Adventures In Busing.

Let’s Go Over This Again.

It must be because the warm weather brings out so many people walking that I feel I have to go over this once more. In front of the building where I work there’s a crosswalk. In Britain they call them zebra crossings, or that thing the Beatles were in blocking traffic for the Abbey Road album. Anyway this seems to cause an immense amount of confusion. I’ve seen fellow pedestrians step right into the street and glare at oncoming traffic which has to come to a screeching halt, and I’ve seen drivers come to a screeching halt when there are pedestrians on the sidewalk patiently waiting for the traffic to go by so they can safely cross the street.

Also “sidewalk” is a U.S. term. According to Wikipedia’s Simple English it’s also called “a footpath (Australian English, Irish English, Indian English and New Zealand English) or footway (Engineering term)”, all of which make sense and in Britain it’s called a “pavement” which makes no sense because pavement is what streets are made of and the Beatles could have walked on it without blocking Abbey Road, but that’s another story.

Anyway here are some terrible and unhelpful diagrams made with the help of Google Earth that I hope will clear up confusion about everything except why the British call a sidewalk a “pavement”.

In this first diagram I am represented by a blue dot in the middle of a tree. Actually I would be standing on the sidewalk because the trees really aren’t that good for climbing. As long as I am on the sidewalk the oncoming car has the right of way and the driver doesn’t have to stop and give me that condescending little hand wave. As you can see in the picture there’s also a bus stop that looks like it’s out in the intersection. The bus really stops right in front of where the blue dot is which I’m sure is convenient for people who want to get out on that side of the street but buses tend to sit there so pedestrians who want to cross can’t see oncoming traffic and vice versa. Thanks, bus drivers!

 

In this next diagram I am again the blue dot on the other side of the street even though I’m not that round and haven’t been that blue since one Halloween. Again the oncoming car has the right of way. Also that redbud tree I appear to be standing in has been cut down so it’s even worse for climbing but Google hasn’t updated the picture yet.

In this next picture I am represented by the blue dot in the middle of the intersection. I now have the right of way but should only step out into the crosswalk, zebra crossing, or Abbey Road thingy when there is no oncoming traffic.

In this picture the oncoming traffic is a triceratops. If you’re riding a triceratops you always have the right of way even though they’re slow-moving and will probably stop to eat the trees.

A Matter Of Time.

There’s a clock on a pole across the street from where I wait for the bus most afternoons.

I’ve never bothered to calculate exactly how much time I spend waiting for the bus, and it varies from day to day. Some days I sit for five minutes, some days it’s half an hour, and it’s a little annoying that I always rush to get to the bus stop but the bus driver isn’t necessarily in as much of a hurry to get to me. There was one driver who was consistently late and every day loudly complained that it was the driver before him who’d been running late causing a domino effect. I noticed whenever there was a substitute that driver would be on time.

Not that waiting is necessarily a bad thing. I used to sit and read books. Some days the wait was just long enough for me to read, really read, a poem. Or I’d pick up the free newspapers like the Nashville Scene which, for a while, published a poem a week.

Now I mostly listen to podcasts which I feel has kind of brought me back to when I was a kid. My father always listened to talk radio in the car. In some parts of the country, some pretty close to home, he could pick up bizarre preachers expounding on their theories of how Mikhail Gorbachev’s birthmark was really a 666, or how the prevalence of triangles on the show Buck Rogers was a Satanic plot. For more serious fare he listened to public radio, so I’d sit in the backseat and hear stories from the BBC or the news. Some mornings we’d listen to Dick Estell’s Radio Reader, which was both fun and frustrating if we got wherever we were going before the story ended. Or, since Estell tended to read long books, I’d hear a chapter and say, “Yeah, so what happened then?” I also remember when they ran the original radio version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and an audio adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings, although those came on early enough on Sunday mornings that I could listen at home and never missed an episode, but that’s another story.

