Adventures In Busing.

Warm-Up Act.

Source: Google Maps

Source: Google Maps

In downtown Nashville, on Fourth Avenue, between the capitol building and the river, there used to be a couple of blocks of bus shelters. For every bus route this was the end of the line–or one of them, anyway. There was also a rectangular shed with maps of every bus route and schedules and a customer service/help/information window that was permanently closed.

The shelters have since been removed and the end of the line is now a covered bus depot and I kind of miss them. The depot is safer and depending on the weather I guess most people are happier to be under a roof, and depending on the weather they were a place where anyone walking from one part of downtown to another could stop. And even when I had to wait for the bus I wanted I could stand around and watch the other ones go by. At almost any time there were at least a couple of buses dropping off, picking up, or just waiting for their scheduled departure.

And then one night there was the singer.

It was one of the coldest nights of the year, which isn’t saying much because it was still January, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t get much colder in any other month, not even August. For once I hadn’t taken the bus downtown. My wife and I had parked a few blocks down the street because we were on our way to the Tennessee Performing Arts Center to see Garrison Keillor. This was not A Prairie Home Companion but just Keillor himself telling stories from his new book The Book Of Guys, but that’s another story. Or stories.

Anyway we were walking past the bus shelters and under one of them stood a tall black man. He wore a dark wool coat and a dark hat. He might have completely blended into the shadows if he hadn’t been belting out “Beautiful Dreamer” in a lovely, loud bass baritone.

I’m still not sure what he was doing there. I thought, and still think, he might have been an opera singer or a member of a chorus headed home from a rehearsal. The strange thing is there were no buses around. This would have been around 7:30 at night and while pretty late the buses run from 5:00am to 2:00am. Even at that time of night there should have been a couple of buses around.

Yes, that’s the strange thing. A man standing in the middle of an empty sidewalk singing to himself, and to us but only just because we happened to be passing by, doesn’t seem strange to me at all. We smiled at him and he smiled back, glad, I think, to have an audience.

 

Traveler’s Rest.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

The life of a character actor seems like it would be hard but also rewarding. If you can accept the uncertainty and frustration, if you can accept rarely, if ever, being recognized, if you truly believe the saying that there are no small parts, or at least that having a part is its own reward, and if you love acting then being a character actor must be a pretty amazing job. Some character actors get around a lot–they get to travel from role to role, covering a wide range.

I thought about that when I heard about the passing of Bernard Fox, an actor who brought a big personality to small roles on the big screen and some big roles on small screens. Most remembrances refer to his recurring role of Dr. Bombay on Bewitched. He also had a recurring role as Colonel Crittendon on Hogan’s Heroes.

I was never much of a fan of either of those shows–I had no idea he had roles on them–but I remember him from two episodes of The Andy Griffith Show I first saw as a kid and which immediately became my favorites. I think I’ve always been an Anglophile but when the character Malcom Merriweather rolled into Mayberry he gave me an early impression of what British people were like. Okay, he was mostly a stereotype, but in his first episode he takes a job as Andy’s valet. Decades before Downton Abbey he gave a glimpse of what life downstairs, and upstairs, might be like as he tried to treat Sheriff Taylor like an English lord.

Yeah, it was pretty cheesy, and so was his return visit a year later when he steps up to assist Aunt Bea, but Fox was so charming he made it almost believable.

And what made the stories even more memorable to me is that Merriweather always arrived by bicycle, a freewheeling traveler seeing the United States and making money by picking up odd jobs in small towns–not unlike the job of a character actor.

It was an idea that made an impression on me too. I never did it but I always thought it would be a fun way to see the world–and get to know people, to go around taking up odd jobs. I sometimes rode a Greyhound bus between Nashville and Evansville and for some reason the bus took a lot of back roads, passing through the edges of small towns–what was normally a two hour trip by car took more than four hours by bus because of its strange route. And there were times I remembered Malcolm Merriweather, even though he was a fictional character whose travels were decades earlier, and I didn’t have a bicycle. Still I was sometimes tempted to step off in the middle of a small town and see if I could get a small job–and maybe move across the country that way.

