Adventures In Busing.

The Hot Seat.

Winter is the best time of year to sit at the back of the bus, or at least it used to be. At any time of year I like to sit at the back of the bus and just zone out on the way home, which had its upsides and its downsides. The upsides included being out of everyone else’s way, having room to stretch out a bit, and, if the bus hit something, I’d be as far away from the damage as I could get. The downsides, well, there’s only one really—I like to exit at the front of the bus and thank the driver. And in the winter there’s another upside: the back of the bus is where the engine is, so it’s hot. Oh, there’s another downside: if the engine explodes I’ll be as close to the damage as I can get, but sitting directly on a large hunk of piston-pushing metal burning flammable metal is that it generates a lot of heat so it’s a great way to stay warm, and I like to be warm. I’ve found I run a little colder than most people. Sometimes on a sunny summer day my wife will ask me why I’m wearing a long-sleeve shirt, and I’ll say, honestly, that I’m a little chilly, and she’ll say, “Fine, but what’s with the balaclava?” but that’s another story.

It’s also why when the weather gets cool I like to start the car about twenty minutes before I leave. This gives the car a chance to warm up, a lesson I learned when I was a kid when one Sunday after church an adult gave me twenty-five cents to go out and turn on the heater in his car. And I did. I turned the temperature control all the way up and the air on full blast, and the only thing I left out was that I didn’t start the engine so when he got in he got a nice cold breeze right in his face.

We also had a neighbor who would go out to her driveway and start her car and then rev the engine really hard to get it heated up, and once she drove me to school and she put the pedal to the metal the whole way and a couple of parachutes popped out of the trunk when we got to the parking lot.

At least the back of the bus used to be the warmest place to sit. Now that Nashville has upgraded its fleet of buses I’ve noticed that the back seats are about the same temperature as the seats everywhere else. The engine is still in the back, but it’s quieter and more efficient, and I’ve noticed that when following a city bus in traffic they don’t belch black smoke like they used to, all of which are upsides, but, when I’ve been standing out in the cold for twenty minutes waiting for a bus, the lack of warmth is a real downside for my backside.

Cash Cab.

Source: The Daily Hive

The recent story of a Vancouver man who got taken on an unnecessarily lengthy taxi ride around his hometown got my attention because I have some experience riding in cabs, and, in fact, in this era of “ride sharing” services like Uber and Lyft, I can think of a few reasons I’d rather take a taxi, including being able to pay in cash and not having to download yet another stupid app to my phone, and there are a lot of decent hardworking cab drivers out there just trying to make a living. Anyway the Vancouver story is that a local guy told a cab driver he was a tourist from Wisconsin and what should have been a ten minute ride turned into forty-five minutes. The interesting thing is the cab company is suggesting it might not have happened. Being a company, and also Canadian, they’re very polite about it, with a Yellow Cab spokesperson noting that “that drivers want to take the correct and shortest routes, especially on busy nights.” And yet I know it happens, and it baffles me. Clearly there are arcane aspects to driving a taxi that I’m unfamiliar with because I can’t imagine how taking the time to fleece would-be tourists would benefit any cab driver, especially now with the prevalence of GPS tracking and route maps available to anyone with a smartphone, even without having to download yet another stupid app.
It also got me thinking about my time as a college student in Evansville, Indiana. Very few of my friends had cars, and the ones who did rarely wanted to lose their campus parking spots which were small in number, not to mention small in size and difficult to get into and out of, so most of the time when we wanted to go somewhere that was more than walking distance we took the bus. Or occasionally we splurged on a cab. And every cab ride was the same amount: five bucks. There were two malls in Evansville at the time. If we wanted to go to the Eastland Mall it was five bucks. If we wanted to go to Washington Square Mall it was five bucks. If we wanted to go downtown it was five bucks. Getting back from downtown was five bucks. All the cabs had meters than ran as we went along, but the price always came out to be the same.
At the time I thought this was just a funny coincidence, but, looking back, I realize how much sense it makes. Evansville is a small town. The two malls, and downtown for that matter, were all pretty much the same distance from the university campus.
Once when some friends and I got into a cab the driver asked where we were from. We were from all over, but when I said Nashville he perked up.
“I’ve been to Nashville,” he said, “lots of times.” At first I thought he meant Nashville, Indiana, which is a mistake only Hoosiers make–everywhere else in the world when I tell people I’m from Nashville they immediately say “You must be a country music fan!” and I don’t have the heart to tell ‘em I’m not, but that’s another story.
The cab driver did mean Nashville, Tennessee, though, and he told us that a wealthy Evansville widow used to pay him fifteen hundred dollars to drive her down to Nashville. He’d then idle along while she walked down the sidewalk going into one bar after another, getting steadily drunker. Then when she could barely stand up she’d get back in the cab and by the time he drove her home she’d be sober again, or at least sober enough to get into her house.
He hadn’t finished his story by the time we got to the mall where we were going but we all sat and listened to him until he was done, and it only cost us five bucks.