So it’s actually good if I have some time to wait, although one of the nice things about listening rather than reading is I can do it while walking. My usual stop isn’t one of the fancy ones with a digital display that tells me exactly when the next bus is coming. It’s just a standard old bench where I can sit and watch the clock.

Except that the clock hasn’t worked in months, maybe even years. It’s permanently stuck at 2:55, so while a broken clock is right twice a day it’s never right at a time when I’m there.

 

Transference.

The Nashville MTA has asked for a budget increase that would include the restoration of transfers. I think this is a great idea even though these days all my bus rides are one way, and also my employer pays my bus fare as long as I’m going to and from work, but that’s another story. For me riding the bus is an option, and I’m lucky it is because Nashville really isn’t a bus-friendly city. Or a pedestrian or bike-friendly city. Several people have told me they’d take the bus if they didn’t have to drive to the nearest stop.

If you’ve never ridden the bus or have only ridden it in places where they don’t offer transfers–like Nashville in the last fifteen years or so–a transfer is a ticket you can get with your regular bus ticket that allows you to get on another bus route without having to pay the full fare again. Back when they had them the cost of a transfer was a pittance–when Nashville got rid of them a transfer cost ten cents, a price that had probably been maintained since the ‘70‘s, even though in those days a dime was worth a lot more. A transfer was also technically only good for half an hour and would be stamped with the time you received it although I never knew a single bus driver who bothered to look.

The price of a regular fare at the time was $1.75, but you could also get an all-day pass for $3.50, so if you were going more than two places the pass was actually the better deal by twenty cents and you didn’t have to worry about some driver suddenly deciding to enforce the half-hour time limit. Now the regular fare is $1.70 and an all-day pass is $5.25. Go figure.

As I said Nashville is not a particularly bus-friendly city but I’m in favor of transfers because quite a few people who ride the bus depend on it because, to be blunt, they can’t afford a car, and really could use every little bit of money they can save. In fact I remember the first time I learned about transfers. It never occurred to me that you wouldn’t have to pay the full fare every time you got on the bus. One day, when I was in college and living off-campus, I took the bus downtown to drop off my rent check. I came out of the office and waved down the bus going my way. I was close enough to the end of the line that the same driver who dropped me off had just dropped me off and was turning around.

I got on and started to put my fare in when he said, “Hey, didn’t I just drop you off? You could have just gotten a transfer.”

I wish he’d said that before I started handing over my money. I really could have used that dollar.

 

Walk On Guy.

There’s a monthly flea market at the Nashville State Fairgrounds. I used to go regularly, almost every month, although it’s been several years since I went. I’ve got more than enough fleas, but that’s another story.

I first started going before I had a driver’s license so I’d take the bus. The one thing about being a regular bus rider is there’s a lot of walking involved. Even now when I only take the bus home from, and occasionally to, work I have to walk to the right stop to get on and then walk home from where I get off. And sometimes I walk in the general direction of home to a different stop, because I know the bus will catch up with me, or I walk in the direction of downtown, where the bus is coming from, in the hopes of catching it that much sooner, although it usually only seems to make the bus run late.

The flea market is on the fourth weekend of every month and I don’t remember whether it was an odd month with five weekends and I’d missed it or whether it was only the third weekend and I was early. Either way I rode the bus out to the fairgrounds, got out, walked up the hill, and found the place was deserted. This was pretty strange. The fairgrounds have become a money pit and the city’s been through some controversial efforts to shut the whole place down and hand it over to developers who want to build luxury condos, but still it’s pretty heavily used. In addition to the flea market and annual state fair there are all sorts of trade shows. Just this last weekend there was a reptile show at a time when most reptiles are still hibernating.

I went back to the bus stop to wait for the bus which, on a Saturday, was scheduled to come every forty minutes. And then, after I sat there for a few minutes, I started walking back toward downtown. Aside from one spot, under an overpass where cars come speeding around the corner, it was a pretty easy walk along sidewalks past small old homes on small lots, starter homes dating, I think, from World War II. The yards were nice and mostly well-tended but, oddly enough for a Saturday, I didn’t meet anyone else. Gradually I made my way through an area known as The Gulch, which, at the time, was an industrial wasteland. It’s now a hip urban area with restaurants and haute couture.

