and disorderly!” he yelled. “That’s why they arrested me!”
Thirty days for a D&D seemed a bit extreme. I thought the usual sentence was a night in the drunk tank.
“I fought off eight of ’em when they tried to take me in!”
This information shed some light on why he’d been held so long, although it still seemed extreme.
“I told them they was a bunch of communist shit-troopers when they was takin’ me in!”
I turned my head away so he wouldn’t see me smiling and filed away “communist shit-trooper” for future use. Where was the bus?
“Hey man, you like music?!?”
This was said at the same full volume as the other information he’d imparted and in spite of myself I turned.
“Sure.”
He had a CD player in his hand.
“I’m listening to the fine music of Styx! You know Styx?”
“Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto.”
He grinned. His teeth were almost as tan as his arms. “Yeah, man! Fine music! This is one thing I can keep when they put me in jail again! You wanna buy some drugs?”
The abrupt shift threw me. I quickly shook my head and leaned forward to look past him, willing the bus to appear.
“You wanna buy drugs,” he continued at full volume, “you just go two blocks over down that way!” He motioned to the street behind the bank. “You turn right and they’re there. They’ll ask for four hundred. You say you’ll only pay twenty-five. You agree to four hundred they’ll know you’re an undercover cop.”
This isn’t information I think I’ll ever use but I filed it away as the bus pulled up. As I took my seat I looked at the man still sitting at the bus stop, and I wondered what the security guard standing behind him thought of all this, if he’d even been listening. Even though the man shouted every sentence maybe the guard tuned him out.
I remembered this encounter when I read about the FBI placing hidden microphones in and around the Oakland, California courthouse, including at bus shelters. It’s a potential violation of the Fourth Amendment–essentially treating anyone in the vicinity as a suspect, if not a criminal. Not all of us speak at full volume even when we aren’t passing secrets. Such blanket surveillance also raises practical questions. Who goes through the information collected, who decides what’s relevant? And where is it all being filed away?

I’m Free To Do What I Want Any Old Time.

busstopMost of last week I drove to and from work instead of taking the bus. This meant I had a lot more freedom–sort of, anyway. I was still putting in my eight hours but I was free to pick my own route home. The walk to and from the parking garage is roughly the same distance as it is to the bus, but I don’t mind the exercise. And I could decide when I wanted to come and go instead of standing on the sidewalk waiting for a driver who may or may not have decided to drive right by me.

And whereas on the bus I’m free to read or play with my phone’s various apps doing those things while I’m the one driving is a really bad idea.

Each option gives me a different set of freedoms and a different set of responsibilities. That’s obvious.

What’s not so obvious is something I thought about while driving when I passed a guy standing at a bus stop. I recognized him. He’s a regular rider on the bus I usually take. Most days he’s carrying groceries, and it looked like he was on this day too.

I thought about the advantages that driving gave me. If I wanted to stop and buy groceries my choice of places wouldn’t be limited by what’s closest to a bus stop. And because I could load everything into the car I could buy more than I could comfortably carry in a single trip.

And I wouldn’t have to worry about taking up seat space with all my stuff, or, even worse, the trip taking so long my ice cream would melt. Maybe I should examine my priorities there but that’s another story.

I thought about offering him a ride but the bus stop wasn’t in a place where a regular car could safely pull over. Buses are big hulking vehicles that naturally trundle along and make regular stops, but pulling over my small car in heavy traffic would just be asking for a fender bender.

I still wish I’d offered him a ride. I don’t know if he would have recognized me or if he’d be cool with taking a ride from a stranger. Maybe he preferred to ride the bus. I know I do sometimes.

Every freedom comes with its obvious privileges and its responsibilities but what seeing him got me thinking about was what was beyond the obvious, the privileges and responsibilities that are optional. Offering a ride to a relative stranger isn’t something I have to do but it has the possibility of making their life a little easier, a little better.

Neither freedom nor responsibility is absolute. Both are defined, and define, how we relate to others.

