Adventures In Busing.

One Seat.

Some Nashville buses installed this plaque in memory of Rosa Parks after her death in 2005.

It’s been a long time since I last rode the bus but I haven’t forgotten it, and I just heard about the city of Albuquerque joining a movement to make buses free, joining at least one hundred other cities, which they’re finding not only makes public transportation more accessible but encourages more people to use it and doesn’t come with some of the problems that were expected.

On this particular day, though, I’m sharing a memory of a time when I did ride the bus.

It was standing room only on the bus. I’d gotten on earlier so I had a seat, near the front, and a woman who’d just gotten on was standing next to me. She was holding the overhead strap with one hand and a cane with the other. I stood up and offered her my seat.

“Thank you,” she said. “You’re a very polite young man.”

“It’s the way my grandmother raised me,” I said, and then felt ridiculous for saying that. I never rode the bus with my grandmother. I can’t even remember riding the bus with my parents. They may never have taught me public transportation etiquette but my grandmother and parents did teach me basic rules of courtesy, and so did teachers and a lot of other adults around me and other people.

The point is there was no single person who influenced me, something I think about whenever I think about the story of Rosa Parks. She helped prompt major changes, but she didn’t do it alone. Before she took a stand on a Montgomery bus she was already working with civil rights leaders. She was secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP and met Martin Luther King, Jr. Her decision to defy an order to give up her seat to a white passenger wasn’t spontaneous; she was deliberately acting on principle, which, I think, is even braver than a spontaneous act.

The woman whom I gave my seat on the bus was African American, and, as I said, she had a cane. I thought she needed the seat more than I did, but I also thought about how, not that long ago, within her lifetime, she would have been required to give up her seat if I, a white man, had asked her to move. I thought about how, right then, she didn’t ask me, or anyone else, to give up a seat so she could sit down. I don’t want to be presumptuous; I don’t know what her story really is, but it’s possible, even likely, that experience had taught her not to expect someone like me to give up a seat on the bus for her even if she needed it more. I wonder if, if I’d been brought up in an earlier era if I would have been willing to give up my seat on the bus. I wonder if I would have realized it wasn’t “my seat” but really a seat, open to anyone, but that in the interests of a better world it should be available to anyone, and priority should be given to those who need it most.

It’s difficult for me to talk about this even though these are things I think about a lot, and not just on days like today. It’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day today, a day when people remember and celebrate his legacy. And it deserves to be remembered and celebrated, and the work he did should be continued, and, as part of that, I think all those he influenced, all those who worked with him, also need to be remembered.

 

Things Are Going To Start Happening To Me Now.

There it was, at the end of the driveway—a shapeless pale green mass. I was hesitant at first but then I noticed there were similar masses at the end of every driveway up and down our street. I approached it carefully, and as I got closer I could see it was a plastic bag, and inside the bag was…a phone book. It was just the yellow pages, for local businesses—I don’t think they publish a residential phone book anymore, or, if they do, it goes exclusively to telemarketers who, when I ask how they got my number, tell me it was dialed at random and, when I ask, “Okay, how’d you get my name then?” hang up on me, but that’s another story.

I can’t remember the last time we got an actual phone book. Maybe we got one last year around this same time and I just can’t remember it because, well, that was a year ago, and I immediately put it in the recycling bin because that’s all it was good for, but I don’t think so. I don’t think we got one the year before that, or even the year before that, or, if we did, I can’t remember it because, well, that was three years ago and the recycling bin’s been emptied a few dozen times since then.

There’s something really annoying about getting a phone book these days. I’m old enough to remember when the yellow pages were advertised with “let your fingers do the walking” even though you were eventually going to have to use your feet eventually, and walking on your fingers is just asking for broken fingers. And also there seemed to be something deeply recursive about advertising a big book of advertising that was given away free anyway. Maybe that’s why even before the internet became the most widespread and popular way to find information, including phone numbers, phone books became a prop for tough guys who’d show their strength by tearing one in half. And I’m pretty sure someone’s already made a joke about how hard it is to tear the internet in half but you don’t have to be that strong to destroy a laptop or even a tablet, but you show me someone who can tear a warehouse full of servers in half and I’m not going to stick around because I’m sure that monster will destroy us all. I’m also old enough to remember phone booths and, for that matter, when a call was just ten cents, and I remember the time my friends and I looked up the number for a pizza place and found two that were close by, so we picked one, called in a pickup order, and then went to the wrong one because we didn’t have Google Street View to check and see where we were going before we went there.

