Adventures In Busing.

I’m Free To Do What I Want Any Old Time.

busstopMost of last week I drove to and from work instead of taking the bus. This meant I had a lot more freedom–sort of, anyway. I was still putting in my eight hours but I was free to pick my own route home. The walk to and from the parking garage is roughly the same distance as it is to the bus, but I don’t mind the exercise. And I could decide when I wanted to come and go instead of standing on the sidewalk waiting for a driver who may or may not have decided to drive right by me.

And whereas on the bus I’m free to read or play with my phone’s various apps doing those things while I’m the one driving is a really bad idea.

Each option gives me a different set of freedoms and a different set of responsibilities. That’s obvious.

What’s not so obvious is something I thought about while driving when I passed a guy standing at a bus stop. I recognized him. He’s a regular rider on the bus I usually take. Most days he’s carrying groceries, and it looked like he was on this day too.

I thought about the advantages that driving gave me. If I wanted to stop and buy groceries my choice of places wouldn’t be limited by what’s closest to a bus stop. And because I could load everything into the car I could buy more than I could comfortably carry in a single trip.

And I wouldn’t have to worry about taking up seat space with all my stuff, or, even worse, the trip taking so long my ice cream would melt. Maybe I should examine my priorities there but that’s another story.

I thought about offering him a ride but the bus stop wasn’t in a place where a regular car could safely pull over. Buses are big hulking vehicles that naturally trundle along and make regular stops, but pulling over my small car in heavy traffic would just be asking for a fender bender.

I still wish I’d offered him a ride. I don’t know if he would have recognized me or if he’d be cool with taking a ride from a stranger. Maybe he preferred to ride the bus. I know I do sometimes.

Every freedom comes with its obvious privileges and its responsibilities but what seeing him got me thinking about was what was beyond the obvious, the privileges and responsibilities that are optional. Offering a ride to a relative stranger isn’t something I have to do but it has the possibility of making their life a little easier, a little better.

Neither freedom nor responsibility is absolute. Both are defined, and define, how we relate to others.

Maybe next time I will offer him a ride.

Me And My Smart Shadow.

detourOh great. Get directions.

Getting directions. In half a mile turn right.

Turn right? I thought it was left. You’re taking me the opposite direction from where I want to go.
In a quarter of a mile turn right.

No, I’m not turning right. That’s the wrong way.

Turn right.

Forget it. I’ll turn left. You should be able to figure this out.

Recalculating. At the next intersection turn right.
Can’t you figure out where I’m going? This looks like where I want to go.
Okay, genius, why’d you even ask me for directions then?

Because there was road work back there that blocked off the way I wanted to go. If you’re so smart you’d know that.

Watch it, buddy. You want me to tell your boss how much time you spend sitting at your desk playing Bug Hunt?

Look, don’t take it personally. I know where I’m going, but this detour has thrown me and I needed a little help. This neighborhood looks totally unfamiliar to me. How long does this road curve?

Well, well, well. Look who comes crawling back.

Hey, I said I was sorry.

No you didn’t.

Okay, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to insult your intelligence. Even if it is artificial.

Fine, you know what? Next time you ask for directions I’ll just drive you off a cliff.

Hey, give me a break here! I’m trying to read this street sign.

Yeah, if only you had a device that syncs with satellites to tell you where you are. It would be nice if you’d show a little gratitude.

Fine. First chance I get I’ll thank Arthur C. Clarke. Okay, I’m turning left.

Whatever you want, pal, I’m just along for the ride.

Okay, this looks right now. See? It would have been wrong to turn right back there.

But if you’d turned like I said you’d be on the interstate by now.

I don’t want to take the interstate.

Why not?

I just don’t want to, okay? Drop it.

Fine. I get it. I know how your heart rate and blood pressure jump when you get on that on-ramp and floor it. Never mind that you’d be almost there by now.

I said drop it!

Big chicken.

Check the traffic.

Oh. Bumper to bumper. Okay, I guess I see your point.

Who’s the smart one now?

