Adventures In Busing.

Front To Back.

A few weeks ago I wrote about Chucky, the kid who sat at the back of the school bus, and it got me thinking about the city buses I ride where I usually sit at the back. It’s where the engine is so in the winter it’s the warmest seat on the bus which is great, and in the summer it’s the warmest seat in the bus which isn’t so great, but I can sit off to the side. I’m not sure why I always go to the back of the bus. Unlike Chucky, who drew attention to himself by sitting at the back, I do it to be small and unobtrusive. I don’t go dancing down the aisle greeting everyone, although that would be kind of fun to do and get some laughs. And I go to the back to leave seats for other people at the front of the bus. The wheelchair seating is at the front of the bus, and there’s more space for people with kids in strollers up at the front too.
Something I really hadn’t thought about, though, is that, unlike school buses, city buses don’t have an emergency door in the back. I’ve also heard stories of kids who had a tradition of opening the emergency door at the back of the bus and jumping out, which makes me feel like I missed out. We never even practiced going out of the emergency door. My school thought it was good enough to show us a filmstrip about how to get out of the bus in the event of an emergency so if we’d ever needed to get out we might have been stuck there waiting for the beep so we could advance to the next frame, but that’s another story.
What I realized is that, while the city bus does have a side door halfway down the bus, there are also emergency “doors” in the ceiling, one at the front and one at the back, and it’s one of those things that’s strangely unnerving. Sitting in the back does suddenly seem like a better idea, even if it’s in the hot seat, because the back of the bus is elevated, so those like me who are short in stature will have an easier time reaching the ceiling. Supposedly there’s an emergency door in the ceiling of elevators and that’s always bothered me because, first of all, I’ve never seen one, and, second, I’ve never been in an elevator where I could reach the ceiling. That also means that tall people need to sit closer to the front of the bus, and it makes me wonder if there’s a certain height requirement for bus drivers. Sure, they need to be able to reach the pedals, but the seats are adjustable, so has anyone stopped to think about whether the driver could reach the ceiling? And I wonder what kind of emergency would block both bus doors forcing us to go out onto the roof. Whatever it is would probably have the bus surrounded so I hope it’s something like water and not lava or acid or raw sewage. I do, however, feel strangely reassured that the bus company has never given us instructions on how to use the emergency escape hatches via a filmstrip so if there’s an emergency we won’t stand around waiting for the beep.

Thank You.

Every time I get off the bus I tell the driver “Thank you.” I never leave through the side door, even if it’s closer to where I’m sitting when the bus stops, and if the side door is closer I hurry to the front so I don’t hold up anybody just so I can offer a nice parting word to the driver. It’s Labor Day today which got me thinking about that, and about bus drivers I’ve known.
If you rode a bus to school do you remember your first day? I distinctly remember that a few blocks from my house a kid came running out into his yard. I’d seen this kid around the neighborhood–he looked like a miniature Harpo Marx, minus the trench coat and the horn, and I never heard him talk either. I just knew he was younger than me. The driver stopped opened the door just as Harpo Jr.’s mother ran out to grab him.
“Does he ride this bus?” the driver asked.
His mother shook his head and we drove on.
That bus driver was Ms. Owens, who always wore sunglasses and a bright pink shirt and jeans, and who had a frizzy mane of bright red hair. You’d think this would make her stand out but there was at least one other driver who looked just like her, which is why, that first week of school, I got on the wrong bus. One by one, or sometimes in clusters, other kids got off until I was the last one and the poor bus driver had to drive around asking people if they knew where I lived until we passed my mother who was driving around the neighborhood asking people if they’d seen me. I don’t think I ever thanked that driver; I still appreciate all her effort and I don’t mind that she kept insisting I was a girl, but that’s another story.
A few years later Mrs. Owens was still my regular bus driver when a major snowstorm hit and she did her best to get us all home, creeping along through snow and darkness at inches per hour at times. She made all of us give her our home phone numbers as we got off and once she got home she called every one of our parents to make sure we’d gotten home safely.
In high school my regular bus driver was a funny little gnome named Russ who could barely see over the steering wheel and who I’m pretty sure had checked out the school library’s copy of Moby Dick so he could sit on it. We always said “Thanks, Russ” when we got off the bus, and he always said, “Y’all have a nice day.” He never said anything else. We even made a game of trying to get him to say something different, because we were teenagers and therefore jerks.
“Thanks for the ride, Russ.”
“Y’all have a nice day.”
“Have a nice day, Russ.”
“Y’all have a nice day.”
“Have they found the white whale yet, Russ?”
“Y’all have a nice day.”
Even now I thank bus drivers, even when it’s the only thing I say to them, although it’s the chatty ones I remember. There was the older woman who liked talking to passengers, and who one day asked me what my name was. Then she told me I’d never forget her name: “Loretta Lynn.” She was right, and I thanked her for also recording Coal Miner’s Daughter.
There was also the driver who I saw every day for a couple of weeks, then my schedule changed so I took a different bus for about a week, and then it changed back, and the first day as I was getting on the driver grinned and said, “Where you been?” It was nice to know someone was looking out for me.
I even thank the bus drivers who annoy me, like the one who kept pulling over every few blocks, frequently between stops, to check his phone, even though bus drivers are supposed to put their phones in a box while they’re driving. As frustrating as it was I know I shouldn’t make hasty judgments about people, and I had plenty of time to make a slow judgment about him. Maybe someone in his family was having a baby, or major surgery, and he couldn’t get someone else to take his shift so he had to keep checking his phone for news. Maybe there was something else big going on in his life, like an offer for a different job.
Anyway I’ve got the day off from work today so I won’t be riding the bus, but tomorrow if I do I’ll thank the driver.