Where Wolf?

When I was in college I spent a semester in England. Not all of it–there were a few places I didn’t get to, like the home of Dylan Thomas. While I was there I lived and went to school in Harlaxton Manor, a Victorian house that’s been featured in films like The Haunting and recently portrayed a French domicile in an episode of Victoria, although all that was long after I’d left.
Sometimes I went into the nearby town of Grantham. Well, it wasn’t that nearby. Closest to the manor was the picturesque village of Harlaxton with narrow lanes and houses with small gardens and apple trees, all of it surrounded by farmland. Grantham was a pretty good distance, 2.7 miles according to the maps. One guy did try to walk there and a herd of cows followed him half the way, but that’s another story. A lot of us went back and forth by cab. A local cab company offered a special deal to students, and if we were lucky our cab driver was Big Dave. Regular visitors here might remember Big Dave’s encounter with the will o’the wisp, or his vanishing hitchhiker story, or the time he was bitten by the only poisonous snake in the British Isles, or his tale of the hairy hand. Big Dave was also, as I’ve said before, called that partly to distinguish him from another Dave with the same company whom we called Little Dave, but also because Big Dave took up most of the front seat by himself.
So one night I was lucky enough to get a ride home with Big Dave. We were passing through the farmland when we heard a low, mournful howl.
“Sounds like someone’s dog,” I said.
“Or a wolf,” said Big Dave.
“I thought there weren’t any wolves left in Britain.”
Big Dave chuckled. “Oh, you’d be surprised what you’d find out in the meadows between villages and towns. Lots of strange things you find on moonlit nights.”
I leaned forward and Big Dave went on.
“I was driving around the other side of the village, near Belvoir Castle, and I heard an animal snarling and barking. Something angry, whatever it was, and I slowed down. I didn’t want to hit it. And then I saw something out of the side, something moving. Whatever it was jumped out in front of the cab and I pressed hard on the brakes. Skidded to a stop. It was a man. He sort of snarled at me and I saw he was starkers.”
“He was…”
“Naked. I thought maybe out for a jog, even if it was a bit cold for that. Takes all kinds, y’know.”
I remembered Big Dave’s story about the time he was drunk on New Year’s Eve and decided to go for a swim in the Trafalgar Fountain. Fully clothed.
“We just stared at each other,” Big Dave went on, “and then he ran around and jumped in the back of the cab. ‘Drive me into town, please!’ he said, and I started driving. I think all I had was a tea towel but I offered that to him. As I pulled forward I heard something come barking and snarling up at the back tire so I sped out of there.”
“It wasn’t a werewolf,” I said.
“Even worse.” Big Dave started to laugh. “The poor man had been taking a bath, went to get the evening newspaper off his front porch, and had gotten locked out. He wanted me to drive him to a locksmith. And he was being chased by his neighbor’s dog.”
Big Dave and I laughed together and it echoed across the moonlit fields.

 

Worse Things Happen At Sea.

