Adventures In Busing.

Never Tell Me The Odds.

schooledIn grade school I had the world’s best bus driver. That may seem like damning with faint praise but I’m serious. We were let out of school late one day when it started snowing and she did her best to get us home through covered streets, maneuvering around stuck cars. Most of us had to be dropped off at the bottom of a hill and ended up walking farther than usual but she took down every kid’s home phone number and when she got home called all our parents to make sure we’d made it safely.

That’s not the story I want to tell now.

The story I want to tell now is about the world’s worst bus driver who I had to deal with only one day in grade school.

I was in first grade and still not quite used to riding the bus by myself. Each route was assigned a very specific bus number but I hadn’t bothered to memorize it. I’m not sure why. I just looked for my bus driver. She was a distinctive woman with an enormous head of bright red hair and she always wore dark glasses.

What are the odds she’d have a twin sister who also drove a bus? At least I got lucky and got stuck with the good twin most days. But really what are the odds I’d not only end up with someone who looked just like the driver I knew?

I had a funny feeling something was up when a kid I only knew from school saw me on the bus and said “Hi Chris!” I didn’t know where he lived. All I knew is he didn’t live anywhere near my neighborhood. I’d never seen him on the bus before. But I was still new to riding the bus. I’d only been in first grade about a month or so.

I felt even funnier—okay, maybe “funny” isn’t the right word for it—when I was the last kid on the bus and the driver asked me where I lived. I told her. She laughed and said, “Where is that?”

That’s not a question you want to hear when you’re six years old and the last kid on the school bus.

She started pulling over and asking people she saw in their yards if they knew where my street was. And what are the odds I’d end up with a driver who didn’t know her way around well enough to find a street on a different route?

“I got this little girl here…”

Oh yeah, I had to remind her I was a boy. I realize small children can seem androgynous but you’d think after three times she’d remember that I wasn’t a girl.

Obviously this story has a happy ending. My mother had noticed I didn’t get off the bus with the other kids and was driving around looking for me. She found me while I was standing in a stranger’s yard reminding the bus driver for the seventh or fiftieth time that I was not a girl. We were two blocks from my street—within walking distance actually.

I learned an important lesson that day. You’re probably thinking I learned I should always make sure I got on the right bus and not to just make superficial assumptions, and you’d be wrong.

What I learned is you can beat the odds.

Know Your Driver.

001As I was getting off the bus the driver said to me, “See you tomorrow.” And that’s when I realized she was the same driver I’d seen the same day every week. I don’t spend a lot of time looking at the bus driver. When I board I’m only really concerned about getting to a seat before the bus lurches into motion and throws me to the floor. This particular day that was especially true because it looked like someone had dropped a burrito in the middle of the floor and someone else, or maybe the same person, had then stepped on it so there was a big squirt of refried frijoles and red sauce, or maybe blood, smeared along the floor.

Someone had lost their lunch and I’m just glad I mean that literally and not metaphorically. It didn’t smell like anything. It just looked awful.

When the driver said “See you tomorrow” I turned around and recognized her but also realized she’d changed her hair style. That made me feel even guiltier for not at least saying hello when I got on the bus instead of just thinking she was a different driver as I barely looked at her while boarding. I couldn’t tell you her name but I feel like I get to know certain drivers who stick with the route for a while, and who I see on a daily basis. And it always surprises me when they recognize me too. I figure bus drivers must see dozens, maybe even hundreds of different people every day. How could they pick a single guy out of the crowd?

I made a mental note to say something nice about her hair the next day, and I would have too if she hadn’t been wearing a hat. At least I said hello this time.

My Favorite Curse Word? All Of Them.

There are a lot of different paths I can take to the bus stop. That’s one of the advantages of being a pedestrian: I can cross parking lots, greenways, weave all over sidewalks, cut through parking garages, and even jaywalk if I want to. But there are also places where I’m hemmed in. Once I start down a particular path there are locked buildings, fences, walls. If I decide to go another way I have to go all the way back the way I came and then I’m gonna be late for the bus and I’m getting tired just writing this run-on sentence.

I don’t mind taking a detour if I have to but the other day this happened.

blockedIn case it’s not clear the whole sidewalk on the right side has been blocked off for about six months now for some kind of construction that the crew doesn’t seem to be in any great hurry to finish. And now there’s some kind of construction on the left side of the street.

There was no easy way around it. I had to backtrack several blocks and if you’d been with me on that detour and heard what I said you might have thought I was suffering from de Tourette’s.

The Connection.

Source: Wikipedia

Bus stops are public spaces so I shouldn’t feel uncomfortable when sharing them with other people but I always have this very low level nervousness when I’m not alone at one. Who is this person? Are they thinking anything about me? Did I remember to zip up my pants? Sometimes I’ll see the same person over successive days, even weeks, and that makes me even more nervous. Should I say something? What should I say? Maybe it’s better if we just pretend we’re each alone here.