Getting Elevated.

Even though I ride in elevators almost every day I still like them. The elevator is a wonderful piece of technology. For those in Britain it’s called a “lift”, which seems weird to me. If you’re in an elevator going down in Britain is it called a “lower”? And it would have been weird if Roald Dahl had written a book called Charlie And The Great Glass Lift—it would have sounded like a heist committed by glaziers, but that’s another story.

It does bother me that most of the elevators I ride in now are the ones with four solid metal walls. I like elevators with a window that looks out onto the world. That’s probably because when I was a kid my father would sometimes take the family out to dinner with business clients and then we’d go to the Sheraton hotel, back then called the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza, in downtown Nashville. It had a revolving restaurant—which is still there, and looks like a flying saucer landed on top of the building, although the restaurant doesn’t revolve anymore. Watching the skyline change was interesting but what I really liked was the Sheraton was one of those hotels that had elevators with curved windows that faced the interior of the building, and I’d stand there and watch in amazement as we zoomed up from the lobby to the top floor.

Recently the maintenance guys in the building where I work have shut down one of the elevators for, I hope, some good reason, so the two that remain in operation get pretty crowded. I find myself talking to a lot more people now, and I recently discovered that the ride from my floor to the lobby is just long enough to tell Steven Wright’s elevator joke:

I got into an elevator at work and this man followed in after me… I pushed “1” and he just stood there… I said, “Hi, where you going?” He said, “Phoenix.” So I pushed Phoenix. A few seconds later the doors opened, two tumbleweeds blew in.

And it even leaves a little extra time for people to laugh uncomfortably and move away from me.

Then the other morning a woman got into the elevator with me and as she did her phone suddenly said, “Turn left. Your destination will be on your left.”

We laughed and I said, “I hope you put in the right directions and this is where you’re going.” It didn’t occur to me to ask if by any chance she might be on her way to Phoenix.


Back Of The Bus.