The ferry from Calais to Dover was quiet; the English Channel was mostly smooth and the occasional whitecap seemed to pop up only to salute the few clouds in the powder blue sky. The sun, not quite to the yardarm yet, was bright but not overbearing, giving just the right amount of warmth to make standing on a ship’s deck in early November pleasant. At the time England and France seemed closer than they had since, well, 1066, with construction of the Chunnel going on and international relations mostly friendly
We weren’t too far out and I was watching the coast of France disappear when an older man in a black pea coat and a cap came up and stood next to me. We looked at each other and nodded, and then I made some comment about how quickly you can lose sight of land at sea. Just a few miles out and all trace of land can disappear.
“That’s why the sea keeps its secrets,” he said. “The sea knows that things that happen out of sight of land will never be fully understood.”
I shifted uneasily and looked around to make sure there were witnesses if he decided to jump or throw me overboard, but instead he just looked at me and smiled.
“Lots of mysteries of the sea, you know, like the Mary Celeste. You’re American, but you’ve heard of it, eh?”
Heard of it, and I knew it was some sort of ghost ship, that it had been found drifting, with all passengers mysteriously missing.
“Aye,” he said, “you’ve got the heart of it, but there’s more to it than that. It was an American ship, did you know that?”
I didn’t, nor did I know the rest of what he shared with me: that it had left New York City in November 1872, and in early December was found drifting between the Azores and Portugal. The ship’s cargo and passengers’ personal possessions were all there, but there was no sign of the passengers.
“No one knows what became of them,” he said, “but one thing we can be sure of: they were taken by the sea, and only the sea knows what became of them.” I felt a chill as a breeze blew across us from the west. Then he turned and said, “Ah, the duty free shop’s open.”
It was a rather anticlimactic end to an interesting encounter, but I took a seat on the deck and kept watching the sea.
When I got back to school I went to the library and looked up the Mary Celeste, wondering how much more there was to the story. And the truth is there isn’t much more to the story itself, as least as far as the facts are concerned. There was some water in the hold and that might have caused the captain to think they were sinking. The lifeboat was missing and all the passengers and crew may have intended to temporarily abandon the ship. That was uncommon but not unheard of at the time. Sea travel was dangerous. There was no GPS, not even radio. Ships on the sea were on their own. The captain and crew were experienced, but things happen. The Mary Celeste wasn’t the only case of a deserted ship–there’s even been at least one in modern times, but a perfect storm of events, from the captain who discovered it going to court for a higher salvage fee than what he was offered to a judge who was determined to pin blame on someone, gave it special publicity. It inspired a short story by a then young Arthur Conan Doyle, and it soon became encrusted with rumors, speculations, and wild theories. It’s even been associated with the Bermuda Triangle even though its course was never that far south.
On the ferry I was thinking about the Mary Celeste and other mysteries of the sea when a sudden crack of thunder made me nearly fall over. I stood up and ran to the railing and looked out. The dark clouds of a storm were moving in from the west, darkening the sky. I’m very much a skeptic, and I don’t believe there’s any supernatural explanation for the Mary Celeste or other mysteries of the sea. We may never know exactly what happened, but there’s a logical explanation out there somewhere. Still the sea does guard its secrets, jealously, and I’m just cautious enough that I’ll only talk about the Mary Celeste, or the sea’s other mysteries, when I’m well away from the water.

 

Where Was Everybody?

Source: filmaffinity.com

A coworker came in the other morning and said, “I can’t believe how fast I got here today. There was absolutely no traffic on the road. I hardly even saw any cars on my way in. Is something going on?”

I’d heard on the news earlier that a car on the interstate had burst into flames. Miraculously no one was hurt but the accident was bad enough that emergency crews had closed all lanes for a while and she had been lucky enough to time her commute just when they’d reopened.

“I’m so glad there’s a logical explanation,” she said. “It was so weird, like something out of The Twilight Zone.”

“It’s funny you should say that,” I said, feeling a fire spark in my brain. “The first episode of The Twilight Zone was called ‘Where Is Everybody?’ and is about an astronaut who returns to Earth and finds the whole place deserted.”

She chuckled and said, “That’s interesting.”

The fire in my head was building.

“It premiered in 1959 and starred Earl Holliman. You might remember Holliman from his role as the ship’s cook in Forbidden Planet.”

She chuckled and said, “Only you would know that,” not realizing this was fanning the flames.

“I’ve always wondered why a ship that’s capable of interstellar travel with a crew that spends most of its time in hibernation needs a cook, but I do love the scenes with Holliman and Robby The Robot.”