Maybe next time I will offer him a ride.

Me And My Smart Shadow.

detourOh great. Get directions.

Getting directions. In half a mile turn right.

Turn right? I thought it was left. You’re taking me the opposite direction from where I want to go.
In a quarter of a mile turn right.

No, I’m not turning right. That’s the wrong way.

Turn right.

Forget it. I’ll turn left. You should be able to figure this out.

Recalculating. At the next intersection turn right.
Can’t you figure out where I’m going? This looks like where I want to go.
Okay, genius, why’d you even ask me for directions then?

Because there was road work back there that blocked off the way I wanted to go. If you’re so smart you’d know that.

Watch it, buddy. You want me to tell your boss how much time you spend sitting at your desk playing Bug Hunt?

Look, don’t take it personally. I know where I’m going, but this detour has thrown me and I needed a little help. This neighborhood looks totally unfamiliar to me. How long does this road curve?

Well, well, well. Look who comes crawling back.

Hey, I said I was sorry.

No you didn’t.

Okay, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to insult your intelligence. Even if it is artificial.

Fine, you know what? Next time you ask for directions I’ll just drive you off a cliff.

Hey, give me a break here! I’m trying to read this street sign.

Yeah, if only you had a device that syncs with satellites to tell you where you are. It would be nice if you’d show a little gratitude.

Fine. First chance I get I’ll thank Arthur C. Clarke. Okay, I’m turning left.

Whatever you want, pal, I’m just along for the ride.

Okay, this looks right now. See? It would have been wrong to turn right back there.

But if you’d turned like I said you’d be on the interstate by now.

I don’t want to take the interstate.

Why not?

I just don’t want to, okay? Drop it.

Fine. I get it. I know how your heart rate and blood pressure jump when you get on that on-ramp and floor it. Never mind that you’d be almost there by now.

I said drop it!

Big chicken.

Check the traffic.

Oh. Bumper to bumper. Okay, I guess I see your point.

Who’s the smart one now?

Fine. Be that way.

They should call you a smartass phone.

Watch it buddy. I know where you live.

You want me to switch to another brand of phone?

Touchy.

What?

I said touché.

That’s not what it sounded like.

You have arrived at your destination.

Tourist Season.

Just once I’d like someone to ask me how to get to the Ryman Auditorium so I could say, “The same way you get to Carnegie Hall,” although the Ryman is also a former church so I could just as easily say, “Preach!”
I do get stopped frequently by people asking for directions. Once, less than fifty feet from West End, a guy asked me if I knew which way was West End. I just told him instead of being a smartass and saying, “West.” Another time as I was waiting to cross the street on my way back to work a car stopped next to me and a woman leaned out and asked how to get to the riverfront. I was a little surprised by the question–I thought it was fairly obvious. You just look for the skyline and head that way. Even though Nashville suffers from a great deal of sprawl–decades ago the city’s government merged with Davidson county to form one metropolis–the downtown area is pretty compact. The Tennessee Performing Arts Center, the downtown branch of the public library, Riverfront Park, the Centennial Sportsplex, and even the Ryman are within easy walking distance of the section of Broadway where you’ll find the infamous Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and other honkytonks. Downtown Nashville has become a thriving tourist attraction which still tickles me. I remember when lower Broadway was a much seedier place where you’d find ladies of the evening in broad daylight, but that’s another story. Anyway I just pointed to the tall buildings that make up the skyline and told her to head for those. It reminded me of the time I was in Cleveland and left my directions to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in my hotel room. Rather than go back for them I remembered it was on Lake Erie so, like a baby sea turtle, I headed for the water. It was nice to be able to look around where I was going rather than looking down at directions.
And it’s lucky for me I get people asking me for landmarks rather than street names because I’m terrible at street names. This is partly my own fault. Decades of not driving and relying mostly on public transportation I haven’t really focused on street names. I can get around really well but if you ask me for directions to a place I’ll tell you, “Turn left at the building that looks like Batman,” but I couldn’t tell you what street its on. This is also partly the city’s fault. I’ve mentioned both West End and Broadway–two streets I do know, which is easy because they’re both the same street–one turns into the other, and if you head west on West End it then becomes Harding Road.
The only time I wasn’t really able to help someone who asked me for directions was when a young woman carrying a tuba case asked me where the Blair Music Library was. This was just outside JJ’s Coffee Shop, just a block away from Vanderbilt University. The Blair Music Library is part of Vanderbilt but on the farthest side of the campus from where we were. I gave her directions and was tempted to offer to help her carry her instrument, but I thought this might seem creepy coming from a complete stranger. And I figured a tuba player is prepared to go the distance, whatever it may be, even as far as Carnegie Hall.