I was stopped behind a school bus. It’s amazing how quickly the summer has flown by. School is already starting again which means the buses are rolling and kids are out walking. While I was behind the school bus one of the kids in the back looked out the window at me and for a moment I thought he was Chucky, who always sat in the back. Chucky was a short, scrawny blonde kid, a sixth-grader which meant he was a couple of years older than me. In spite of his stature Chucky was the biggest kid on the bus. He sat alone in the back seat, or rather stretched out across it, and kept up a running commentary through the whole ride. No matter where you sat on the bus you could hear Chucky. There were the anecdotes, like the time he referred to a teacher by her first name, “Irma”, and when another teacher said, “Oh, you’re on a first-name basis now?” he replied, “No, we’re really on a first-syllable basis. I call her Ir.” There were the stupid jokes: “You know what I’d do with a million dollars? I’d buy a new butt. Mine has a crack in it.” And there was the occasional question like, “Hey, when’re we gonna stop for ice cream?” and that got us all chanting “ICE CREAM ICE CREAM ICE CREAM” until the driver stopped and yelled at us to be quiet. Chucky complained about being grounded for a bad grade, about the math teacher with the hairy lip, about the kid who threw up in the middle of the hallway, and how many people walked through it without noticing. When we had a substitute bus driver who got lost Chucky said, “She got her license out of a Cracker Jack box.” When that same substitute bus driver got stuck on a hill because she couldn’t figure out the gears and put the parking brake on, then took it off so the bus started slowly rolling backwards, Chucky said, “We’ve secretly replaced your regular bus driver with Folger’s crystals.” Chucky was old enough and smart enough that he probably could have helped her out, but that would have meant leaving his seat in the back.
Not everyone was a fan of Chucky, though. Once, early in the school year, another sixth-grader named Jim decided he wanted to sit in the back seat. I’m not sure what made him want to challenge Chucky’s claim to the throne, or at least the closest thing the bus had to one. Jim was a nice guy but quiet, and if he’d taken up the backseat it would have changed the whole tone of the ride home. He’d gotten to the bus first but Chucky wasn’t giving up his seat without a fight, which would have been terrible in the tight quarters of the back of the bus if their fight hadn’t been so ridiculous. With their eyes closed they threw light punches at each others’ stomachs, grunting, until the bus driver came and broke it up. Chucky was restored to his place at the back and Jim was forced to sit at the front. In spite of keeping his position Chucky was strangely subdued that afternoon. There were no jokes, no comments about that weird looking little house we always passed, no requests to stop and get a Coke.
The next day the old Chucky was back as though nothing had happened–and, really, nothing had happened. Childhood events that seem enormous in the moment have a way of dissipating just as quickly, and the bus that I was behind rolled on, carrying that kid who’d glanced back at me away.

Park It.

Source: Google Maps

Nashville’s Hillsboro Village is, depending on how you count it, a one or two block stretch of densely crowded shops, including, among other things, the historic Villager Tavern, which is now a friendly and welcoming place but for decades was perhaps the deepest dive bar in the southeast. It was a place where dark creatures in flannel and leather leaned over glasses smelling of turpentine, muttering secrets in prehistoric tongues, recoiling in horror from the light when one among them would strike a sulfur match and set fire to a thick, tarry cheroot and exhale clouds of smoke indistinguishable from the haze of disintegrated dreams that filled the tavern’s dry, fetid air. So anyway now it’s pretty much a family place—if your family is over twenty-one, and if not there are plenty of other options, including Fido’s, the coffee shop that makes a pretty good red velvet cake, or the Pancake Pantry, where people literally line up down the street waiting to get in.

Anyway I had an appointment at noon on the other side of Hillsboro Village. And that seemed easy enough. I knew to catch the #7, a route I’ve ridden all the way to its terminus and back, that would come by around 11:30, although in retrospect that was cutting it a bit close, and if there’s one thing I hate it’s even the possibility of being late. It’s just one of my quirks. I don’t believe there’s such a thing as “fashionably late”. Invite me to a party and you’ll probably see me drive by your house five or six times because I’ve gotten there unfashionably early and I don’t want to come in before you’ve even had a chance to get out of bed, but that’s another story.

The bus was a few minutes late and I was already sweating bullets, and not just because it’s August and around these parts the air has somehow figured out how to have 300% humidity. I was terrified of being late, but we were speeding along our merry way. Then we hit Hillsboro Village.

Back when it was a quiet little neighborhood there was nothing wrong with parking on the street. Now, though—and you can even see this in the satellite image—cars are allowed to park along a two-block stretch of 21st Avenue that passes through, and they’re not allowed to park on the street on any approaching block, which creates a funnel of crawling traffic. And buses, by their nature, have to stick to the right-hand lane, so the driver, approaching this passage, had to wait for a lull in the traffic to pull in, further slowing our progress.

