Adventures In Busing.

Back Of The Bus.

I was stopped behind a school bus. It’s amazing how quickly the summer has flown by. School is already starting again which means the buses are rolling and kids are out walking. While I was behind the school bus one of the kids in the back looked out the window at me and for a moment I thought he was Chucky, who always sat in the back. Chucky was a short, scrawny blonde kid, a sixth-grader which meant he was a couple of years older than me. In spite of his stature Chucky was the biggest kid on the bus. He sat alone in the back seat, or rather stretched out across it, and kept up a running commentary through the whole ride. No matter where you sat on the bus you could hear Chucky. There were the anecdotes, like the time he referred to a teacher by her first name, “Irma”, and when another teacher said, “Oh, you’re on a first-name basis now?” he replied, “No, we’re really on a first-syllable basis. I call her Ir.” There were the stupid jokes: “You know what I’d do with a million dollars? I’d buy a new butt. Mine has a crack in it.” And there was the occasional question like, “Hey, when’re we gonna stop for ice cream?” and that got us all chanting “ICE CREAM ICE CREAM ICE CREAM” until the driver stopped and yelled at us to be quiet. Chucky complained about being grounded for a bad grade, about the math teacher with the hairy lip, about the kid who threw up in the middle of the hallway, and how many people walked through it without noticing. When we had a substitute bus driver who got lost Chucky said, “She got her license out of a Cracker Jack box.” When that same substitute bus driver got stuck on a hill because she couldn’t figure out the gears and put the parking brake on, then took it off so the bus started slowly rolling backwards, Chucky said, “We’ve secretly replaced your regular bus driver with Folger’s crystals.” Chucky was old enough and smart enough that he probably could have helped her out, but that would have meant leaving his seat in the back.
Not everyone was a fan of Chucky, though. Once, early in the school year, another sixth-grader named Jim decided he wanted to sit in the back seat. I’m not sure what made him want to challenge Chucky’s claim to the throne, or at least the closest thing the bus had to one. Jim was a nice guy but quiet, and if he’d taken up the backseat it would have changed the whole tone of the ride home. He’d gotten to the bus first but Chucky wasn’t giving up his seat without a fight, which would have been terrible in the tight quarters of the back of the bus if their fight hadn’t been so ridiculous. With their eyes closed they threw light punches at each others’ stomachs, grunting, until the bus driver came and broke it up. Chucky was restored to his place at the back and Jim was forced to sit at the front. In spite of keeping his position Chucky was strangely subdued that afternoon. There were no jokes, no comments about that weird looking little house we always passed, no requests to stop and get a Coke.
The next day the old Chucky was back as though nothing had happened–and, really, nothing had happened. Childhood events that seem enormous in the moment have a way of dissipating just as quickly, and the bus that I was behind rolled on, carrying that kid who’d glanced back at me away.

Park It.

Source: Google Maps

Nashville’s Hillsboro Village is, depending on how you count it, a one or two block stretch of densely crowded shops, including, among other things, the historic Villager Tavern, which is now a friendly and welcoming place but for decades was perhaps the deepest dive bar in the southeast. It was a place where dark creatures in flannel and leather leaned over glasses smelling of turpentine, muttering secrets in prehistoric tongues, recoiling in horror from the light when one among them would strike a sulfur match and set fire to a thick, tarry cheroot and exhale clouds of smoke indistinguishable from the haze of disintegrated dreams that filled the tavern’s dry, fetid air. So anyway now it’s pretty much a family place—if your family is over twenty-one, and if not there are plenty of other options, including Fido’s, the coffee shop that makes a pretty good red velvet cake, or the Pancake Pantry, where people literally line up down the street waiting to get in.