I’d never seen the guy who rolled up in a motorized wheelchair before. He had straw colored hair and blue-tinted glasses. The sound of his wheelchair had made me turn and we accidentally made eye contact so I gave him a polite “hello” nod. Good save there.

“Anybody ever tell you you look like John Boy Walton?” he said.

All my nervousness melted like an ice cube under a blow torch.

“No,” I said, smiling. “Never heard that one.”

“You’re kiddin’! You look just like him only younger.”

I almost wanted to hug the guy. I’m pretty sure being compared to Richard Thomas is a compliment. He certainly made it sound like one. I thought about telling him about the time in high school when a girl broke my heart when she told me I reminded her of Jim Belushi. If she’d said John Belushi I would have taken some comfort in being compared to the funny one but even though this was when Jim Belushi was an SNL cast member himself the comparison still felt like the kiss of death. Or rather just death since there was no chance she’d kiss me, but that’s another story.

“So where are you from?”

I told him right here in Nashville and he was surprised again. We chatted some more and learned we’d both been born in the same hospital, albeit a few years apart, which we could see from the bus stop.

Then the bus pulled up and I stepped back and let him board first. He had a large sign on the back of his wheelchair advertising a cell phone company. Funny that, I thought. He’s probably making money carrying a sign for a way people communicate, but he and I made a brief connection.

Being compared to Jim Belushi still smarts. Somebody please tell me there’s no resemblance.

eyes

 

Rule Bender.

martinI was a few minutes late but even though I was on the opposite side of the street I got lucky: the bus had passed the designated stop but was at a red light. I ran across the street and tapped on the door. Inside I could see the driver shaking her head and saying something. I couldn’t tell what she was saying, though, because the door was closed. The light changed and she drove on. The bus had pulled away from the curb–what there was of it, since construction had blocked off the sidewalk, forcing me to stand in the street—so letting me on would have broken the rules.

As a regular bus rider I recognize certain drivers. Some of them even recognize me which always surprises me because even on a regular route a driver must see dozens, even hundreds of different people every day, but that’s another story. Maybe she recognized that I didn’t regularly try to break the rules. This was an exception, not the rule. And technically the rule is that you can flag down a bus at any intersection. She had pulled away from the curb but letting me on would have really bent, not broken the rules.

I know the rules are there to keep people safe but there has to be room for extenuating circumstances and even compassion, no matter how small. And, as I said, I recognized this driver. She regularly lets people stand in front of the yellow line at the front and talk to her while she’s driving. On long stretches where there are no stops or intersections she still creeps along in the right lane so she’s usually behind schedule. And if there’s construction near a stop–if it’s fifty or a hundred feet ahead of a stop–she won’t come to the stop but will only let people board fifty or a hundred feet behind the stop. She’s emphatically stated that she won’t stop the bus anywhere near construction. That last one isn’t written anywhere but is her own self-imposed rule.

At least that used to be the case. I haven’t seen her in months. Maybe somebody reported her for breaking the rules.

Terror At Twenty Feet.

Source: Wikipedia

When I was in first grade my class took a field trip to the airport. I don’t remember very much about it except for the planes. We were taken inside some kind of military transport plane which was really uncomfortable because the floor was covered in rollers and there was no place to sit down while some guy in a uniform talked to us about the CRM 114. And then we were taken onto a regular passenger plane and each given a seat. We were supposed to go up for a short flight but one kid’s mother objected so we stayed on the ground. We were each given a Coke, which seemed more dangerous than flying because the week before our teacher had done the science experiment where she put a nail in a Coke and it disappeared, but that’s another story.

In seventh grade my class took a field trip to Washington, D.C. which was exciting because we’d fly there and I had never flown before. It would be my first time on an airplane.

My friend John and I sat down in adjoining seats. It was a bright, sunny day.

“Hey,” I said, “our window is right on the wing.”

John didn’t say anything.

“Remember that Twilight Zone episode? The one with John Lithgow. I mean William Shatner. The one with the creature on the wing.”

“Shut up,” said John quietly.

“There’s a man on the wing!” I yelled. This was even true. There was a guy in a jumpsuit checking the engine.

“Shut up!” said John a little louder now.

“Hey, you wanna see something really scary?”

“Shut up, shut up, SHUT UP!”

During the summer John and I would sometimes go to Opryland together and he’d chide me for being afraid to ride the rollercoasters. He’d lecture me about how safe they really were, how much fun it was to feel that rush. It never occurred to me that John would be intimidated by flying. We hadn’t even taken off and he was scared.

I hoped we’d fly through a storm.

