Adventures In Busing.

Strike A Cord.

Most of the time on school field trips we’d ride on the yellow school buses, but once, on a long trip to Washington, D.C., we were carried around part of the way on a regular city bus complete with the side door and no emergency exit in the back and much bigger windows and the pull cords. I thought the cords would just ring a bell to signal the driver but the driver told us never to pull them because, he said, they were connected to the brakes and would stop the bus. At the time I thought, well that’s weird. What kind of bonehead thought that would be a good idea? I’d actually never ridden on a city bus before and it surprised me to think that passengers could literally be backseat drivers, that they’d have that much control over the bus. Now that I’m an adult with lots of experience riding buses and pulling the signal cords I realize, of course, that the driver only said that to prevent a bunch of rowdy kids dinging the bell every ten seconds and he succeeded.

Okay, I did at one point reach up to pull the cord just to see what would happen but Mr. Peters, the social studies teacher, grabbed my arm and said, “DON’T!” He was already keeping an eye on me because I’d wandered away from the group when we stopped at Monticello and then he watched me even harder for the rest of the trip, but that’s another story.

Anyway the other day I was the only person on the bus but as my stop was coming up I pulled the signal cord anyway because, well, I’m kind of a stickler for protocol and I didn’t want to bug the driver by going up and talking to her.

She slowed down and shouted, “Was that your stop I just passed?”

I walked up to the front and said, “No, it’s the next one coming up.”

“Oh, thank goodness. I was afraid I missed your stop.”

We didn’t have much time but we chatted a little bit about how some people pull the signal cord too soon and earlier in the day a guy had yelled at her because he pulled it too late after she’d already passed his stop.

“If I pull the cord too late that’s my fault,” I told her.

“I appreciate you,” she said as she slowed the bus to a stop. Then she opened the doors and said, “You have a good day now.”

“I hope yours keeps getting better,” I said and stepped off.

Not Going My Way.

What happens when a bus stop is discontinued? For that matter why is a bus stop ever discontinued? Every street corner is, technically, a bus stop: all you have to do is stand there and wave, unless you’re on a street where the buses never go, and in that case you’re going to be waiting a very long time, but that’s another story. There’s even a bus stop that I used to go to regularly even though it meant walking an extra three blocks every day. The bus had been rerouted for several months because of construction, so if I’d gone to the regular stop I’d have to wait a very long time. Now I’m back at the regular stop and the other bus stop has been discontinued even though there’s still a bench there, the bus still goes by there, and it’s on a corner.
I do know what happens when a bus route is discontinued: the bus just no longer goes that way. I once accidentally got on a bus on the #13 route and when I realized I’d made a mistake I got off and walked several blocks back to my regular stop to catch the right bus. I later realized if I’d stayed on the #13 bus there was a place much farther down the route where I could have transferred to my regular bus and I’d now have a story of riding the ill-fated #13. Why it was ill-fated is still a mystery to me since that one time I rode it the bus was packed and if I hadn’t already told you I got off the bus because I didn’t know I could eventually transfer to my regular bus I could tell you I got off because there was no place to sit down. It traveled down a stretch of road with a very popular local grocery, a very popular taco place, a very popular bagel place, and a laundromat that somehow stays open, but now anyone who expects to catch a bus at any of those places will be waiting for a very long time. The only thing I can figure is that someone official’s triskaidekaphobia really got the better of them which is unfortunate because they’re missing out on some really good tacos.
Anyway just for the heck of it one day I decided to stand at a discontinued stop just to see what would happen and what happened is that no buses stopped. No buses went by either because the route had also been changed which was why the stop was discontinued, but I didn’t realize that until I’d been waiting there for a very long time.

Lead, Follow, Or Get Out Of The Way.