Anyway I had an appointment at noon on the other side of Hillsboro Village. And that seemed easy enough. I knew to catch the #7, a route I’ve ridden all the way to its terminus and back, that would come by around 11:30, although in retrospect that was cutting it a bit close, and if there’s one thing I hate it’s even the possibility of being late. It’s just one of my quirks. I don’t believe there’s such a thing as “fashionably late”. Invite me to a party and you’ll probably see me drive by your house five or six times because I’ve gotten there unfashionably early and I don’t want to come in before you’ve even had a chance to get out of bed, but that’s another story.

The bus was a few minutes late and I was already sweating bullets, and not just because it’s August and around these parts the air has somehow figured out how to have 300% humidity. I was terrified of being late, but we were speeding along our merry way. Then we hit Hillsboro Village.

Back when it was a quiet little neighborhood there was nothing wrong with parking on the street. Now, though—and you can even see this in the satellite image—cars are allowed to park along a two-block stretch of 21st Avenue that passes through, and they’re not allowed to park on the street on any approaching block, which creates a funnel of crawling traffic. And buses, by their nature, have to stick to the right-hand lane, so the driver, approaching this passage, had to wait for a lull in the traffic to pull in, further slowing our progress.

One of many things that’s predicted in the future of self-driving cars is that parking will no longer be a problem. Some claim that your self-driving car will simply drop you off and circle around the block as you do your business then pick you up when you’re ready to go. The potential fuel costs and increased carbon footprint of this notwithstanding I’d hate to run down my self-driving car because it didn’t recognize me.

Anyway all this just illustrates an annoying problem of city planning, especially as cities, and the neighborhoods within them, change and grow. Parking is always an afterthought.

I was three minutes late for my appointment, by the way.


A Matter Of Time.

I had an appointment and the only way I could get there was by bus. Since it was in the middle of a work day I wanted to spend as little time getting there and back as possible. The appointment itself would be just an hour, but I knew I couldn’t count on the bus being on time. And while I could have walked it, well, it’s summer in Nashville, and while some people say, “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity” the heat is also a problem too, and I didn’t want to get to my appointment looking like I’d taken a shower with my clothes on and smelling like I hadn’t showered in a month. Also whenever possible I like to be parsimonious with the time I spend away from work. For one thing I like to save my allotted vacation time for vacations, and for another it’s a great excuse to use a cool word like “parsimonious”.

Source: imgflip

While I was waiting at the bus stop I did some idle browsing with my phone. I’m still annoyed that the Nashville MTA, which has rebranded itself as WeGo, although it could just as easily call itself MightGo or DoneGone, but that’s another story, has scrapped their app that gave exact arrival times for buses on various routes. I can’t say enough good things about the app and I even included some of them in a message I sent to WeGo asking why they got rid of it. I’ve never gotten a response so I can only assume such messages are forwarded to the department of WentNowhere.

What I did find, though, is that Google has helpful information on nearby bus routes and bus schedules. And by “helpful” I mean “completely useless”. Because of privacy concerns I’m a little relieved that Google’s geographic tracking is so far off, but surely there’s a happy medium where it could throw a few targeted ads at me while at the same time giving me accurate information. The “nearby bus stops” it gave me were, admittedly, within walking distance, but only if I wanted to look like I’d been showering with my clothes on.

Nashville’s public transit service has suffered years of budget shortfalls, and those shortfalls are big enough that they’ve raised fares. Budget shortfalls a problem that’s shared by public transit departments around the U.S., even around the world, and I worry that the budget problems threaten the very existence of public transit. For me riding the bus is an option but for a lot of people it’s a necessity. And I realize that maintaining an app with detailed tracking information is expensive, although not nearly as expensive as building an app then ditching it because it doesn’t fit with a big new rebranding campaign. I think transit authorities need and deserve more money but if they mismanage the funds they’ve got now they’re potentially speeding up their own extinction.

The bus I was waiting for, by the way, was right on time.

Have You Ever Seen The Rain?

It was raining. Maybe it was also pouring—I’ve never actually seen rain pour since “pour” is an intransitive verb and as far as I know rain doesn’t even have hands it could use to hold a container from which it could pour something, and what would it pour anyway?  I’m pretty sure the only reason anybody says rain is “pouring” is because of that old children’s song:

It’s raining, it’s pouring,

The old man is snoring.