Strangers On A Bus.

nightbusThe Greyhound bus was packed on this particular evening, which was unusual. I’d ridden it half a dozen times or more and there’d always been just a few of us on leaving the station at ten o’clock at night. I’d take a quiet corner in the back and read, undisturbed. This night there were no empty seats and a man with straggly strawberry-blonde hair and an unevenly cut moustache slipped into the seat next to me. As the bus rolled on he started to talk.

“Man, this bus ain’t nothin’ like the old days. The old days were so good. You could smoke, you could drink. There’d be old ladies with big jugs of wine passin’ em up and down the aisle and they’d be carryin’ boxes of live chickens. Everybody smoked. Everybody drank. Everybody made so much racket. The bus’d go from side to side like this.” He leaned back and forth, pressing into me then pulling away. “You ever ride the bus in those days, man?”

“No, never did. I didn’t know it was like that.”

“That’s when ridin’ the bus was fun. Everything went on in those days man. All those ladies with their wine and everybody yellin’. You never knew what was gonna happen. I remember somebody got killed in the back of the bus. Got a knife stuck right in him. Nobody knew until the bus stopped and he was just left back there in the seat.” He looked around. “That could happen now too. It’s so dark in here. Somethin’ like that could happen and nobody’d know.”

The Ray Bradbury story The Town Where No One Got Off flickered across my mind. It’s about a chance meeting between strangers that almost leads to murder.

I had a large thick book with me and held it up as kind of a shield between us.

“Whatcha readin’?” he asked.

“A book by the Marquis de Sade.”

“Is it good?”

I narrowed my eyes. “It’s great. Everything goes on in it. There’s all kinds of torture and crazy sex. It ends with a massive orgy where all but a few of the characters get violently murdered.”

At the first stop most of the passengers got off and he moved to another seat.

Moral: Know your safe words.

Alternative moral: If you can’t join ’em beat ’em.

 

 

 

Taxi Driver.

goatThe train pulled into Nottingham station a little after 11:00pm. As much as I enjoy traveling on trains it had been a grueling day going literally from one side of Britain to almost the other side. You can look at this map of Britain to get an idea of my trip: I’d had to take a train from Carmarthen in southwest Wales to Cardiff, then, after about an hour layover, an uninterrupted ride to Nottingham—uninterrupted, that is, except for stops in every major city and several minor ones along the way. In spite of that I held the foolish hope I’d get to Nottingham in time to catch a late train to Grantham which doesn’t appear on the map but it’s east of Lincoln.

I should have known better. Not only did I have hours and hours to pore over the train schedules, but a month before I’d taken a trip to see an evening play in Birmingham and ended up spending the night in the Nottingham train station because I missed the last train to Grantham. My trip to Carmarthen had me on exactly the same schedule.

While spending the night in the Nottingham train station the thought “call a taxi” crossed my mind but I thought, no, that’ll cost a bloody fortune. Facing the possibility of another night ambling through Robin Hood’s hunting grounds I went to a shop and bought a couple of kebabs. (If you don’t know what an English kebab is Pinknoam previously proffered a paean to them here. In America we call them “gyros”, pronounced like a flavor of international currency that terrifies the British, but that’s another story.) I wasn’t really hungry but I was still in travel mode and hadn’t consumed anything except apples and Guinness for thirty-six hours. Sooner or later I was going to be hungry. I wrapped the kebabs up tightly and stuffed them in my bag. Maybe I’d eat one in the middle of the night and have the other for breakfast.

After an hour I broke down and decided it wouldn’t hurt to get a price quote. There was a Grantham taxi company called KC Cabs that offered discount rates to students. And £16 was a very small price to pay to sleep in my dorm bed rather than on the train station steps. Small enough to make me wish I’d called them before, but hindsight is always crystal clear.

When the cab pulled up I could see the driver was Big Dave. He was called Big Dave because he took up the whole front seat of his cab. That’s not an exaggeration. I liked him. Big Dave was friendly and funny and always had a story, like the time he was so drunk he decided to go for a swim in the fountain in Trafalgar Square. Fully clothed. On New Year’s Eve.

This particular night he was unusually quiet. The cab sped through country dark. Swirls of mist curled away from the headlights. When I looked out the window I could barely make out the jagged edges of treetops. Finally I broke the silence.

“There’s no moon out tonight.”

“Yer,” said Big Dave. “I noticed that too. It was a night like this I drove myself to the hospital.”

This sounded uncharacteristically unfunny for Big Dave, but if he had a story to tell I was along for the ride, both metaphorically and literally. And since he was still alive I knew the story would have a happy ending even if it was going to be a bumpy road getting there. I strapped myself in.

“It was in the Lake District. You been to the Lake District?”

I hadn’t. Going to Wales to visit the home of Dylan Thomas was a much higher priority for me, but I really dug Coleridge too and had thought about planning a trip out that way. Friends told me how trippy it was to go and see the exhibits of his drug paraphernalia. Plus it just sounded beautiful.

