Adventures In Busing.

Safe Seat.

busA lot of school buses still don’t have seat belts. I don’t know if there’s an accurate counting, and there probably isn’t because it’s something most people don’t think about unless something happens. The rest of the time if it comes up it’s usually controversial because of the cost–estimated between $7000 and $11000 per bus, although that would, for older buses, be a one-time charge. Seat belts could–and should–be installed in new buses. When I was a kid in school it came up occasionally, usually when there was an accident. I thought about it whenever I had to stand up in the back of the bus because there weren’t enough seats and I was unlucky enough to have a class on the far side of school which meant I was one of the last to get to the bus, although the only time I ever felt like I was really in danger was the time we had a substitute driver who not only didn’t know the route but apparently didn’t know how to drive a bus either and at one point took us up a steep hill, stopped halfway, then shifted into neutral so we started rolling backward. I realized the only safety instructions we’d gotten–keep all body parts inside the windows and in the event of an emergency exit through the back door–wouldn’t do a lot of good.

Admittedly neither would seat belts but it’s still criminally irresponsible that legislators agree that adults in private vehicles should be required to wear seat belts but when it comes to the same safety measure on buses they remain stuck in neutral. That’s what I thought of following a tragic bus crash in Chattanooga. Could any of the kids who lost their lives been saved by seat belts? Maybe not, but if even one life is lost because buses don’t have seat belts then the cost is too high.

Road Tripping.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

When I was a kid I was fascinated by animation. How did they get drawings to move? It wasn’t like magic. It was magic. Luckily there were a few educational programs—although now I don’t remember specifically which ones—that showed animators at work, how they drew on transparent cels and then photographed those against backgrounds, and also how to create flip books. My father worked for a steel company that had paper pads with the company’s name on them because if there’s one thing people associate with steel it’s paper. Anyway I’d take one of those pads and make my own flip books, drawing out the adventures of various characters like Periscope Man who was a vaguely sinister, er, periscope with one eye and arms and legs. He had a lot of adventures mainly because he was easy to draw but that’s another story.

And then I read about this public artwork that would give subway riders a short animation show. It’s the same principle as the flip book but applied differently.

Although I never got to see the Masstransiscope in action the fun part of learning about it is I realized  I could watch out the car window on long road trips and see the white lines along the pavement, or variations in the pavement itself, as strange, abstract animation.

Try it sometime—if you’re not the one driving.

Here’s a video of artist Bill Brand’s Masstransiscope restored in 2008 and a short video about the restoration.



Those Aren’t Pillows!

hospitalIt was a typical Thursday night in my college dorm. I was studying–specifically reading A Streetcar Named Desire–and my roommate was cutting apart bed springs and twisting the bits into a chainmail shirt since he belonged to a medieval reenactment group, although I didn’t think it was entirely accurate to use stainless steel bedsprings, but that’s another story. Naturally we had our door open when Carol, who lived on the girls’ side of the dorm stopped outside our door and said, “Hey guys, would you help us celebrate Gary’s birthday party?”

My roommate had just finished a chainmail sleeve so he was at a stopping point and while normally it’s difficult to tear me away from Tennessee Williams I felt like I needed a break. I’m also kind of a fan of birthdays and try to have at least one a year myself. Carol explained that

she’d be back later because Gary’s birthday was actually the next day and the plan was to give him a surprise party. Well, it wouldn’t be a party actually–mostly it was just a surprise.

