Adventures In Busing.

Strangers On A Bus.

nightbusThe Greyhound bus was packed on this particular evening, which was unusual. I’d ridden it half a dozen times or more and there’d always been just a few of us on leaving the station at ten o’clock at night. I’d take a quiet corner in the back and read, undisturbed. This night there were no empty seats and a man with straggly strawberry-blonde hair and an unevenly cut moustache slipped into the seat next to me. As the bus rolled on he started to talk.

“Man, this bus ain’t nothin’ like the old days. The old days were so good. You could smoke, you could drink. There’d be old ladies with big jugs of wine passin’ em up and down the aisle and they’d be carryin’ boxes of live chickens. Everybody smoked. Everybody drank. Everybody made so much racket. The bus’d go from side to side like this.” He leaned back and forth, pressing into me then pulling away. “You ever ride the bus in those days, man?”

“No, never did. I didn’t know it was like that.”

“That’s when ridin’ the bus was fun. Everything went on in those days man. All those ladies with their wine and everybody yellin’. You never knew what was gonna happen. I remember somebody got killed in the back of the bus. Got a knife stuck right in him. Nobody knew until the bus stopped and he was just left back there in the seat.” He looked around. “That could happen now too. It’s so dark in here. Somethin’ like that could happen and nobody’d know.”

The Ray Bradbury story The Town Where No One Got Off flickered across my mind. It’s about a chance meeting between strangers that almost leads to murder.

I had a large thick book with me and held it up as kind of a shield between us.

“Whatcha readin’?” he asked.

“A book by the Marquis de Sade.”

“Is it good?”

I narrowed my eyes. “It’s great. Everything goes on in it. There’s all kinds of torture and crazy sex. It ends with a massive orgy where all but a few of the characters get violently murdered.”

At the first stop most of the passengers got off and he moved to another seat.

Moral: Know your safe words.

Alternative moral: If you can’t join ’em beat ’em.




Taxi Driver.

goatThe train pulled into Nottingham station a little after 11:00pm. As much as I enjoy traveling on trains it had been a grueling day going literally from one side of Britain to almost the other side. You can look at this map of Britain to get an idea of my trip: I’d had to take a train from Carmarthen in southwest Wales to Cardiff, then, after about an hour layover, an uninterrupted ride to Nottingham—uninterrupted, that is, except for stops in every major city and several minor ones along the way. In spite of that I held the foolish hope I’d get to Nottingham in time to catch a late train to Grantham which doesn’t appear on the map but it’s east of Lincoln.

I should have known better. Not only did I have hours and hours to pore over the train schedules, but a month before I’d taken a trip to see an evening play in Birmingham and ended up spending the night in the Nottingham train station because I missed the last train to Grantham. My trip to Carmarthen had me on exactly the same schedule.

While spending the night in the Nottingham train station the thought “call a taxi” crossed my mind but I thought, no, that’ll cost a bloody fortune. Facing the possibility of another night ambling through Robin Hood’s hunting grounds I went to a shop and bought a couple of kebabs. (If you don’t know what an English kebab is Pinknoam previously proffered a paean to them here. In America we call them “gyros”, pronounced like a flavor of international currency that terrifies the British, but that’s another story.) I wasn’t really hungry but I was still in travel mode and hadn’t consumed anything except apples and Guinness for thirty-six hours. Sooner or later I was going to be hungry. I wrapped the kebabs up tightly and stuffed them in my bag. Maybe I’d eat one in the middle of the night and have the other for breakfast.

After an hour I broke down and decided it wouldn’t hurt to get a price quote. There was a Grantham taxi company called KC Cabs that offered discount rates to students. And £16 was a very small price to pay to sleep in my dorm bed rather than on the train station steps. Small enough to make me wish I’d called them before, but hindsight is always crystal clear.

When the cab pulled up I could see the driver was Big Dave. He was called Big Dave because he took up the whole front seat of his cab. That’s not an exaggeration. I liked him. Big Dave was friendly and funny and always had a story, like the time he was so drunk he decided to go for a swim in the fountain in Trafalgar Square. Fully clothed. On New Year’s Eve.

This particular night he was unusually quiet. The cab sped through country dark. Swirls of mist curled away from the headlights. When I looked out the window I could barely make out the jagged edges of treetops. Finally I broke the silence.

“There’s no moon out tonight.”

“Yer,” said Big Dave. “I noticed that too. It was a night like this I drove myself to the hospital.”

This sounded uncharacteristically unfunny for Big Dave, but if he had a story to tell I was along for the ride, both metaphorically and literally. And since he was still alive I knew the story would have a happy ending even if it was going to be a bumpy road getting there. I strapped myself in.

“It was in the Lake District. You been to the Lake District?”

