Adventures In Busing.

In Memory.

Every once in a while I get lucky and ride one of the buses with the small plaque to the memory of Rosa Parks over the seats on the left side at the front of the bus. I wish it were larger, and I wish it could somehow make clear that anyone who rides the bus can sit wherever they want. Rosa Parks played a large part in making that happen.

Recently, though, I read an article about the movement for women’s suffrage and how much women of color, especially in the 19th century, were a part of it—a part that’s largely been erased from the history of the movement. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (September 24, 1825 – February 22, 1911) was a writer, journalist, teacher, abolitionist, and suffragist. In May 1866 she delivered a speech to the Eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention in New York City and cited, among other things, her treatment on public transportation. Here’s part of her speech:

You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs. I, as a colored woman, have had in this country an education which has made me feel as if I were in the situation of Ishmael, my hand against every man, and every man’s hand against me. Let me go to-morrow morning and take my seat in one of your street cars-I do not know that they will do it in New York, but they will in Philadelphia-and the conductor will put up his hand and stop the car rather than let me ride.

Going from Washington to Baltimore this Spring, they put me in the smoking car. Aye, in the capital of the nation, where the black man consecrated himself to the nation’s defence, faithful when the white man was faithless, they put me in the smoking car! They did it once; but the next time they tried it, they failed; for I would not go in. I felt the fight in me; but I don’t want to have to fight all the time. Today I am puzzled where to make my home. I would like to make it in Philadelphia, near my own friends and relations. But if I want to ride in the streets of Philadelphia, they send me to ride on the platform with the driver. Have women nothing to do with this? Not long since, a colored woman took her seat in an Eleventh Street car in Philadelphia, and the conductor stopped the car, and told the rest of the passengers to get out, and left the car with her in it alone, when they took it back to the station. One day I took my seat in a car, and the conductor came to me and told me to take another seat. I just screamed “murder.” The man said if I was black I ought to behave myself. I knew that if he was white he was not behaving himself. Are there not wrongs to be righted?

You can read the entire speech at Black Past, and note that she shared a stage with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Harper was speaking out eighty-nine years before Rosa Parks took a stand by remaining seated, which adds depth and context to the history of the civil rights movement, which is something to consider even now, when there are still wrongs to be righted.

Chance Encounters.

One of the downsides of riding the bus is I’m on someone else’s schedule. If I’m not at a stop at a specific time, or at least close enough that the driver can see me waving, the bus ain’t gonna wait around for me, especially in Nashville where the minimum wait time between buses is at least fifteen minutes and usually more. A little over a year ago when I was in Chicago I happened to notice that buses went by about every five minutes and there was the El that went by almost as frequently and I thought, what magical place is this? but that’s another story. Most of the time time isn’t a problem–I know when to leave work, and about when the bus will arrive–but then I have chance encounters with people on the street that make me wish I had a little more flexibility. For a long time there was a guy who stood on the corner across from where I work selling The Contributor, which is a newspaper written by and about people who are homeless in Nashville. It’s a way for them to earn money and find some support. I always felt guilty having to hurry by this guy and if I had a dollar I would stop and buy a paper from him, but mostly our interactions were limited to, “Hey, how’s it going?” He’d found a really good corner to sell newspapers, right at the intersection of two major streets, and close to a cluster of fast food places. A couple of them gave him free food in exchange for telling people how they helped him or giving out coupons with the newspapers. Sometimes he’d tell me he had a new issue and if I didn’t have a dollar I say, “I’ll get it tomorrow,” and the next day I’d make sure to have a dollar. After a few times he learned to trust me. And one day he stopped me and said, “Hey, I’ve got a new issue and this one’s really special. If you haven’t got a dollar today take it now and you can pay me tomorrow.” I said sure, and then he showed me that he’d written the front page article. It was all about how he’d finally saved enough to marry his girlfriend. There was a even a large picture of the two of them, he in a suit and she in a wedding dress. I read the article on the bus. They were planning to move back to his home state, temporarily at least, so he could take care of some legal issues he’d left behind when he became homeless. I really made sure to have a dollar for him the next day, and to congratulate him; I already felt like I’d missed a chance to get to know him, and I didn’t want any lingering debts. He disappeared not long after that, and I still wonder sometimes what’s become of him.
I was reminded of him when I had a very different encounter last week. I was standing on a different corner, waiting for the light to change, and I had three or four library books in my arms because I was researching something and I still like to use old fashioned books to do at least some of my investigating. And a guy came up to me, in jeans and a denim jacket and a woven cap, and he said, “Hey, are you a perpetual student like me?” I just stammered out a yes, and before I could say anything else he walked away, and even though he was going a different direction I thought about following him. I wanted to say, “Hey, what did you mean by that? And could you please tell me everything about you?”
Instead, when the light changed, I crossed the other street and went on to the bus stop. I still regret not following him even though it would have meant being late getting home. How do you prepare for such an unexpected encounter?