Have you ever accidentally followed someone? Maybe this only happens to me. I’ll set out in a particular direction and there will already be a stranger fifty or a hundred feet in front of me. They’re going to the same place, or maybe they’re just headed in the same direction to a slightly different destination. Either way I start to get very self-conscious that I’m making them uncomfortable because I’m following them. If I can I’ll stop and pretend to be interested in a flower or sign or fire hydrant to give them some time get farther away, but then I think that just looks even weirder. I don’t want to get close, though, or, worse, pass them, because that’ll make them even more uncomfortable, I assume, but if I’m on a schedule I’ll probably pick up the pace because no matter where I’m going I like to be fashionably early. This is especially true when I’m headed home because I’d rather get to the bus stop early than have to run to catch it or, worse, miss the bus entirely.
So anyway I’d missed the bus entirely. I checked the app and it looked like the driver had been about five minutes early which annoyed me. It’s one thing for the bus to be late, and it usually is which makes me think they should really just adjust the schedule upward by about five minutes, although then every bus would be ten minutes late, but that’s another story. I started walking to catch the alternate bus that stops several blocks away but, since it’s an express bus, drops me off at about the same time so it’s a nice option if I feel like walking an extra half a mile, which is why I never take it unless I have to.
As I was walking I passed a guy waiting at another stop on the regular route and I thought, well, I guess I’m not the only one who missed the bus. I kept going. When I glanced back I noticed he was following me. It made me a little uncomfortable at first so I picked up the pace, but then I thought, hey, maybe he got the same idea I had. And when we got to the bus stop he said to me, “I saw you walkin’ and recognized you from the bus. So I knew we’d have to catch this one or wait around another half an hour.”
I felt oddly happy that I’d helped a stranger in this way, but then he lit up a cigarette. It wouldn’t have been so bad but I was downwind of him and there was a breeze, and I started thinking about ways to get fifty or a hundred feet away without missing the bus.


Fare’s Fair.

The university I work for pays me to ride the bus–that is, as long as I’m going to or from work I can swipe my employee ID and ride for free. If I’m riding the bus on my own time, just for fun or going somewhere, of course I pay my own way, because making the university pay for it would be dishonest and unethical and most importantly I don’t know if they check for that sort of thing. And it’s a good program. As a top-level administrator recently put it, “A university is a collection of academic schools all united by a common parking problem,” but that’s another story. Mostly too getting my card out of my wallet when the bus comes trundling along isn’t a problem, although there was one time when I was putting my card back in my wallet and the bus lurched forward. I fell and broke my card into pieces and was prepared to pay the $20 replacement fee but the people at the card office told me the replacement fee was only for lost cards and they gave me a new one for free. So if I ever do lose my card I know I just need to steal someone else’s, smash it, and pretend it’s mine and hope they don’t ask me to prove I’m a 79-year old Sri Lankan professor of entomology.
And I admire an Australian man named Meow-Ludo Disco Gamma Meow-Meow, and before you ask I admire him in spite of that being his legal name which sounds like something Godzilla threw up after swallowing a Japanese pop festival. Mr. Meow-Meow–I’m going to assume that’s how he signs formal correspondence–had his local transit card implanted in his hand so he wouldn’t have to pull it out of his pocket or wallet or sock or from wherever he might normally keep his card. All he had to do was wave his hand near the kiosk, which could still read the card under his hand, and he could ride. This wasn’t a problem until he was asked by security to show his card which he couldn’t do without ripping it out of his arm.
Now his decision may seem to be well on the distaff side of the line between genius and madness but I’m not kidding when I say there is something admirable about it. I like to think he really thought it through and was willing to accept that in the future the card system may change, requiring removal and possibly a new implant, but he’s willing to accept some possible future inconvenience to have a little more convenience now. And the case does raise ethical questions about implantable technology, the rights of the individual, and the definition of private property. He was fined for failing to produce his card–fair enough, since he couldn’t, but I think the law and the transit system went too far when they cancelled the card, effectively taking his payment even though he didn’t violate the terms of service because he didn‘t “misuse, deface, alter, tamper with or deliberately damage or destroy” the card.
Even though Meow-Ludo Disco Gamma Meow-Meow pled guilty in court he’s considering further legal action and he’s running for local office, and I wish him luck. Also I kind of wish when he was stopped by security he’d just ripped the card right out of his flesh because that would have shown a real fare for the dramatic.


Supposedly there’s a Chinese curse that says, “May you live in interesting times.” I say “supposedly” because I once asked a Chinese scholar about that and she said, “I’ve never heard any such thing in my life.” It’s probably an expression some guy cooked up and to make it sound more interesting he decided to claim it was a Chinese curse. Uninteresting times can be a curse too. Recently I took a trip by Greyhound bus to Cincinnati. I made the same trip last year and then it was interesting because it had been about a quarter of a century since I’d taken a Greyhound bus anywhere and things had changed significantly. This time all the things that were different before were still the same. Well, almost all the same. The men’s restroom had just been repainted and I went in there and literally watched paint dry. Then, because I have a smartphone and the station had free wifi, I went out and looked up “watching paint dry” in Wikipedia. Smartphones mean we never have to be bored ever again, and I had mine loaded up with podcasts and music, and even if the battery went dead I had my bag with my journal and copy of Mark Twain’s Life On The Mississippi. I didn’t expect my battery to go dead, of course, because I knew from my last trip that the bus seats have plugs you can use to recharge your device.