Fine. Be that way.

They should call you a smartass phone.

Watch it buddy. I know where you live.

You want me to switch to another brand of phone?

Touchy.

What?

I said touché.

That’s not what it sounded like.

You have arrived at your destination.

Tourist Season.

Just once I’d like someone to ask me how to get to the Ryman Auditorium so I could say, “The same way you get to Carnegie Hall,” although the Ryman is also a former church so I could just as easily say, “Preach!”
I do get stopped frequently by people asking for directions. Once, less than fifty feet from West End, a guy asked me if I knew which way was West End. I just told him instead of being a smartass and saying, “West.” Another time as I was waiting to cross the street on my way back to work a car stopped next to me and a woman leaned out and asked how to get to the riverfront. I was a little surprised by the question–I thought it was fairly obvious. You just look for the skyline and head that way. Even though Nashville suffers from a great deal of sprawl–decades ago the city’s government merged with Davidson county to form one metropolis–the downtown area is pretty compact. The Tennessee Performing Arts Center, the downtown branch of the public library, Riverfront Park, the Centennial Sportsplex, and even the Ryman are within easy walking distance of the section of Broadway where you’ll find the infamous Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and other honkytonks. Downtown Nashville has become a thriving tourist attraction which still tickles me. I remember when lower Broadway was a much seedier place where you’d find ladies of the evening in broad daylight, but that’s another story. Anyway I just pointed to the tall buildings that make up the skyline and told her to head for those. It reminded me of the time I was in Cleveland and left my directions to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in my hotel room. Rather than go back for them I remembered it was on Lake Erie so, like a baby sea turtle, I headed for the water. It was nice to be able to look around where I was going rather than looking down at directions.
And it’s lucky for me I get people asking me for landmarks rather than street names because I’m terrible at street names. This is partly my own fault. Decades of not driving and relying mostly on public transportation I haven’t really focused on street names. I can get around really well but if you ask me for directions to a place I’ll tell you, “Turn left at the building that looks like Batman,” but I couldn’t tell you what street its on. This is also partly the city’s fault. I’ve mentioned both West End and Broadway–two streets I do know, which is easy because they’re both the same street–one turns into the other, and if you head west on West End it then becomes Harding Road.
The only time I wasn’t really able to help someone who asked me for directions was when a young woman carrying a tuba case asked me where the Blair Music Library was. This was just outside JJ’s Coffee Shop, just a block away from Vanderbilt University. The Blair Music Library is part of Vanderbilt but on the farthest side of the campus from where we were. I gave her directions and was tempted to offer to help her carry her instrument, but I thought this might seem creepy coming from a complete stranger. And I figured a tuba player is prepared to go the distance, whatever it may be, even as far as Carnegie Hall.

 

Moving Forward.

quartercentury

What should public transportation look like in twenty-five years? I’m not sure I want to even try to make a guess at that. I’m not sure what public transportation should look like in twenty-five months. Somehow my first experience riding a public bus has been lost in a sea of riding buses and other forms of public transportation for, well, a lot longer than twenty-five years.

Or has it? I wouldn’t exactly say I grew up sheltered but I didn’t ride a public bus alone until I was nineteen or twenty and in college. It was the easiest way to get to either of the two malls that were on the other side of town and it took forever for the bus to show up. It should have been more memorable but strangely it wasn’t, except for the time a guy got on and dropped a handful of pennies into the fare machine, but that’s another story.

When I was a kid we stayed at my aunt and uncle’s house in Connecticut and commuted to New York City by train a few times, which absolutely amazed me. We were crossing, well, two states, but having grown up in Tennessee I was unused to crossing state lines in a short period of time. And it was probably comparable to, say, commuting from Clarksville, TN to Nashville, TN, which some people do on a daily basis.

In twenty-five years what will such commutes look like? It doesn’t look like flying cars will ever happen but self-driving cars might.