You Haven’t Got Mail!

So I was walking home from the bus and noticed a small envelope in every driveway. They were rectangular and about the size of any prepaid card. What’s this? I thought. A gift for all the residents of the neighborhood? Yeah, I’m not that naive; I knew it was an advertising ploy, and a cheap one at that. Whoever was behind it was too cheap to mail us their advertising. Instead of paying for a bunch of cheap postcards they could mail out they spent money on gas and time driving around the neighborhood throwing out a bunch of small envelopes they’d bought. At least they were smart enough to know they’d be breaking the law if they put the envelopes in peoples’ mailboxes. Mailboxes are only for stamped mail delivered by the postal service, although misuse of a mailbox isn’t exactly a frequently prosecuted crime. I do believe the FBI tried to pin it on Al Capone at one point but he successfully argued that he’d put a stamp on the mackerel wrapped in newspaper he left in the mailbox of his client, and the judge got the message. Here’s another fact about mail: if you get anything in the mail that you didn’t specifically order you’re under no obligation to pay for it. I learned this when I worked in a library mailroom and companies would sometimes ship unsolicited books to the library and expect to be paid for them, and I’d send back a nice letter referencing the specific law that addresses unsolicited mail. I still have that letter and occasionally send it to Nigerian princes who email me, but that’s another story.
Anyway I got a little excited as I got closer to home. I wasn’t going to steal an envelope from any of my neighbors, but I figured I’d find out what the advertising ploy was as soon as I got home. Except when I got home there wasn’t one in our driveway. It’s one thing to get a cheap sales pitch thrown in your driveway but I was too upset about being rejected to think of what the other thing could be. Why were we not good enough? What were we, chopped liver? Maybe not–I like chopped liver and I’m grateful to Ann Koplow for providing some background on that saying, which I think should be changed to, What am I, steamed broccoli?
Anyway the next day I found one of the envelopes in the street where someone had thrown it, or maybe they drove over it and dropped it somewhere. It was a business card some kind of house cleaning service and I felt better that they obviously felt our house didn’t need cleaning. It was exterior cleaning; if it had been interior cleaning I’d have gotten really paranoid about how they knew the inside of our house didn’t need cleaning. And there was a glass pebble in there to give the envelopes some heft for throwing.

And I want that company to know I’m keeping the pebble.

Under Cover.

There’s construction going on all over Nashville, along with prices, because, as I’ve heard some people say, Nashville is turning into Seattle, and it’s mostly people who’ve moved here from Seattle to get away from the high cost of living who say that and they’re the ones driving up the prices. It bugs me that there are so many places where construction has closed off the sidewalks and I have to make long detours to get wherever I’m going. The other day, for instance, I had to run an errand. Well, technically I had to walk the errand. I could have run, but it was a pretty long distance, and made even longer by the construction. I could have taken a bus but, well, Nashville buses are irregular, even on the main thoroughfares, and would have added at least another half hour to my errand, so I figured I might as well walk. When I got outside I realized it was raining, although I should have guessed it would be. We’ve had forty days and forty nights of rain this month alone since the weather obviously overheard people say that Nashville is turning into Seattle and decided Music City needed a Pacific Northwest soaking, but that’s another story. And I was too lazy to go back to my office and get an umbrella. The rain was only a light drizzle and I decided to take my chances that it wouldn’t get any worse. As I was walking along I passed this sign:It reminded me of the time I was on a Greyhound bus and before starting off the driver made some safety announcements. He didn’t say, “This is your captain speaking,” which I think would be a hilarious thing for a bus driver to say, but he did say, “Please do not open the windows except in the event of an emergency. The last person to open a window on this bus became the next emergency.” That was mildly amusing although it also made me a little worried since I was sitting in a window seat.

