Adventures In Busing.

You’re Not From Around Here, Are You?

Tourists don’t ride the bus. Well, I do, but I’m not like other tourists.

I find things the locals don't know about.

I find things the locals don’t know about.

So it was wonderful to me when a few people, a husband and wife, I think, and their son asked me for directions. And there was no mistaking that accent. They were Australians. Or from New Zealand. I’ve heard those are actually two different countries. The important thing is they were from two hemispheres away.

“Could you tell us which bus we need to get to the Parthenon?” the woman asked.

I nearly fell over my own tongue starting to answer. The Parthenon is the centerpiece of Centennial Park which, for years, was the site of the largest Australia celebration outside of Australia. This was a fun annual event in September attended by the likes of the Australian ambassador to the U.S. and Colin Hay. I loved being around bona fide Aussies, hearing them drop terms like “g’day” and “dinky-di” so casually I could almost believe those were real words. There would be a tent where they sold food and beer, except they called it “tucker” and “ice cold tubes of the amber fluid”.

This should be real.

I could have used this.

It was also the only place I could find Vegemite. I’m not kidding. I love the stuff, but that’s another story.

The festival ended several years ago when the original organizers moved away, and I wasn’t sure whether this family was even aware of it since this was early June. We were near downtown, but fortunately standing on West End, a large road that leads directly to Centennial Park. I told them all they had to do was catch the next bus. I could just as easily have said, “Follow me,” since I was going the same way, but I was struck by a sudden and overwhelming shyness. There were so many things I wanted to ask. What brings you here? Are you having a nice time? Can I help in any way? What part of Australia are you from? Where in Australia is Wellington? Do you have any Vegemite? Don’t you love that song about the bunyip of Hooligan’s Creek? Instead I just smiled politely.

“Is the Parthenon easy to find?” the woman asked.

“Oh, yes, very easy. There are two or three stops along the front of Centennial Park, and you’ll see the Parthenon as you go by.”

007

The fence for some stupid construction project wasn’t up at the time.

I gulped and hoped that made sense. When the bus arrived we boarded. I made my way to the back while they sat close to the front, watching out the windows and checking a map. I desperately wanted to call in to work and say a couple of dingoes had got me and I’d be waltzing Matilda on walkabout, and maybe throw in a “crikey”. Instead as I disembarked I merely smiled and said to them, “I hope you enjoy the Parthenon. It’s just a few blocks away from here.”

Australian for "sex in a canoe".

Australian for “sex in a canoe”.

The Driver’s Seat.

002Have you ever wondered what bus drivers need to do when they need to grab a bite to eat, or nature calls? They do what you and I do: they keep a mayonnaise jar stashed under the seat and…er, I mean they pull over and stop somewhere.

For a short time I was stuck daily with a driver who insisted on stopping at a McDonald’s on the route. This was in spite of the fact that she was always running late. She blamed the previous driver for this, but it never seemed to be a problem on days when someone else was driving. Maybe it really was the previous driver who’d held her up, but the substitutes didn’t spend most of the trip turned halfway around in the seat talking to someone standing behind them.

One day she was ridiculously late, but that didn’t stop her from stopping at McDonald’s. Somebody at the back yelled, “Hey, I’m late for my job! Can you skip that today?” She turned around, looked at them, then slowly got off the bus. While she was still in McDonald’s another bus went by us. I watched it longingly, unable to savor the irony that I’d have been home sooner if I’d taken a later bus. I even thought about jumping into the driver’s seat myself. Somebody else, I thought, needed to drive this bus.

Apparently I’m not the only one who thought so. The next week we had a different driver.

Don’t Talk To The Driver.

I have no idea who's responsible for this, but I love it.

I have no idea who’s responsible for this, but I love it.

“You were supposed to turn back there.”

“No sir, you’re thinking of the number thirteen route.”

I was standing quietly at the front of the bus waiting to swipe my fare card, but I couldn’t because a guy had come up to the front and was arguing with the driver. It wouldn’t have bothered me but the light had turned green and cars were now speeding around us.

“Well what am I supposed to do?”

“You can get off here and you can walk two blocks over that way and catch the thirteen.”

“But I paid. Can you give me a transfer card?”

“No sir, we don’t have those anymore.”

When I started riding the bus you could pay your fare and get a transfer to ride another bus for an extra ten cents, but they stopped offering those fifteen years ago. Where had this guy been?

“If you go catch another bus and tell the driver you got the wrong bus they might let you on without paying.”

“Maybe I should give ’em your name. What’s your name?”

“Just say you were on bus number 701.”

The guy wasn’t happy about this. He was pretty insistent he wanted the driver’s name, but he finally got off the bus so we could get underway.

