Adventures In Busing.

Just Ringing It.

The school bus always took us through neighborhoods, unlike the regular city buses that mostly stick to major thoroughfares, and one fall I started noticing a yard that had a fairy ring in it. This was pretty remarkable and even got a small feature in the newspaper, and it annoyed me that I never could stop the bus and take a closer look, although I did intentionally sit on the side of the bus that faced it so I could see it as we went by, even dashing out the door at the end of the day so I could get to the bus early, although that wasn’t unusual. It seemed liked it was there for weeks, although it probably only stuck around for days, mushrooms being a fairly transient organism. Or rather the fruits of mushrooms being fairly transient. What’s underneath can be very long-lived. Maybe that’s why Emily Dickinson called them the “Elf of Plants”. A friend asked me, “How do the mushrooms know how to make a circle?” And I said, “Because they’re all part of the same structure. Imagine an apple tree where you could only see the apples. Oh yeah, and the apples just happen to form a ring.” It’s also why they get bigger every year.

I spotted an amazing three fairy rings in one yard on the way to work one morning but I’m too old now to go tramping around in someone’s yard, although at least this time I got some pictures. They reminded me of seeing that fairy ring years ago, and also, because of their size and because of what must be underground, of the X-Files episode “Field Trip” in which Scully and Mulder find themselves trapped inside a giant underground fungus that creates hallucinations that everything’s fine and they’re merely going on about their normal lives while they’re slowly digested. It’s a fan favorite but what bothers me about the episode is the same thing that bothers me about such wildly different stories as The Matrix, The Wizard Of Oz (the film version), and even Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. After such an intense experience–was it imagined or wasn’t it?–how can a person ever trust reality again? Zhuangzi said, “Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.” Edgar Allan Poe said, “All that we see or seem/Is but a dream within a dream.” And Samuel Johnson kicked a stone and thus refuted Bishop Berkeley, but that’s another story.
The mushrooms are here one day and gone the next, but they come from something and they leave something behind, and I always wonder, how can we ever know if we’ve left the ring?

And This Is How The Message Ran.

So I was walking to the bus stop and needed some walking music to get there and pulled out my phone. And because it was October, the most wonderful time of the year, there was only one thing I was really in the mood for. I pressed the button and said, “Play Science Fiction Double Feature.”

And my phone replied, “Which one?”

Oh, yeah.

The scary thing is this isn’t even the complete list.

How Do We Get There?


So scientists have discovered what might be the first ever exomoon, a moon around a planet in another solar system, and that’s exciting because within our own solar system moons have become the place to look for life outside of this planet. Specifically Europa and Enceladus may be homes for extraterrestrial life; worlds with big sloshy oceans and hot cores hidden under a thick layer of ice, which means that if there’s life there it may never have seen the stars. It may not have any awareness of life beyond its own world. And if you know your Douglas Adams you know what that could mean for life, the universe, and everything.

The reason they why they had never thought to themselves “We are alone in the Universe,” was that until one night, they didn’t know about the Universe.
Imagine never even thinking, “We are alone,” simply because it has never occurred to you that there’s any other way to be….
They flew out of the cloud.
They saw the staggering jewels of the night in their infinite dust and their minds sang with fear.
For a while they flew on, motionless against the starry sweep of the Galaxy, itself motionless against the infinite sweep of the Universe. And then they turned round.
“It’ll have to go,” the men of Krikkit said, as they headed back for home.

Or it might not be so bad. With the discovery of every new exoplanet, or even considering the possibility of life beyond our little blue sphere, my first thought is always, how do we get there? Because even if you barely know anything about astronomy you know that the universe is really big and that means there’s a lot of, well, space, between us and even our closest neighbors. Consider this: it takes eight minutes for sunlight to reach us and if you’ve ever looked at the sun you know how close it is. Also you should never look at the sun. It takes thirteen minutes for that same sunlight to reach Mars, and it takes a really long time for any sunlight to hit Uranus, but that’s another story.
It takes more than four years for that same sunlight to reach our nearest stellar neighbor, and that’s how big space is. Getting there seems like an insurmountable challenge, but we’ve been exploring the local solar system for less than a century. And as for the question, where are the aliens? we’ve barely begun to even look. Even if they use the same radio frequencies we do their transmissions are going to be limited by the same speed and distances as ours. Space exploration has already spanned generations and will have to take several more–it took Voyager 1 thirty-five years just to leave the solar system, traveling at about 38,000 miles per hour, and even if it doesn’t get pulled over for speeding it’s going to be a really long time before it reaches another solar system.
If we’re going to survive as a species–and I realize that’s a big if–the real challenge isn’t going to be living on this planet but what’s beyond it, which is why what’s out there, where the whole process of life started, where it must be continually starting in so many places, is the key to our very existence. And what’s out there isn’t going anywhere, so the question is, where are we going?