So the “pouring” probably only got in there because it’s a convenient rhyme to go with “snoring”, and if the song left off there I’d be willing to let it go—it’s a nice image of an old man sleeping through the rain. Then it takes a sudden, weird, and very dark turn:

He bumped his head and he went to bed,

And he couldn’t get up in the morning.

What’s going on here? At best the old man has major depression that’s preventing him from getting out of bed, but it sounds more like he’s suffered a concussion and possibly even has a subdural hematoma. Either way why are we letting children just sing about it when somebody should be getting this old man some help? I mentioned this to a friend of mine who agreed it’s pretty terrible but added that it’s not as bad as the song about the old man who played two on your shoe, and three on your knee, and, um, six on your appendix and then goes,

With a nick nack paddy whack

Give a dog a bone,

This old man came rolling home.

My friend believes the old man gets punched hard enough to send him flying, but my counterargument is that we don’t know that’s why he goes rolling home—for all we know he’s a gymnast and likes to roll around, or he takes a bicycle or even a penny-farthing, because he’s a brave and hip old guy, and also a dog gets a bone, so there’s at least some karmic balance there. The fact that my friend assumes there’s violence involved makes me wonder if I should keep a closer eye on him. However we can agree that in the first song “pouring” and “snoring” don’t rhyme with “morning” and “bone” and “home” don’t rhyme and if you’ve ever seen Educating Rita you know the definition of assonance is “getting the rhyme wrong”, but that’s another story.

Where I was going with this before I got sidetracked by the horror of children’s songs is that it was raining as I left work and there was a bus right across the street. It was absolutely perfect timing, especially since it was a bus going my way. I’d driven to work that day but the parking garage was a few blocks away, and the bus would take me, if not right to it, then at least closer, and would get me out of the rain. So I ran across the street, to the bus, and, as I was getting on, bumped by head on the door frame.

It was the afternoon and I stayed awake and had no trouble getting up when the bus got to my stop.

Have A Drink.

A taxi parked in front of a liquor store. I guess he’s the designated driver.

I have a thing about drinking and driving and that thing is that I don’t. There have been times when I probably could—the other night my wife and I met some friends after work and since I was driving I just had iced tea, and we ended up hanging out long enough that I could have had a beer and passed even the most sensitive breathalyzer, but hindsight never wears beer goggles. And it’s just a personal thing—most people, I assume, are responsible and know their limits, although my own wariness of mixing a drink and a drive mostly comes from a night that my wife and I were driving home. Well, she was driving and I was riding. It was a dark and stormy night and as we approached a hill we could see a car coming toward us. Then it swerved into our lane.

“He doesn’t see us,” my wife said.

She stopped. He swerved again and drove off the yard into someone’s front yard.

We got out and talked to him a bit. He was a young guy and he admitted he’d been drinking. He worked at a bar and had a few during his shift and probably a few more before he got in his car to drive to a friend’s house. He may have even been underage: in these parts you have to be twenty-one to drink alcohol but only eighteen to sell it, which is why whenever I buy beer at the grocery store I always head to the oldest-looking cashier I can find, but that’s another story.

It also came out in our brief conversation that my wife was right: he hadn’t seen us. He thought we’d come up behind him and only stopped to see if he was okay. He didn’t realize that, if we’d kept going, he would have hit us at full speed and the odds were pretty good I wouldn’t be around to tell you this story.

Anyway that’s why this ad campaign for the Nashville bus promoting a beer route tickles me so much. There are twenty small breweries in Nashville by my count, and eighteen of them listed on this bus tour promotion—and most of those are right on a bus route, although Yazoo, which is currently within walking distance of where I work, is moving to nearby Madison, Tennessee because it’s expanding.