I can’t even imagine why I’d use the phone book now—and I say this as someone who still reads, and even prefers, regular printed books, since there’s something baffling about trying to look up, say, gardening equipment, only to find “See: Plants”. I see a lot of plants which is why I want the gardening equipment.

On the other hand there is something to be said for the discrete, even private value of the phone book. It’s not keeping tabs on what tabs I have open or recording my browsing history. It’s not going to start throwing targeted ads at me based on the page where I happened to stop. If I want something embarrassingly personal like a shoe tree or a place that sells ceramic aardvarks and takes cash only I can probably find it in the phone book—if I can just figure out where to look.

Snowed In.

I liked this shot of the moon over our snowy roof.

Two things happened this past week. One is that Nashville got a sudden and very deep layer of snow that started early Friday morning. I was sitting at my desk looking out the window when snow began falling, quickly covering everything, and then the temperature dropped overnight so the places where I’d trudged back and forth taking the dogs out froze into solid ice so Saturday morning I skated out whenever I went out with the dogs.

The second thing is I read an article about how some automakers, especially the luxury ones, are building “brand experience centers” so customers, and even people who aren’t looking to buy a car, can just wander in and enjoy the outdoor deck, the café, the library—wait, what?—and the fancy restaurant with a Michelin-starred chef. That last is an interesting tie-in since the Michelin guide was started by a tire company even if it’s now more associated with pretentious, overpriced food, but that’s another story.

Putting all that stuff together in a single car dealership seems like a cool idea. It would make for a much nicer atmosphere than some of the experiences I’ve had at car dealerships, like the time my wife and I went looking—and we told the salesguy up front we were just looking—and he went off on a tangent about people coming in and wasting his time, then showed us a car we thought we might like but said he’d only negotiate pricing if we’d sign a form and when my wife crossed out the part that said “agrees to buy at this price” right after the space for our names the salesguy jumped up and started screaming in our faces. Then when we got up to leave he tried to block the door and started yelling at his manager that we’d been wasting his time and were terrible people, and I would have said, “Hey, we’re right here!” but he wasn’t paying any attention to us, which is how we were able to slip out.

So, yeah, a place with a more relaxed atmosphere would be a nice change.

A third thing that was supposed to happen this weekend that didn’t because of the snow is I was going to take the car in to get the oil changed and the tires rotated, which usually takes a couple of hours and because, well, they’ve got the car, I’ll sit in the waiting room and drink really terrible coffee and read a book because they’ve got a TV in there but it’s stuck on the 24-hour infomercial channel and they’ve lost the remote. Sometimes I think about a TV commercial for the old Saturn cars, another brand that promised to make buying a car a more pleasant experience before they went out of business. This commercial, though, was about a guy driving across the country, apparently stopping at every Saturn dealership, and the data they collected on him:

Yeah, remember when keeping that kind of personal information on a customer was cute and companies didn’t use it for targeted advertising? Also I wish the place where I go to get the car’s oil changed had jelly doughnuts. Or just doughnuts. Or at least some better coffee.

There also seems to be something slightly counterintuitive about a car dealership packing a bunch of other businesses into a small space. It sounds nice but it’s also going to make me think, hey, if all these places can be set in the same building, or even within easy walking distance of each other, I’m going to rely a lot less on a car. I won’t say that to the dealers, though. They might start screaming in my face.

Smoke Signals.

Weirdly one of the things I miss about my old office.

So my wife was trying a new recipe for pan-seared scallops which created enough smoke that it set off the smoke alarm, which started the dogs barking, so I ran to shut off the alarm and even when I finally got the right code punched in there was still lingering smoke that just restarted the entire process, and in the midst of all this the security company called to see if it was a real emergency, and while my wife was on the phone with them trying to explain that everything was all right over the sound of barking dogs and the alarm going off again and trying not to burn the scallops she got cut off and they had to call back while I was punching in the cancel code for the fifteenth time and even though she’d confirmed everything was all right the first time a fire truck showed up in front of our house five minutes later so I got to run outside in the dark and tell a couple of firemen that everything was fine and that they wouldn’t need the axes they were carrying unless they really wanted to cut down the shagbark hickory tree in the front yard that drops nuts all over the driveway every fall which gives new meaning to the expression “it drives me nuts”, but that’s another story.

On the bright side all this happened while it was still warm and the flashing lights of the fire truck were all the fireworks we needed for New Year’s Eve.