There’s A Light.

Source: Wikipedia

Big Dave was a cab driver who worked for a company that ferried students at a discounted rate between Harlaxton Manor, where I was going to school, and Grantham, the nearest town. We called him “Big Dave” partly to distinguish him from another driver named Dave who worked for the same cab company, who we fittingly referred to as “Little Dave”, and also because Big Dave was big. No one ever rode in the front seat with Big Dave because there wasn’t room, and he always wore the same dark green sweater that made him look like a great mossy boulder. And on most trips he had a story, like the New Year’s Eve he went for a swim in the Trafalgar Square fountain, or the time he was bitten by the only poisonous snake in Britain.
On this particular night it was just the two of us making the trip from Grantham back to Harlaxton. We were traveling though a stretch of rolling farmland that, during the day, was green and bright, but at night a thick mist carpeted the ground as though hiding dark secrets. I was slightly drunk and tired and had an economics test to flunk in the morning which was why I’d left my friends. I’d leaned back in the cab and closed my eyes, only to be shaken when Big Dave spoke.
“Did you see that?”
I sat up. “What?”
“Look over there.” He pointed to a field on our left. “There was a flash of light.”
“What was it?”
Big Dave chuckled. “Will o’the wisp, probably. You’ve heard of it?”
I’ve always been interested in folklore so, yes, I knew: the will o’the wisp, also known as fool’s fire, is a mysterious light that lures travelers into marshes where they drown.
“Reminds me of a night I was camping. I’d come out of the bog.” He turned. “You call it the toilet. I was just about to go back to my tent when I saw this light moving around in the trees across the way so I went to check it out.”
He paused and looked out the window as we passed a clump of trees.
“It led me all around through the dark until I finally caught up to it.”
He paused again, probably for effect this time, so I leaned forward and said, “What was it?”
He chuckled. “A young lady lookin’ for a bracelet she’d lost earlier that evening. All she had was a little penlight. I had a proper torch so I helped her look.”
“Did you ever find it?”
“Yer. After about three hours.”
“It took you that long?”
He chuckled again. “Well, we took a few breaks to get to know each other. And then she helped me find my way back to my tent ’cause I was totally lost.”
“What happened after that?”
Big Dave started to rumble. “I married her! And she’s always there whenever I don’t know where I am!” And then he laughed so hard the whole cab shook, the headlights bouncing all over the road.

Drive By.

Source: Whitney Museum

The bus was barreling toward the corner. So was I–toward the corner on the opposite side of the street. I got to my corner first and stood staring at the green light. Please change, please change, I repeated in my head. The light showed no signs of changing. Not that this is surprising. When have you ever seen a traffic light show any signs of changing? It just does, which reminds me of the joke, How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb? One, but the lightbulb has to really want to change. I looked over at the other corner at the WALK/DON’T WALK sign. Sometimes you can tell when the traffic light is about to change because the walk signal will start blinking. This one, however, was firmly on DON’T WALK, as were the signals on all four corners which isn’t surprising. Nashville is a city that treats pedestrians as an afterthought, if it thinks of them at all. As much as it annoys me when people step out into crosswalks and force moving cars to come to a stop I understand why they do it. If they didn’t they might never get across, but that’s another story.
Anyway the bus was speeding forward toward the green light and I started waving. It was a nice day and the driver had his window open. “Hey!” I yelled. This has worked before: I’ve managed to get the attention of bus drivers and they’ve stopped and given me a chance to cross the street. This driver, though, was happily oblivious. It’s not like it’s his job to keep an eye out for people who need a ride, right? And I have had bus drivers drive right by me even when I was standing at an appropriate bus stop because they had their eyes firmly fixed on the road ahead, and I guess I should be glad they were paying attention to where they were going, although there was also the time a bus driver went right by me because he was turned halfway around in his seat talking to a woman behind him.
And this driver sped right by me and I decided to take advantage of his open window and I yelled, “Thanks a lot, asshole!”
After the bus had passed I realized there were people standing on the opposite corner: a woman with a baby in a stroller, a whole gaggle of preschool children, a priest, a rabbi, and a minister, four old people who were the spitting images of my deceased paternal and maternal grandparents, and my second grade teacher, also deceased but still there on the corner. And if I didn’t feel bad enough about my outburst the sign changed to WALK and I had to pass by every one of them to get to the bus stop on the opposite corner.

Getting Back.