Nashville’s buses are notoriously irregular and for some reason they haven’t put any of this information online—the local MTA ain’t exactly what I’d call tech savvy even though they’ve added wifi to pretty much all buses now. Also does it strike anyone else as weird that you have to be twenty-one to visit most brewery web sites? Check out the Jackalope Brewing site–because it’s got a cool story and they make really good beer, but it’s not like you’re going to drink any of it from the website. Or if you know a way to get beer through a website please share it because it’ll make my afternoon commute a lot more interesting. Anyway it’s just weird to me that you can pick up this flier advertising local breweries on a bus regardless of your age, but visiting the Black Abbey Brewery web site requires you to be at least twenty-one.

The important thing here, though is that the idea of letting someone else do the driving is something I’ll drink to.

Traveler’s Rest.

The design of benches at bus stops bugs me. I know I’m very lucky to be at most slightly inconvenienced by the design and that most of the time it doesn’t even affect me because I can stand, but maybe it helps if I speak up along with people for whom it is a problem, and most of those people are homeless. I know homelessness is a growing problem in many cities, and while I don’t have any answers I do know that making homeless people’s lives more difficult isn’t an answer, which is why the bars in the middle of bus benches that make it impossible for anyone to lie down bothers me. The half-benches in bus shelters are even worse because they only have enough space for two people at most so if you have three people who need to take a load off their feet someone’s outta luck. Even the design of the benches, cold perforated metal that I’m sure has been calculated to be just big enough for the average posterior, is unfriendly. It says, “You can sit here but don’t think about staying here.”
This is always on my mind whenever I’m at a bus stop but there are two things this past week that really kept me thinking about it. The first is Grace over at Ms. Graceful Not who navigates the world with more aplomb than her blog’s name would suggest, but that’s another story, who wrote about planning a long trip in a wheelchair. Another thing that’s always on my mind whenever I ride the bus is that in Nashville and other cities where public transportation is pretty much an afterthought people who depend on the bus are limited in where they can live and work. As someone I know said, “I would ride the bus if I didn’t have to walk three miles and cross an interstate to get to the nearest stop.”
And there are visually impaired people who ride the bus, which is part of why, whenever the bus comes to a stop, a cheerful recorded voice announces the route number. That’s great if you’re standing right there when it arrives but not much help if the bus has been idling for a while. Once I was at the downtown depot sitting on the bus and waiting to go when a guy with a red-tipped cane came up to the door and asked, “Which bus is this?”
“Which bus do you need?” the driver snapped because he hadn’t been taught that it’s bad manners to answer a question with a question and even worse manners to make someone else’s life difficult for no reason.
The guy turned and walked on. I slipped over to the other side of the bus and leaned out the window and told him it was the number seven.
“Okay, thanks,” he said and kept walking, and I still wonder if he wanted a different bus or he just decided to wait for the next number seven bus because the driver was an asshole.
Anyway the other thing this week that got me thinking about bus bench design this week is that a bus I was riding stopped at a red light where there was a bench and a guy sitting on it. The driver opened the doors. The guy didn’t get up and I thought, oh, he’s just sitting there. I often see people just sitting on bus benches; sometimes they’ll wave to the driver to keep going. If it’s a spot where several routes overlap maybe they’re waiting for a different bus or maybe they’re just taking a break from walking.
“Hey,” yelled the driver. “How you been doin’?”
The guy looked up. “Oh, I hadn’t seen you in a while. How are you?”
And they just started chatting. The driver asked the guy how his operation had gone and if he were feeling better. Then the light changed and the bus rolled on and I thought, hey, at least one bus driver gets it.

Not All The News.

