Adventures In Busing.

Riding The Route: #3.

As part of my plan to ride every Nashville MTA route I recently hopped on the #3 bus, which is easy because it passes near my office. The #3 bus goes down West End, one of the city’s major thoroughfares, and it shares most of the route with the #5 bus, so you’d think buses are frequent. And you’d be absolutely wrong. My dentist’s office is also near West End and there have been several times that I’ve set out for an appointment thinking I’ll catch the bus and ride the dozen or so blocks and arrive early, only to end up walking the whole distance without ever seeing a single bus and also five minutes late.

West End passes by Centennial Park, home of the Parthenon and lots of events. It was where the summer Australia Festival used to happen before its organizers moved away. A few blocks and across the bridge over I-440 is Elmington Park where the summer Australia Festival used to happen before it moved to Centennial Park. Elmington Park was described by the Nashville Scene as “basically a huge field that dips into a ditch, with good parking”, but it’s a nice, big, open space that’s popular with food trucks.

Farther down, past where West End turns into Harding Pike, because sprawl has welded several of Nashville’s streets together without changing their names, the #3 takes a sharp right turn onto White Bridge Road, and that’s where it diverges from the #5. Back when I first started riding the buses regularly, before they got fancy digital displays, this was a source of confusion even among drivers. Once I got on a bus on West End, asked the driver if he was going down White Bridge Road, he said yes, then, three blocks later–I’m not kidding–stopped the bus and said, “Oh, wait, I’m not.” Fortunately I was still able to get out and catch the right bus.

And that got me thinking on this trip. Because West End is one of the main thoroughfares there’s a lot of stuff. You can stop almost anywhere and there are restaurants, hotels, parks. And that’s true of White Bridge Road too. Well, there aren’t any parks along there, or hotels, but there are plenty of restaurants, businesses, and homes and apartments. There are the adjacent campuses of Nashville State Community College and the Tennessee College of Applied Technology and Nashville Technical School. There’s a funky little place that was an aquarium and fish store for several years, then a porn shop, and now it’s a psychic. The route ends near Fat Mo’s Burgers.

There’s been a lot of debate and discussion about how to improve Nashville’s public transportation and how to encourage more people to use it. Here’s an idea: add a few more buses on the #3 route to speed up service. There’s a lot of stuff along the route, so make it easier for people to get there. And make sure the drivers know where they’re going.


Break Time.

Before I even got on the bus I knew he was a new driver because he was early. If you ride the bus long enough and regularly enough you start to recognize the signs of someone who’s not just new to the route but new to driving a bus professionally. New drivers are always a couple of minutes early because they’re so focused on sticking to the schedule, and the buses they drive are almost completely empty. I don’t know whether this is because the regular riders aren’t expecting the bus to be quite so early and get to the stop after it’s gone by or whether the driver’s focus on sticking to the schedule means there are a lot of people along the line who got passed by. And when I got on there was only me, the driver, and a woman with a baby in a stroller and her son, who was probably about four.

So we zipped along. I sat back and listened to a podcast and counted the number of shocked people standing at bus stops we passed. Then the bus lurched and he pulled over in front of a bus stop. He got out, looked at something, then came back in and pulled out his phone and called someone.

I know this was a violation. Bus drivers aren’t supposed to use their phones, even when they’re not driving. In fact there’s a little metal box that blocks cell signals at the front of the bus. They’re supposed to kep their phones in that, rather than in their pockets. Still we were early, and I even thought that might be why he’d stopped. Bus drivers, especially new ones who are conscientious about the schedule, will often pull over and stop for a few minutes so they don’t get too far ahead. The minutes ticked away. Then another bus on the same route passed us. He’d finished with his phone call so I went up to the front and asked when we’d be underway.

“We’re not going anywhere,” he said. “Got a busted mirror.”

He even showed it to me. While driving too close to the curb he’d hit it against a pole.


The woman with her young son and the baby in a stroller got out. Lucky for her she only had a little over a block to walk, although that’s still a pretty good jaunt with two kids. And lucky for me another bus came along in a few minutes and stopped.