One of many things that’s predicted in the future of self-driving cars is that parking will no longer be a problem. Some claim that your self-driving car will simply drop you off and circle around the block as you do your business then pick you up when you’re ready to go. The potential fuel costs and increased carbon footprint of this notwithstanding I’d hate to run down my self-driving car because it didn’t recognize me.

Anyway all this just illustrates an annoying problem of city planning, especially as cities, and the neighborhoods within them, change and grow. Parking is always an afterthought.

I was three minutes late for my appointment, by the way.


A Matter Of Time.

I had an appointment and the only way I could get there was by bus. Since it was in the middle of a work day I wanted to spend as little time getting there and back as possible. The appointment itself would be just an hour, but I knew I couldn’t count on the bus being on time. And while I could have walked it, well, it’s summer in Nashville, and while some people say, “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity” the heat is also a problem too, and I didn’t want to get to my appointment looking like I’d taken a shower with my clothes on and smelling like I hadn’t showered in a month. Also whenever possible I like to be parsimonious with the time I spend away from work. For one thing I like to save my allotted vacation time for vacations, and for another it’s a great excuse to use a cool word like “parsimonious”.

Source: imgflip

While I was waiting at the bus stop I did some idle browsing with my phone. I’m still annoyed that the Nashville MTA, which has rebranded itself as WeGo, although it could just as easily call itself MightGo or DoneGone, but that’s another story, has scrapped their app that gave exact arrival times for buses on various routes. I can’t say enough good things about the app and I even included some of them in a message I sent to WeGo asking why they got rid of it. I’ve never gotten a response so I can only assume such messages are forwarded to the department of WentNowhere.

What I did find, though, is that Google has helpful information on nearby bus routes and bus schedules. And by “helpful” I mean “completely useless”. Because of privacy concerns I’m a little relieved that Google’s geographic tracking is so far off, but surely there’s a happy medium where it could throw a few targeted ads at me while at the same time giving me accurate information. The “nearby bus stops” it gave me were, admittedly, within walking distance, but only if I wanted to look like I’d been showering with my clothes on.

Nashville’s public transit service has suffered years of budget shortfalls, and those shortfalls are big enough that they’ve raised fares. Budget shortfalls a problem that’s shared by public transit departments around the U.S., even around the world, and I worry that the budget problems threaten the very existence of public transit. For me riding the bus is an option but for a lot of people it’s a necessity. And I realize that maintaining an app with detailed tracking information is expensive, although not nearly as expensive as building an app then ditching it because it doesn’t fit with a big new rebranding campaign. I think transit authorities need and deserve more money but if they mismanage the funds they’ve got now they’re potentially speeding up their own extinction.

The bus I was waiting for, by the way, was right on time.

Have You Ever Seen The Rain?

It was raining. Maybe it was also pouring—I’ve never actually seen rain pour since “pour” is an intransitive verb and as far as I know rain doesn’t even have hands it could use to hold a container from which it could pour something, and what would it pour anyway?  I’m pretty sure the only reason anybody says rain is “pouring” is because of that old children’s song:

It’s raining, it’s pouring,

The old man is snoring.

So the “pouring” probably only got in there because it’s a convenient rhyme to go with “snoring”, and if the song left off there I’d be willing to let it go—it’s a nice image of an old man sleeping through the rain. Then it takes a sudden, weird, and very dark turn:

He bumped his head and he went to bed,

And he couldn’t get up in the morning.

What’s going on here? At best the old man has major depression that’s preventing him from getting out of bed, but it sounds more like he’s suffered a concussion and possibly even has a subdural hematoma. Either way why are we letting children just sing about it when somebody should be getting this old man some help? I mentioned this to a friend of mine who agreed it’s pretty terrible but added that it’s not as bad as the song about the old man who played two on your shoe, and three on your knee, and, um, six on your appendix and then goes,

With a nick nack paddy whack

Give a dog a bone,

This old man came rolling home.

My friend believes the old man gets punched hard enough to send him flying, but my counterargument is that we don’t know that’s why he goes rolling home—for all we know he’s a gymnast and likes to roll around, or he takes a bicycle or even a penny-farthing, because he’s a brave and hip old guy, and also a dog gets a bone, so there’s at least some karmic balance there. The fact that my friend assumes there’s violence involved makes me wonder if I should keep a closer eye on him. However we can agree that in the first song “pouring” and “snoring” don’t rhyme with “morning” and “bone” and “home” don’t rhyme and if you’ve ever seen Educating Rita you know the definition of assonance is “getting the rhyme wrong”, but that’s another story.

