Adventures In Busing.

Stuck Standing.

Source: Singapore Times

So a sixty-year old man is facing two years in prison for sticking toothpicks in bus seats, which seems horrifying, appalling, even unfathomable, or at the very least excessive. Two years? A bus driver told me about a kid who threw a milkshake out of the window into the open sunroof of a car in the next lane, and, as far as I know, he got off with a warning even though there should be stiff penalties for wasting milkshakes, but that’s another story.

Granted it was in Singapore, which has a reputation for harsh penalties, that the man placed toothpicks in bus seats, but I still think there are extenuating circumstances. He didn’t want anyone sitting next to him, something a lot of us can appreciate. I know there have been plenty of time I’ve gotten on a crowded bus and had to stand and when a seat opened up I offered it to someone else. If the bus is crowded I always offer my seat to a woman, which I realize is either chauvinism or chivalry, although sometimes it’s just so I can get away from whomever I’m sitting next to. And there were times in high school when the bus I rode home was so crowded I had to stand, even though school buses aren’t designed with overhead rails and handles. Maybe someone should have gone to prison for that, although it’s hard to say whether it would be the bus driver, the other students who wouldn’t scooch over so we could squeeze three kids into seats that were only big enough for two, or me for hanging around so long I was the last one to board the bus. And don’t get me started on the problem of manspreading, where one guy will not only take up at least three seats meant for one but a good chunk of the aisle too.

Anyway I think it’s understandable when someone doesn’t want to sit next to another person. Buses often force strangers together and sometimes it can be rewarding and sometimes you can get stuck next to a person you can’t stand.


Talk To Strangers. Or Don’t.

The other day on my way to the bus I was listening to the September 24th, 2017 Live From The Poundstone Institute podcast. Paula talked to psychologist Nick Epley of the University of Chicago about a 2014 study he did on subway riders that found that people who talk to their fellow passengers tend to be happier than those who don’t. And it sounds pretty simple, although like most social research I think it should be taken with a salt shaker’s worth of qualifiers, considerations, exceptions, and clarifications. Most people I sit near or even on occasion next to on the bus aren’t interested in striking up conversations. Or at least they don’t seem to be. I don’t know.

Epley’s point is that we’re social creatures and that it’s our natural inclination to talk and interact with each other. He’d probably agree, though, that it’s more complicated than that. I think of a couple of older guys who used to ride my bus regularly. I’ll just call them Jerry and George. They always sat next to each other but the only time I ever heard them speak was when Jerry, whose stop came first, would tell George to have a good evening. George always read a newspaper and Jerry always had a book.

And I get it too that not everyone likes the kind of idle chitchat that strangers engage in, that we pretty much have to engage in to even begin the process of getting past being strangers. I’m one of those annoying people who doesn’t mind small talk, who’ll even start a conversation at inappropriate times. Once when I was sitting in a bathroom stall I recognized the shoes of a friend of mine in the next stall and I loudly asked him how it was going. He quietly muttered that he didn’t like to talk to other guys in the bathroom. I laughed and asked, “Why do you think that is?” And then when he didn’t say anything else as I was leaving I said, “Well, I hope everything comes out all right,” but that’s another story.

The ironic thing is because I was listening to a podcast I had earbuds in my ears, an almost universally recognized sign that says “leave me alone” and yet I thought maybe I should try to start a conversation with a guy who was standing at the bus stop when I got there. He was reading a book, another sign that usually says “leave me alone”, and I thought that in trying to spread a little happiness I might make him unhappy. And I’m also kind of shy. I’m happy to talk to strangers but I find it hard to start conversation unless the other person starts it first. Then the bus pulled up and he closed his book and I saw what he was reading: Catch-22.


Nowhere Is Still Somewhere.

Source: Streetsblog USA

Back when I finally got around to getting my driver’s license I first had to get a new learner’s permit—I’d originally gotten a learner’s permit when I was sixteen, but it expired in the intervening twenty years or so, but that’s another story—and I took the bus to the Department of Motor Vehicles. There was only one bus that ran kinda sorta close to the DMV and it only went there once every three hours. The bus actually ran every hour and a half, but on one of those trips it stopped in a completely different spot where you could still get to the DMV if you were willing to walk three miles and cross a couple of interstates. The bus stopped in the middle of nowhere, in a spot where no one got off and there was really no place for anyone to get on. The driver was surprised I had ridden that far and I thought the driver had made a mistake until I checked the route map and found that, yeah, this really was where every other bus stopped. Why the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere when it could just as easily have stopped about a mile back on the edge of somewhere is still a mystery to me, and fortunately I had the good sense to stay on the bus and ride back to the main station. Instead of having to sit out there in the middle of nowhere for an hour and a half I got to sit somewhere for an hour and a half.

It’s been several years but I wonder if the bus still stops at that same place. If so it could be a contender for America’s Sorriest Bus Stop which currently has stops in Seattle, Washington and Fremont, California going head to head. And those are some pretty sorry bus stops, but they look to me like they’re close to somewhere.

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.

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