But it also reminded me of how one of the things I weirdly miss about working in the office is the occasional fire drill. And in spite of having worked in the same building for almost thirty years, not counting pandemic time, we’ve never had an actual fire in the building; they’ve always been drills—knock on Formica since there’s very little wood in our office. There was the time in 2008 when the building that housed the former Italian restaurant Mario’s, two blocks over, which had been closed for a few years, burned, and pretty much everyone in my building gathered in the parking lot to watch it.

Fire drills were always kind of fun in spite of the fact that everyone seemed to know they weren’t real emergencies and would form groups in the stairwells, standing around talking, which made it hard for those of us who wanted to, you know, get out of the building. Once we were out we’d go to our designated emergency check-in spot in the parking garage and then I’d go get coffee or just go for a walk since only the fire department could shut down the alarm and it would be a few minutes before they’d arrive.

The one annoying thing is we never had a fire drill late in the day. Just once I’d have liked to have one, say, fifteen minutes before quittin’ time, because that’s about how long it always takes to get out of the building—I hope it would be faster if we had a real emergency even though I suspect some people would still stop to talk in the stairwell—and I could check in and just go straight home. But they always had to be held around ten in the morning which, admittedly, is a pretty good time to go get a cup of coffee or just take a break. Although I’ve never come back from a fire drill at work to pan-seared scallops, which made having one at home all the more worth it.

Lost In Space.

The time between Christmas and New Year’s Day is weird, isn’t it? Apparently I’m not the only one–a friend remarked that “it’s that time of year when you lose track of what day of the week it is.” I do that almost any time I’m on vacation anyway, in spite of the looming specter of the eventual return to work.  I’m trying to enjoy it as much as I can because it feels terrible to complain–I know a lot of people don’t get a break at all, or have worse problems, but I feel a bit lost between the holidays. It doesn’t seem like enough time to really be ready, although I don’t know what enough time would be. And there are things to be done: cleaning, packing away Christmas items, changing the oil in the car.

One of the things I got for my birthday was a pair of wireless headphones, and I was amazed, given my limited abilities with technology, that I was able to get them to work. And then, in a sort of echo of the general miasma, I felt deflated. The reason I wanted wireless headphones was so I could listen to podcasts and music on my way to and from work, but, unlike the holiday, my time working from home doesn’t have a fixed endpoint yet. It’s still vague. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel but no one’s sure how long the tunnel really is. 

At least I know when the holidays end so I have time to arrange my schedule, make some plans, and try to fill whatever gaps there are with something that will make me glad I had the time off.

 

It’s The Journey.

It’s my birthday today and, well, I always have trouble with the question, “What do you want?” Obviously I appreciate the thought and I want to be realistic, but if I could be completely unrealistic I’d want to take a train trip from Portugal to Singapore. I realize that’s not completely unrealistic since it is now possible, but I don’t want to wish for the impossible or even nonexistent.

The world’s longest train trip. For now, anyway. Source: BoingBoing

A three-week train trip sounds amazing to me. Maybe parts of it would be tedious or boring but part of the fun of train trips, and, I think, adding to the romance of train travel, is that there’s a constantly shifting landscape out there. Trains also offer a certain amount of freedom within their confines. Unless you’re the conductor you’re not driving so you can wander up and down the cars. There’s usually more space than there is on an airplane, and it’s easier to change seats.

And consider this: if an airplane’s engines stop working that’s it. The pilot or pilots will do the best they can to make a safe landing but it’s still at the mercy of gravity. Even a boat has its downside—specifically if it goes down and you end up hoping there are enough lifeboats to hold everyone. I don’t mean to downplay the severity of train crashes, which can be terrible, but if a train’s engine breaks down or it’s just stopped by leaves on the tracks then you still have a pretty good chance of walking away. Train travel may be slower but keeps you close to the ground.

Thirty years ago I took an overnight train trip from Moscow to St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg, Russia, specifically—a train trip from Moscow to St. Petersburg, Florida would have been more than just one night, not to mention a spectacular feat of engineering, but that’s another story. It was an old style train, mostly wood, rickety, and a tall, thin gentleman came by and brought me some tea in a glass cup with a metal holder.

I read some but I also spent a lot of time just watching the snow-covered countryside, dotted with lights of small towns off in the distance, slip by, and I wondered what was going on in those homes that kept their fires burning all night. I slept some, and at one point I went to the end of the car and stood in the cold, wintry air. I could look down and see the tracks and gravel, and how fast the train was moving, but when I looked out at the snow it all seemed impossibly still.

Yeah, I definitely want three weeks of travel like that.

 

I Love The Theater.

