Adventures In Busing.

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.


Riding The Route: Number 50.

One of my goals has been to ride every one of Nashville’s bus routes from end to end. Well, it’s been more of a vague idea than something I’ve actively pursued, but anyway it’s something I’ll try to do. The route numbers go up to 96, but some of the routes have been eliminated, like unlucky number 13, and rather than recycle them they’ve just been left blank, but that’s another story. Recently I took a trip on the number 50 route because I thought I’d start more or less halfway and it was also convenient.

After a couple of turns out of the downtown station the number 50 bus drives a straight east-west line down Charlotte Avenue all the way to a Wal Mart. When I got on it was crowded and I figured almost everyone would be riding all the way to the end of the line, and yet there’s quite a bit along the way. The first thing I noticed as we were just barely out of downtown was a Krystal on one side of the street and the Fattoush Cafe on the other side. Then there’s a long stretch of not much, and then a Red Cross Blood Donation Center and, on the opposite side of the street, where there’s been an abandoned school building for decades, there’s now a Starbucks, which is kind of weird. I’m not used to seeing a Starbucks standing alone in the middle of an otherwise empty block.

Past where Charlotte passes under I-440 there’s Bro’s Cajun Cuisine and then things start to pick up a little closer to Murphy Road, where the ill-fated number 13 bus used to run. A few years ago someone on an internet message board where I hung out asked, “What’s fun to do in Nashville?” and I was surprised to realize several things I recommended were in clustered together on or near Charlotte Avenue. There’s a funky little consignment store called Cool Stuff, Weird Things, right next to Headquarters, my personal favorite coffee shop, and across the street is the Richland Park Library where there’s a small farmer’s market every Saturday. Since the person who asked was into comic books there’s The Great Escape. And also Bobbie’s Dairy Dip if you want an authentic ’50’s burger and milkshake–authentic because it’s been around that long.

A few more people disembarked after we crossed White Bridge Road, and that’s when a variety of restaurants pop up: Middle Eastern, Indian, Mexican, Vietnamese, a Chinese place that offers dim sum on Sundays, and a little place that promises Peruvian cuisine–I made a note of that for later.

Because the number 50 is an express bus it only stops at selected points, unlike the regular buses that’ll stop pretty much anywhere. Maybe that’s why most of the people on the bus, even the ones getting off at points in between, slept. One of the two guys who rode all the way to the end with me was snoring when we pulled into the Wal Mart parking lot. I guess he’s a regular rider.

Pay It Forward.

Back when the bus was my main method for getting around I quickly picked up on tips and tricks for riding the routes. Transfers, for instance, would allow me to hop from one bus to another, although usually only after they’d stopped moving. A transfer was only ten cents or, if you took long enough searching your pockets for a dime the driver would sigh and hand you one. A transfer was only good for one change, though, and not long after I figured this out they discontinued them anyway, although if someone claimed to have gotten on the wrong route by mistake or offered up a sad enough excuse the driver would sigh and write them a note, but that’s another story.

By then I’d already figured out that the best deal was the all-day pass. Regular bus fare was $1.75 and an all-day pass was $3.50 so it saved me a whopping twenty cents. And while I rarely changed buses more than once I liked the comfort of the all-day pass which would allow me to ride as many buses as I wanted and didn’t expire until 2 a.m. the next day, unlike the transfer which expired after half an hour although even if you handed over an expired one the driver would usually sigh and just take it.

Since I rarely rode the bus after dark, much less after midnight, my all-day pass would still be good for twelve or more hours even after I was done so I’d leave it behind or pass it on to a fellow rider. They’d have already paid one fare but I always hoped I could save them having to pay another, or at least save them a whopping ten cents for a transfer. And then on one occasion I did what I always wanted to do: as I was leaving I handed the pass off to someone, a woman with a baby stroller, who was just about to board so she wouldn’t have to pay. I tried to do it discreetly so the driver wouldn’t see it, but I wasn’t discreet enough.

“You’re not supposed to do that!” he yelled behind me.

Then he sighed and let her use it.


A Simple Plan.