Anyway on my way back from walking the errand it started to rain a little harder, but for a good stretch the construction didn’t take me out of my way. This was the sidewalk:

I just wish they’d put in windows.


Riding Into The Future.

Some time in the 1990’s the Nashville Public Library put in an electronic catalog and I joked that it was great that they were finally moving into the 1980’s. I think I also threw in some references to Desk Set because there’s nothing like mocking technological advances with a film from before I was born, but that’s another story. Anyway the other day I had a similar experience when I found the bus I was riding had WiFi and I said something like, “Hey, the Nashville MTA is getting so 2012, and has anyone noticed our driver looks a lot like Spencer Tracy? I just hope he doesn’t drink like him.”

It was a lot better than having to rely on the WiFi signals around the bus. Sometimes it’s possible to get a signal from a fast food restaurant at a red light but mostly signals are touch and go.

And here’s a glimpse of my inbox. DON’T JUDGE ME!

It almost made up for the fact that the Nashville MTA’s bus tracking app seems to be permanently offline now. Well, it’s online. It just doesn’t track buses anymore. They even tell you that on the WiFi page.

And the next day I learned that not all buses have WiFi. Just the new purple buses with the slippery plastic seats. I learned it because I was picked up by one of the old standard buses that doesn’t have WiFi. On the bright side the driver looked a lot like Katharine Hepburn.


The Driving Force.

There’s a story about a country farmer who’s never seen or heard of a car and when one drives past his farm he runs and gets his shotgun and fires at it several times. The driver jumps out and runs off into the woods. The car, still running, rumbles off down the road. The farmer’s wife comes out and says, “Well, did you kill it?” The farmer says, “No, but I made it let go of that poor feller it had a hold of.” Maybe it’s just a story, or maybe it’s based on a real event. I had a distant relative named Uncle Rupert who was known for shooting at almost anything that came onto his property–squirrels, deer, encyclopedia salesmen, endangered birds–although he never, as far as I know, shot at a car. He did, during World War II, try to drive to Europe only to turn back when he realized it was full of foreigners, but that’s another story.
I thought about that story the other day when I heard about people in Phoenix, Arizona, violently attacking self-driving cars, including at least one person who fired a gun at one, not realizing there was a passenger in there and that a self-driving car may not be as quick as the older models to let go of whomever it’s got a hold of.
Anyway it got me thinking about the major cultural shifts that self-driving cars will bring, and I do think they’re coming. The recent developments of self-driving vehicles may not be the nail in the coffin of the traditional automobile but I think the undertaker’s making measurements. And as a modern mode of transportation the automobile has had a profound cultural impact in its time and the self-driving car doesn’t represent that big a change. It’s merely the next stage of a gradual evolution. Over the 20th century the automobile changed from a novelty to a necessity, from a short-range way of getting around to a device that can carry a person hundreds of miles. The cell phone has made it possible to reach a person even if they’re driving, and GPS devices make it almost impossible, or at least really difficult to get lost, unless you’re out of signal range, and it’s increasingly hard to find a place where there isn’t a signal. The days of unfolding a giant map and trying to figure out if you should have made that left turn at Albuquerque are gone. It’s hard to predict what changes self-driving cars will bring but, among other things, the driver’s license will no longer be a rite of passage. Kids will no longer need their parents to shuttle them around, not when the car that carries them to soccer practice can drive itself. I’d like to think the drive to and from work would be a nice chance to grab a quick nap but for most people it’ll probably be work time, which gives a whole new meaning to telecommuting.
It was that last thought that made me realize I was contemplating all this on the bus and that, aside from removing the driver and being a little more convenient, or a lot more convenient, driverless cars won’t be that much different from public transportation, which has me already looking to the horizon to wonder what the next big advance will be.
I hope it’s that we can drive to Europe.

Getting There.