At two a.m. Carol came back by to get us. This was not a problem: my roommate and I were both insomniacs, and it gave him time to get started on another sleeve and I had moved on to The Glass Menagerie. Gary’s roommate assured us he was sound asleep and the door was unlocked when we all burst in, screaming at the top of our lungs. We surrounded Gary’s bed, someone used a tie to blindfold him, and we carried him out to a car. He was squeezed into the back and we set off for parts unknown, not screaming now but jabbering, making up nonsensical chants, and, once we got out onto the highway, throwing out random non sequiturs–”Cheese, that’ll really block you up”–and vague hints about where we were. “Did that sign say ‘Welcome to Canada’?” Of course even Gary knew we hadn’t been on the road long enough; southern Indiana is a long way from Canada. We contemplated driving Gary to Gary, Indiana, and we also pondered how far we were from Normal. In a metaphorical sense we were all a long way from Normal. I’ve told you about my roommate and his metalwork. I was sitting next to Carol who wrote a weekly column for the school paper called “Out Of My Mind”. I’m sure I was weird in my own way, as were the other three or four people in the car. In fact Gary was probably the most normal of the group, which made him pretty weird. He went along blithely, never bothering to remove his blindfold. When we got to the state line and posed him for several photographs under the “Welcome to Indiana” sign he just stood there with a lopsided grin.

That’s a strange thing about this whole experience. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect intimate friends to do to one of their own but neither my roommate nor I knew Gary–until we burst into his room I wasn’t even sure what he looked like and there was only a brief glimpse between the initial entrance and his blindfolding that gave me a chance to say, “Oh, that guy…”

We would, in fact, never really get to know each other and on occasion when I’d pass by Gary and say hello to him he’d say hi in return but there was a look on his face that told me he wasn’t entirely sure who I was. All he knew was that he could depend on the kindness of strangers.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Source: National Library of Wales

Source: National Library of Wales

Dylan Thomas died on November 9th, 1953, almost sixty-three years ago, in New York after a series of reading tours and the premiere of his play for voices Under Milk Wood. In November 1991, twenty-five years ago, give or take a few days, I made a pilgrimage to Laugharne, Wales, the place he called home in the last years of his life and where he wrote his last poems.

I’ve written about my somewhat ill-fated trip to Dylan’s home before. What I didn’t think about until recently was the similarities between Dylan’s trips across the United States and my trip to and across Britain, what had and hadn’t changed, and what’s changed since then.

Dylan Thomas was a famous poet when he came to the United States to do a series of reading tours. His first trip was an overnight flight where he was too shy to talk to any of his fellow passengers whom he described, according to one source, as a lot of “gnomes, international spies, and Presbyterians”. I was a mere student wedged into a center seat–I always prefer a window seat–between fellow students. Dylan spent several days getting loaded in New York before he went off to other parts. As soon as I arrived in London my fellow students and I were loaded onto a bus and driven off to Grantham which gave us a few hours to get to know each other.

Dylan’s itinerary across America was carefully planned and he read and talked to packed performance halls. When I set out for his home I had no clue where the hell I was going and neither did anyone else. He was mostly driven across America although he also took a few trains. Most of my trip was by train, although I could only get to Laugharne by an old rickety bus–thirty-eight years after Dylan Thomas’s death the little Welsh seaside town he loved was still isolated. None of his biographers, including his wife Caitlin, know why he settled in Laugharne, just that it had always been a stop on his weekend pub crawls. He was a wanderer and I think he just found it by accident and liked the look of the place.

And on my return trip I arrived at Nottingham station so late at night I had to take a taxi from there to Grantham. I was driven by Big Dave who, when he learned where I’d been, told me the Welsh were a lot of gnomes, international spies, and Presbyterians.

The main thing that’s changed in the intervening quarter century is the internet. The Boat House Museum, closed when I arrived at its gate, has its own website. Now I can check train times and bus schedules too. I could plan out the entire trip from this side of the pond. In 1991 it was mainly dumb luck that I found myself accidentally sitting in Dylan’s seat, or in his corner anyway, in the Brown’s Hotel Pub in Laugharne where I drank a pint before I walked a bat-black path up a hill and sat by his grave.

If I made the same trip now there’d be no accidents, no missed connections, no aimless wandering. I’d know in advance what I’d find and that leaves me feeling something has been lost.