The water heater was leaking and taking cold showers or heating up pans of water on the stove and standing in a tub in the middle of the kitchen was getting old so I stayed home one morning to wait for the plumber. He said I could expect him between 8:30 and 9:00 and then at 9 o’clock on the dot called to say he’d be at the house in half an hour, and he was. Then he installed a new water heater which required the use of a blow torch and after he was done the basement smelled like birthday candles which was weird because I’ve seen the same model of blow torch used to make crème brulee so I expected the basement to smell like caramelized sugar, but that’s another story.

And then once he was gone, taking the old water heater and a sizable chunk of our checking account with him, I started walking up the sunny side of the street, or at least it was sunny until it started raining, up the corner where I’d catch the bus. I had a simple plan. I could have waited half an hour for the regular bus that would drop me two blocks from where I work, but instead I decided to wait five minutes for the express bus that could drop me off a mile and a half from where I work or I could just ride it all the way to the terminal and then catch a bus that would drop me off right in front of where I work.

The total amount of time either way would probably be about the same, but taking the express bus meant I could relax and put my feet up, at least until the people in the seat in front of me complained.

I’ve never ridden the express bus all the way to the terminal before so I didn’t think it was unusual when the driver, instead of continuing in a straight line on the most direct route, took a sudden left turn, then a sudden right turn, and suddenly we were in an open area about three blocks from the terminal and surrounded by other buses.

“Everybody needs to get out,” the driver told us.

“What’s goin’ on?” a woman yelled. “I paid for a trip downtown and I want to go downtown!”

Well, we were pretty close to downtown, or even in it, depending on how you define it. We just hadn’t gone to the usual stopping point and the driver had already disembarked.

I got out and wandered around. Buses from every route were parked on all four sides of an intersection. No one, including the drivers, knew what was going on, just that we’d been ordered to this stop. I wandered around and found the bus that, according to its number, would drop me off at my office. We sat for a few minutes then drivers started yelling to each other, “All clear!” and a voice over the radio announced that drivers could resume their regular routes. So we went to the terminal which, I later learned, had been temporarily shut down because of a “suspicious package”. When the bus pulled in lots of people were coming out of the terminal doughnut shop, which is apparently the safest place to go during a bomb threat.

I did eventually get to work, but the elevators were shut down for repairs. And then my computer had to run a half hour update.

I’m still not sure whether staying home would have been the safer.

Call Me Maurice.

When I was seventeen it was a very good year, especially that summer. I took a trip across Europe thanks to my parents and a student ambassador program called People To People. One of my teachers–and to this day I don’t know which one–nominated me for it. This was before the internet, at least as we know it, and it was only by dumb luck that I stumbled–or rather was pushed, willingly, into it. We went through seven countries: Switzerland, Austria, Czechoslovakia back when it was still called that, one night in Germany, France, Spain, and finally Portugal, or, as I like to think of it, Spain’s Canada. We were about thirty teenagers crawling down the Iberian peninsula by bus, stopping in cathedrals and learning the culinary alphabet from Wienerschniztel to calamari, and along the way each of us was dropped off for short stopovers with families in Austria, France, and Spain. There are at least a dozen stories I could share, but for now I’ll stick with my time with the French family and le cheval terrible.
The French family lived just outside of Toulouse in a wonderful rustic farmhouse, and were really nice people. We exchanged Christmas and joyeux Noel cards for several years after my visit. They had a teenage son with whom I shared almost everything in common except a language, although he spoke a decent amount of English and I, well, I could do a passable Maurice Chevalier which cracked him up. In fact I entertained the whole family, especially their two Spaniels, one of whom was so taken with me she left a little present by my bed and I put my left foot right in it. They told me there was a local saying that a man who puts his left foot in le merde will be successful in life and I told them a dumb joke about how my friend came in with le merde in his hand and I said, “Why are you carrying dog shit?” and he replied, “Would you believe I almost stepped in this?” They thought this was worthy of Moliere and had me repeat it for guests which makes me think I could have pursued a career as a Franco-American standup comedian, but that’s another story.