As for the driver, well, I could have reported him for pulling out his phone instead of calling the dispatcher so we could catch the next bus to go by, but I figured he was new and probably pretty rattled by the experience. I know I would be. Whatever punishment he was going to face for breaking the mirror was going to be bad enough. We’ve all been new in a job and screwed up something. I figured he’d had one bad break that day and deserved a good one.


Prepare The Transit Beam.

I was home from college because it was Fall Break, a holiday that doesn’t get nearly the credit it deserves, barely even heard of, unlike the flashy, high-powered beach-hopping, binge-drinking, rowdy Spring Break. It was after 2:00am on Sunday morning, just hours before I’d be heading back to school and I needed to get home and pack and maybe get some sleep, but for now my friend John and I were on the road between Franklin and Nashville, having just gone to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. We were having our usual post-Rocky debate, which we’d had thirty or so times before, but which we always had even though the singing, dancing, and general rowdiness left us exhausted. The debate was about whether there was any meaning to the movie. John argued that it was a nonsensical assemblage of songs and silliness, that it was almost random and certainly meaningless, which you’d think would be an argument-stopper, but he loved to debate. John was studying to be a lawyer, and had known he was going to be a lawyer while most of us were only thinking about whether the school cafeteria was going to be serving pudding that day. Even before starting high school John had a life plan: what classes to take, where he’d go to college, where he’d eventually go to find a law firm and what kind of cases he wanted to take. His plans didn’t always pan out but I envied him for having plans. Anyway my side of the post-Rocky debate was that there was a theme running through the movie of innocence subsumed by darkness and cynicism, as foreshadowed by the opening in which Brad and Janet sing their way to an engagement while the wedding decorations are replaced by funeral ones. It was a bleak and bitter interpretation even though I didn’t think of myself as a bleak and bitter guy, but still it was the best I could do. And then on this particular night I added something else: that innocence is fleeting and that once it’s lost we have to struggle to find meaning in amidst the uncertainty of the world. It was a bit heavy-handed, but still, at the very end, when the Criminologist says we are “some insects called the human race, lost in time, and lost in space, and in meaning” he leaves the globe lit. There is still a light in the darkness.

John was considering his response when the car shuddered and the engine knocked. He pulled over to the side of the road and the tires crunched over gravel before coming to a stop.

“Oh,” he said, “we’re out of gas.”

Source: IMDB

We were in sight of Exit 69, and John set out for a nearby gas station, leaving me with the car. Alone. A cop car came by and shone a spotlight on me without stopping. I waved, unsure what to do. At that point I felt unsure about everything. My sophomore year of college was not going well. I’d just ended a long relationship, some good friends I’d made as a freshman had transferred or dropped out, my classes were boring and I felt like I wasn’t learning anything new, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, what I wanted or what I could do. I was literally and metaphorically stuck and the road ahead, also literally and metaphorically, was dark. The woods were tempting. I started thinking about a childish fantasy I’d had for years, that I retreated to whenever things got tough. I thought I could slip off into the woods, abandoning everything. I could build a fire, make a shelter, find food and water. What else did I need?

I stepped back out of the woods when a pickup truck pulled up on the other side of the road and stopped. A guy got out of the driver’s side and John got out of the passenger’s side, carrying a gas can. We thanked the guy and he brushed it off, saying he was going our way anyway, and a few minutes later we were back on our way.

And without really knowing why I suddenly felt better about the road ahead. It was still dark, metaphorically but not literally, but all I’d needed was to stop and refuel.


The Vanishing Hitchhiker.

Vanishing hitchhiker stories are almost as old as the wheel, which may be why they have as many twists as old country roads.

I wish I could say it was a dark and stormy night, but it was actually very clear, and not really all that dark because there was a large full moon overhead that lit the carpet of mist that hung over the English countryside. I was in the back of a taxi being driven by Big Dave. Big Dave drove for a local cab company that carried students back and forth between the manor where I lived and the nearby town of Grantham. It was Harlaxton Manor, by the way, which appears in several films, including the 1999 film The Haunting, but that’s another story.