Source: Safely Endangered

Last year I wrote a post about the length of years throughout the solar system, comparing all the planets and Pluto to an Earth year. To recap: it takes Pluto 248 years to orbit the sun, 165 years for Neptune, 84 years for Uranus, a little over 29 years for Saturn, 12 years for Jupiter, 687 days for Mars, 225 days for Venus, and 88 days for Mercury. This year I thought I’d do something a little different, inspired by Voyager 2, which, on December 10, 2018, left the solar system and became the second human-made object to enter interstellar space, following Voyager 1 which crossed over in 2012.
Voyager 2 is currently moving along at more than 34,000 miles per hour, and it took a little more than forty-one years to travel eighteen and a half billion miles. Radio signals from the craft, still being sent, take about sixteen and a half hours to reach Earth. That got me thinking about speed, specifically the speed of light. Voyager 2 isn’t anywhere close to the speed of light, which is 186,000 miles per second, and technically can’t reach that speed since mr = m0 / sqrt (1 – v2 / c2 ), but that’s another story.
Light from the sun, on the other hand, can travel at the speed of light and to put things in perspective here’s how long it takes to reach different markers through the solar system:
It takes light from the sun three minutes to reach Mercury.
It takes light from the sun six minutes to reach Venus.
It takes light from the sun eight minutes to reach Earth.
It takes light from the sun about twelve minutes and forty seconds to reach Mars.
It takes light from the sun about forty-three minutes to reach Jupiter.
It takes light from the sun more than seventy-nine minutes to reach Saturn.
Does sunlight ever reach Uranus? Yes, it does, but it takes sunlight more than two and a half hours–almost 160 minutes–to get to Uranus.
It takes light from the sun more than four hours to reach Neptune.
It takes light from the sun five and a half hours to reach Pluto–just under how long it would take to fly from New York to Los Angeles, minus the time you have to spend in security, which takes about two and a half hours if they have to examine Uranus.
And it takes that same sunlight four and a half years to reach Alpha Centauri, our nearest stellar neighbor. At its current rate Voyager 2 will get there in about eighty-six thousand, two hundred years, minus the time it’ll have to spend going through security.

Alpha and Beta Centauri. Source: Wikipedia

Will we eve get there? Maybe, but the future is very hard to predict.

Moving Right Along.

It was early so I boarded the bus in the dark. Well, it wasn’t just early–we haven’t reached the solstice yet so the days are still getting gradually shorter. Every year as the solstice approaches I wonder the same thing, about how early people might have felt about the nights growing steadily longer. Humans first appeared in Africa, close enough to the equator that they wouldn’t have seen much change in the length of days. As they spread to other latitudes was their migration slow enough that they took the change in stride, or was there a year when they were terrified there’d be a time when the sun would dip below the horizon and never return? Either way there must have been an unease that gave way to solstice celebrations that we still have today.
Riding the bus in the dark didn’t bother me but I was annoyed that I’d missed the Geminid meteor shower the night before. It wasn’t because I’d overslept but because the skies were cloudy all night, meaning I’d missed what was supposed to be a pretty spectacular display averaging more than a hundred and twenty meteors per hour. And then I started thinking about how meteor showers are caused by the Earth passing through swarms of meteors, worlds–or perhaps a world and the remnants of one–colliding. And that got me thinking about the approaching solstice and how our planet is in constant motion. Not just our planet, either, but every planet of our solar system, and our own sun is in motion as it bobs up and down in an arm of the Milky Way, itself slowly turning and moving through space, growing ever closer to our nearest neighbor, the Andromeda galaxy. All this makes specific locations in space, and even time, relative, which raises the question: why is it on Star Trek that the Enterprise always arrives at a planet during working hours?
“Well, we’ve arrived at Tau Ceti Five and we’re ready to beam down, why is no one answering?”
“Sir, it’s two a.m. down there.”
Then again there’s the old saying that in space it’s always five o’clock somewhere, but that’s another story.
All this was buzzing in my head but at the same time I was keeping an eye on the road ahead to make sure I didn’t miss my stop. Then, about four blocks from where I wanted to disembark, the driver pulled over. There weren’t many people riding the bus and he’d been moving along at a pretty good clip so he was probably ahead of schedule and needed to stop. I understand the necessity but it also annoys me when the bus comes a stop. I want to get where I’m going. We were close enough that after a few minutes I stepped off and started walking. And I’d waited just long enough that as soon as I was ten feet ahead of the bus it started up. “Naturally,” I muttered.
Then the driver came to a stop right next to me, opened the doors, and said, “You wanna ride the rest of the way?”
“Sure,” I said, and climbed back aboard. I only had a short distance to go but I wanted to keep moving.