We still get a newspaper, an actual, physical, paper-and-ink newspaper, although just on the weekends–I have so many other things to read that the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday editions are about all I can keep up with, and even then I mostly pull out the Arts section and recycle the rest. A few times I’ve seen the guy who makes the deliveries, driving slowly through neighborhoods some time after dawn, his emergency lights blinking. He has excellent aim. He always manages to hit the ditch next to the driveway. Our neighbor gets a paper too, but I wonder how many homes still get a newspaper. It’s a dying business. I don’t want to wax nostalgic about the bygone era of kids on bicycles throwing a morning newspaper onto the porch of every home just as the residents were starting to stir but I also want to wax nostalgic about the bygone, or nearly gone, era of regular newspaper delivery. Not that I ever had a paper route, or even knew anyone who did before I went to college.
I met Jeff early in my sophomore year at a small gathering at his place. Maybe it was a party but I don’t know if you can call four people a party, and anyway his room–part of a row of student apartments next to the fraternity houses, so that it was both off-campus and technically part of the campus–while bigger than a dorm room was still pretty small. We drank and talked through the night. He played Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk”. At some point early on I quit drinking, but Jeff didn’t, and at around three o’clock in the morning he said, “I need to deliver papers. Can you drive?”
Well, sort of. I didn’t have a license and it had been a few years since driver’s ed, but I decided driving a car is like riding a bicycle; you’re just less likely to fall off. It had been a few years since I’d last ridden a bicycle too. Following Jeff’s directions I drove to a warehouse downtown where we picked up a stack of newspapers, then through the neighborhoods of straight streets where all I had to do was hold the steering wheel while he bagged and threw newspapers.
I rode along with him a few more times after that, and one day we even took a half hour road trip to a bigger town. He was looking for a book at a bookstore that turned out to be closed when we got there. A few days later I went by his place and knocked. There was no answer. I couldn’t find him the next day either. The day after that a girl I knew told me Jeff had been reported for smoking pot in his room, maybe by one of the fraternity guys who would have recognized the smell from one of their own parties. The details were obscure but at the time any drug use was dealt with swiftly and harshly. Jeff was expelled and left without telling anyone. The abruptness of it has stayed with me even as the newspaper delivery business slowly fades away.

Wallet? You’ll Love It!

One day I was sitting on the bus, absorbed in a podcast as usual. I barely even noticed that the bus had stopped to let some people off. Then it started rolling again. Then from behind me a guy started yelling, “Hey! Wait! Stop!” I thought maybe he’d fallen asleep and almost missed his stop, or had just been so absorbed in something he was listening to he forgot where he wanted to get off. Then he ran to the front of the bus holding a small purse. The driver let him out and the guy yelled, “Hey ma’am!” He ran to a woman walking up the sidewalk and handed her the purse, then ran back to the bus and got back on.
“She does that all the time,” said the driver. “Most of the time I just keep it up here and give it to her when she gets back on.”
I laughed at how bus drivers get to know certain people, and also wondered how many purses that woman lost and if she’d memorized all her credit card numbers, and wondered if I’d chase someone down the street to return a purse, then went back to listening to my podcast.
I was reminded of that incident when I heard about a scientific study to find out whether people around the world would return a lost wallet if they found one. And the good news is they will. Some researchers were surprised by that, and even more surprising to them was that the larger the amount of money in the wallet–some wallets had no money, some had about $13 in local currency, and others had about $100–the more likely people were to return it with the money in it.
Is that really surprising, though? The fake wallets were made to look like they belonged to tourists, and a lot of us who’ve traveled can relate to the experience of losing something so vital as a wallet and money in a strange place. And a lot of locals want tourists to leave with a good impression of a place. What does it say about us though that anyone finds the results surprising? People have a tendency to live up to expectations. For instance most people expect me to be completely oblivious.

Feeling Cross.