Big Dave, who was called that because he took up the entire front of the cab, usually had a story to tell, like the time he went for a swim in the fountain in Trafalgar Square at midnight, fully clothed—in December, or the time he was bitten by the only poisonous snake in Britain. This particular night, though, he was unusually quiet. I said, “It’s lovely out tonight.”

“Yer,” said Dave. “Reminds me of when I lived in Cornwall. Ever been to the coast down there?”

I hadn’t. “What’s it like?”

“Pretty. Lots of ruins. Lots of history down in Cornwall, there is. Strange thing happened to me there on a night like this too.”

I leaned forward. “Go on.”

“I was drivin’ down an empty stretch of road, a lot like this one, and see this bloke walkin’ almost in the middle of it. I swerved around him and stopped. Somethin’ might be wrong with him, I thought, so I opened the car and offered him a ride. He got in. Didn’t say much. I asked where he was goin’ and he said just down the road a bit. I thought that was odd. No houses around that I could see. So we drove on a bit and up ahead I could see this little church, a little place I must’ve passed a hundred times and never seen anyone in it. And that’s when he said, ‘Here it is.’ I started to slow down and he said, ‘Ta for the ride, I’ve got something for you.’ I thought, that’s torn it, I’ve picked up a lunatic and he’s gonna kill me. I pulled over in front of the house and was about to punch him or run for it when I felt somethin’ stick in my ribs.”

He took a deep breath.

“What was it?” I asked.

“I thought it was a piece of paper. I unrolled it and it was a fiver. I looked up and he was gone.”

“He paid you for the ride and then he disappeared.”


“So the money was real?”

Dave shrugged. “Dunno. It disappeared too.”

“It did?”

“Yer. I went down the pub after that and had a few pints and when I left the money was all gone.”

Then he laughed so hard the cab shook the rest of the way.

Keep Calm And Carrion.

It was a crisp, clear, October morning, which was unusual because around here because summer usually lasts into November and then the temperatures plunge because the weather likes to skip fall entirely. For some reason the car was in the shop so I was walking to the bus, which annoyed me in spite of the nice weather. And then I heard “Woof!” and I stopped and turned, expecting to see a small dog, but instead there was a cluster of black vultures in someone’s yard. If you’ve never heard one black vultures bark like dogs. It’s pretty funny. I wondered too if the people who lived in that house were home and if they were what they thought of a bunch of big black birds tearing apart some roadkill in front of their chrysanthemums. A group of vultures, by the way, is called a “venue”. Vultures get a bad rap, mostly because they’re associated with death, but somebody’s gotta clean up the garbage and we should be grateful they’ve stepped up. Their digestive systems can destroy anthrax and cholera, unlike some other carrion eaters who spread these diseases, and vultures fill such an important anthropological niche they’ve evolved independently on different continents, and like crows and ravens vultures are very intelligent. They’re smart enough to have figured out that it’s a lot easier to catch your food once it’s stopped moving.

In myth and legend vultures run the spectrum. The Cherokee believed the vulture’s bald head was a sign of shame, although really it’s just practical–they wouldn’t have to worry about getting rotten meat stuck in their hair, and we all know how annoying that can be. The ancient Egyptians regarded the vulture as a nurturing mother, but they also associated it with death. That’s not surprising. What would be surprising is if they didn’t associate it with death, which reminds me of a joke. A psychiatrist shows an ancient Egyptian a picture of a bird and says, “What do you think of when you see this?” The ancient Egyptian says, “Death.” The psychiatrist pulls out a picture of a tree and says, “What do you think of when you see this?” The ancient Egyptian says, “Death.” The psychiatrist pulls out a picture of a tree and says, “What do you think of when you see this?” The ancient Egyptian says, “Death.” The psychiatrist says, “Obviously you’re obsessed with death.” The ancient Egyptian says, “Whaddya mean? You’re the one with all the morbid pictures,” but that’s another story.

Then there’s the story of the founding of ancient Rome. Remus thought the hill where he wanted to build a city was the lucky one because six vultures flew over it, but then twelve vultures flew over the hill chosen by Romulus, and Rome turned out pretty well.

Yeah, I felt pretty lucky to be walking by the venue down an avenue.


He Was Also The Phantom Of The Opera.

