Sunday, August 27, 2006

BUS STORY # 3 (Hey!)

For the first four weeks I rode the bus, I went to our facilities on the north side or the near northeast heights or downtown. When the time came to resume working at the office, I discovered taking the 6:48 a.m. No. 11 got me to my desk around 8:05 a.m. Now, my boss is not a stickler about time. She expects us to do our work, and she’s astute enough to hire folks who are going to voluntarily deliver more than the requisite 40 hours. Still, there is this little construct I have in my head that 8:00 a.m. is the start of the workday. Which means I feel compelled to put my lunch in the refrigerator, boot up and go right to work. So I switched to the 6:28 a.m., took the Rapid Ride to Yale, and caught the 7:15 a.m. Yale bus which gets me to my desk around 7:35 a.m. where I can check my personal email and “stand around the water cooler” discussing sports, politics and the weather with a clear conscience.

The “Yale bus” is really the Downtown-Airport bus (or the No. 50), but to the considerable knot of us who catch it where Yale and Central intersect and who work in the various offices and industrial complexes scattered along Yale between the UNM campus and the airport, it’s the “Yale bus.” Among the regulars are four blind folks. One of our stops is the New Mexico Commission For The Blind. I was initially puzzled when this stop was announced overhead, the bus pulled into the stop, and the blind passengers stayed sitting. I finally figured out they ride the bus to the airport and catch the Commission office on the backside so they don’t have to cross the busy street.

The bus itself is interesting. It’s an alternative fuel bus that runs on natural gas. It’s smaller, more like a trolley, with a continuous bench around the perimeter, so that everyone sits facing the aisle. There is a raised platform in the back, and that is where the non-handicapped and non-elderly passengers are supposed to go. The blind folks sit up front, of course.

One afternoon, an old blind guy with a white flattop and cane boarded the bus and went for a seat behind the driver occupied by a younger woman. “Hey, you’re in my seat!” he hollered, staring over her head. The woman jumped in her seat (so did I). She apologized, got up and moved down the bench several seats, then began laughing. I like to think her laughter came from the combined realizations that she really was sitting in the handicapped area, and with how deftly she had been played by this “helpless” old blind man. Like me, she was learning there’s more to riding the bus than just climbing aboard and sitting down for the ride.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

BUS STORY # 2 (Made In China)

Not everyone who rides the bus is an accountant or an attorney or someone else “pretty much like me.” Which can make picking a seat after boarding a cross-town transfer a nerve-wracking process. If you’re lucky, there’s an empty seat – by that, I mean an empty pair of seats – so you don’t have to deal with whom you end up sitting next to. There are some obvious byes: the sacked-out cowboy with the unbuttoned shirt and greasy hat sprawled across both seats; the guy in black leather with the iridescent red Mohawk and 14 facial piercings. There are the less obvious passes as well: the guy in the aisle seat whose bag occupies the window seat and who’s either looking out the window or has his head down in a book; most of the women unless they’re old because you don’t want to make anybody nervous.

And you have to be fairly quick because you’re moving down the aisle and people are behind you and the bus is gonna be lurching forward any second and you don’t want to find yourself spilled to the back of the bus and left standing because you failed to recognize an OK seat when you saw it. Not to mention the dreadful realization that you are now signaling to everyone you passed by that you preferred to stand rather than sit by them.

Maybe the egalitarian experience of riding the bus has left me with excessive feelings of goodwill toward men. Or maybe it’s because my commuter neighbors had given me such a warm welcome into the fellowship. In any case, when I happen upon an empty pair of seats, I spare some fellow future passenger the same angst of where to sit by moving to the window seat and stowing my bag underneath. And every time I do this . . . nobody ever sits by me. Well, almost every time. There was that guy who sat down next to me but kept his feet in the aisle and his back to me, ready to make a run for it if necessary. Maybe I’ve made it look too inviting? Like I’m up to something? “Hey, cowboy, wake up or I’ll have to sit next to that creep in the button-down shirt with the bus pass hanging around his neck.”

So I’m making my way down the aisle of the San Mateo bus after getting off my friendly No. 11, and I’m three-quarters down the way and it’s decision time. I spot a guy in the window seat, blue jeans, plaid shirt, baseball cap, with a plastic bag in his lap which contains something very tall and thin and white. Nice proletariat kind of guy, blue collar, salt of the earth, backbone of the country, etc. I puff up my liberal heart and soul and sit down next to him and flash a smile. He’s too busy talking to notice. Oh, yes, indeed, he’s talking. Or maybe praying, it’s hard to tell. No, he’s talking. I can’t make out most of the words, but the conversation is non-stop. Conversation? Monologue? I can’t tell. I make out an occasional verb or adjective or article, but that’s it. I notice the tall object poking out of the Wal-Mart bag is a door sweep, to be attached to the bottom of a door to prevent drafts. I’m not sure, but he may be talking to it. Or maybe about it. I decide this is a great time to reach into my bag and pull out the new AARP Bulletin. I’m reading away trying not to listen for the occasional audible, intelligible word when I realize he’s quiet. And he’s looking at me. Oh boy. What else can I do? I look back. He nods to the door sweep. “It’s made in China,” he says. I nod. He leans in a little closer and whispers, “Everything is made in China.” And then he sits back and resumes his conversation. And here I’d been thinking he was crazy.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

BUS STORY # 1 (Imagine That!)