Bernard Fox is also fondly remembered for his role in 1999‘s The Mummy as British RAF pilot Captain Winston Havlock, stranded and bored in Cairo, wishing for one more chance to fly, one more big adventure–also like any dedicated character actor, always in search of that next role, that next adventure, always moving to some new part of the world.

Hail and farewell Bernard Fox.

Update: Here’s “Valet”, the episode of The Andy Griffith Show that introduced Malcolm Merriweather.

 

Acquainted With The Night.

darkcommute

As the solstice gets closer I start going to work in the dark and coming home in the dark even though the times of my commutes are pretty much the same throughout the year. I don’t remember when I first noticed that the days got shorter in the winter, although I do remember noticing the movement of the sun from my bedroom window. My room faced west and my whole life I’d been taught that the sun comes up in the east and goes down in the west and that never changes. Like most things in life it turned out to be more complicated than that. The sun’s rising and setting positions throughout the year were not fixed, and while the setting sun blazed unobscured in the summer in the winter it gradually moved behind a stand of trees so it started to disappear even before it hit the horizon. No one else seemed bothered by this and no catastrophes resulted from the sun’s shifting position which told me it was a normal phenomenon. So the sun didn’t exactly set at due west and even though I rarely saw the sunrise because I liked to sleep late I assumed it didn’t rise at due east either. This was a valuable lesson: grownups are a bunch of liars who were afraid to tell me the whole truth, but that’s another story.

I don’t remember when I got the idea–maybe it was about the time that I learned Christmas and other midwinter celebrations were appropriated from the pagan solstice celebrations–that maybe people didn’t always know that the farther you got from the equator the more the lengths of days and nights varied throughout the year. Our very earliest ancestors, I think, emerged around the equator in Africa. Long before homo sapiens started spreading out, mostly heading north, they must have been accustomed to pretty regular days and nights. How quickly did they move north? Was their progress slow enough that they noticed that seasonal variation was a normal thing?

Even if they did there must have been some fear in the backs of their minds, especially when they got really far north, to the arctic circle and beyond, where in the very heart of winter the sun barely edges above the horizon, that the days just might keep getting shorter, that the sun might disappear and never come back.

That gives an interesting perspective on why we cluster so many holidays at the end of the year, still finding ways to celebrate the solstice.

 

The Next Step.

IBEATCANCER

Within my first week of chemotherapy I got a port implanted in my chest. This would save the veins in my arm which was a good thing because, as I discovered on my second day of chemo, one of the drugs in my cocktail could not go through the same vein two days in a row without feeling like my arm had been dipped in gasoline and set on fire. The port also meant I wouldn’t come out of chemo looking like a drug-addled rock star which is kind of a downside..

The surgery to implant the port was done in July 2014 and was one of the easiest parts of my trip with cancer. The doctors gave me a local anesthetic which knocked me completely unconscious, the whole procedure took less than half an hour, and I woke up reciting lyrics from Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb.

I then got stuck in the recovery room for a couple of hours waiting for someone to tell me I was good to go while a man in the bed next to me kept demanding beer, but that’s another story.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

For some reason using the port was also less painful than being stuck in the arm, and easier for the nurses who wouldn’t have to hunt for a vein. They’d just take the big needle and aim for the lump.

Even after I was done with chemo I still had to get the port flushed at least once every six weeks to prevent blood from clotting in it. And this wasn’t a big deal. It meant sticking a needle through skin so it did sting a little and then they’d pump saline through it and I’d get a cool salty taste in my mouth.

It was a reminder of what I’d been through but I didn’t need it. Several times I told the nurses I thought it was time to get it removed. One nurse told me, “There’s a woman I see sometimes who’s had her port in for twenty years.”

I hope that was a matter of choice rather than necessity. Or maybe, like me, she just kept putting it off.