I hadn’t. Going to Wales to visit the home of Dylan Thomas was a much higher priority for me, but I really dug Coleridge too and had thought about planning a trip out that way. Friends told me how trippy it was to go and see the exhibits of his drug paraphernalia. Plus it just sounded beautiful.

“It is beautiful out there. Gorgeous scenery. I do photography. I like to photograph the goats out there. Not many out there but sometimes you can find them. I was out there in the middle of the country and I see one standing on a crag all lit up by the setting sun. God he was beautiful. To get the best shot I had to get closer so I got down on my belly and started inching forwards.”

I stifled a laugh. Big Dave always wore the same gray green sweater and with his salt and pepper hair I imagined him looking like a big mossy boulder.

“As I was inching along that’s when I felt the little nip at my ankle. Like a needle.” He paused. “There’s only one venomous snake in Britain and I’d just trod on it.” He laughed and I laughed too, glad for a break in the tension.

“I hadn’t got the worst of it,” he went on. “Drove to nearest hospital and they tell me they can’t treat snakebite. Can you believe that? Not enough call for it but they tell me there’s another hospital that can help, but it’s miles away and their only ambulance was out on a run. This was a little country place. So I drove myself. Whole trip was about as far as I’m taking you tonight. Miles of empty country all around. No place to stop.” He chuckled. “Well, do you think I made it?”

“Seems like you did,” I said.

We were both silent after that, then Dave said, “No place to stop around here. I wish I’d thought to bring my flask of tea with me or a sandwich. Could really do with a sandwich right now.”

Suddenly I was hungry too and I remembered what was in my bag.

“How about a kebab?” I said.

They were still warm. Dave stopped to unwrap his. “Thank you sir!” he almost yelled before biting it in half. Then he put the cab back in gear and we started off.


Let’s Do The Bus Stop Again.

rockyhorrorI would like, if I may, to tell you a strange story. It could be a story about the time I was a fifteen and a strange man invited me into his Indiana hotel room. What he showed me was strange and exhilarating, a little bit frightening. It was fun and sexy and left me dazed and wanting more, and frustrated because it would be years before I could do it again. Even though he was breaking the law it still filled a deep need in me that I’d had all my life but had never really been able to articulate.

But the first time I saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show, on an illegal bootleg tape before it was officially released on video, is another story.

This is actually a stranger story about something that happened to me while I was walking to the bus stop. I have approximately seventeen different Rocky Horror soundtracks or cast recordings and at any given time I have some of them loaded on my phone and ready for my listening pleasure even though I only listen to them in the month of October.

I’m strange like that. Halloween is my favorite time of the year and I could indulge my love of Halloween stuff all the time, but I try to keep it partitioned off and only really get into the spirit of the season in October because the antici…………..pation just makes it so much better. It’s a delayed gratification thing.

I was walking to the bus stop in early October and pulled out my phone. I activated Siri and had the following conversation. The strangest part is I’m really not making this up.

rockyhorror1Even stranger was that the bootleg tape included this trailer for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which I’d never heard of before. The music sounded amazing and I thought, “Oh, cool, so this is a rock musical just like Jesus Christ Superstar.” Yes, exactly like Jesus Christ Superstar, only with corsets instead of togas. So. Do any of you guys know how to Madison?

Going The Wrong Way.

From here it doesn't really look like a spider web at all. Source: Nashville MTA

From here it doesn’t really look like a spider web at all.
Source: Nashville MTA

It had started to drizzle. This time, however, I hadn’t gone off and left my umbrella in my office. If I had I wouldn’t have hesitated to turn around and go get it. No, I’d left my umbrella at home. I’d just left the building where I worked and noticed a lot of people standing at the bus stop right across the street and the bus was approaching. There were just one problem: the bus was going the wrong way. Also even if this particular bus were going the right way it would not only take me far away from where I lived, its final stop was a parking lot/recycling center almost at the edge of the county. It’s really convenient for people who live in that area. They can park their cars at the recycling center in the morning, catch the bus into town, and then in the afternoon come back to find their car windows smashed in and their radios stolen, but that’s another story.

And that’s when it hit me. This bus was going downtown. All the way downtown. It was going to the depot where all the other buses go. The bus route map is like a giant spider web, a circular one, except the spider is clearly drunk and has been eating some really weird insects which is why there are no straight lines and the threads are all different colors. I probably should have stopped that simile before it went too far. The important thing is rather than walking in the light rain the usual mile to my usual bus stop I could hitch a ride all the way downtown and catch an outgoing bus from the depot.

Yes it would cost twice as much—years ago drivers used to give out paper transfers that were ten cents and that expired within half an hour, which never really mattered because no driver really bothered to look at the time stamp on a transfer. I once found a month old one in my pocket and a driver took it without a second look. Then they upgraded to a new automated system and scrapped the transfers. That didn’t bother me. I’d rather pay two fares and stay out of the rain.