So even though I was called for jury duty I was ultimately not selected to serve. What I did do was spend the entire day in a courtroom with about fifty other people while lawyers questioned potential jurors, excusing one after another, never calling me. At one point a defense attorney asked the people in the jury box, “How many of you are familiar with Star Trek?” and they all looked baffled as though this was something they’d never heard of and I thought, oh please, if I’m ever charged with a crime please let there be at least one Trekkie in the jury. It was a pretty grueling process, or maybe it was oatmealing since it left me feeling pretty flat, or porridging since the jurors all seemed so thick, but that’s another story. Toward the end of the day, after more than five hours of questions and excuses, one of the clerks said, “Damn, I’ve never seen it go on this long!” Lucky us.
Getting to jury duty was easy–I went to where I normally work and caught a bus downtown. It was easy because I could catch any bus going downtown–they all go to the same bus depot. The buses departing the depot, on the other hand, all go in different directions so I had to catch the right one to get home. And normally that’s easy, but right now the Music City Central bus depot is being completely renovated and everything upstairs is completely shut down except for the donut shop because they have priorities.

Anyway this meant that the regular departure stations and times for the buses, especially the couple of buses that would get me home, are completely changed. I had to walk all around the block to try and figure out where to go. I couldn’t even get help at the temporary customer service kiosk which is designed with an oceanic theme even though Nashville is in the heart of a landlocked state.

At one point one of my buses stopped at a red light while I was standing on the corner. I waved to the driver and he shook his head because, you know, it’s not like bus drivers just go around picking up people.
I had no problem with doing my civic duty but once it was over it seemed like the difficulty getting out was just adding insult to jury.

Getting There.

When I got the notice to report for jury duty the first thing my wife asked was, “How will you get there?” which was better than the first thing I asked: “Will they give us legal pads?” because she’s more practical. But then it didn’t take much for me to figure out that I’d take the bus because the courthouse is somewhere downtown. Even though I’ve lived in Nashville most of my life I don’t know where a lot of things in the city are, a fact that was really brought home to me my freshman year in college in Indiana and a group of my friends suggested a day trip to Nashville and I said, “Sure, I’d really like to see it” and everyone stared at me. I assumed they meant Nashville, Indiana, which is where every person from Indiana I’ve ever met has assumed I’m talking about when I say I’m from Nashville. Anyway they meant Music City, which is a nickname for Nashville, Tennessee, not to be confused with Music City, Iowa, which, if you’ve ever been there, you’ll know is egregiously misnamed, but that’s another story. About midday while we were driving around downtown someone said, “We should get lunch,” and everyone agreed and looked at me, and I said, “Yeah, of course, I’m all for lunch, it’s the most important midday meal of the day,” and everyone kept staring at me because they expected me to know a place to go for lunch, but even though there were places I knew they were all in a completely different part of town, so we ended up going to Chinatown, which is not a specific neighborhood of Nashville the way it is in New York or San Francisco but a restaurant called Chinatown.
Anyway it occurred to me that I should do a test run and find out where exactly the courthouse I’m supposed to report to is, so I caught a bus downtown. And I had an advantage I didn’t have in college: Google Maps. According to it the building is just a five minute walk from the bus depot which is a terrible overestimate. The Justice A.A. Birch Building is a less than two minute walk and turned out to be pretty conspicuous.

I was able to make it down there, figure out where I was going, and get back all on my lunch break. And taking the bus is definitely the way to go because the parking downtown is terrible.
That’s something I’ve learned from having lived here most of my life.

When Is A Door Not A Door?

I’m not sure how long exactly the bus had been stopped. It probably wasn’t more than a few minutes but I was lost in my usual afternoon commute reverie, probably listening to Jackie Kashian’s Dork Forest podcast and thinking that one of my life goals is to be a guest on it someday. Sometimes I’ll zone out so completely on the bus that when I finally snap to I’ll look around and say, Hey, I’m almost home, or, on occasion, This doesn’t look familiar at all, am I on the right bus? What brought me out of my delirium was the driver pulling the door shut. He sat down then got up and pushed it open and pulled it shut again. From what I gathered there was something wrong with the door mechanism so it wouldn’t close completely. And I realized something I should have noticed a long time ago: the doors on the bus are now completely automated. For the doors in the back this makes sense, but the doors in the front used to be operated by a hand-pulled lever. I remember the time I was on a school bus and trying to sit back with my Walkman and zone out to a mixtape but some jerk in the back thought it was funny to throw books at me. So I threw one back and the driver stopped the bus and came to yell at me. I said, Screw this, went up to the front of the bus, and pulled the door lever myself—it gave me a powerful feeling to take an action normally reserved only for the driver. And I needed that powerful feeling because I had a pretty long walk home, but that’s another story.
With all the changes to buses getting rid of the simple hand-cranked door opener seems pretty boneheaded. Not all upgrades are improvements which is why some don’t last. If you’re of a certain age you may remember talking cars–and I don’t mean Kit from Knight Rider, although if you’re old enough to remember that you may also remember that some car models would tell you “Door is ajar” when the door was open. Or sometimes when it wasn’t open. Talking technology has its advantages but potential downsides too.