I suppose I had stereotyped my own neighborhood. When I headed out the front door to catch the bus my first day, I didn’t expect to run in to any of my neighbors. To my great surprise, there were two other guys waiting at my stop. They didn’t look like environmentalists and they didn’t look like they didn’t have cars. They looked, well, pretty much like me. They introduced themselves. Abel* is a numbers cruncher for the County Assessor’s office, and he’s been riding downtown to work for seven years. Dennis* is an attorney whose wife is getting her degree at UNM. He’s been riding since February, which is when he moved to Albuquerque. The way they welcomed me to the bus rider fellowship made me feel like I was a visitor at a Texas Southern Baptist church service.

They greeted the bus driver by name, then introduced me, adding, “It’s his first time. Be gentle.” This was the 6:48 a.m. Lomas bus (the No. 11 to the veterans), a milk run, with stops every two blocks. Just about everyone who got on knew almost everyone else on board. Work stories, family stories, and a lot of good-natured teasing got tossed back and forth. I was amazed at having stumbled over this little commuter community. I heard a Tom Waits lyric run through my head: “There’s a world going on/Underground.”

The next morning, the three of us were waiting at the bus stop expanding our introductions when Abel realized the bus was late. “I have to apologize for the bad impression this must be making on you," he said to me. "I just can’t believe this is happening on your second day. But the bus is hardly ever late. Really.” About that time his cell phone rang. After an “OK” and “thanks,” he said that was a rider upstream reporting the bus had just gotten to her stop and was running about 10 minutes late. Then he phoned someone else downstream to pass it on. A bus rider phone relay team. Imagine that!


*Real name changed.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

BUS STORIES (Here’s The Story)


A long, long time ago (I can still remember . . . ), there was a TV show called The Naked City which ended with the voiceover, "There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them." The Naked City was New York, of course. I didn’t get there until I was in my 50s, but for the week or so I was there, I saw a remarkable story each and every day.

Several weeks ago, I began riding the bus to and from work. I’d known I should be doing my part to reduce fossil fuel consumption for some time now (just like I knew I should quit smoking years before I got around to it). But when gasoline hit $2.99 a gallon, I started doing some calculations which showed me I was spending about $2.40 per round trip to work.

Serendipitously, my employer was experiencing parking shortage problems at three of its local facilities and decided to offer employees free bus passes to try and alleviate the crunch. A few of us in the office decided the time was right for us to at least try using public transportation.

It’s worked out pretty well. I find that, whichever of the four facilities in town I might have to be working at on any given day, I can get there by bus in almost-to-the-minute double the time it takes me to drive. Most days I go to the office. That 35-minute drive now takes me 70 minutes. (As I pointed out to my wife, the bus pass means I’ve just gotten a raise of $2.40 per workday. As my wife pointed out to me, that means I’m making $2.40 per hour taking the bus . . . ).

There have been some trade-offs. I still get up at the same time (5:00 a.m.) so that’s a wash. Losses: 1) I don’t listen to the news on the way in; 2) I don’t listen to music nearly as much as I used to; 3) I don’t listen to Books-On-Tape/CDs any more – and I’ve heard some fine ones this way. Gains: 1) by all accounts, I’m more relaxed when I get to work/home (I can’t tell if this is because I’m no longer hassled by driving in this crazy traffic town, or because I don’t listen to the news anymore); 2) I get to feel virtuous about doing something to slow global warming; 3) I do a lot more periodical reading; 4) bus stories!

Which brings me back to those New York stories. These days, I can’t recall each story at the drop of a hat. I find them all eventually, but sometimes I have to take a number and read whatever’s in the waiting room. My bus stories are not nearly so memorable or colorful or so city-specific as the New York stories, and I don’t get a story a day like I did in NYC. Still, I’m quite fond of the ones I have. So I’ve begun writing them down.

Stories are meant to be shared, of course, and being both of Irish descent and an old guy means I’m doubly compelled to share them. I’ve been sharing them weekly with family and friends, and several of these folks suggested these stories are ideally suited for a blog. And so here I am, one of eight billion stories on the world wide web.

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