Look Around.

There’s a Nashville tour bus that passes in front of the building where I work. In the summer months it’s open and people hang out of the windows. I wave at them as they pass by. Some wave back which makes me happy. I want visitors to enjoy themselves and feel welcome and think of this as a friendly place then go home because there’s too much traffic, but that’s another story. Sometimes when the buses pass by me they’re completely empty, and you might wonder why they bother, but people don’t buy just one tour; they buy an all-day ride and can hop on and hop off wherever they want. I’ve been at the Parthenon when the tour bus is there and overheard people say, “We’ll get the next one.” So, unlike most tours, they’re not bound by the schedule can stick around and look spend time at a specific place that interests them.
It’s winter now and the buses that go by have clear plastic windows that hang down like curtains. I can sort of make out people behind them but if they wave back I can’t see it. And the buses have a wreath on front, which is something new, or at least something I’ve never seen before.
One day before a meeting a coworker and I started talking about the tour buses and travel in general, and I said I like small towns and I’m intrigued by islands–that if I could travel as much as I wanted places like New Caledonia, Tuvalu, and Yap are at the top of my list.
“Are you a completist?” she asked. I’d never heard that term before but I loved it. Yeah, I like the idea of a small place because I hate going somewhere and feeling like I’ve missed things. There are places I want to go back to–Chicago, Cleveland, and Los Angeles are high on my list–because there are still things in those places I want to see. And that’s one of the challenges of travel: do you go somewhere you’ve never been or back to someplace you’ve seen for something new? Because everywhere there’s always something new. Every place is always changing, every place has something you’ve never seen before. Even Nashville, where I’ve lived my entire life, has constant surprises.
Maybe one of these days I’ll take that tour to see what the city has to offer that I haven’t seen before, and by taking the bus I won’t add to the traffic.

Missed Connections.

Someone left this on the seat one day when I rode the bus. I still wish I knew who they were.

It’s been a couple of months since I rode the bus home from work. Circumstances have meant that lately I’ve been driving to and from home, and there are a lot of advantages to that. The walk to the parking garage is longer than it is to the bus stop, but my schedule isn’t as rigid because I’m not trying to be on time to catch a bus that’ll probably be late or may not even show up or that may go right by me. I don’t have to stand in the rain or the cold, or even worry about those days where it’s too cold to go out without a coat in the morning and too hot to wear one in the afternoon. Sure, if I drive I still have to carry my coat home, but at least when I get home I can leave it in the car so it’ll be good and frozen when I need it the next morning, but that’s another story.

If there are funny smells in the car I at least know where they came from, and I never have to worry about finding a seat. The stop-and-go traffic is annoying, but at least I don’t have to cross busy intersections on foot.

And yet I miss riding the bus. I miss being able to sit back and listen to music or a podcast, and even though I don’t regularly talk to any other bus riders there are some I’ve come to know by sight. There’s the kid who always sits in the very back and has a sketchpad he’s steadily filling. One of these days, I keep telling myself, I’m going to ask what he’s drawing. There are the two guys who always sit together, one of them always reading a newspaper, the other reading a book. There’s the older woman who’s had several conversations with other riders and sometimes with the bus drivers about her husband’s health. She doesn’t have a lot of good news but as long as she still talks about him I believe there’s always hope. And there’s the guy with the really thick glasses who lives in an apartment complex along the route. There’s no stop at the entrance to the apartment complex but he occasionally asks the driver, “Can you stop here?” Most drivers oblige. Sometimes when I’m driving I’ll see him waiting at a bus stop. One of these days, I keep telling myself, I’ll stop and offer him a ride. And then there are just the chance encounters with strangers, people I might see once and never see again.

It seems strange to miss people I don’t even know, but it’s also been a good reminder of the value of public transportation, of how the connecting routes connect people too.


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