“I haven’t seen Forbidden Planet.”

“Oh, you should!” I’m pretty sure my eyes were glowing at this point and I could feel smoke coming out of my ears. “It stars a young Leslie Nielsen. This was years before he did Airplane!

“I love Airplane!

And with that I had to run to the kitchen and run cold water over my head.

Sometimes I just shouldn’t be around people.

There’s A Lunch.

Normally this is a commercial-free blog, but when White Castle parked a food truck near where I work and started giving away free lunches I couldn’t resist writing about it. I could have resisted taking the free lunch, but I will say their version of the impossible slider is pretty convincing, although it’s also small enough that two bites later you wonder if it was all a dream.

The timing for this, of course, couldn’t be better, because White Castle prompts what is, admittedly, one of the least funny audience participation lines in The Rocky Horror Picture Show:

AUDIENCE: WHAT’S WHITE AND SELLS HAMBURGERS?

BRAD MAJORS: Didn’t we pass a castle just up the road?

However it’s soon followed by one of the funniest audience participation lines:

JANET WEISS: I’m coming with you!

AUDIENCE: FOR A CHANGE!

JANET WEISS: Besides, darling, the owner of that castle might be a beautiful woman—

AUDIENCE: HE IS!

Anyway an added bonus is that employees were driving bicycle rickshaws around the area and I couldn’t resist going for a spin in one. I asked the guy driving my rickshaw if he remembered that line from The Rocky Horror Picture Show—he did—and found out his name was also Chris. That was my chance to repeat the joke that in my high school there were so many of us that yelling “Hey Chris!” in the hall was like going to a Cure concert and yelling, “Hey, you in the black!”

Please tip your driver.

Chris and I also talked about a story I’d just heard about the decline of the name “Nigel” in Britain which has prompted a pub owner to hold “Nigel Nights” where anyone named Nigel gets a free pint. That sounds like a pretty sweet deal too–one that goes to eleven, but that’s another story.

Something tasteless in a rickshaw. Also White Castle food!

Chris was a really nice guy, at least he laughed at all my jokes, so maybe the word I’m really looking for here is “polite”, and he had a beard that could have made him an honorary member of ZZ Top. So it wouldn’t surprise me if someone commented that they saw me riding around with some beautiful blonde.

Drying Out.

Most of Tennessee, most of the southeastern United States, I think, has been experiencing a drought. I’m not kidding when say I hear about floods or massive hurricanes affecting other areas right now and wish there were an easy way to move that water away from places where it’s doing damage and put it where it’s needed—but spread it out enough that it doesn’t do damage here either. A flood or hurricane is terrible but fast, even if the consequences are long-lasting. A drought is a tragedy in slow motion.

There’s a shopping center next to where I get off the bus and lately the sprinklers have been running when I disembark. For a while I could make the joke that I sometimes make about certain neighbors: “I know it’s going to rain. The people down the street are running their sprinklers.” Maybe there’s a house like that in every neighborhood, a house where, if you didn’t know better, you’d swear their sprinklers are able to magically conjure up rain. Although they’re not nearly as bad as the people next door to them whose automatic sprinkler system only seems to come on when it rains, but that’s another story.

As it became clearer we were having a drought, though, I stopped joking about the sprinklers running. And then I started wondering if it was a waste of water, although green grass helps prevent erosion. Xeriscaping is fine in arid regions, but in places where dryness is unusual it can cause problems when the rains finally come.

And the running sprinklers cause problems too—for me, anyway. One day a bus driver nicely stopped far enough from the sidewalk that, he pointed out, I wouldn’t have to step right into the spray. That was fine but I still had to get to the sidewalk anyway. And other drivers haven’t been so considerate. But a bright side of the weather is the humidity is low and my legs were dry by the time I got home.

What’s It Worth?