Being asked to speculate about what the future will be is more than a little daunting. That long ago I didn’t imagine I’d still be living in Nashville now. I assumed I’d be out exploring the world—and I did explore the world and continue to do so. But I’ve also found a lot to explore right here, without even crossing county, let alone state, lines. Transportation—public and private—can be a way not just to get from one place to another but to get to know a place.

What do you think the next twenty-five years will hold?

Ride Sharing.

My ride's here!

My ride’s here!

The chipmunks had struck again. I’d brought the car to the auto shop because the “Check engine” light had lit up. I hoped it would be a quick and easy fix because I had plans for the day, and in the past the solutions had sometimes been as simple as resetting the computer, or opening the hood and dropping it again so that whatever the rodents had knocked out of whack could be knocked back into whack. Not this time. The guy held out a rectangular plastic thingamabob, or perhaps it was a doohickey–I’m not up on my technical terms–with a tangle of cut wires sticking out of one end, like dreadlocks.

“We’re gonna have to put this up on the lift,” the car mechanic told me. He said some other things that I completely missed because I was so focused on how much he resembled J.K. Simmons, but that’s another story. He gave me a price quote that made my heart skip a beat and then a timeline that made it go into full arrhythmia. Time is money and there was no way I’d have enough to bribe him to make my problem go away in the next half hour. It looked like I was going to spend my day sitting at the auto repair place watching hours of the Guys Sitting At A Desk Talking About Football channel while reading last month’s Elegant Guys magazine (“the hyper-inflated whiskey and cliff-diving polo issue!”).

Then I heard one of the other mechanics talking to another customer and since neither of them resembled a character actor I could think of I was able to focus on their actual conversation.

“I can drive you up there and drop you off,” the mechanic said. “No problem.”

“There” was the nearby big-box store, although “nearby” is relative. Four miles might be reasonable walking distance if I weren’t concerned about time, and anyway the most direct route even hoofing it, or going on foot since I didn’t have any hooves handy, was the major heavily-trafficked road with almost no shoulder and the interstate entry and exit ramps that made pedestrianism slightly daunting.

On the bright side the big-box store’s parking lot was the terminus of a major bus line–and the closest stop. I asked if I could ride-share and was told to hop in.

Half an hour later I was on my way to the first of my errands, after I bribed a bus driver with the price of an all-day pass.

 

Putting The “App” In “Happy”.

transittracker

Source: iTunes

The details of where and when I read it are fuzzy but at some point I stumbled across a proposal for a Nashville busing app that would show users where buses are in real time so they could have some idea when the next bus is coming or find the closest spot to catch a bus. And I thought, yeah, that’ll happen.

Oh, hey, it actually happened. Good job, Nashville MTA! Based on iTunes it came out some time in 2015. There’s a lot of advertising on buses. There are some buses that are literally covered with advertising, as well as advertising on bus stops, something I won’t illustrate with a picture because the advertisers aren’t paying me, but that’s another story. Why couldn’t they use a little of that space to advertise this new app? I’m sure riders would be very interested. Most carry smartphones, except for that one guy who wanders up and down asking people if he can borrow their phone. I only found out about the app because I went to the Nashville MTA website looking for something completely unrelated.

And now I have it on my phone. It’s pretty nifty although the interface leaves a bit to be desired. Standing on a corner I was able to see approaching buses and the bus that just went by—missed it by that much—and I could even look up nearby stops.

Screen shots from my phone.

Screen shots from my phone.

The search function could use a little work.

transittracker3I get it, though, that it’s a work in progress and there will hopefully be improvements. And if they want feedback and user testing I hope they’ll let me know. It’s the least they could do after I’ve given the thing all this free advertising.

Don’t Just Phone It In.

customerserviceI know people who will scream for customer service, ask to speak to a manager, or demand a refund at the drop of a hat. The slightest thing sets them off an angry tirade. I don’t know if I can say I’m at the opposite end of the spectrum but I let a lot of things slide, mainly because they just don’t bother me enough to deserve the time and energy it would take to get angry. There are things that set me off like a firecracker in a furnace, like stupid unnecessary computer “upgrades” that are really just cosmetic changes because some developer has too much time on his hands, but on the whole I don’t have a lot of pet peeves. They require a lot of care and feeding and shed too much.