Where I was going with this before I got sidetracked by the horror of children’s songs is that it was raining as I left work and there was a bus right across the street. It was absolutely perfect timing, especially since it was a bus going my way. I’d driven to work that day but the parking garage was a few blocks away, and the bus would take me, if not right to it, then at least closer, and would get me out of the rain. So I ran across the street, to the bus, and, as I was getting on, bumped by head on the door frame.

It was the afternoon and I stayed awake and had no trouble getting up when the bus got to my stop.

Have A Drink.

A taxi parked in front of a liquor store. I guess he’s the designated driver.

I have a thing about drinking and driving and that thing is that I don’t. There have been times when I probably could—the other night my wife and I met some friends after work and since I was driving I just had iced tea, and we ended up hanging out long enough that I could have had a beer and passed even the most sensitive breathalyzer, but hindsight never wears beer goggles. And it’s just a personal thing—most people, I assume, are responsible and know their limits, although my own wariness of mixing a drink and a drive mostly comes from a night that my wife and I were driving home. Well, she was driving and I was riding. It was a dark and stormy night and as we approached a hill we could see a car coming toward us. Then it swerved into our lane.

“He doesn’t see us,” my wife said.

She stopped. He swerved again and drove off the yard into someone’s front yard.

We got out and talked to him a bit. He was a young guy and he admitted he’d been drinking. He worked at a bar and had a few during his shift and probably a few more before he got in his car to drive to a friend’s house. He may have even been underage: in these parts you have to be twenty-one to drink alcohol but only eighteen to sell it, which is why whenever I buy beer at the grocery store I always head to the oldest-looking cashier I can find, but that’s another story.

It also came out in our brief conversation that my wife was right: he hadn’t seen us. He thought we’d come up behind him and only stopped to see if he was okay. He didn’t realize that, if we’d kept going, he would have hit us at full speed and the odds were pretty good I wouldn’t be around to tell you this story.

Anyway that’s why this ad campaign for the Nashville bus promoting a beer route tickles me so much. There are twenty small breweries in Nashville by my count, and eighteen of them listed on this bus tour promotion—and most of those are right on a bus route, although Yazoo, which is currently within walking distance of where I work, is moving to nearby Madison, Tennessee because it’s expanding.

Nashville’s buses are notoriously irregular and for some reason they haven’t put any of this information online—the local MTA ain’t exactly what I’d call tech savvy even though they’ve added wifi to pretty much all buses now. Also does it strike anyone else as weird that you have to be twenty-one to visit most brewery web sites? Check out the Jackalope Brewing site–because it’s got a cool story and they make really good beer, but it’s not like you’re going to drink any of it from the website. Or if you know a way to get beer through a website please share it because it’ll make my afternoon commute a lot more interesting. Anyway it’s just weird to me that you can pick up this flier advertising local breweries on a bus regardless of your age, but visiting the Black Abbey Brewery web site requires you to be at least twenty-one.

The important thing here, though is that the idea of letting someone else do the driving is something I’ll drink to.

Traveler’s Rest.