And my plan worked perfectly. When I got to the bus stop near my home it wasn’t drizzling anymore. It was pouring.

Out, About, And Read All Over.

006One of the great things about riding the bus is I can read. That’s hard to do while driving. Sometimes if I’m really into a book I take it to work with me so I can hopefully get through a chapter or two on the bus. I know one of the advantages of e-books is you can be discreet about what you’re reading, but I always kind of hope someone will get a glimpse of a cover and ask me about my book in hand. Once I commented on what a fellow rider was reading–something about World War II–and we had a fun debate about whether the Battle of Britain was a major turning point in the war or a minor skirmish.

If I don’t have a book I can buy a copy of The Contributor, a local newspaper that’s written and sold by homeless people. Or I can pick up one of about a half dozen free magazines that are published locally. One of those is Out & About.

One day I happened to mention something I’d read in an O&A article to a friend who happens to be gay. He raises his eyebrows. “You were reading Out & About? Are you trying to tell me something?”

Yeah, I was trying to tell him I really enjoyed an interview with Lily Tomlin and thought he might find it interesting too.

Sometimes I can be incredibly oblivious, but I’m aware that O&A is mostly written by and for LGBT people, but that doesn’t mean only LGBT people read it. I have friends who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender. What affects them and what concerns them affects me and concerns me–even if it doesn’t always affect me as directly as it affects them, although in retrospect that Lily Tomlin interview was a lot more interesting to me than it was to my friend.

Sometimes too in spite of my obliviousness I’m aware that the fact that I’m reading O&A might make some people on the bus suspicious. I don’t want to stereotype bus riders, but I understand that LGBT people live with a constant threat of violence or even just intimidation. In a lot of ways things are getting better. I’ve seen family members and friends be able to marry–to have their marriages legally recognized, which some of them thought would never happen. But things are far from where they should be. Violence against transgender people has risen in 2015, and aside from violence LGBT people still face discrimination, sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly. There have been at least two cases of copies of the print edition of O&A being stolen by people who didn’t like its focus, one as recently as this year. Just reading O&A on the bus could prompt someone to harass or even harm me.

I refuse to let it stop me from reading what I want to read. That’s all I’m trying to tell you.

And in case you’re wondering I think the Battle of Britain was a major turning point in World War II.

Here’s Some Of My Stuff.

002Some bus stops have benches. Some even have covered kiosks where if you’re one of those morons who forgot to bring an umbrella you can get out of the rain. I can never figure out why some stops have benches or even kiosks and some don’t. It irritates me that the stop where I normally catch the bus is just a sign stuck to a pole. There’s no place to sit down. Maybe I can lean against the pole but that gets really uncomfortable, so I just have to stand. Then I get on the bus and I see bags of groceries piled up in a little space at the front, or I see a woman with a stroller, or even a person in a wheelchair, and I think, oh, yeah, for some people this is their only way of getting around. If I’m going shopping or buying groceries or doing anything that requires carrying a lot of stuff I drive. I have that luxury. Some people have to carry all their stuff on the bus. Their options are much more limited. Where they can go is limited by where the buses run—and there are huge stretches of commercial areas that are miles from any bus stop—and they’re limited to what they can carry. There’s only so much stuff they can carry on the bus.

It still bugs me that there’s no place for me to sit down.

On a lighter note…

Do Awnings Ever Awn?

lightningIt started with big fat drops then, in less than a minute, it was pouring. I was standing at the bus stop and of course I hadn’t brought an umbrella with me because it wasn’t raining when I left the office, and surely that thunder I’d heard just before I turned my computer off didn’t mean anything. And the thunder I heard as I was getting in the elevator didn’t mean anything. And, well, the flash of lightning and the peal of thunder as I was leaving the building where I work made me think I should go back and get an umbrella, but I didn’t want to risk missing the bus. There’s really no way to know when the bus will show up–yes, there’s a schedule, but it’s rarely right in good weather. If it’s raining count on waiting at least half an hour for a bus that comes every twenty minutes. There was no cover around the bus stop, but on the other side of the intersection was a dry cleaner’s with a broad awning over their parking lot. I’d have to stand behind one of the supports and lean out partly into the rain to keep an eye out for the bus, but it beat standing out in the open. It was also about thirty feet from the bus stop and ten feet back from the sidewalk which meant I risked being passed by, but, again, better than standing out in the open. It was also raining hard enough that the driver might not have seen me even if I’d been standing at the bus stop. And I appreciated the irony of getting out the rain by taking shelter at a dry cleaner’s. Sometimes the universe gives you these small gifts.