 

Moving Forward.

quartercentury

What should public transportation look like in twenty-five years? I’m not sure I want to even try to make a guess at that. I’m not sure what public transportation should look like in twenty-five months. Somehow my first experience riding a public bus has been lost in a sea of riding buses and other forms of public transportation for, well, a lot longer than twenty-five years.

Or has it? I wouldn’t exactly say I grew up sheltered but I didn’t ride a public bus alone until I was nineteen or twenty and in college. It was the easiest way to get to either of the two malls that were on the other side of town and it took forever for the bus to show up. It should have been more memorable but strangely it wasn’t, except for the time a guy got on and dropped a handful of pennies into the fare machine, but that’s another story.

When I was a kid we stayed at my aunt and uncle’s house in Connecticut and commuted to New York City by train a few times, which absolutely amazed me. We were crossing, well, two states, but having grown up in Tennessee I was unused to crossing state lines in a short period of time. And it was probably comparable to, say, commuting from Clarksville, TN to Nashville, TN, which some people do on a daily basis.

In twenty-five years what will such commutes look like? It doesn’t look like flying cars will ever happen but self-driving cars might.

Being asked to speculate about what the future will be is more than a little daunting. That long ago I didn’t imagine I’d still be living in Nashville now. I assumed I’d be out exploring the world—and I did explore the world and continue to do so. But I’ve also found a lot to explore right here, without even crossing county, let alone state, lines. Transportation—public and private—can be a way not just to get from one place to another but to get to know a place.

What do you think the next twenty-five years will hold?

Ride Sharing.

My ride's here!

My ride’s here!

The chipmunks had struck again. I’d brought the car to the auto shop because the “Check engine” light had lit up. I hoped it would be a quick and easy fix because I had plans for the day, and in the past the solutions had sometimes been as simple as resetting the computer, or opening the hood and dropping it again so that whatever the rodents had knocked out of whack could be knocked back into whack. Not this time. The guy held out a rectangular plastic thingamabob, or perhaps it was a doohickey–I’m not up on my technical terms–with a tangle of cut wires sticking out of one end, like dreadlocks.

“We’re gonna have to put this up on the lift,” the car mechanic told me. He said some other things that I completely missed because I was so focused on how much he resembled J.K. Simmons, but that’s another story. He gave me a price quote that made my heart skip a beat and then a timeline that made it go into full arrhythmia. Time is money and there was no way I’d have enough to bribe him to make my problem go away in the next half hour. It looked like I was going to spend my day sitting at the auto repair place watching hours of the Guys Sitting At A Desk Talking About Football channel while reading last month’s Elegant Guys magazine (“the hyper-inflated whiskey and cliff-diving polo issue!”).

Then I heard one of the other mechanics talking to another customer and since neither of them resembled a character actor I could think of I was able to focus on their actual conversation.

“I can drive you up there and drop you off,” the mechanic said. “No problem.”

“There” was the nearby big-box store, although “nearby” is relative. Four miles might be reasonable walking distance if I weren’t concerned about time, and anyway the most direct route even hoofing it, or going on foot since I didn’t have any hooves handy, was the major heavily-trafficked road with almost no shoulder and the interstate entry and exit ramps that made pedestrianism slightly daunting.