I’m not putting it off any longer. If you’re reading this today, December 12, 2016, this is the day I’m getting my port removed.

It’s not the end. It’s merely another step. As the saying goes the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, but after that first step there’s another and another and another, unless you have freakishly long legs.

I’m still on a journey and hope to go many thousands of miles more.

Update: Thank you for all the well-wishes. I’ve been successfully de-ported.

 

Turn And Face The Strange.

changesA few years ago I read a list of tips for keeping our minds active as we age and possibly even staving off dementia, Alzheimer’s, and those darn kids who won’t get off your lawn. One of the tips was this: take a different route to work each day.

It intrigued me and for a few days I did try it—at least as I was walking to work. My wife does most of the driving when we’re going to work together and I couldn’t convince her to go off the beaten interstate. It’s even harder when taking public transportation to get a bus driver to change routes except in those rare instances when there’s a substitute driver who isn’t entirely sure of the route. And if I ever commuted by train I’d have to take some pretty extreme measures to get off the beaten track.

I also pretty quickly slipped into walking the same old route I’d gotten used to every day, mainly because it was the easiest and quickest. Like water I always take the best possible path downhill, which is why whenever I schedule a lunch with water and water doesn’t show up it’ll be very apologetic later, saying, “Oh, yeah, I couldn’t get there because it was uphill” but that’s another story.

And I realized something about my daily commute. It’s never really the same. Even if it’s the same path all it takes is being conscious of the differences. There are subtle changes: the light or weather is different. Sometimes it’s dry, sometimes it’s raining. Sometimes I see the sun in the east and once in a while I see it in the west and that’s when I realize I’m running really, really, really late. There are not so subtle differences too. I pass different people. One morning I passed a couple of squirrels fighting over a pile of peanuts. Why someone dumped a handful of peanuts right in the middle of the sidewalk is still a mystery to me, and it was a carefully arranged pile that made it look like it had been done deliberately. I stopped and separated the peanuts into two equal piles about five feet apart. Then I stepped back. Each squirrel went to the pile that was closest to it and took the peanuts then ran off in opposite directions.

There’s a lesson in that, I thought. Life would be so much easier if we were like the squirrels, only I’m afraid of heights and I think I’d be miserable living in a tree. On the other hand I’m sure living in a constant state of terror would be a good way to keep my mind active.

 

Safe Seat.

busA lot of school buses still don’t have seat belts. I don’t know if there’s an accurate counting, and there probably isn’t because it’s something most people don’t think about unless something happens. The rest of the time if it comes up it’s usually controversial because of the cost–estimated between $7000 and $11000 per bus, although that would, for older buses, be a one-time charge. Seat belts could–and should–be installed in new buses. When I was a kid in school it came up occasionally, usually when there was an accident. I thought about it whenever I had to stand up in the back of the bus because there weren’t enough seats and I was unlucky enough to have a class on the far side of school which meant I was one of the last to get to the bus, although the only time I ever felt like I was really in danger was the time we had a substitute driver who not only didn’t know the route but apparently didn’t know how to drive a bus either and at one point took us up a steep hill, stopped halfway, then shifted into neutral so we started rolling backward. I realized the only safety instructions we’d gotten–keep all body parts inside the windows and in the event of an emergency exit through the back door–wouldn’t do a lot of good.

Admittedly neither would seat belts but it’s still criminally irresponsible that legislators agree that adults in private vehicles should be required to wear seat belts but when it comes to the same safety measure on buses they remain stuck in neutral. That’s what I thought of following a tragic bus crash in Chattanooga. Could any of the kids who lost their lives been saved by seat belts? Maybe not, but if even one life is lost because buses don’t have seat belts then the cost is too high.