So generally I don’t bother reporting things to customer service, but once in a while I have to say something.

The bus driver kept stopping at random places. Technically you can flag down a bus at any intersection along the route, and while drivers are only supposed to stop and let people off at approved stops sometimes they’ll let somebody off at an intersection or even between intersections. It’s not a big deal. This driver, though, stopped between intersections when nobody needed to get off or on and he’d pull out his cell phone and fiddle around with it.

Technically bus drivers are not supposed to use their cell phones while driving. There’s even a metal box that blocks signals at the front of the bus where the drivers are supposed to store their phones while driving. If a bus driver preferred to keep their phone in their pocket and didn’t text or play Candy Crush while driving I’d say it was no big deal, but I wanted to get home and this guy stopped three times over the course of eight blocks. Still I didn’t say anything. Then someone else did.

“He needs to get this bus moving!” a guy in a seat across from me said very loudly. Several other people agreed. That’s when the driver turned around and said, “There’s another bus behind me that y’all need to take.”

I can’t speak for anyone else but this is where I gave the driver a little benefit of the doubt. Maybe he kept stopping because there was something wrong with the bus. I wondered why he was using his cell phone instead of the bus radio but maybe he was using Google to look up what it meant when the little oil light on the dashboard lit up. Anyway we all got out. As soon as we did he took off, going from zero to something probably exceeding the speed limit in nine and a half milliseconds.

The next bus came along just a minute later and I probably got home at about the same time I would have if I’d stayed with Mr. McStops-A-Lot, but it was the principle of the matter. I sent a message to customer service and got a nice automated reply assuring me a human being would follow up within seven business days.

A month later when I got the same driver again I was reminded of the other reason I don’t bother with customer service.

Did You Notice This?

runnerThis may surprise some people who know me well but I can be incredibly unobtrusive. I can slip into places completely unnoticed, probably because I’m unusually average: average build, average looks, average height. Actually I seem to be slightly below average height because I look up to most people, but maybe that’s why I can sometimes sit in a group and everyone will forget I’m there until I speak up. Or sometimes they won’t even notice when I speak up. Apart from the time I wandered into the Cleveland Botanical Garden and had a really great time looking around even though it was still under construction (I was there in 2000, it didn’t open to the public until 2003) I’ve never really taken advantage of this skill, although it’s a power I’d only want to use for good, never evil. I wouldn’t rob a bank or anything like that, especially since I wouldn’t be able to resist making a joke about how so many financial transactions are virtual now that robbing banks is pointless now.

Police officer: Can you describe him?

Bank teller: Yes, he was average build, average looks, a little less than average height.

Police officer: And what did he do?

Bank teller: Well, he came in and said this was a robbery. He handed me a bag and told me to fill it with Bitcoin then he started laughing and ran out.

I probably shouldn’t be joking about that. Once when I was a kid a friend and I went to the bank with his mother and while we were waiting for her to take care of her finances I joked about writing “THIS IS A ROBBERY” on the back of one of the withdrawal slips and sticking it back in the stack and got a stern lecture from a security guard about how that was not even a little bit funny. I was kind of glad he noticed me, but that’s another story.

Anyway every once in a while I’ve gotten to the far side of the intersection where I catch the bus and seen the bus coming. And I’ve gotten there when it’s still safe to cross but the lights can change in an instance so I run to make sure I get to the stop. This might happen once or twice a month, but the weird thing is it’s always been the same driver. The only times I’ve ever seen her are when I’ve run to catch the bus—until recently.

The other day I made it to the stop early and this particular driver drove up. I got on and was swiping my card—even bus fares are electronic now—and she clapped and said, “Yay! You didn’t have to run!”

We both laughed and then I thought how weird it was that she remembered me. Some bus drivers have driven right by without even realizing I was there.