School Day.

schoolbusThe year I was in third grade Halloween fell on a Wednesday. This was always controversial because many churches hold a mid-week service Wednesday night and I grew up in the buckle of the Bible Belt. Halloween on Wednesday meant lengthy city council meetings to discuss whether Halloween could and should be moved to either October 30th (a bad idea) or November 1st (a worse one). At least if it fell on Sunday moving it back to Saturday was a better alternative.

In school on Tuesday my teacher Mrs. Tredway told us several times “There will be school tomorrow and there will be no costumes!”

I’m not sure whether she had a problem with Halloween generally or whether it was just because she was angry she wasn’t getting a day off. That afternoon on the bus ride home my friend Troy made sure everyone knew he didn’t care what Mrs. Tredway said. He’d be wearing his costume. Troy was my best friend. I feel kind of sad saying that now because for a long stretch of my childhood Troy was the only kid who lived near me–I lived at the top of a hill and he lived at the bottom–so outside of school he was really my only friend. That meant I put up with a lot from him, mainly his habitual lying. I learned not to question him when one night he called to tell me he had the entire cast of Battlestar Galactica visiting his house and I subtly suggested that was ridiculous. “They really are!” he screamed so loudly I almost dropped the phone. A few years later he told everyone at school he was leaving early to go do “some modeling work”. Nobody questioned him openly but we all rolled our eyes. A few years after that I was in a toy store and there was a picture of him on a board game so sometimes the most unbelievable things turned out to be true, but that’s another story.

So nobody expected Troy to really wear his costume to school the next day. I looked for him on the bus in the morning but there was no sign of him. He missed trick-or-treating because he was sick, but he did have a great costume. He was The Invisible Man.

And with that have a happy Halloween everyone. Lou Reed, if you would please.


Give ‘Em A Hand.

handIt was a dark, but not stormy, night, which was a good thing because it had also been a long night at the pub and I was feeling a little dizzy as I got into the cab. I was thrilled to see that Big Dave was driving. I’ve mentioned Big Dave the cab driver previously and it was always fun to ride with him, especially at night when he seemed even more inclined to tell an interesting story. As we left Grantham behind and drifted into Lincolnshire countryside he jerked the wheel hard into a turn.

“Sorry about that,” he said. “I think the hairy hand got hold of me for a moment.”

The sharp turn had brought everything into focus and I sat forward.

“What’s the hairy hand?”

“A legend. More a Devonshire story really but I think you’ll hear it anywhere there’s a lot of accidents. People say they’ve been seized by a ghost hand and that’s what caused them to go off the road.”

“And it’s hairy.”


We both laughed. Adolescent warnings of hairy palms crossed my mind but I also thought of disembodied hands in film. For most people I suspect The Addams Family comes to mind, and I really do think there should have been a special Academy Award For Best Performance By A Disembodied Extremity given in 1990 for that performance. There’s also an odd but fun anime film, Vampire Hunter D, in which the hero’s hand can detach itself and go off on its own. In between those is Bruce Campbell’s runaway hand in Evil Dead 2. And then there’s Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors, a British horror film I first saw as a teenager. It’s stayed with me because it’s an anthology of stories including one about an artist and a critic. The late great Christopher Lee plays the art critic who trashes an artist’s work and then is terrorized by the artist’s dismembered hand. As an amateur art critic myself I take it as a warning.

It’s a fun film and I wonder if that part of it was inspired by hairy hand legends. Or maybe there’s just something about the hand that makes us think of it taking on a life of its own.

Haint Misbehavin’.

nightbus1… damned spirits all,

That in cross-ways and floods have burial…

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act III, Sc.2

The Greyhound bus was packed. This was unusual, especially for the late run that left the station at 10pm. I’d been close to the front of the line so I’d snagged a window seat, which I preferred, but I was also close to the driver so I could also see out the front window. I wasn’t paying attention to the bus filling up until a man spoke to me.

“Is this seat taken?”