The design of benches at bus stops bugs me. I know I’m very lucky to be at most slightly inconvenienced by the design and that most of the time it doesn’t even affect me because I can stand, but maybe it helps if I speak up along with people for whom it is a problem, and most of those people are homeless. I know homelessness is a growing problem in many cities, and while I don’t have any answers I do know that making homeless people’s lives more difficult isn’t an answer, which is why the bars in the middle of bus benches that make it impossible for anyone to lie down bothers me. The half-benches in bus shelters are even worse because they only have enough space for two people at most so if you have three people who need to take a load off their feet someone’s outta luck. Even the design of the benches, cold perforated metal that I’m sure has been calculated to be just big enough for the average posterior, is unfriendly. It says, “You can sit here but don’t think about staying here.”
This is always on my mind whenever I’m at a bus stop but there are two things this past week that really kept me thinking about it. The first is Grace over at Ms. Graceful Not who navigates the world with more aplomb than her blog’s name would suggest, but that’s another story, who wrote about planning a long trip in a wheelchair. Another thing that’s always on my mind whenever I ride the bus is that in Nashville and other cities where public transportation is pretty much an afterthought people who depend on the bus are limited in where they can live and work. As someone I know said, “I would ride the bus if I didn’t have to walk three miles and cross an interstate to get to the nearest stop.”
And there are visually impaired people who ride the bus, which is part of why, whenever the bus comes to a stop, a cheerful recorded voice announces the route number. That’s great if you’re standing right there when it arrives but not much help if the bus has been idling for a while. Once I was at the downtown depot sitting on the bus and waiting to go when a guy with a red-tipped cane came up to the door and asked, “Which bus is this?”
“Which bus do you need?” the driver snapped because he hadn’t been taught that it’s bad manners to answer a question with a question and even worse manners to make someone else’s life difficult for no reason.
The guy turned and walked on. I slipped over to the other side of the bus and leaned out the window and told him it was the number seven.
“Okay, thanks,” he said and kept walking, and I still wonder if he wanted a different bus or he just decided to wait for the next number seven bus because the driver was an asshole.
Anyway the other thing this week that got me thinking about bus bench design this week is that a bus I was riding stopped at a red light where there was a bench and a guy sitting on it. The driver opened the doors. The guy didn’t get up and I thought, oh, he’s just sitting there. I often see people just sitting on bus benches; sometimes they’ll wave to the driver to keep going. If it’s a spot where several routes overlap maybe they’re waiting for a different bus or maybe they’re just taking a break from walking.
“Hey,” yelled the driver. “How you been doin’?”
The guy looked up. “Oh, I hadn’t seen you in a while. How are you?”
And they just started chatting. The driver asked the guy how his operation had gone and if he were feeling better. Then the light changed and the bus rolled on and I thought, hey, at least one bus driver gets it.

Not All The News.

We still get a newspaper, an actual, physical, paper-and-ink newspaper, although just on the weekends–I have so many other things to read that the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday editions are about all I can keep up with, and even then I mostly pull out the Arts section and recycle the rest. A few times I’ve seen the guy who makes the deliveries, driving slowly through neighborhoods some time after dawn, his emergency lights blinking. He has excellent aim. He always manages to hit the ditch next to the driveway. Our neighbor gets a paper too, but I wonder how many homes still get a newspaper. It’s a dying business. I don’t want to wax nostalgic about the bygone era of kids on bicycles throwing a morning newspaper onto the porch of every home just as the residents were starting to stir but I also want to wax nostalgic about the bygone, or nearly gone, era of regular newspaper delivery. Not that I ever had a paper route, or even knew anyone who did before I went to college.
I met Jeff early in my sophomore year at a small gathering at his place. Maybe it was a party but I don’t know if you can call four people a party, and anyway his room–part of a row of student apartments next to the fraternity houses, so that it was both off-campus and technically part of the campus–while bigger than a dorm room was still pretty small. We drank and talked through the night. He played Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk”. At some point early on I quit drinking, but Jeff didn’t, and at around three o’clock in the morning he said, “I need to deliver papers. Can you drive?”
Well, sort of. I didn’t have a license and it had been a few years since driver’s ed, but I decided driving a car is like riding a bicycle; you’re just less likely to fall off. It had been a few years since I’d last ridden a bicycle too. Following Jeff’s directions I drove to a warehouse downtown where we picked up a stack of newspapers, then through the neighborhoods of straight streets where all I had to do was hold the steering wheel while he bagged and threw newspapers.
I rode along with him a few more times after that, and one day we even took a half hour road trip to a bigger town. He was looking for a book at a bookstore that turned out to be closed when we got there. A few days later I went by his place and knocked. There was no answer. I couldn’t find him the next day either. The day after that a girl I knew told me Jeff had been reported for smoking pot in his room, maybe by one of the fraternity guys who would have recognized the smell from one of their own parties. The details were obscure but at the time any drug use was dealt with swiftly and harshly. Jeff was expelled and left without telling anyone. The abruptness of it has stayed with me even as the newspaper delivery business slowly fades away.

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