“It is beautiful out there. Gorgeous scenery. I do photography. I like to photograph the goats out there. Not many out there but sometimes you can find them. I was out there in the middle of the country and I see one standing on a crag all lit up by the setting sun. God he was beautiful. To get the best shot I had to get closer so I got down on my belly and started inching forwards.”

I stifled a laugh. Big Dave always wore the same gray green sweater and with his salt and pepper hair I imagined him looking like a big mossy boulder.

“As I was inching along that’s when I felt the little nip at my ankle. Like a needle.” He paused. “There’s only one venomous snake in Britain and I’d just trod on it.” He laughed and I laughed too, glad for a break in the tension.

“I hadn’t got the worst of it,” he went on. “Drove to nearest hospital and they tell me they can’t treat snakebite. Can you believe that? Not enough call for it but they tell me there’s another hospital that can help, but it’s miles away and their only ambulance was out on a run. This was a little country place. So I drove myself. Whole trip was about as far as I’m taking you tonight. Miles of empty country all around. No place to stop.” He chuckled. “Well, do you think I made it?”

“Seems like you did,” I said.

We were both silent after that, then Dave said, “No place to stop around here. I wish I’d thought to bring my flask of tea with me or a sandwich. Could really do with a sandwich right now.”

Suddenly I was hungry too and I remembered what was in my bag.

“How about a kebab?” I said.

They were still warm. Dave stopped to unwrap his. “Thank you sir!” he almost yelled before biting it in half. Then he put the cab back in gear and we started off.

goat

Let’s Do The Bus Stop Again.

rockyhorrorI would like, if I may, to tell you a strange story. It could be a story about the time I was a fifteen and a strange man invited me into his Indiana hotel room. What he showed me was strange and exhilarating, a little bit frightening. It was fun and sexy and left me dazed and wanting more, and frustrated because it would be years before I could do it again. Even though he was breaking the law it still filled a deep need in me that I’d had all my life but had never really been able to articulate.

But the first time I saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show, on an illegal bootleg tape before it was officially released on video, is another story.

This is actually a stranger story about something that happened to me while I was walking to the bus stop. I have approximately seventeen different Rocky Horror soundtracks or cast recordings and at any given time I have some of them loaded on my phone and ready for my listening pleasure even though I only listen to them in the month of October.

I’m strange like that. Halloween is my favorite time of the year and I could indulge my love of Halloween stuff all the time, but I try to keep it partitioned off and only really get into the spirit of the season in October because the antici…………..pation just makes it so much better. It’s a delayed gratification thing.

I was walking to the bus stop in early October and pulled out my phone. I activated Siri and had the following conversation. The strangest part is I’m really not making this up.

rockyhorror1Even stranger was that the bootleg tape included this trailer for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which I’d never heard of before. The music sounded amazing and I thought, “Oh, cool, so this is a rock musical just like Jesus Christ Superstar.” Yes, exactly like Jesus Christ Superstar, only with corsets instead of togas. So. Do any of you guys know how to Madison?

Going The Wrong Way.

From here it doesn't really look like a spider web at all. Source: Nashville MTA

From here it doesn’t really look like a spider web at all.
Source: Nashville MTA

It had started to drizzle. This time, however, I hadn’t gone off and left my umbrella in my office. If I had I wouldn’t have hesitated to turn around and go get it. No, I’d left my umbrella at home. I’d just left the building where I worked and noticed a lot of people standing at the bus stop right across the street and the bus was approaching. There were just one problem: the bus was going the wrong way. Also even if this particular bus were going the right way it would not only take me far away from where I lived, its final stop was a parking lot/recycling center almost at the edge of the county. It’s really convenient for people who live in that area. They can park their cars at the recycling center in the morning, catch the bus into town, and then in the afternoon come back to find their car windows smashed in and their radios stolen, but that’s another story.

And that’s when it hit me. This bus was going downtown. All the way downtown. It was going to the depot where all the other buses go. The bus route map is like a giant spider web, a circular one, except the spider is clearly drunk and has been eating some really weird insects which is why there are no straight lines and the threads are all different colors. I probably should have stopped that simile before it went too far. The important thing is rather than walking in the light rain the usual mile to my usual bus stop I could hitch a ride all the way downtown and catch an outgoing bus from the depot.

Yes it would cost twice as much—years ago drivers used to give out paper transfers that were ten cents and that expired within half an hour, which never really mattered because no driver really bothered to look at the time stamp on a transfer. I once found a month old one in my pocket and a driver took it without a second look. Then they upgraded to a new automated system and scrapped the transfers. That didn’t bother me. I’d rather pay two fares and stay out of the rain.

And my plan worked perfectly. When I got to the bus stop near my home it wasn’t drizzling anymore. It was pouring.

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