It’s one thing to be held up in traffic because there’s just a lot of traffic. It’s another to be held up because some jackass doesn’t know what he’s doing.

fireman

You Can’t Get There From Here.

001Why is the sidewalk closed? Why do I have to go at least a block out of my way and cross in the middle of the street just to get to the bus stop? All this is because construction is going on. And may be going on for an unknown length of time. The bus may even be rerouted, and they won’t advertise that. You just might be sitting at a stop for a very long time.

I get that urban renewal and new construction has to go on. It’s a fact of life living in a city. It just irks me that it’s the pedestrians are the ones who get hit. The construction would go a lot faster if they had to shut down the street.

trench

Brown-Eyed Guy.

He was heavyset with a languid look but leaned forward in his seat. He spoke with a deep, low voice. I don’t remember how we got started talking, but I’m pretty sure he initiated the conversation since one of the first things he said was “You wouldn’t believe some bands I’ve worked with.”

“Try me,” I said.

He stared for a long time then said, “I won’t name names.” Then why did you even bring it up? I thought. He continued. “I’ll just say I used to tour with some boys who worked for Apple Records.”

The name Apple Records bounced around in my consciousness looking for something to connect to. If he’d said Konk Studios or dropped a name like David Watts that would have meant something to me, but I shrugged. I didn’t know Apple Records.

“Four mophead boys from Liverpool,” he said slowly.

Bingo. I knew, somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind that Apple Records was the label founded by The Beatles, but it wasn’t anywhere easily accessed. Hey, The Beatles are great, but I just don’t give them a lot of thought.

He got off a few stops before I did. When the doors closed the bus driver said, “He’s so full of shit his eyes are brown. He’s never been anywhere near The Beatles.” There’s a reason Nashville is called Music City. Within walking distance of where I work there are blocks and blocks of recording studios and music industry offices. I’ve never been in the industry myself but I’ve done temp jobs alongside people who worked as backup musicians for some of the biggest names in the industry. The odds here of actually being on a bus with either Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr are better than average. And yet I believed the bus driver. She knew without even looking that the guy had brown eyes.

Some People Just Look Like That.

004The bus driver glared at me. And I thought he had good reason for glaring at me. He was driving a regular bus, and I’d been standing at an express bus stop.

An express bus will only stop at express bus stops. This is true whether you’re boarding or departing. If you’re riding an express bus you might have to figure on walking a little further than usual, because it won’t necessarily stop at the stop that’s closest to where you want to go. It will, however, probably get you there faster. Express buses also run, theoretically, every fifteen minutes, while regular buses run, theoretically, anywhere from every twenty-five minutes to twice a day. At least that’s the case where I live, which is a city where public transportation isn’t a high priority.

Regular buses, by the way, will stop anywhere. According to the rules you can catch a regular bus at any regular bus stop or express bus stop or at any intersection, although I’ve also seen people flag down buses from the middle of a block, and on a couple of occasions I’ve had to weave through cars stopped at a red light because the bus driver couldn’t make it to the lane closest to the curb.

So the bus driver on this particular day was glaring at me because he was behind schedule, the bus was so packed with people it was creaking, and I was standing at an express bus stop when the regular bus stop was just thirty feet away. I felt like he was thinking, “Couldn’t you just wait for the express?”

Bus stop placement is one of those other things I’ll just never figure out. In some areas they’re a quarter of a mile or more apart. In some areas they’re ten feet apart. Sometimes I’ll be at one stop and there’ll be someone else at the one just a few feet away. When that happens I hope the driver understands why I wanted to be upwind of that other guy, but that’s another story.

As I watched the driver I realized, too, that he hadn’t just been glaring at me. He glared at everybody. I thanked him when I was getting off and said, “Have a nice day.” He cheerfully said, “You too,” but he was still glaring. I think he just had that sort of face.

Hey, my ride’s here.

ride1

You Picked A Fine Time To Clam Up Lucille.

While I was waiting at the bus stop a cop car pulled up. Two cops got out, handcuffed the guy next to me, and left. I was in downtown Cleveland. Most people had asked me, “Why would you want to go to Cleveland?” when I told them where I was going. One friend said, “It’s been nice knowing you. You’re gonna get shot there.” Seeing a guy get arrested was as close as that prediction would come to coming true. As for why I was in Cleveland, my wife and I were there for a dog show. And I took advantage of the opportunity to go to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Cleveland Museum of Art. I also toured the Cleveland Botanical Garden, and didn’t let the fact that it was still under construction at the time bother me.