Road Tripping.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

When I was a kid I was fascinated by animation. How did they get drawings to move? It wasn’t like magic. It was magic. Luckily there were a few educational programs—although now I don’t remember specifically which ones—that showed animators at work, how they drew on transparent cels and then photographed those against backgrounds, and also how to create flip books. My father worked for a steel company that had paper pads with the company’s name on them because if there’s one thing people associate with steel it’s paper. Anyway I’d take one of those pads and make my own flip books, drawing out the adventures of various characters like Periscope Man who was a vaguely sinister, er, periscope with one eye and arms and legs. He had a lot of adventures mainly because he was easy to draw but that’s another story.

And then I read about this public artwork that would give subway riders a short animation show. It’s the same principle as the flip book but applied differently.

Although I never got to see the Masstransiscope in action the fun part of learning about it is I realized  I could watch out the car window on long road trips and see the white lines along the pavement, or variations in the pavement itself, as strange, abstract animation.

Try it sometime—if you’re not the one driving.

Here’s a video of artist Bill Brand’s Masstransiscope restored in 2008 and a short video about the restoration.

 

 

Those Aren’t Pillows!

hospitalIt was a typical Thursday night in my college dorm. I was studying–specifically reading A Streetcar Named Desire–and my roommate was cutting apart bed springs and twisting the bits into a chainmail shirt since he belonged to a medieval reenactment group, although I didn’t think it was entirely accurate to use stainless steel bedsprings, but that’s another story. Naturally we had our door open when Carol, who lived on the girls’ side of the dorm stopped outside our door and said, “Hey guys, would you help us celebrate Gary’s birthday party?”

My roommate had just finished a chainmail sleeve so he was at a stopping point and while normally it’s difficult to tear me away from Tennessee Williams I felt like I needed a break. I’m also kind of a fan of birthdays and try to have at least one a year myself. Carol explained that

she’d be back later because Gary’s birthday was actually the next day and the plan was to give him a surprise party. Well, it wouldn’t be a party actually–mostly it was just a surprise.

At two a.m. Carol came back by to get us. This was not a problem: my roommate and I were both insomniacs, and it gave him time to get started on another sleeve and I had moved on to The Glass Menagerie. Gary’s roommate assured us he was sound asleep and the door was unlocked when we all burst in, screaming at the top of our lungs. We surrounded Gary’s bed, someone used a tie to blindfold him, and we carried him out to a car. He was squeezed into the back and we set off for parts unknown, not screaming now but jabbering, making up nonsensical chants, and, once we got out onto the highway, throwing out random non sequiturs–”Cheese, that’ll really block you up”–and vague hints about where we were. “Did that sign say ‘Welcome to Canada’?” Of course even Gary knew we hadn’t been on the road long enough; southern Indiana is a long way from Canada. We contemplated driving Gary to Gary, Indiana, and we also pondered how far we were from Normal. In a metaphorical sense we were all a long way from Normal. I’ve told you about my roommate and his metalwork. I was sitting next to Carol who wrote a weekly column for the school paper called “Out Of My Mind”. I’m sure I was weird in my own way, as were the other three or four people in the car. In fact Gary was probably the most normal of the group, which made him pretty weird. He went along blithely, never bothering to remove his blindfold. When we got to the state line and posed him for several photographs under the “Welcome to Indiana” sign he just stood there with a lopsided grin.

That’s a strange thing about this whole experience. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect intimate friends to do to one of their own but neither my roommate nor I knew Gary–until we burst into his room I wasn’t even sure what he looked like and there was only a brief glimpse between the initial entrance and his blindfolding that gave me a chance to say, “Oh, that guy…”

We would, in fact, never really get to know each other and on occasion when I’d pass by Gary and say hello to him he’d say hi in return but there was a look on his face that told me he wasn’t entirely sure who I was. All he knew was that he could depend on the kindness of strangers.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Source: National Library of Wales

Source: National Library of Wales

Dylan Thomas died on November 9th, 1953, almost sixty-three years ago, in New York after a series of reading tours and the premiere of his play for voices Under Milk Wood. In November 1991, twenty-five years ago, give or take a few days, I made a pilgrimage to Laugharne, Wales, the place he called home in the last years of his life and where he wrote his last poems.