Without ever seeing or being passed by the return bus I made it back to the bus depot. I clocked the entire trip at just about forty-five minutes and, when I checked Google Maps, I was surprised to find that meant I’d been moving at a pretty good pace: a mile every fifteen minutes.

Since then I’ve mostly driven to the flea market which provides a very different perspective from walking, even from riding the bus. One of these weekends I keep thinking I’ll go back, that maybe I’ll even walk there.

The Eyes Have It.

One Friday afternoon I left work early and went to get my eyes checked. It was just a routine checkup, or check in, or, just a chance for the ophthamologist to ask if my eyes were “Better like this or better like this?” I hadn’t been to have my eyes checked since, well, let’s just say it was an earlier decade and I didn’t have any problems, but my wife thought it would be a good idea to just let a doctor gaze into the abyss of my orbits and give me a chance to gaze back.

While I was waiting to be examined one of the doctor’s assistants came to me and said, “Um, sir, put your pants back on. We’re only going to look at your eyes and this is the waiting room.” And then another assistant came out and took me to a back room and put some eye drops in my eyes.

I don’t remember anything unusual about the amount of eye drops–although it had been so long and there had been so many advances in technology, such as the invention of the contact lens, in the intervening time that I wouldn’t have known if there was anything unusual. In retrospect though I think the assistant had a bit of a free hand with the eye drops. For hours afterward the whole world sparkled.

My wife drove me home and I kept saying, “Whoa! Look at the streetlights!” They were no longer just streetlights but stars surrounded by amber nebulae that shifted and spun as we moved, or as I blinked. Headlights of oncoming cars were brilliant white stars and the taillights of other cars were red eyes. We went out to dinner with friends and she had to take the decorative candle in the middle of the table away from me because I couldn’t stop looking at it.

It was like I’d taken a little trip to Colorado, but without the dry mouth and paranoia.

So a few years later when I went back for another checkup I was really excited, although a little concerned because it was an early morning appointment and I wondered what it would be like going back to work with pupils the size of golf balls.

I’d also taken the bus to my appointment and I hoped the trip back would be just as visually exciting as my earlier trip. It was a rainy day so all the cars had their lights on.

Except this time the assistant didn’t quite have such a free hand. The eye drops were wearing off before I even got out of the elevator and left the building.

At least this time I did remember to put my pants back on without being told.

 

Train Pigeons.

The other day I read a story about London’s urban foxes and felt cheated. I spent a lot of time in London—although not nearly enough, which is oddly reassuring because as Samuel Johnson said, “When a man is tired of London he is tired of life,” but that’s another story. In all the time I spent in London—in all the time I spent in Britain, in fact—I never once saw a fox.

I did, however, see a lot of pigeons which, as someone who watched Mary Poppins about a dozen times before the age of eight and is still not tired of it because when you’re tired of Mary Poppins you’re tired of life, tickled me. I even bought the little cups of seed to feed the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. I don’t know if this has changed but at the time the seed came in little plastic cups that you then returned to the vendor. And I was taking an empty cup back when a pigeon landed on my arm and looked at the cup and looked at me and I swear that bird was on the verge of speech.

And then there was one afternoon when I was standing in an underground station and a train pulled up and a couple of pigeons walked out.

Yes, they walked, and looked around like they were a couple of tourists. I even imagined them having a conversation.

“Are you sure Earl’s Court is where we wanted to get off?”

“I think so, Nigel. Mind the gap!”

Of course they were British pigeons, perhaps visiting London from Oldham or Kent. The idea of American pigeons in London would just be ridiculous.

I swear this really happened but the story has been a point of some contention between me and my wife because she doesn’t believe me. Even though other people have said they’ve seen the same thing—pigeons walking off trains—she doesn’t believe me. Why would I make up a story like that?