Source: Nashville Downtown

Live theater’s had a rough couple of years obviously, and it’s something I miss even though I didn’t really think about it until I read that the Nashville Children’s Theater is celebrating its 90th anniversary. So it’s almost as old as I am! And it’s really responsible for instilling a love of theater in me. Or maybe I always loved theater and the NCT just gave me what I wanted.

My memory is hazy but I think from kindergarten through sixth grade we had a school field trip to see at least two shows a year there. One of the earliest, maybe the earliest, was a production of Pinocchio that I saw in kindergarten and remember vividly because, much as I hate to say it, it was awful. Pinocchio was a whiny little jerk, and while the point of the story is that he starts out bad and ultimately redeems himself, thus becoming a real boy, the stage Pinocchio was still so annoying even at the end I wished he’d stayed a puppet. The Fox and the Cat, the story’s main villains, weren’t outsiders but life-size toys Gepetto had made and that somehow turned evil, and the giant whale that swallows Gepetto and Pinocchio wasn’t giant at all. It was another toy that Gepetto had built and was set against the stage wall. To go inside it Gepetto and Pinocchio had to get down on all fours and crawl in through the mouth, and it was about then that I started wondering why Gepetto had filled his workshop with psychotic toys that were all out to murder him, but that’s another story.

Fortunately the theater redeemed itself with a production of Really Rosie! that I loved even without knowing that it was a collaboration between Maurice “Wild Thing” Sendak and Carole King, whose album Tapestry is almost as old as I am.

Every other play I remember seeing at the Nashville Children’s Theater was great. They put on a wide range of plays, from standards, like an adaptation of The Emperor’s New Clothes, set in China and, if I remember correctly, with an all-Asian cast, to a contemporary drama about a girl dealing with her widowed father dating a new woman, to a series of extremely avant-garde mime sketches. And again and again the plays I saw taught me that, with a bit of suspension of disbelief, anything is possible on stage.

And even if they hadn’t been great they were still field trips so they got us out of school for a couple of hours. That made them something to look forward to even though we usually came back more wound up than when we left, so I’m sure the teachers dreaded that. I remember coming back from one and as I stepped off the bus I said, “I’m so happy to be back I could kiss the ground!” Then I got down and kissed the ground and got up with dirt on my face.

“Aren’t you too old for that?” my teacher asked.

Never.

Check out some scenes from their amazing production of A Wrinkle In Time which I didn’t see because I was too old.

Any Color Christmas.

Source: fromoldbooks.org

A white Christmas never meant that much to me as a kid. I liked snow, and still like it—when it comes to weather I’ll gladly take snow over torrential rains, thunderstorms, and tornadoes, even if I do live in a place where the mere threat of snow causes everyone to stock up on bread, eggs, and milk as though French toast is some kind of magical survival food, and cars go sliding up and down the streets and into ditches because no one here knows how to drive in the snow. Granted I said that once to someone who lives in a place that gets lots of snow and she said, “Well, what they should do is wait until the snowplows have cleared the streets because the trick to driving in the snow is you don’t try to drive in the snow.” And I just laughed at the thought that there are places that get snow on such a regular basis that they actually have snowplows that go out and clear the streets.

What I really looked forward to at Christmas, aside from the presents and food and all the TV specials, was two weeks off from school. For me what made the holidays was an actual holiday—a break from having to learn stuff. I could read books without having to worry about being tested on what I’d read which somehow made whatever I was reading a lot more interesting and more memorable. All our other school holidays—Thanksgiving, Easter, the occasional teachers’ work day when they’d have to go in but we didn’t—lasted only days. Christmas was a solid two weeks. It was like a brief burst of summer, only right in the middle of winter. Getting snow at Christmas would have been a mixed blessing. It would look nice but one of the benefits of whatever snow we did get, which usually came in late January or February, was that we’d get time off from school. Snow at Christmas would have just taunted us with the fact that we were already free.

It was two days before the start of the Christmas break and we were in the midst of final exams. Having final exams right before Christmas seemed cruel, forcing us to jump over a major hurdle when our minds were already focused on the bacchanalia to come, and yet having exams after Christmas, which I’ve heard some places do, would have been even worse because we’d have to sweat and study in the midst of the bacchanalia. At one point I suggested that we really should be tested at the beginning of the year, the idea of education being to teach us what we didn’t know, and it made sense given my mind’s perverse ability to mostly remember stuff I didn’t have to remember, but the idea didn’t go over so well with my teachers.