I’ve written about my somewhat ill-fated trip to Dylan’s home before. What I didn’t think about until recently was the similarities between Dylan’s trips across the United States and my trip to and across Britain, what had and hadn’t changed, and what’s changed since then.

Dylan Thomas was a famous poet when he came to the United States to do a series of reading tours. His first trip was an overnight flight where he was too shy to talk to any of his fellow passengers whom he described, according to one source, as a lot of “gnomes, international spies, and Presbyterians”. I was a mere student wedged into a center seat–I always prefer a window seat–between fellow students. Dylan spent several days getting loaded in New York before he went off to other parts. As soon as I arrived in London my fellow students and I were loaded onto a bus and driven off to Grantham which gave us a few hours to get to know each other.

Dylan’s itinerary across America was carefully planned and he read and talked to packed performance halls. When I set out for his home I had no clue where the hell I was going and neither did anyone else. He was mostly driven across America although he also took a few trains. Most of my trip was by train, although I could only get to Laugharne by an old rickety bus–thirty-eight years after Dylan Thomas’s death the little Welsh seaside town he loved was still isolated. None of his biographers, including his wife Caitlin, know why he settled in Laugharne, just that it had always been a stop on his weekend pub crawls. He was a wanderer and I think he just found it by accident and liked the look of the place.

And on my return trip I arrived at Nottingham station so late at night I had to take a taxi from there to Grantham. I was driven by Big Dave who, when he learned where I’d been, told me the Welsh were a lot of gnomes, international spies, and Presbyterians.

The main thing that’s changed in the intervening quarter century is the internet. The Boat House Museum, closed when I arrived at its gate, has its own website. Now I can check train times and bus schedules too. I could plan out the entire trip from this side of the pond. In 1991 it was mainly dumb luck that I found myself accidentally sitting in Dylan’s seat, or in his corner anyway, in the Brown’s Hotel Pub in Laugharne where I drank a pint before I walked a bat-black path up a hill and sat by his grave.

If I made the same trip now there’d be no accidents, no missed connections, no aimless wandering. I’d know in advance what I’d find and that leaves me feeling something has been lost.

 

School Day.

schoolbusThe year I was in third grade Halloween fell on a Wednesday. This was always controversial because many churches hold a mid-week service Wednesday night and I grew up in the buckle of the Bible Belt. Halloween on Wednesday meant lengthy city council meetings to discuss whether Halloween could and should be moved to either October 30th (a bad idea) or November 1st (a worse one). At least if it fell on Sunday moving it back to Saturday was a better alternative.

In school on Tuesday my teacher Mrs. Tredway told us several times “There will be school tomorrow and there will be no costumes!”

I’m not sure whether she had a problem with Halloween generally or whether it was just because she was angry she wasn’t getting a day off. That afternoon on the bus ride home my friend Troy made sure everyone knew he didn’t care what Mrs. Tredway said. He’d be wearing his costume. Troy was my best friend. I feel kind of sad saying that now because for a long stretch of my childhood Troy was the only kid who lived near me–I lived at the top of a hill and he lived at the bottom–so outside of school he was really my only friend. That meant I put up with a lot from him, mainly his habitual lying. I learned not to question him when one night he called to tell me he had the entire cast of Battlestar Galactica visiting his house and I subtly suggested that was ridiculous. “They really are!” he screamed so loudly I almost dropped the phone. A few years later he told everyone at school he was leaving early to go do “some modeling work”. Nobody questioned him openly but we all rolled our eyes. A few years after that I was in a toy store and there was a picture of him on a board game so sometimes the most unbelievable things turned out to be true, but that’s another story.

So nobody expected Troy to really wear his costume to school the next day. I looked for him on the bus in the morning but there was no sign of him. He missed trick-or-treating because he was sick, but he did have a great costume. He was The Invisible Man.

And with that have a happy Halloween everyone. Lou Reed, if you would please.

 

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