Admittedly I have been known to feather my stories with exaggerations, embellishments, and outright fabrications, but if I were going to make up a story like that it would have been more elaborate. At the very least they would have actually spoken.

And been American.

 

 

Follow That Bus!

So I dropped my wife off at the airport and headed to work. Well, not directly to work. First I circled around the airport and made a short-term trip through long-term parking before I finally found my way out and even though I don’t often drive to or from the airport–the last time I made the trip solo was at least four years ago–I managed to turn in the right direction, unlike the last time when I turned the wrong direction and drove along for half an hour trying to figure out where I was going before I realized I didn’t know where I was going.

Let me pause here to explain that I’m one of those people who avoids driving on the interstate if I can. I prefer to take the long way around on mostly residential streets even though it’s supposedly slower although every time I have been on the interstate something’s happened to cause traffic to slow down to a crawl and everyone heads for the exits to take the long way around but that’s another story.

This was also the first time I’ve ever driven out through that area in the dark.

And as I was moving down Donelson Road toward Murfreesboro Pike I noticed a brightly lit bus stop in the middle of what appeared to be nowhere. As you can see from the picture made with the help of Google Maps it’s not really the middle of nowhere. There’s a small residential area and a Tennessee Department of Transportation office and something called Airport Liquors where after just a couple of drinks you’ll be flying. And as I was approaching that bus stop a bus went by, headed in the exact direction I needed to go. It distracted me so that I accidentally went right through the intersection, after a complete stop of course, and continued down Donelson and by the time I managed to turn around and head back in the right direction the bus was gone. But that was okay. I turned on to Murfreesboro Pike and headed in the right direction, except that after what seemed like three days but which was probably not more than ten minutes, I started feeling really unsure that I was headed in the right direction. After going under a few overpasses and over a few underpasses I started looking for the bus with the plan of following it. Then, as I was contemplating all this, I suddenly emerged from terra incognita to terra familiar, onto Broadway in the middle of downtown Nashville, and probably ahead of the bus which, as buses usually do, might have taken the long way around.

From there it should have been easy. I could have turned left and gotten to work easily but for some reason I kept going and within a couple of blocks went from knowing exactly where I was to not having a clue where I was. But then I just kept going and did find my way back to where I was going.

That’s the lesson here: if you’re lost and don’t know where you are keep going until you do. Or maybe it’s, if in doubt, follow a bus.

 

Sun Gets In Your Eyes.

The sun, constellation Capricorn, and Mercury. Picture made with SkyView app for iPhone.

As the sun moves across the sky a terrible thing happens to drivers going down, or rather up, since they’re climbing a hill, a particular stretch of road. The sun’s position is such that it’s right there at the peak of the hill and it hits us right in the face, blinding us. It’s a temporary phenomenon. Even during the times of year when it’s in just the right position, or rather just the wrong position, it’s there less than an hour because, when you think about it, the sun moves pretty quickly, even relatively speaking, or rather the Earth moves pretty quickly, turning so the horizon rises up to meet the sun, but during that time it creates a dangerous condition. The builders of ancient monuments like the pyramids or Stonehenge thought about the positions of the sun and stars. The Mayan temple of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza has a famous “serpent” effect during the spring equinox, all developed because the position of the sun was important to people and they also had a lot of time on their hands because they weren’t driving anywhere. Whoever decided where the road should go didn’t seem to think about this, and they probably didn’t have much choice because roads go everywhere so it’s unavoidable that some of them are going to face straight into the sun.

Since my stop was coming up I had moved to a seat near the driver.

“That sun is brutal,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said, “and I’ve got a sun shade here, but it’s but it’s broken so I can’t pull it down.”

I’d noticed that. Bus drivers don’t have a sun shade like most cars but a fabric screen they can pull down part of the way to block the sun. When the sun is low enough, though, when it’s right in the middle of your field of vision, no shade helps.