I got on and grabbed a seat and a young man in a purple hoodie sat down next to me and we both had our phones out and that’s when I noticed there were no plugs at the seat I picked. My phone died about half an hour out of Nashville so I followed Twain’s progress to New Orleans while I went northward.

When we stopped in Louisville I went into the restaurant/gift shop to get coffee. Then, still holding my coffee, I wandered out then tried to go back in. “Sir!” yelled the man behind the counter. “This is for customers only! Once you go out you can’t come back!” This was more baffling than it was interesting.

Back on the bus I found a seat with wall plugs and my phone was full and so was my bladder by the time I arrived at the Cincinnati Greyhound station where the men’s room had not been freshly repainted because such a coincidence would have been too interesting for this trip.

I went to Cincinnati, by the way, to see some old friends and a talk by Neil Gaiman which was extremely interesting. There’s an old saying that’s also been attributed to the Chinese that the journey is more important than the destination, but sometimes it really is the destination that matters, especially when it’s the destination that’s interesting.

Rides From Strangers.

It was early in the year and early in the morning so I was standing at the bus stop in the dark. This was before a new bus shelter with a light had been installed–I was just next to the BUS STOP sign, and while the bus drivers always stopped for me I wondered how they even managed to see me there in the dark. Traffic zipped by so fast I figured I was a passing blur while I waited to be a passenger, but whenever I saw the bus coming I stepped up and waved to make sure I’d be seen. I was standing back, though, when a guy in a white pickup truck stopped and rolled down his window.
“You wanna ride?”
I wasn’t hitchhiking or even walking–there were times when a neighbor would see me walking home and would pull over to offer me a lift since they were going my way. And this got me thinking about hitchhiking, something I’ve never done. It’s funny that I can only think of two hitchhiking stories, both fiction. There’s Roald Dahl’s The Hitch-Hiker, which is a fun story about how he picked up a hitchhiker with an extraordinary talent (there’s an audio version here), and also Larry Niven’s The Deadlier Weapon, which is a fun story about a guy who picks up a hitchhiker who puts a knife to his neck, but it turns out the driver has, well, the title kind of gives it away. Anyway I thought it might be interesting to have a story of my own from the rider’s point of view, and while some people would have good reason to not hop into a stranger’s car I felt like I’d be able to take care of myself if things took a wrong turn. And I knew that, as a driver, I often see people at bus stops, some of whom I recognize from having ridden the bus with them, and I think about offering them a lift, but only if I happen to be going their way.
Then I realized I didn’t recognize this guy, but at the same time what were the odds that someone with nefarious intentions would happen to be just passing by me at that moment? And it’s not like I was standing on a streetcorner in a miniskirt at two in the morning. I’m not sure I’ve got the gams for a miniskirt so I’m going to wear something at least knee-length, but that’s another story. I was doing all this mental calculus at a rate I’m sure exceeded the speed limit–it probably took you longer to read all this than it took me to think it is what I’m saying, but while he was waiting for an answer I saw the bus coming along.
“No thanks,” I said.
“Sure.” He sped off down the road, which kind of confirmed for me that it was a friendly offer. If he’d wanted something, I reckon, he would have been pushier.
The bus stopped and I got on.
“If that truck hadn’t made me slow down I might have gone right past you in the dark,” the bus driver told me as I got on, and I sent out a mental note to the guy in the pickup truck. Thanks for the ride.

Lost & Found.

So I found a Fleetwood Mac CD while I was walking home from the bus. Maybe whoever it belonged to tried to fit it in their smartphone and realized it wouldn’t play so they threw it out in frustration, or maybe they were fighting off hordes of attackers, although I would have thought Tusk would be a better weapon. It reminded me of the time I found an egg along the same route, which still baffles me, and also generally how much trash I see strewn alongside the road, usually when I’m on my way to or from the bus. A lot of what I see is expected: paper, fast food containers, bottles. My pottery instructor uses blue glass in some of her works so whenever I see a blue bottle I pick it up and I realize that probably looks weird to people driving by to see a guy walking along carrying a big vodka bottle, but I try to make it look less weird by carrying a big bottle of orange juice in the other hand. Sometimes I find unusual things, like the time I found a nice dress jacket, maybe worn by someone whose job interview went badly, or odd little containers or toys, that I think I might take home and turn into an art project, and also just to a little bit of the trash off the street. It’s surprising that an average of four large cargo containers are lost at sea every day but less surprising that I found one while walking home and I can’t tell you how hard it was to pick that up and carry it home, but that’s another story. I think you can understand that the lesson here is that you can pick your friends and you can pick up trash but if you’re picking up your friend’s trash a guitar player should always have a pick.