He wore a tweed jacket, a purple shirt, jeans, and a badly beaten leather hat with a large feather sticking out of it. He also had on dark glasses. A long gray beard trailed down, almost obscuring his bolo tie.

I said no and he sat down.

“I didn’t think it was taken but I asked anyway out of courtesy. Courtesy matters, especially to me. I’m an old hippie.”

He held out his hand and I shook it, wondering if I’d misheard that last part. Maybe “Old Hippie” was his name.

We chatted a little bit and then both got quiet. I read and he put his head back. I assumed he was asleep until I heard him say something.

“What was that?” I asked.

“We passed through a haint,” he said. “In the road. “At night whenever you pass through a foggy patch in the road that’s a haint and you should say the words to protect yourself:

Stay away, haint, stay away haint,

Your soul is damned but mine ain’t.

I thought he was kidding but he looked so serious I didn’t question it. I watched the road ahead. There are many low places where small patches of fog collect on cool, humid nights. The next time we passed through one I repeated the words with him. If nothing else I thought it would be courteous to do so.

I’m an old skeptic now but whenever I’m driving through the night and pass through a patch of fog I still repeat those words.

Stay away, haint, stay away haint,

Your soul is damned but mine ain’t.

Colossal Bus Adventure!

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

As a teenager with my first computer I played a lot of text-based games. They’ve stuck in my memory, maybe because I spent entirely too much time on them. The three main ones were Colossal Cave Adventure, Planetfall, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. The Hitchhiker’s game, like the novel, was written by the late great Douglas Adams, and was extremely difficult, even for fans of the books. The most seemingly inconsequential actions at the beginning of the game, such as feeding a cheese sandwich to a small dog, could have consequences much later in the game. That small things can have a large impact and you should never pass up the chance to do something nice are, I think, two major tenets of Douglas Adams’ philosophy. Colossal Cave Adventure was an open-ended fantasy treasure hunt that I never really got into. Planetfall was the one I spent the most time on. For some reason its plot of saving a lonely castaway on a distant planet appealed to me. And I was thrilled to learn the robot Floyd–spoiler alert–has to die as part of the game’s solution and will never again ask if you want to play Hucka-Bucka-Beanstalk but that’s another story.

It occurred to me while riding home one day that public transportation would make a pretty good text-based game in itself. I don’t have the computer skills to write a game but I thought it would make a funny story. So I’m foisting it on you, the patient, intelligent, thoughtful people who drop in here regularly. Even if you’ve never played any of the games I’ve mentioned you might recognize a few details.

You are standing on a desolate area of sidewalk that stretches from EAST to WEST. In front of you is YON BUS.


You board YON BUS. The driver is a surly looking peasant and demands payment before he will allow you to take a seat.


With what?


You check your pockets. You are currently carrying KEYS, a PHONE, a WALLET, and a small amount of LUCRE.


You don’t have enough.

The driver scowls at you.




The pass slides effortlessly through the slot in the fare machine which rings merrily.

The driver grunts and closes the door. He tells you to take a seat.


The only available seat is across from a woman with a small dog in her lap. The dog growls menacingly at you. However the seat is currently occupied by a cold half-eaten CHEESEBURGER.


The bus lurches forward. You’d better take a seat!


You sit down. Unfortunately you are still holding a CHEESEBURGER. Cold sauce of an indeterminate origin trickles onto your hand.


You don’t see any appropriate trash receptacles and you don’t want to be guilty of littering.


The small dog greedily devours the cheeseburger and gives you a look of intense adoration. You will be its best friend for the remainder of the journey.


Your phone is the pinnacle of modern technology. You can play games, listen to songs, perform calculations, send and receive emails, or catch up on the latest news. A small icon in the upper right hand corner indicates that the only thing you can’t do with it right now is make a phone call.


Your phone begins to play a jaunty medley of ‘80’s one-hit wonders. You lean back and enjoy the ride.