There are boxes at the front of the buses now. They’re little rectangular boxes at the front window, next to the fare collection box, and they have a digital screen that says “Coming in 2020!” although really they’re already here. What they portend, though, is what’s coming in 2020, and I have a pretty good idea what it is, and I have an even better idea that I don’t like it.
I like paying cash for things. Not everything–I’m not going to walk around with a briefcase full of bills like a guy in an old gangster movie, but for a lot of things, especially small purchases, I opt for paper over plastic. I’m not averse to using a card. When I was in college there was a bank right across the street from the campus and, like most of my fellow students, I went and opened an account and I thought it was really cool that a few days later they mailed me a card and a letter with my PIN so I could go to the ATM that was conveniently located in front of the bank and get money whenever I wanted it. And I could then use this money to pay for stuff. I also remember when stores had signs up that said they wouldn’t accept credit cards for purchases under a certain amount–I think it was usually $10–because they didn’t want the hassle and added charges for such a small amount.
The times they have a-changed. The other day I went into a coffee shop and, while I realize you can now easily spend $10 or more on a single cup of coffee, I was just getting a simple cup of joe to go that was two bucks, and as I started to pay for it the barista said, “We don’t accept cash.”
Now I don’t want to sound paranoid but I’m going to sound paranoid. Part of why I like paying with cash is that’s a personal transaction that’s not being processed, fed into a database, connected to my other purchases, compared to similar demographic data, and ultimately used to try to produce highly targeted advertising to get me to buy more stuff. And that’s, as far as I know, the least nefarious use of my purchasing history, but it still bothers me. It’s why I have qualms about using services like Uber and Lyft instead of a taxi. Granted I have friends who’ve driven for both Uber and Lyft, and part of the appeal was that it was easy to get into it to earn some extra cash, but the drivers for those services are earning less now than they used to even as the companies themselves go up in value. The value of those companies has also always been based less on the actual fees they get for rides and more on the rider data they collect. And while you can pay for a cab ride with a credit card I think–it’s been a long time since I took a taxi anywhere–you can still pay with cash. Parking meters are being phased out too and replaced with parking lots that require a credit card, and while it’s nice to not have to feed the meter every hour or so my experience has been that I pay a lot more for the convenience, as well as sharing my license plate number which is another data point.
Granted I see very few people paying for bus rides with cash anymore. Part of this may be the convenience of not having to carry, or worry about, change. The fare for a single ride in Nashville is now $2, although it used to be $1.70 and if you put two bucks into the fare collector you’d have to ask the driver for a change card, which you could then use to pay for future bus rides and nothing else. I never knew why you had to ask for a change card; the machine should have generated one automatically, but maybe most people just didn’t care. I’d often find seats littered with five and ten cent change cards. And a nickel has been the minimum you could drop in for I don’t know how long, probably because of the time I paid my entire bus fare in pennies, but that’s another story.
Now, if the buses are going to stop taking cash and requiring people to use credit and debit cards I think it’s fair to ask, what’s that going to cost us?

 

Front To Back.

A few weeks ago I wrote about Chucky, the kid who sat at the back of the school bus, and it got me thinking about the city buses I ride where I usually sit at the back. It’s where the engine is so in the winter it’s the warmest seat on the bus which is great, and in the summer it’s the warmest seat in the bus which isn’t so great, but I can sit off to the side. I’m not sure why I always go to the back of the bus. Unlike Chucky, who drew attention to himself by sitting at the back, I do it to be small and unobtrusive. I don’t go dancing down the aisle greeting everyone, although that would be kind of fun to do and get some laughs. And I go to the back to leave seats for other people at the front of the bus. The wheelchair seating is at the front of the bus, and there’s more space for people with kids in strollers up at the front too.
Something I really hadn’t thought about, though, is that, unlike school buses, city buses don’t have an emergency door in the back. I’ve also heard stories of kids who had a tradition of opening the emergency door at the back of the bus and jumping out, which makes me feel like I missed out. We never even practiced going out of the emergency door. My school thought it was good enough to show us a filmstrip about how to get out of the bus in the event of an emergency so if we’d ever needed to get out we might have been stuck there waiting for the beep so we could advance to the next frame, but that’s another story.
What I realized is that, while the city bus does have a side door halfway down the bus, there are also emergency “doors” in the ceiling, one at the front and one at the back, and it’s one of those things that’s strangely unnerving. Sitting in the back does suddenly seem like a better idea, even if it’s in the hot seat, because the back of the bus is elevated, so those like me who are short in stature will have an easier time reaching the ceiling. Supposedly there’s an emergency door in the ceiling of elevators and that’s always bothered me because, first of all, I’ve never seen one, and, second, I’ve never been in an elevator where I could reach the ceiling. That also means that tall people need to sit closer to the front of the bus, and it makes me wonder if there’s a certain height requirement for bus drivers. Sure, they need to be able to reach the pedals, but the seats are adjustable, so has anyone stopped to think about whether the driver could reach the ceiling? And I wonder what kind of emergency would block both bus doors forcing us to go out onto the roof. Whatever it is would probably have the bus surrounded so I hope it’s something like water and not lava or acid or raw sewage. I do, however, feel strangely reassured that the bus company has never given us instructions on how to use the emergency escape hatches via a filmstrip so if there’s an emergency we won’t stand around waiting for the beep.