Source: Wikipedia

One evening they thought it would be nice to visit some relatives who lived on a neighboring farm and share my scatalogical humor. And while the mother and son were taking the car they thought it would be fun if father and I went on horseback. I’d ridden a horse maybe twice in my life before then so I assumed I was well-prepared, although there’s a world of difference between impersonating Maurice Chevalier and being even a passable chevalier. And they assured me their horse Coquette–so aptly named–was very nice. She seemed to be nice, too, and very pretty with her dusky coat an flowing blonde mane, although gentlemen prefer brains. She ignored me and ate grass while I introduced myself and when I climbed aboard and said “giddyup” she ignored me and ate grass. And then when I tugged on the reins a little she ignored me and ate grass. When I said, “How do you put this thing in drive?” she lifted her head and started galloping down the road.
The farm, by the way, was adjacent to a French main highway. In the distance I could see a car coming in the opposite direction. “Whoa!” I told Coquette and then behind me the father started shouting “Pull to the right!” In English, amazingly, although even on the back of a galloping horse I think I would have known my gauche from my droite and none of us wanted to turn this into a scene from Equus. I pulled hard on the reins and Coquette suddenly stopped, trotted off to the side of the road, and proceeded to eat grass.
She was taken back for her paddock, the car was sent back for me, and the family kept assuring me “Coquette really is a very nice horse, but she doesn’t speak English.” Which I knew was half true, since I’d already learned she didn’t speak English.


Side Walk.

Work in progress.

Sometimes I take the bus in the mornings. Even in the summer I sometimes get up early enough that it’s still dark outside and make the long trek up my street. A neighbor’s dog, a Great Pyrenees, will sometimes come out and bark at me. I wave and say, “Hi, Arthur,” which always makes him get quiet. I have no idea what the dog’s real name is but he looks like an Arthur, although I did find out that he is really a she, which means she looks like Bea Arthur, and now whenever she barks at me I think she’s saying, “God’ll get you for that, Christopher,” but that’s another story.

It’s kind of nice walking through the neighborhood in the morning. Sometimes I see Venus setting in the southeast, and sometimes I pass by neighbors whose names I don’t know who’ve gotten up for an early morning jog, or I see lights come on in houses as other people wake up and start their days.

And then I turn on to the main street and have to walk a couple of blocks to the bus stop, which is one of those plexiglass-walled rectangles. It’s not one of the ones that was targeted for an upgrade even though it desperately needs it and could really use one of those new towers that signals an oncoming bus because when it’s still dark I pretty much have to step out in front of the bus and wave a flashlight back and forth like I’m signaling a train.

Really they all look like they should be named “Arthur” to me. Source: Wikipedia

Also both keep coyotes away. Source: YouTube

That’s not the biggest problem, though. The biggest problem is that there is no sidewalk on the main road. Well, there is a sidewalk, but it’s conveniently placed on the other side of the road which means if I want to use the sidewalk I have to cross the road—in the dark—which would put me in the perfect position to catch the bus going in the opposite direction. I don’t want to do that so I’m stuck walking a narrow gravel trail between a ditch and the roadway, and walking with the flow of traffic. That means fast-moving vehicles zip right by within inches of me and I understand why in school we were taught to walk on the side of the road facing oncoming traffic, but I can’t do that for reasons already discussed.

Now, however, there are apartments going up along the main road, and that’s prompted the installation of sidewalks. It also means more people and more traffic, but at least we have some place to walk.

Just The Two Of Us.

One of the tough things about public transportation must be that buses never stop running. Well, they do very late at night–in most cities I think it’s between two and five a.m.–but as long as the drivers are working they’re stuck in a non-stop loop. They’re not like taxi drivers who can sit in a queue at the airport or a hotel and maybe get a quick nap before someone jumps in and asks for a ride. Bus drivers have to keep going, burning fuel, even if they’re not carrying anyone.

I thought about this the other day when I got on the bus and I was the only passenger. This was a bit of a shock. There are always at least three or four other people already on the afternoon bus when I board it. And it’s not as though this was a different driver who was running on a weird schedule, causing everyone who normally caught the bus to miss it. In fact just the day before there was a substitute driver, a guy I’ve never seen before, who showed up at my stop about ten minutes early and the bus was packed.

It was the regular driver the day the bus was empty, a guy who’s considerate and recognizes passengers–he always pulls up a few feet past the actual bus stop to drop me off at the corner where I cross the street–but never talks to anyone. The rule is no one’s supposed to talk to the driver, but some drivers, even most, are chatty. They carry on conversations with people. Sometimes they even interrupt other peoples’ conversations to offer their own opinions. Once, as I was waiting at a stop, a driver went right by me without stopping. He then ran a red light and stopped on the other side of the street. I guess he thought this would compensate for his moving violation. I ran and had to tap on the door to get his attention because he had his body turned halfway around so he could carry on a conversation with someone sitting behind him.