Have you ever been on an elevator with a group of people and it stops at a floor no one selected and when the doors open there’s no one there? Whenever that happens I always say, “It must be Claude Raines.” And no one ever gets it. Or maybe they’re contemplating the fact that in Britain elevators are called “lifts” even though they lower you too. Or maybe they’re too busy considering the physics of invisibility, or even the biology of an invisible person. Probably not the chemistry because what would that have to do with anything? Yes, in the 1933 movie and even in the H.G. Wells novel the protagonist, Griffin, becomes invisible by injecting a chemical, which is kind of ridiculous because most chemicals, even ones that prompt such dramatic changes, would eventually wear off. At least in the 1975 TV series, which I remember watching as a kid, it was a nuclear process and in the 1987 novel Memoirs Of An Invisible Man and the 1992 adaptation with Chevy Chase the protagonist is rendered invisible by bombardment with radiation, but then in 2000 with Hollow Man it was a chemical process all over again. And in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man it’s really an extended metaphor, but that’s another story.

It’s the biology that’s ridiculous, though, which I didn’t realize until I was taking an anatomy exam and one of the questions was, “Could the Invisible Man see? Discuss.” And I wrote, “No, sight depends on light projecting images onto the back of the retina. What do you want me to discuss? How you’ve just ruined what I thought was a pretty cool story? That maybe the Invisible Man isn’t really invisible but is like some kind of chameleon and can blend into the background? That you’ve tried to drag out a yes-no question so you can slip off to the teachers’ lounge for a smoke? That there are times when the power to become invisible would be really helpful in dealing with the perils of adolescence? That since it’s May I should be gathering nuts instead of sitting in here going nuts?”

I had to stay after school. My correct but creative answer was not appreciated. Go figure.


Stuck Standing.

Source: Singapore Times

So a sixty-year old man is facing two years in prison for sticking toothpicks in bus seats, which seems horrifying, appalling, even unfathomable, or at the very least excessive. Two years? A bus driver told me about a kid who threw a milkshake out of the window into the open sunroof of a car in the next lane, and, as far as I know, he got off with a warning even though there should be stiff penalties for wasting milkshakes, but that’s another story.

Granted it was in Singapore, which has a reputation for harsh penalties, that the man placed toothpicks in bus seats, but I still think there are extenuating circumstances. He didn’t want anyone sitting next to him, something a lot of us can appreciate. I know there have been plenty of time I’ve gotten on a crowded bus and had to stand and when a seat opened up I offered it to someone else. If the bus is crowded I always offer my seat to a woman, which I realize is either chauvinism or chivalry, although sometimes it’s just so I can get away from whomever I’m sitting next to. And there were times in high school when the bus I rode home was so crowded I had to stand, even though school buses aren’t designed with overhead rails and handles. Maybe someone should have gone to prison for that, although it’s hard to say whether it would be the bus driver, the other students who wouldn’t scooch over so we could squeeze three kids into seats that were only big enough for two, or me for hanging around so long I was the last one to board the bus. And don’t get me started on the problem of manspreading, where one guy will not only take up at least three seats meant for one but a good chunk of the aisle too.

Anyway I think it’s understandable when someone doesn’t want to sit next to another person. Buses often force strangers together and sometimes it can be rewarding and sometimes you can get stuck next to a person you can’t stand.


Talk To Strangers. Or Don’t.

The other day on my way to the bus I was listening to the September 24th, 2017 Live From The Poundstone Institute podcast. Paula talked to psychologist Nick Epley of the University of Chicago about a 2014 study he did on subway riders that found that people who talk to their fellow passengers tend to be happier than those who don’t. And it sounds pretty simple, although like most social research I think it should be taken with a salt shaker’s worth of qualifiers, considerations, exceptions, and clarifications. Most people I sit near or even on occasion next to on the bus aren’t interested in striking up conversations. Or at least they don’t seem to be. I don’t know.

Epley’s point is that we’re social creatures and that it’s our natural inclination to talk and interact with each other. He’d probably agree, though, that it’s more complicated than that. I think of a couple of older guys who used to ride my bus regularly. I’ll just call them Jerry and George. They always sat next to each other but the only time I ever heard them speak was when Jerry, whose stop came first, would tell George to have a good evening. George always read a newspaper and Jerry always had a book.