Thank You.

Every time I get off the bus I tell the driver “Thank you.” I never leave through the side door, even if it’s closer to where I’m sitting when the bus stops, and if the side door is closer I hurry to the front so I don’t hold up anybody just so I can offer a nice parting word to the driver. It’s Labor Day today which got me thinking about that, and about bus drivers I’ve known.
If you rode a bus to school do you remember your first day? I distinctly remember that a few blocks from my house a kid came running out into his yard. I’d seen this kid around the neighborhood–he looked like a miniature Harpo Marx, minus the trench coat and the horn, and I never heard him talk either. I just knew he was younger than me. The driver stopped opened the door just as Harpo Jr.’s mother ran out to grab him.
“Does he ride this bus?” the driver asked.
His mother shook his head and we drove on.
That bus driver was Ms. Owens, who always wore sunglasses and a bright pink shirt and jeans, and who had a frizzy mane of bright red hair. You’d think this would make her stand out but there was at least one other driver who looked just like her, which is why, that first week of school, I got on the wrong bus. One by one, or sometimes in clusters, other kids got off until I was the last one and the poor bus driver had to drive around asking people if they knew where I lived until we passed my mother who was driving around the neighborhood asking people if they’d seen me. I don’t think I ever thanked that driver; I still appreciate all her effort and I don’t mind that she kept insisting I was a girl, but that’s another story.
A few years later Mrs. Owens was still my regular bus driver when a major snowstorm hit and she did her best to get us all home, creeping along through snow and darkness at inches per hour at times. She made all of us give her our home phone numbers as we got off and once she got home she called every one of our parents to make sure we’d gotten home safely.
In high school my regular bus driver was a funny little gnome named Russ who could barely see over the steering wheel and who I’m pretty sure had checked out the school library’s copy of Moby Dick so he could sit on it. We always said “Thanks, Russ” when we got off the bus, and he always said, “Y’all have a nice day.” He never said anything else. We even made a game of trying to get him to say something different, because we were teenagers and therefore jerks.
“Thanks for the ride, Russ.”
“Y’all have a nice day.”
“Have a nice day, Russ.”
“Y’all have a nice day.”
“Have they found the white whale yet, Russ?”
“Y’all have a nice day.”
Even now I thank bus drivers, even when it’s the only thing I say to them, although it’s the chatty ones I remember. There was the older woman who liked talking to passengers, and who one day asked me what my name was. Then she told me I’d never forget her name: “Loretta Lynn.” She was right, and I thanked her for also recording Coal Miner’s Daughter.
There was also the driver who I saw every day for a couple of weeks, then my schedule changed so I took a different bus for about a week, and then it changed back, and the first day as I was getting on the driver grinned and said, “Where you been?” It was nice to know someone was looking out for me.
I even thank the bus drivers who annoy me, like the one who kept pulling over every few blocks, frequently between stops, to check his phone, even though bus drivers are supposed to put their phones in a box while they’re driving. As frustrating as it was I know I shouldn’t make hasty judgments about people, and I had plenty of time to make a slow judgment about him. Maybe someone in his family was having a baby, or major surgery, and he couldn’t get someone else to take his shift so he had to keep checking his phone for news. Maybe there was something else big going on in his life, like an offer for a different job.
Anyway I’ve got the day off from work today so I won’t be riding the bus, but tomorrow if I do I’ll thank the driver.

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