“At least it’ll be behind me when I turn around and head back,” she said.

And I remembered something I learned as a kid, an Irish blessing.

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face…

Obviously the Irish didn’t drive a lot.

What’s the best way to deal with sun right in your face? I can think of a couple of ideas: pull off the road, turn another way and go somewhere else for a bit until the sun is in a different part of the sky, and, if you’re riding a bus, don’t talk to the driver while they’re trying to concentrate on the road.

Don’t Take Rides.

It was a Saturday. I was taking the bus somewhere, possibly to a movie or just gadding about. There had obviously been a wreck on the interstate because the main road was bumper-to-bumper with people trying to get somewhere, or just gadding about. On Saturdays only half as many buses run as on weekdays and the sudden surge of traffic had already put it well behind schedule, meaning I’d been standing on the side of the road for half an hour. And then a car pulled up next to me and stopped. The tinted window rolled down.

“Chris! What are you doing out here?”

It was my sister-in-law. In a weird coincidence she’d been on her way somewhere–she’s not usually one for gadding about–and the stop-and-go traffic had brought her to a halt right next to me. And maybe it was because I’d just been standing out in the sun inhaling auto fumes for so long that I didn’t hesitate. I climbed right into her car and closed the door. I gabbled away about how I’d been waiting for the bus, it looked like it was never going to come, had there been a wreck on the interstate? And I was so glad to her for offering me a ride.

It was only after she’d dropped me off at an intersection a couple of miles down the road, where two bus routes intersected, basically doubling my chances of catching a bus even on a day when the wait times were twice as long, that I realized she’d never really offered me a ride. It was sort of okay because she was headed to that intersection. Just beyond it was an interstate on-ramp that she was hoping would get her past the accident and back up to speed, but she still had to pause to drop me off. And I felt guilty about it although I’ve never thought to apologize and it’s been so many years now she’s probably forgotten about it entirely.

Anyway “don’t take rides from strangers” is a good rule of thumb, unless you’re hitchhiking in which case you use your thumb, but that’s another story. Another good rule, though, might be that you shouldn’t take rides from people you know either–at least not unless they explicitly offer a ride.

 

A Little Less Conversation.

I like to talk to people. Yes, I’m one of those who’ll happily engage in small talk with just about anyone, although most of the time I have a problem starting conversations with strangers. I get that small talk bothers a lot of people and I respect that. The last thing I want to do is impose on someone who’d rather be alone with their own thoughts. There’s nothing wrong with silence. There are a couple of guys I see regularly on the bus who always sit together. Sometimes they’re talking; sometimes they’ll have extensive discussions that draw in three or four other regular riders, the conversation only dropping off as everybody gets dropped off at their regular stops. And sometimes these two guys just sit together, side by side, one with a thick book, the other with a newspaper, in total silence.

I always feel a little awkward when I’m the only rider on the bus. Does the driver want to talk? How do I know? If the driver’s been laughing and talking with other riders who then got off that’s a pretty good sign that, yes, the driver does want to talk, that they’re one of those drivers who really likes to talk. Most of the time if they’re that type they’ll start up the conversation with me which takes some of the pressure off, but until that happens I’m not sure. Bus drivers run the spectrum. Some want to talk, some want to be left alone, and some are okay with talking but have trouble starting conversations.

There were only three of us on the bus: the driver, an older guy dressed in jeans and a ragged flannel shirt, and me. There’d also been a teenage boy, but he’d gotten off at the last stop.

“Did you have a good day, Jim?” the driver asked loudly.

The older guy didn’t respond. He just sat in his seat staring at his hands.

I’m not sure how long the silence went on but then the driver said, “I guess it’s a ‘don’t talk to Cathy’ kind of day.”

She chuckled, and I said, “Maybe he didn’t hear you.”

The driver didn’t say anything. I felt really awkward, like I’d accidentally intruded on a private conversation. Either that or for some reason the driver thought I was Jim.

 

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