And I get it too that not everyone likes the kind of idle chitchat that strangers engage in, that we pretty much have to engage in to even begin the process of getting past being strangers. I’m one of those annoying people who doesn’t mind small talk, who’ll even start a conversation at inappropriate times. Once when I was sitting in a bathroom stall I recognized the shoes of a friend of mine in the next stall and I loudly asked him how it was going. He quietly muttered that he didn’t like to talk to other guys in the bathroom. I laughed and asked, “Why do you think that is?” And then when he didn’t say anything else as I was leaving I said, “Well, I hope everything comes out all right,” but that’s another story.

The ironic thing is because I was listening to a podcast I had earbuds in my ears, an almost universally recognized sign that says “leave me alone” and yet I thought maybe I should try to start a conversation with a guy who was standing at the bus stop when I got there. He was reading a book, another sign that usually says “leave me alone”, and I thought that in trying to spread a little happiness I might make him unhappy. And I’m also kind of shy. I’m happy to talk to strangers but I find it hard to start conversation unless the other person starts it first. Then the bus pulled up and he closed his book and I saw what he was reading: Catch-22.


Nowhere Is Still Somewhere.

Source: Streetsblog USA

Back when I finally got around to getting my driver’s license I first had to get a new learner’s permit—I’d originally gotten a learner’s permit when I was sixteen, but it expired in the intervening twenty years or so, but that’s another story—and I took the bus to the Department of Motor Vehicles. There was only one bus that ran kinda sorta close to the DMV and it only went there once every three hours. The bus actually ran every hour and a half, but on one of those trips it stopped in a completely different spot where you could still get to the DMV if you were willing to walk three miles and cross a couple of interstates. The bus stopped in the middle of nowhere, in a spot where no one got off and there was really no place for anyone to get on. The driver was surprised I had ridden that far and I thought the driver had made a mistake until I checked the route map and found that, yeah, this really was where every other bus stopped. Why the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere when it could just as easily have stopped about a mile back on the edge of somewhere is still a mystery to me, and fortunately I had the good sense to stay on the bus and ride back to the main station. Instead of having to sit out there in the middle of nowhere for an hour and a half I got to sit somewhere for an hour and a half.

It’s been several years but I wonder if the bus still stops at that same place. If so it could be a contender for America’s Sorriest Bus Stop which currently has stops in Seattle, Washington and Fremont, California going head to head. And those are some pretty sorry bus stops, but they look to me like they’re close to somewhere.

The Smell.

As soon as I got off the bus the smell hit me. It was musky, heavy, foul; the sort of dense smell that seems like it weighs down the air. There’s a small wooded area I pass by on my walk home. It was there, near the out-of-control bamboo stand, that I previously found an egg–what turned out to be a real chicken egg, as strange as that seemed–and it was the first thing I thought of, but rotten eggs have a distinct smell that’s sharp, prickly. This smell was more earthy, more like rotten meat, which is what it turned out to be. I recognized the scaly, metallic shell: it was a possum on the half shell, a Texas speedbump, an armadillo, flattened by a car and shoved onto the side of the road.

Not far from where I live there’s a place that used to be overgrown farmland. It was a buffer between the interstate and the neighborhood, and it was also home to all sorts of flora and fauna. The whole thing was sold and turned into a big shopping center and now the fauna has found its way into the neighborhood: mostly deer but also skunks, coyotes, and foxen. But armadillos are a relatively new arrival to Tennessee. So far we haven’t had enough that they’ve become a problem since they carry leprosy and dig up the foundations of houses . They’ve been pushed northward by climate change, which reminded me that they used to have a much larger cousin, the glyptodon, that was probably wiped out by a combination of overhunting by prehistoric humans and climate change. It could be as big as a Volkswagen Beetle, which is why whichever prehistoric kid spotted one first got to punch his friend on the arm and say “Glyptodon brown!” although the game got kind of boring because that’s the only color they came in, but that’s another story. Prehistoric people may have even used the glyptodon shell as a shelter, but I can’t begin to imagine what the smell was like.


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