Anyway there we were, late December, hunched over our desks and checking the skies between classes because there was a chance of snow in the forecast. And, as usual, there was some dipstick sitting in the very back who’d occasionally yell “It’s snowing!” and everyone would jump and look out the windows, although, really, you could do that in the middle of May and everyone would still jump and look out the windows, and maybe they’d be even more interested because snow in May would really be something.

So as I was saying I was in the very back hoping the weather would hold off. Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” gets played so often against a backdrop of snowscapes that it’s easy to forget that he wrote it in warm, sunny southern California where they’d never be able to get the snowplows out because nobody’d know how to drive the damn things. He was dreaming of a white Christmas but to me it sounded like a nightmare because school would be shut down and the rest of our exams would be delayed until after the holidays. It was, I think, the one and only time I sat in school wishing it wouldn’t snow.

And thankfully it didn’t. Not while school was in session, anyway. We finished up our exams and went home and a couple of days before Christmas it snowed. It wasn’t a heavy snowfall—not enough to disrupt anything, but just enough to lightly dust everything, giving life to an otherwise drab and gray winter. It was cold enough that the snow stayed powdery, swirling around the streets and in the air, but I distinctly remember that for breakfast that morning I had French toast.

Looking Back To The Holidays.

This is going to sound goofy but I don’t like to drive on interstates. Or maybe it doesn’t—your sense of what’s goofy, like your mileage, may vary, and I have a few friends who feel the same way. In fact some websites that offer directions even have an “avoid interstates” option, and I’m always grateful for that. I can drive on interstates and have but, if I can avoid it, I will. No matter where I’m driving I do my best to avoid accidents but I’d rather have an accident at thirty miles an hour than seventy.

Several years ago when my wife and I made a cross-country trek to California she did most of the driving. I’m not ashamed to admit she’s a better driver and more comfortable on interstates, and, besides, if I were driving, I’d not only want to take the back roads but I’d stop at every single roadside attraction, and you can just guess how many of those there are between Nashville and Los Angeles. If I were behind the wheel we’d barely make it out of Tennessee–certainly not without a stop in Bucksnort, and once we got going I’d want to get some kicks along Route 66, including a detour through Uranus, but that’s another story.

Oh, wait, it’s not another story. In fact it’s tangentially related to what set me off on this particular path. Almost a year ago, on the day of Christmas Eve to be specific, my wife asked me to take something to my sister-in-law who lives about half an hour away by interstate, although the drive is closer to an hour taking the back roads. But at least it was scenic, which is one of the advantages of taking the, well, scenic route. There were little stores that sold antiques, restaurants that specialized in catfish and pizza—a combination you’re not likely to find anywhere else. Most of the places were closed for Christmas and because of the holiday there were decorations along one stretch. I stopped and took a picture of an angel, which is not something you can do on the interstate and anyway there’s usually nothing to see along the interstate.

All the way home I thought about the Christmas decorations and the pictures I’d taken and knew I’d write something about them, although it’s taken me almost a year to get around to it. Sometimes I’m kind of slow.

Wasn’t I Just Here?

Going back to work after a holiday is weird. I’m not complaining; it’s been a long time since I had some time off and I really needed it, but I get used to a routine and forget to plan ahead so suddenly when there’s a longer break than just the usual weekend it takes me by surprise. It’s tempting to say this is because I’m working from home and haven’t really gone anywhere. There’s no distinction between my work space and my life space, but brief breaks from the routine have always felt weird to me. It’s one thing to take a vacation and actually go to an unfamiliar place, and, perhaps for the first time in my life, I really understand that. When I was a kid and we’d have a short break from school—Thanksgiving, Easter, the air conditioner broke and the building was too hot for us to go in which I swear is something that happened when I was in seventh grade—the familiarity of home made the days fly by so fast it seemed like hardly any time passed at all before I was back to the usual grind.

Making things even stranger I woke up this morning just a few minutes before the alarm went off, even before the dogs went off, and had one of those dreams which somehow compress time, lasting longer than the actual sleep. It’s an editing trick, or maybe it’s done with mirrors. I was walking to work—to my real office that I haven’t seen in so long now. And I was passing through different buildings, which I used to do on my way to work if it was cold or raining or cold and raining. Only in the dream I was simply passing through buildings, going down hallways, walking past conference rooms filled with people, until I emerged from one that, in real life, would be my last shelter, the final building before a long stretch of open air I couldn’t avoid. In the dream, though, it wasn’t just open. There was darkness ahead, and, in the distance, where my work building would have been, only sepia and mauve clouds, and lightning.

I woke up with only one thought: I really need a break.  

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