You don’t remember exiting the bus but you now find yourself in a dark cavernous room. The word DING glows from the far wall in bright red letters. Looking around you see a BAG and a JAVELIN. A grue is also in the room and advances menacingly.


You now have the JAVELIN. The grue continues to advance menacingly. It asks if you want to play Hucka-Bucka-Beanstalk.


With stunning accuracy you throw the javelin. The grue disappears in a cloud of greasy green smoke.


You now have the BAG. It’s full of copper ducats!


There are no exits. The word DING continues to glow on the far wall.


The sound wakes you up. Someone has pulled the cord to request a stop. You are still on the bus and have been dreaming.


You check your pockets. You are currently carrying KEYS, a PHONE, a WALLET, a small amount of LUCRE, and COPPER DUCATS.


You look out and realize you’ve passed your stop. The bus is now speeding along a desolate stretch of interstate. The woods are dark and likely infested with grues. Are you sure you want to stop?


Your phone begins to play a lively medley of ‘90’s one-hit wonders.

The bus rolls into the DEPOT. The driver announces that everyone must leave the bus. Exits are BEHIND and FORWARD.


You exit the bus via the rear doors avoiding a scowl from the driver.

It will be at least fifteen minutes before the bus departs. You begin to feel hungry.


You look around and see a VENDING MACHINE. Across the street is a COFFEE SHOP.


The machine contains a delightful array of tempting snacks. Unfortunately it does not take LUCRE, TWENTY-DOLLAR BILLS, or DUCATS.


There’s a long line at the coffee shop. You’ll have to wait and might miss your bus.


The line moves briskly. You get to the front and order a triple-espresso mocha topped with whipped cream, chocolate shavings, caramel drizzle, and chives. The barista hands you your DRINK and CHANGE.


You now have a DRINK. It weighs approximately six pounds.


You now have CHANGE.


You return to the depot with two minutes left before the bus leaves. A voice over the intercom reminds you eating, drinking, and smoking are now allowed on the bus.


You guzzle the combination of coffee, sugar, and dairy in record time. You are now refreshed for the remainder of your journey!


The driver insists you need to pay to re-board.


Nice try bucko.


Your pass is expired and there are no valid charges left on it.


Luckily you received exact change at the coffee shop. You insert the correct amount in the fare taker. The driver scowls and tells you to take a seat.


The bus lurches forward.


Your phone’s power is critically low and playing songs would be an unnecessary waste of power. You lean back and pretend to enjoy the ride.

Up ahead on the left you see your HOME.


You pull the cord. There is a satisfying “Ding!” An automated voice reminds you to remain seated until the bus comes to a complete stop.


You are pitched forward onto your face as the bus comes to a halt. The driver cackles merrily as you pick yourself up off the floor.


The driver scowls as you disembark.

You are standing on a desolate area of sidewalk that stretches NORTH and SOUTH. Behind you is an EERIE CASTLE. Ahead of you is HOME.


The Eerie Castle has been bringing down neighborhood property values for years. With great sagacity you decide that midnight on a Tuesday is the ideal time to explore its premises. You enter hesitantly. The door closes behind you. Ahead you see two large eyes glowing in the darkness. You recognize the small dog from the bus, only now it is thirty-five feet tall and weighs approximately six-hundred pounds.

The dog recognizes you as the person who gave it a cold, rotten cheeseburger slathered with a sauce of pure salmonella extract and brown, slimy, rotten lettuce. It therefore considers you its best friend in the entire universe and stares at you with infinite adoration.

Obvious exits are FORWARD, BACK, and STAIRS.


Because you forgot to activate the flashlight app on your phone you don’t see that large sections of the floor are missing. You fall into the basement and are eaten by a horde of zombie alien okapi.

You have died.