It’s never really bothered me that the current driver on my route never talks. The other people on the bus act as kind of a buffer. If he’s not talking to them I just assume he’s not interested in talking to anyone and I can sit in the back and listen to my podcasts. With just the two of us, though, I was suddenly in a difficult position. What if he’s lonely? What if he’d like to talk to someone but just has trouble starting conversations? He and I may be strangers but we pass by each other on a daily basis. Maybe I should say something. I didn’t, though. I stuck to my routine. I sat in the back and listened to my podcasts, but unsure the whole time.

When we came to my stop he pulled a few feet forward. I walked up to the door and, as I always do, said, “Thank you very much.”

Normally he just nods at me. This day he said, “You’re welcome. See you tomorrow.”

Maybe that’s all he had to say.


My Two Cents.

There were a bunch of pennies on the sidewalk. Why someone left them there is beyond me, and I could have just left them, but instead I picked them all up. Hey, if you see a penny and pick it up all the day you’ll have good luck, right? And even though the day was mostly over and I was headed home I figured maybe it’s a twenty-four hour good luck and maybe it’s cumulative so picking up all those pennies I’d get nine or twelve days of good luck. I couldn’t use the pennies to pay my bus fare, unlike that time several years ago when I poured exact change–all in pennies–into a bus fare collector, but still pennies add up. That’s at least one reason I think the US Treasury keeps producing pennies, unlike our neighbor to the north Canada that abandoned the penny a few years ago. And that’s one of the few things Canada has done that bugs me a little. When I was a kid I was bitten by the numismatic bug, although the doctor gave me a shot and I got better. It was finding Canadian pennies in change that got me interested in coin collecting; it made me feel in touch with the rest of the world. Years later I’d get a job in a mailroom and the foreign stamps that came in turned me into a bit of a Johnny-come-philately, but that’s another story.

Coins even helped teach me some history, like when I first found a 1967 Canadian penny which, unlike the regular maple leaf penny, has a  dove. So it doesn’t bother me that my collection of Canadian pennies, large as it is, is still barely worth a loonie–even less than that, now that the pennies are no longer legal tender. It’s a shame the 2017 Canadian coins, which celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Canadian Confederation, won’t include a penny.

Still I wish Canada good luck on the sesquicentennial. Hey, here’s a penny.


Window Seat.

I like the window seat. In fact I prefer the window seat, even on airplanes, in spite of the possibility that on a long flight I might need to go the bathroom and potentially inconvenience the person sitting next to me, but that’s never happened. Maybe if I flew first class where they give you unlimited beverages and fresh fruit and play soothing waterfall sounds it would be a problem, but I usually fly steerage where the one ersatz soft drink and package of salty pretzels has never been enough to even wake up my bladder. The only time I’ve ever had a problem with my seat on an airplane is when we flew over the Grand Canyon and the captain tilted the plane so everyone on the left side could get a good look. I was on the right side and all I got a good look at was clouds and sky and tried to ask him if he could circle back around, but that’s another story.

On the bus I like the window seat too, but it bugs me that most buses are now covered with advertisements. Sure, they’re perforated so I can see through, and if I wanted to stick my tongue out or make other rude gestures at drivers going by they probably couldn’t see me. The seats on the bus sit higher than most cars so I get to look down on people in their cars and think, “Playing Words With Friends, eh? Did you notice the light changed?” And I like to watch the neighborhoods and businesses roll by. Things are always changing and it’s fun to see a new business or building going in or sad to see an old one go.

Still I get it that in order for public transportation to continue serving the public it has to be profitable and that fares–currently $1.75 per person–don’t come close to covering even fuel. So buses get to be moving billboards, mostly advertising lawyers which sometimes makes me wonder if I could sue for an unobstructed view. I’d probably have better luck against the airline for depriving me of a view of the Grand Canyon.

This post brought to you by DuBrow’s Hard Gravy. Celebrate summer responsibly by pouring it over fruit or your other favorite foods. Or drink it straight from the can. As long as you don’t sue us we don’t care.


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