When you press the page button for an elevator it lights up. At least that seems to be the case for every elevator I encounter now–I have ridden in a few that had a simple black button, but those were old, rickety elevators and you could tell they were coming because you could see the weights and chains moving through the wire cage of the elevator shaft, and you could hear the elevator groan, as though it were saying, “I’m cooooming…” One thing that hasn’t changed is that elevators seem to hang out on whatever the last floor was that they went to, which makes sense to me. I guess even elevators deserve an occasional break from going up and down all the time. What doesn’ make sense to me is when I’ve pressed the page button and it’s lit up and I’m standing there waiting and some schmuck walks up and presses it again. Maybe he–it’s always a he–thinks that’ll make the elevator arrive faster, or maybe he thinks I didn’t press it correctly the first time. Maybe he’s just angry with me for thinking he’s a schmuck, but I really didn’t think that until after he pressed the button.
Anyway I had a lot of time to think about this the other day when I was waiting for the light to change and the WALK sign to come on so I could cross the street. There was already a guy standing on the corner when I got there and I didn’t want him to think I was a schmuck so I didn’t push the walk signal button. It doesn’t light up when you push it but I assumed he’d already pushed it since he was standing on the corner and, I assumed, also waiting to cross the street. Also I just assume that regardless of whether I push the walk signal button the WALK signal is going to come on when the light changes and that the button is just there to give people waiting to cross the street something to do. Well, you know what they say: when you assume something you end up standing on the corner while the schmuck who was there when you arrived looks at his watch and starts walking up the street without crossing it. I could have run across the street in spite of the DON’T WALK sign–I’m not morally opposed to jaywalking and have in fact done it in multiple cities, states, and countries–but I also knew that if I got hit by a car the driver would be correct in saying he had the right of way. Also if there was a WALK sign and I got hit by a car the driver would still be correct in saying that because, let’s face it, the multi-ton wheeled hunk of metal always has the right of way over the hundred-and-forty pound sack of meat and bone regardless of what the law says. So I pressed the walk signal button and stood there through another round of light changes, wondering the whole time why the WALK sign doesn’t come on automatically. It’s not like it does anywhere so why does it get a break?

Woman In White.

All kinds of people ride the bus I thought as she got on. She wore a solid white long-sleeve ankle-length dress and leopard-print shoes. When she sat down I could see she was wearing aqua-colored jeans, and she carried three purses: one gold, one silver, and one fuschia, which matched the frames of her sunglasses. Her hair was blonde, almost white, and in shiny curls.
What’s your story? I wanted to ask. Not just her, really–like I said, all kinds of people ride the bus, and I really would like to know everyone’s story, but I’m too shy to ask and I also worry it would be intrusive and rude to go around to people and ask them to tell me about themselves. I want to know people’s stories but I don’t want to make anyone feel pressured or uncomfortable. It’s why I have a problem with tabloids and celebrity gossip. People who are in the “public eye” still have a right to privacy. Once when I was a kid I rode along in the backseat while my parents took a visiting family member on a tour of Nashville. We went by Johnny Cash’s house which was surrounded by a high fence. The fence, my parents explained, was put up after a reporter hid in the bushes one night and saw Cash walking around his home naked. That’s probably far from the craziest thing that ever happened at Johnny Cash’s house, but why the reporter felt compelled to share it or, for that matter, to hide out in Cash’s bushes in the first place, is still beyond me.
Anyway there was something about this woman, from her shoes to her sunglasses, that seemed to invite conversation–as though she had a story she wanted to share. This is Nashville, and even though the recording industry has spread out, even though Music Row is now listed as one of America’s most endangered landmarks, there’s a reason it’s still known as Music City–people still come here to record albums, or just hoping to be discovered. I know someone who decided to go to a local karaoke bar on a whim and regretted it, saying, “I was the only one who wasn’t there for my career.”
Maybe I was assuming too much, though. It’s not fair to judge a person by how they dress, and I’ve since seen two other women carrying multiple purses which makes me wonder if it’s a new fashion trend and also just how much stuff they could possibly be carrying, but that’s another story.
Several blocks later she got off the bus without saying a word to the driver. At the next stop a guy got on and took her seat. He was wearing jeans, sneakers, a dark button-down shirt. From our clothes alone, I thought, we could be twins, except he was tall and bald. And I sat there wondering, what’s this cat’s story?

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