The bus driver was an older, white-haired woman with glasses. She mentioned her name was Lucille. I told her I was visiting from Nashville. We chatted a bit about baseball. The Indians weren’t doing well to her chagrin. I told her my grandfather had given me a baseball signed by Bob Feller. She was impressed that I even knew who Bob Feller was. She told me some things about Cleveland, and a couple of other passengers joined in the conversation. We were rollicking along as we rolled on through Parma.

Laughing I asked Lucille how long she’d been a bus driver. Her whole demeanor changed. “Why do you want to know?” she asked sharply.

Now everyone who reads this is probably rolling their eyes. I have a tendency to say insensitive things, and I had clearly offended her. I’m still not sure why. Did she think I was questioning her abilities? Was she really an international spy and did she think I might blow her cover? And it was a fair question. Why did I want to know? I could have been honest and said I sometimes write about things and thought that would be an interesting detail. And I also believed she loved being a bus driver because she enjoyed talking to people, and she knew Cleveland and the surrounding areas–Strongsville as where my hotel was–well. If I’d thought for  second that it was an inappropriate question I never would have asked.

She was silent for most of the rest of the trip. When we passed a restaurant that advertised paprikash Wednesdays she asked me if I’d ever tried it. I said no.

“You should.”

I still haven’t, but I appreciate the advice, and the ride, Ms. Lucille.

Don’t Tip Your Driver.

It doesn’t happen often, but when I’m the only passenger on the bus I like to pretend I’m riding in a really big but really cheap limousine. I’m returning from a bookstore where I had people laughing so hard they wet themselves and then when I was done there were so many lined up I sat signing copies of my book for seven straight hours. And the limo driver is a nice guy who’s new to the area so he doesn’t exactly know his way around and I’m afraid he’ll get lost if he has to go down all those side streets to my house. So I wait until we get sort of close and tell him, “Thanks, this is good enough.”

Reality bursts this little fantasy bubble when the driver looks at me funny for trying to give him a tip.

This is a trolley you can catch in the Ybor City neighborhood of Tampa, Florida.  If Raphael is your driver ask him about his dog.

This is a trolley you can catch in the Ybor City neighborhood of Tampa, Florida.
If Raphael is your driver ask him about his dog.

Have A Seat.

003See that note? Not the advertisement–it’s below that. Here’s a close-up.

haveaseat

It’s so small it’s almost unnoticeable, and when someone’s sitting there it’s invisible. When are the police supposed to see it? Strolling by on their beat, I guess. I don’t think it’s really there for the police, though, but rather for those who might be thinking about using the bench not to wait for a bus but simply for a rest.

I’m talking about homeless people. The police are supposed to prevent them from using the benches for just resting. The design helps. The benches are uncomfortable and the bars prevent anyone from lying down.

This seems both mean and unnecessary to me. Most bus benches are unused. Public transportation is also a community service. Homeless people may be considered a problem, a nuisance, a black mark on the city, but they are people and part of the community. And I’ve never encountered a homeless person preventing anyone else from using a bench, even at the crowded bus depots.

Sometimes it’s even nice to share a bench with someone. Once I sat down next to a guy who, as much as I don’t want to judge, I think was homeless. His hair and clothes looked like they hadn’t been washed in a long time. He held a CD player and had on headphones. When I sat down he took off the headphones and told me he was listening to “the finest music of Styx.” I asked if that included Mr. Roboto and he laughed. Then he gave me directions to a place where I could buy some meth. Two blocks over and on the right. “You tell ’em you’re only gonna pay fifty dollars. They’ll ask for four hundred. If you agree to pay that they’ll know you’re a cop.”

It’s not advice I’m likely to use, but it’s interesting. When the bus drove up I offered to let him get on first. He said, “Naw, I’m gonna sit here for a while.” The doors opened and the bus driver yelled at him. “Hey man, I ain’t seen you in a while! You doin’ okay?” He replied, “Yeah, I been in jail for thirty days.” After that he deserved a place to sit.

Hop On Board.

So have I mentioned that I ride the bus? Not every day, but regularly. If you’re not a bus rider yourself there are some important rules to remember. Fortunately most buses have helpful signs to make them clear.

The signs are self-explanatory, but I’ve provided notes.

eatingRule 1: Chew with your mouth closed, use a cup with a lid, and give that chemo patient his hat back.

smokingRule 2: Smoking on the bus makes Hedorah The Smog Monster very angry.

musicRule 3: It’s Nashville, Jake. If Clare Bowen wants to sit next to you and sing into a hair brush consider yourself lucky. At least it takes your mind off the cracked windows.

Remembering these rules will make your bus ride safer, more pleasant, and, most importantly, weird. Hey, my ride’s here!

myrideishere

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