Ride Along.

An article over at Mobility Lab got me scratching my head with this: “When public transportation makes a rare silver-screen appearance, it’s often the butt of a joke.”

How rare are the silver-screen, or, for that matter, small-screen appearances of public transportation? It’s not hard for me to think of movies that have scenes set on public transportation, and not all of those make where the actors put their butts a joke. And then I thought a little harder and it occurred to me that pretty much every movie and most of the TV shows I can think of that has at least one scene set in public transportation has another thing in common: New York. The major exception would be The Fugitive—the film, not the TV show, in which Chicago’s “L” train is an important element in at least two different scenes. So it’s not surprising that the article notes that New York’s subway system averaged one filming request per day just in the first two weeks of February and the Chicago Transit Authority allowed 152 in 2017. There must be a lot of filming on Chicago trains and buses that I’m missing.

Meanwhile most movies and TV shows set on the west coast—Los Angeles specifically—depend on cars because the LA public transportation system is, from what I’ve heard, an even bigger joke than the traffic-clogged freeways. I have ridden a free bus around Long Beach, but it only went about five blocks before I had to pay so I got off, but that’s another story.

I get it. I’m even sympathetic. One of the reasons I write about my adventures in busing is because I hope to encourage more people to ride buses. As the article says,

Featuring public transportation on TV shows and movies normalizes it. Characters riding public transportation makes transit another setting – a place where life happens. Seeing it on screen makes it easier to envision it in your life.

And I don’t want to sound like a starry-eyed idealist but I think public transportation helps create a sense of community. I’m not just talking about making places accessible. And I’m not saying you have to strike up conversations with strangers on buses, but public transportation gives you an idea what other peoples’ lives are like.

At the same time I sometimes need to get away. Sometimes I need to go to places that aren’t easily accessible, where there aren’t other people around, and I know other people feel that way too. That’s one reason I also drive. Right now Nashville is considering expanding its public transportation, but I think there are reasons we have not so great system we have that aren’t completely accidental. There’s a lot to be gained from better public transportation, but there are some important things we’d also lose.

Pod Person.

My father loves talk radio. On long road trips we listened to a lot of NPR, and when we were out of range of that he’d switch to the eccentric local preachers who had their own radio shows on backwoods stations all across the southeast, and who’d ramble on about how Mikhail Gorbachev’s birthmark, if viewed from the right angle, would form a clear 666, and I swear I’m not making that up. Broadcasters with weird conspiracy theories are not a new phenomenon, only the way some of them have managed to go global, but that’s another story. And since this was before I got my first Walkman, or, even after I got one, after the batteries had run dry, I’d sit in the backseat and beg for some music other than the admittedly catchy theme song for All Things Considered. So of course now that I’m an adult and can choose what I want to listen to, especially on my afternoon commute, I listen to a lot of podcasts. I listen to people talking, in case I need to underscore the irony for you, which I probably don’t but for some reason I can’t seem to shut up.
The importance of this really hit me about a month ago when I downloaded an update for the Apple podcasts app which had been working fine for years. The update came out in September so I don’t know why I didn’t do it sooner, or why I did it at all since people discovered almost immediately it was awful and, on my phone at least, crashed frequently because in the computer world if it ain’t broken some developer will have to tinker with it until it is.
Anyway I switched to another non-Apple podcast app and just because here are some of my favorite podcasts that frequently make me wish my commute were longer and glad my phone at least has a pretty long battery life:

Snap Judgment is mostly true stories with each show taking a theme. Some episodes offer multiple stories from different people, but a few are devoted to a single speaker. Host Glynn Washington also seems to have a bottomless series of his own life stories that he uses to introduce each show. And I’m pretty excited that a live event is coming to Nashville, to the Ryman Auditorium of all places.

Says You! is an NPR show that’s also available as a downloadable podcast. Says You! is a series of word games and puzzles. Recorded live its two three-person panels of supposedly educated and well-informed people who nevertheless don’t know what a bream is. It was sad when the show lost its original host and creator Richard Sher, but the current host Gregg Porter has filled in nicely.