Total points: 171

Boons acquired:

‘80’s one-hit wonders medley

‘90’s one hit wonders medley

Copper ducats

Extremely large small dog


Don’t Stop Me Now.

rainbowIt wasn’t supposed to rain. At least I don’t think so. I really didn’t check as I was leaving the office because there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. At least I don’t think so. I really didn’t look up. It was sunny and that’s enough, right? And I made it most of the way before it started. I was walking down the home stretch to home when the rain started. It was light but still wet, and the sun was still out, the kind of rain some people call “liquid sunshine”. Sick, twisted people who are desperate to find the bright side of everything. I know I’m not one to talk since I’m an incurable optimist myself. When a friend was hit by a car I said, “Well, on the bright side…” He punched me before I could finish the sentence which is okay because it was a Volkswagen Beetle that hit him, but that’s another story. The point is even the sunniest optimist has to draw the line somewhere and I draw the line at rain. And then it gets washed away, but I keep redrawing it.

So there I was walking home and a light rain started. It was light but still wet. And one of my neighbors was standing out in her front yard with her dog. She had a leash in one hand and an umbrella in the other. My neighbor, I mean. The dog had two pair and a king high in her hand and was obviously eager to get back to the game.

“Isn’t this wonderful?” my neighbor said.

“Yes,” I said, smiling, because I was too polite to say, “WHY ARE YOU TALKING TO ME? CAN’T YOU SEE I’M TRYING TO GET OUT OF THE RAIN?”

“Have you seen a rainbow?” she asked.

“No,” I said, smiling, because I was too polite to say, “WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU? CAN’T YOU SEE I’M GETTING SOAKED HERE?”

“There should be one around somewhere,” she said.

“Yes, keep looking out for it,” I said because I was too polite to say, “AS SOON AS I GET OUT OF THIS RAIN AND DRY OFF DEAL ME IN. I’M TALKING TO YOUR DOG.”

I kept going and got to my house. And there, in the backyard, was the rainbow. It was glorious. It was amazing. I even thought about going to get my neighbor, but I have to draw the line somewhere.


A Matter of Etiquette.

etiquettePublic transportation etiquette is not written in stone. In fact it’s not written down anywhere as far as I know, although I don’t have any of Emily Post’s oeuvre handy at the moment. I do have some general rules I try to follow. For instance I believe people should board in the order of their arrival at the bus stop. When I got to the stop the other day there was an older woman already there so I was fully prepared to defer to her. We waited and then I could see the bus a couple of blocks away, behind a line of half a dozen cars.

The bus stop was at an intersection and the line of cars pulled up just as the light turned red, leaving them stuck there. And the bus was stuck too, about half a block away. I realize in city terms a “block” is not an absolute measure and the term has confused me ever since I was a kid and my parents would talk about “taking a walk around the block”. I had a bunch of wooden blocks with letters on them but they were so small it was easier to step over them than walk around one. And the size of blocks varies from city to city and even from block to block. In New York, for instance, a block may only be two or three hundred feet long on one side while in Boise a block extends twenty miles, but that’s another story.

Let’s just say the bus was within easy walking distance. And the etiquette in such a situation varies from driver to driver. Some prefer that the passengers-in-waiting get up and walk to the bus so when the light turns green they can go on without stopping. Others prefer that we wait to be picked up at the authorized bus stop. I usually defer to the former, but the woman at the stop next to me was remaining firmly seated.

And there’s the conundrum. If I walked down to the bus and was let on I’d be getting on ahead of her. And if I wasn’t let on I was going to look like a jackass. And either way the driver was going to have to stop and pick her up. So my only choice was to stay put, but I also sat there wondering, didn’t she know the etiquette? Most people in that situation walk down to the bus. If it’s hot or rainy or cold or even if it’s a really nice day it’s better to get on the bus sooner rather than later even if it means a bit of extra walking.

Then the light changed, the cars moved, the bus stopped in front of us, and the woman next to me picked up her cane. And it made sense why she wasn’t interested in taking walking even an extra half a block.

I just wish I’d gotten on the bus first. I don’t need Emily Post to tell me I should have let her take the seat closer to the front.


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