It was still raining when I saw the bus coming. In fact it was raining so hard I could barely make it out by its headlights and the bright green LED route number over the windshield. I leapt out onto the sidewalk and waved. The bus came to a stop so I didn’t get splashed. The doors opened. As I stepped on the driver asked, “Where’d you come from?”

“Mother always said I came from Heaven,” I said, smiling shyly. It’s a line I don’t often get a chance to use, but sometimes the universe gives you these small gifts.

Need A Lift?

busshoesWhen I see people walking along the road–especially busy roads where there’s no sidewalk and not even much of a shoulder–I feel guilty. I’ve walked along roads like that and it’s a miserable and even terrifying experience. Sometimes it’s an older guy I see stocking the shelves at the grocery store. He’s always friendly, always smiling, and I feel like I should stop and at least offer him a ride. It’s almost always in places where there’s just no place to stop, though, and because he’s walking on the right side I’m headed in the opposite direction.

Sometimes when I see people at a bus stop I’m tempted to pull over and offer them a lift, but what will they think? I could be some crazy guy. I could be a serial killer. Who in their right mind offers a complete stranger a ride? It’s sad, but that’s the world we live in. If nothing else I’d feel like I was rubbing my privileged status in their faces.

A few times while waiting for the bus or while walking to the stop I’ve had people pull over and offer to give me a ride. So what kind of person does that? Well, with one exception it was guys in pickup trucks, and it’s never happened since I got my hair cut. I used to have hair down to my shoulders, or past my shoulders at times. I got used to being mistaken for a woman, which never bothered me–sometimes I’ve even found it amusing. It irks, me, though, when I look back and think about why those guys were pulling over. Maybe I’m being unfair but I’m pretty sure they weren’t just interested in being nice. And I’m pretty sure they didn’t realize I was a guy.

The one exception is when my sister-in-law recognized me at a bus stop. She pulled over and offered me a ride. Ir was very nice of her, and I accepted because I’ve never seen any evidence that she’s a serial killer.

Update: here’s a shot of me back when I was sporting what a friend called “the Inigo Montoya look”.



Enjoy The Ride.


Don’t try this at home. Or on the road.

I was unusually late in getting my driver’s license (which I’ve chronicled here and here and even here). At least I was late getting it for where I live. In New York or many parts of Europe it wouldn’t be that unusual to not have a driver’s license, but I live in an area where it’s hard to get around without driving–or, in some cases, impossible. Being able to take the bus home most days is a luxury I don’t take for granted–some of my co-workers are five miles or more from the nearest bus stop, and once on the bus I talked to a woman who had to change jobs because the city was eliminating a bus route.

I don’t take the luxury of driving for granted either. When I want to go to a place that buses don’t go to, or that they only go to very rarely on weekdays and never on weekends, or when I just want to go when I want to go without having to walk to the bus stop which, even where I live, is a pretty good hike. It’s because I can drive that I got a membership at the YMCA where I regularly go to swim. I love to swim. It’s liberating, it frees me from gravity, and under the water it’s just me and my thoughts.

And then one day I dropped off the car to have something worked on. There was a bus stop conveniently placed near the car repair place, so I took my gym bag. The same bus went right by a Y on the other side of town, and I found another kind of liberating experience. I didn’t have to drive. The fare was less than I would have spent on gas and parking. I was only bound by the bus schedule, but I had the luxury of time.

A Fistful of Coppers.

penniesA section of my Psychology 264 class was held off-campus. I hadn’t thought ahead to snag a ride with one of my fellow students who had a car, so I decided to take the bus. And then I had an even more brilliant idea.

Now when I ride the bus the drivers have an automated fare taker right next to their seat. I have a card and when I swipe it the phrase “Fare Satisfied” pops up, which always makes me feel good. Hey, I’ve been able to satisfy someone today. If I put in change the fare isn’t satisfied until I’ve put in the full amount. It takes a little longer, but as long as the fare is satisfied that’s all that matters.

In the old days when I first started riding the bus the technology wasn’t so advanced. The fare collector looked like a gumball machine.

A gumball machine that was not, unfortunately, imbued with the power to make hilarious comments. Source: MST3K Wiki

A gumball machine that was not, unfortunately, imbued with the power to make hilarious comments.
Source: MST3K Wiki

Drivers had to keep a close watch on the amount that passengers dropped in to make sure the fare was satisfied.

So, boarding the bus, I held out my fist and dropped a bunch of pennies into the fare collector.

The driver narrowed her eyes at me. Then she cracked up. “All right,” she said. “I have no way to tell but that looks like enough. Take a seat.” And the truth is I had carefully counted out exactly fifty-five pennies—the full amount. I think any shortages would have to be made up by the driver and I wasn’t going to do that.

Psychology 264 was Abnormal Psychology. The bus driver let me off right in front of a mental hospital. I still sometimes wonder if she knew I was a student or if she thought I was a patient.

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