The Dork Forest is comedian Jackie Kashian’s long-running podcast in which she has guests on to talk about what they dork out about although the conversations tend to get off into the weeds. The other day I was listening to the Labyrinth episode with comedian Virginia Jones while walking to my stop and I swear I thought I was going to miss my bus because I was laughing so hard I had to sit down.

The TED Radio Hour features snippets of three TED talks. Speakers are also interviewed by host Guy Raz and I always get a kick out of how they tie sometimes seemingly disparate topics together.

Lightspeed is a podcast of science fiction stories read aloud and even though they’re contemporary they take me back to my youth of devouring science fiction stories. It’s interesting to compare how authors, styles, and themes have changed since Mikhail Gorbachev was a world leader.

The Hilarious World Of Depression is usually hilarious and sometimes depressing as host John Moe talks mostly to comedians, although sometimes other sorts of performers, about their battles with mental illness. Also, completely unrelated, I have a humor anthology called More Mirth Of A Nation with a piece by John Moe in it, and I tweeted to him, “I’m sure you hear this all the time but” and that I loved his piece in that book,” and while it’s true I love his piece, “Terrible Names for Hair Salons”, I assume no one else has ever mentioned it to him. And he tweeted back that it was his first published piece, he was really glad I like it, and no one else has ever mentioned it to him, and now I feel incredibly embarrassed and if I ever meet him in person I’ll feel stupid and awkward and he will have completely forgotten it and I’ll feel compelled to explain it and start the cycle over.

In Our Time is a BBC podcast in which host Melvyn Bragg talks to three experts in a field about topics ranging from feathered dinosaurs to Picasso’s Guernica and I can feel my IQ tick up a few points just listening to it. Bragg is a longtime broadcaster who, every time he comes on the radio, always starts with, “Hello,” maybe because he wants every listener to feel they’re being addressed individually. A recent episode was about Moby Dick and it was kind of weird listening to three British scholars talk about Melville’s work as an example of The Great American Novel.

A Creative Mind Fiction Podcast is another podcast of fiction with authors Alice Nelson and Carrie Zylka doing most of the writing and other heavy lifting and a recent featured story, Hello. This Is Siri, by Nelson, really stuck with me for reasons that should be obvious once you listen to it.

Anyway those are just a few from my weird and eclectic listening list. What are some of yours?

The Conversation.

It’s difficult for me to talk about race, mostly because when I do I realize how little I know. As a white kid growing up in the suburbs my parents never had to have The Talk with me. I didn’t even know about The Talk, which many African American families call a matter of life and death, until a few years ago.

On some, but not all, Nashville buses there’s a memorial plaque to Rosa Parks, and when I see it I remember my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Turner, who taught us the story of Rosa Parks. This is the version we were given: Parks had a long, hard day at work and was sitting in a seat close to the front on a bus. A white passenger asked her to move to the back and she was so tired she couldn’t get up so she was arrested. Her case ultimately led to a boycott of the city buses and, after a court decision, city buses were no longer segregated.

That is more or less how it happened, but when the teacher told us that I wanted to ask, isn’t there more to it than that? I thought, and still think, Parks was very brave for refusing to give up her seat, but I couldn’t believe she did it just because she was tired on that particular day. I believed she was tired of having been asked to give up her seat repeatedly, and I wanted to know if she’d committed a deliberate act of civil disobedience which, I thought, and still think, would be even braver.

Since then I’ve learned that the story of Rosa Parks we were taught, while true, was also more complicated. She was a secretary for the NAACP at the time of her arrest and had attended a social justice training school. Her refusal to give up her seat was a decision she made in the moment but, in a sense, she’d been preparing for it for a long time.

But I didn’t ask, and I’m still not sure why. One of the things that made Mrs. Turner a great teacher is that she loved it when we asked questions. If she didn’t know the answer she’d tell us to go get a book and we’d read it together because she believed learning should be interactive. Mrs. Turner was also black and grew up in a segregated area. She told us how once, when she was very hungry and out with her father, she didn’t understand why they couldn’t stop at a particular restaurant, and why, when they went to another restaurant, they couldn’t go inside but had to sit out back. She wasn’t shy about sharing her experiences. I wish I hadn’t been shy about asking questions, not just about Rosa Parks but about Mrs. Turner. Had she always wanted to be a teacher? Did she ever imagine, growing up, that someday she’d be teaching kids of all races?

What Rosa Parks did, and Mrs. Turner sharing her own experiences, have one thing in common: they created an opportunity for conversation, and I’m responsible for being willing to take part.

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