Adventures In Busing.

Walk On Guy.

walkI like to sit at the very back of the bus, especially during the winter since the engine is back there and the back seat is warm. As I walked past the other passengers I made eye contact with a guy in a dark green coat and a black cap. Was that a flicker of recognition on his face? Did he wonder why I was boarding the bus here?

I walk a lot. It’s a little over half a mile from the bus stop to my house, plus there’s the walk to where I catch the bus. Some days I’ll walk more than a mile and a half from my office to the bus stop. There are nearer stops but unless I can see the bus coming I keep walking. And depending on personal whims I may walk with the traffic—taking me slightly closer to home—or I may walk against the traffic, taking me farther away from home but putting me closer to the oncoming bus. And even when I get to a bus stop and settle down to wait I won’t always sit down. Sometimes I’ll pace back and forth covering who knows how much ground before the bus finally arrives.

It’s just a weird habit. Out on the road I don’t feel like standing still. So I keep walking. The other day I passed a guy sitting at a bus stop. He had on an army jacket and jeans. A cascade of copper dreadlocks spilled from under his cap. He looked up at me as I went by. I wondered if he were waiting for a bus or just resting. Maybe he was out walking too. I continued on for about six blocks and finally hit a point where the stops are so far apart–the next one is on the other side of a long overpass–I was afraid the bus would zip by me before I could get to the stop, so I stood where I was. And then paced around where I was.

The bus arrived and I boarded and as I walked to the back I recognized the army jacket, black cap, and copper dreads. He looked up at me. Was there judgment in those eyes? Did he recognize me, and did he wonder if there was something about him that made me unwilling to share a bus stop with him? I felt so uncomfortable about it I almost said out loud, “It’s not you, it’s me.”

Planets Will Guide The Peace.

sagittariusI had to get a new smartphone. My last one was more than three years old. Wait a minute. Why did I have to get a new smartphone? The one I had was only three years old. I’ve eaten cheese that was older than that. After a great deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth and screaming “FORGET IT! I’M TAKING IT BACK!” at least twenty-seven times before we even got home and a sleepless night and a lot of frustration with trying to transfer most of my data I finally accepted my new smartphone. Mostly. I still wonder who the idiot was who thought putting the headphone jack on the bottom was a good idea, which I realize is a change Apple made not long after I got my previous smartphone and which, three years later, is still one of the stupidest ideas ever, but that’s another story.

Let me be blunt: I hate changing technology because I think 99.999999999% of upgrades are completely unnecessary and while I’m not a violent person the fact that technologically oriented people all seem to believe that new or different automatically equals better makes me want to punch something. And it doesn’t help that when I’ve talked to tech-types about this I feel like I’m talking to a character from Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano.

If it weren’t for the people, the god-damn people’ said Finnerty, ‘always getting tangled up in the machinery. If it weren’t for them, the world would be an engineer’s paradise.

A lot of my frustration was what I lost. The songs I’d downloaded were gone. Well, not gone, really, but needed to be downloaded again because they’d been put back in “the cloud”. Songs I’d added from CDs–soon to be an obsolete technology, if it isn’t already, because it’s so darn old–would need to be reloaded. Podcasts I’d been saving to listen to were gone. And several of my favorite apps simply don’t exist anymore. I had to hunt around and find new ones to replace them. One of my favorite astronomy apps is gone but I found a new one called SkyView that’s free–my favorite price–and, much as I hate to admit it, is actually much, much cooler than the old one. I was playing around with it on the bus and had some idea of where we were in relation to Mercury, Venus, and the constellation Sagittarius, still below the horizon.

The bus and all the riders and all of us were–and are–travelling in space. Being able to see where we are in relation to some of our closest neighbors, and some very distant ones–stars so distant we’re really only seeing them as they appeared long before humans even appeared on this planet–gave me some perspective.

In the book Centauri Dreams Paul Gilster goes over a lot of possible scenarios for reaching Alpha Centauri and other nearby stars. It’s pretty daunting. Our closest stellar neighbor is more than four light years away so even if we could get a probe there it would still take more than four years for the data to get back to us. It seems unlikely we’ll get there in my lifetime. Our nearest planetary neighbors are much more within reach—and if you count unmanned probes we’ve been able to get at least near all of them.

I could have put the SkyView app on my old phone, but I didn’t know it was there. I didn’t think to go looking for it until I got a new phone. It helped me make peace with my new phone, and I can accept that sometimes technological change is a good thing.

Just don’t get me started on how stupid it is that the power cords have changed.

As a bonus here’s a picture of the moon and Aquarius over my house. It was actually a crescent moon but SkyView superimposes a picture of a full moon, in case you don’t know what that sickle-shaped thing in the sky is.

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Unreserved.

IMG_2979These plaques were installed in Nashville buses following the death of Rosa Parks in 2005. They weren’t installed in every bus, just some, so you never know when you’re going to see them. It seems to me like a metaphor for what happened to Rosa Parks. The woman who asked her to move didn’t expect to be told “No.”
The story that was taught us in school was that Rosa Parks was physically exhausted, too tired to move. It’s more profound, I think, if she was able to move but mentally exhausted, tired of being told to move by people who were unwilling to take perfectly good seats farther back on the bus. It takes more courage to remain, to take a stand, when you’re capable of moving.
It was an important moment in the civil rights movement, a movement created and led by people who could have moved but instead had the courage to stay seated.

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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.

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