Source: XKCD

I went on a test drive with a friend in a car that insisted on telling us “Door is ajar”. I don’t remember what kind of car it was, just that it was well out of the price range of a guy who had to use a rope to keep the trunk shut of his current ride shut, but somehow we talked the dealer into letting us take it for a spin, maybe because it was early Wednesday morning in early summer and he was bored and knew he wasn’t going to sell anything anyway. While we were tooling around we stopped at a mini-mart to get some drinks. When we got in and closed the doors the car said, “Door is ajar.”
He opened his door and shut it.
“Door is ajar.”
He opened and shut his door harder this time.
“Door is ajar.”
He opened his door and slammed it.
“Watch it,” I said. “Prettyto look at, nice to hold, but if it breaks consider it sold.”
He glared at me. Then we drove back to the dealership with the car still occasionally telling us, “Door is ajar.”
When we got back we made sure to leave before the dealer could close the door.

Home. Work.

Source: Wikipedia

There were a couple of kids on the bus doing homework and I felt a tinge of envy, not because they were doing homework which I’m glad I don’t hae to do, but because they get to ride the city bus. They must go to the school for the gifted which is downtown so if they ever want to cut class they have access to all the cool stuff in that area. And I kind of envy them being able to do their homework on the bus. I had to ride one of those dumb yellow buses where everybody was too busy throwing books to open one and besides the ride was never more than fifteen or twenty minutes, not enough time to finish any homework, although there was one time I tried. It wasn’t academic homework exactly. I’d gotten in trouble for something and had to do what we called write-offs even though they meant writing on and on and I got an extra hundred when I asked if I could deduct them from my taxes. You know the opening of every Simpsons episode where Bart has to write some phrase over and over on the chalkboard? I had to do those too, but not on the blackboard–I had to do it on sheets of notebook paper and it had to be done after, or before, school. What I had to write five hundred times on this particular occasion was I will never… or maybe it was I will always… which just shows how effective a learning tool forced repetition is, but that’s another story. And since I got them on Friday, which in retrospect seems like entrapment because I was excited about the weekend, I had two whole days to do them. So of course I waited until late Sunday night. I wasn’t too worried since I’d learned a trick from one of the Danny Dunn books: I wrote “I” all the way down the page then “will” all the way down the page and I quickly learned that Danny Dunn had led me astray and writing the same word over and over didn’t make write-offs go any faster. It didn’t matter how fast I worked, though–by bedtime I was short by about four-hundred and fifty lines. So on the bus the next morning I worked as hard and fast as I could and kept going while we were waiting for school to start, although the last three-hundred or so I filled in with ditto marks. I was nervous when I handed them in but my teacher just took them, looked at the number of sheets I’d given her, and threw them away. And that’s when I learned the most valuable lesson of all: not even teachers like having to deal with homework.

Roses Are Red, Buses Are…

The Nashville MTA has been undergoing some major changes lately, mostly cosmetic, although that’s still a pretty major undertaking. A new coat of paint still costs money. They’ve renovated the downtown bus depot–and even getting a bus depot back in 2008 was a big thing. Before that the main place to catch buses downtown was a row of shelters stretched out over a couple of blocks and if it rained you might be stuck outside. Anyway the Nashville MTA doesn’t even call itself the Nashville MTA anymore. It’s now We Go which seems kind of presumptuous because lots of people go.

The biggest change though is a set of new buses that are purple. Why purple? I don’t know, but I like it. I also wonder how long they’ll stay purple. Most Nashville buses, as in every city, are basically giant moving billboards. Some are completely covered with a single ad–even the windows. Most of them are advertising a couple of local law firms also known for their cheesy commercials and I’m not including any pictures of those because they’re not paying me to put their ad here, but that’s another story.


The inside of the buses are clean and shiny and new, which isn’t surprising. What is surprising are the seats. They’ve replaced the traditional burgundy upholstery with slick blue plastic.

Full frontal.

Full backal.

I’m no style critic but don’t purple and blue clash? Why not make the seats purple too, or maybe a nice contrasting orange? In more practical terms, though, I understand the plastic is less likely to hide stains of questionable provenance than the old carpet, but it also means my ass slides forward about five inches every time the bus judders to a stop. They’ve made all these changes and never thought seat belts might be a good idea.

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