On the bright side the big-box store’s parking lot was the terminus of a major bus line–and the closest stop. I asked if I could ride-share and was told to hop in.

Half an hour later I was on my way to the first of my errands, after I bribed a bus driver with the price of an all-day pass.

 

Putting The “App” In “Happy”.

transittracker

Source: iTunes

The details of where and when I read it are fuzzy but at some point I stumbled across a proposal for a Nashville busing app that would show users where buses are in real time so they could have some idea when the next bus is coming or find the closest spot to catch a bus. And I thought, yeah, that’ll happen.

Oh, hey, it actually happened. Good job, Nashville MTA! Based on iTunes it came out some time in 2015. There’s a lot of advertising on buses. There are some buses that are literally covered with advertising, as well as advertising on bus stops, something I won’t illustrate with a picture because the advertisers aren’t paying me, but that’s another story. Why couldn’t they use a little of that space to advertise this new app? I’m sure riders would be very interested. Most carry smartphones, except for that one guy who wanders up and down asking people if he can borrow their phone. I only found out about the app because I went to the Nashville MTA website looking for something completely unrelated.

And now I have it on my phone. It’s pretty nifty although the interface leaves a bit to be desired. Standing on a corner I was able to see approaching buses and the bus that just went by—missed it by that much—and I could even look up nearby stops.

Screen shots from my phone.

Screen shots from my phone.

The search function could use a little work.

transittracker3I get it, though, that it’s a work in progress and there will hopefully be improvements. And if they want feedback and user testing I hope they’ll let me know. It’s the least they could do after I’ve given the thing all this free advertising.

Don’t Just Phone It In.

customerserviceI know people who will scream for customer service, ask to speak to a manager, or demand a refund at the drop of a hat. The slightest thing sets them off an angry tirade. I don’t know if I can say I’m at the opposite end of the spectrum but I let a lot of things slide, mainly because they just don’t bother me enough to deserve the time and energy it would take to get angry. There are things that set me off like a firecracker in a furnace, like stupid unnecessary computer “upgrades” that are really just cosmetic changes because some developer has too much time on his hands, but on the whole I don’t have a lot of pet peeves. They require a lot of care and feeding and shed too much.

So generally I don’t bother reporting things to customer service, but once in a while I have to say something.

The bus driver kept stopping at random places. Technically you can flag down a bus at any intersection along the route, and while drivers are only supposed to stop and let people off at approved stops sometimes they’ll let somebody off at an intersection or even between intersections. It’s not a big deal. This driver, though, stopped between intersections when nobody needed to get off or on and he’d pull out his cell phone and fiddle around with it.

Technically bus drivers are not supposed to use their cell phones while driving. There’s even a metal box that blocks signals at the front of the bus where the drivers are supposed to store their phones while driving. If a bus driver preferred to keep their phone in their pocket and didn’t text or play Candy Crush while driving I’d say it was no big deal, but I wanted to get home and this guy stopped three times over the course of eight blocks. Still I didn’t say anything. Then someone else did.

“He needs to get this bus moving!” a guy in a seat across from me said very loudly. Several other people agreed. That’s when the driver turned around and said, “There’s another bus behind me that y’all need to take.”

I can’t speak for anyone else but this is where I gave the driver a little benefit of the doubt. Maybe he kept stopping because there was something wrong with the bus. I wondered why he was using his cell phone instead of the bus radio but maybe he was using Google to look up what it meant when the little oil light on the dashboard lit up. Anyway we all got out. As soon as we did he took off, going from zero to something probably exceeding the speed limit in nine and a half milliseconds.

The next bus came along just a minute later and I probably got home at about the same time I would have if I’d stayed with Mr. McStops-A-Lot, but it was the principle of the matter. I sent a message to customer service and got a nice automated reply assuring me a human being would follow up within seven business days.

A month later when I got the same driver again I was reminded of the other reason I don’t bother with customer service.

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