Universal Transit Authority.

solarsystem1I remember it like it was more than thirty years ago. I was in sixth grade and on the bus and a friend of mine told me that very day all nine planets (at the time we still recognized Mr. Tombaugh’s discovery Pluto as a planet) were in alignment. It was staggering. I looked around wondering why everyone was so oblivious to such a monumental interplanetary event. The major bodies of our solar system were getting together and who, other than astronomers, knew when that would happen again? This should be a day set aside for recognition of universal harmony and hope for peace. At the very least we should get out of school, and not just because I had a math test that day.

I have absolutely no idea where my friend was getting his information, especially since a little bit of research shows the last time such a planetary alignment occurred was 561 BC and the next time it’ll happen will be some time during 2854 AD. I’ve made a note of it in my calendar, although I’m very bad at planning ahead so I may be somewhere else on that day.

Anyway today, May 9th, 2016, an unusual celestial event really is occurring: Mercury passing between Earth and the sun. It will last seven hours and be visible to most of the planet except the quadrant of the southern hemisphere that includes everything from a part of eastern Asia down through Indonesia, the Philippines, and Australia and New Zealand. Sorry y’all.

Mercury’s year is less than three of our months—at least as long as long as two of those months are September, April, June, or November and the third is February and it’s not a leap year. This is why to Earthbound observers it sometimes looks like it’s going backward, and people thought that’s what it was doing back when they thought the Earth was the center of the universe. So Mercury is never really in retrograde and we don’t need to destroy it. Because of its small size and proximity to the sun Mercury is usually hard to spot as it stays close to the horizon but lately it’s been rising higher in the constellation Aries, although it’s still hard to spot unless it’s performing one of its transits—and there are only about thirteen every century.

In 1609 the German astronomer Johannes Kepler determined the correct orbits of the seven visible planets—William Herschel wouldn’t inspire a million jokes with his discovery of Uranus until 172 years later—and realized he’d be able to see Mercury pass in front of the Sun on November 7, 1631. Unfortunately he died in 1630—some things you just can’t plan for—but other astronomers used Kepler’s calculations and were able to observe it. At least some things in life, or at least the universe, are predictable.

In The Event Of An Emergency, Please Call…

"Sarah, can you get me Mount Pilot?"

“Sarah, can you get me Mount Pilot?”

Sitting in the back of the bus has its advantages. I could see the guy coming from almost the front, stopping to say something to every person he passed. As he got closer I could hear what he was saying: “Can I use your phone?”

Please, I thought, please let someone before me say yes. If he got to me I’d feel awkward because there was no one behind me and while I didn’t recognize the guy there was a chance he’d become a regular rider. If I saw him every day, or even a few times a week, there’d be the same awkwardness and I’d have trouble explaining to my wife that we had to move so I could start taking a different bus route.

And then someone right in front of me said, “Sure” and handed the guy their phone. Lucky break. But, I thought, if he’d gotten to me I would have lent him my phone. If I didn’t have a phone and needed to make a quick call to someone I’d hope for a kind stranger, and let me emphasize I’d make the call as quick as possible.

The guy dialed and sat down.

“Hey, is Gary there? He’s not? Is this Bianca? Hey, how are you doing? Yeah, I’ve been at the public library all day. Let me tell you what I read…”

The guy had been reading some really interesting stuff at the library, and it sounded like Bianca had some lengthy opinions of her own about it.

“Is Dave around? Oh, yeah, let me talk to him.”

Dave had a surprising amount to say.

“That’s great. Thanks Dave! Put Bianca back on.”

I listened with eager anticipation wondering if Gary would arrive in the midst of this conversation.

“Well listen, I’ve enjoyed talking to y’all but my bus stop is coming up. Yeah, I’ve gotta get going. Tell Gary I called if he comes in.”

The total conversation clocked in at over fourteen minutes. I wonder what would have happened if the person who lent their phone had wanted to get off before the guy got to his stop. Or, for that matter, how Gary was supposed to call someone who didn’t have his own phone.

If someone ever asks to borrow my phone I’ll only let them on the condition that Gary is there to answer.