Sunday, January 25, 2009

BUS STORY # 117 (Spare Chicken?)

Last week, I wrote about my encounter with DART. This week, I’m telling the bus story I brought back from that encounter.

I’m standing at the St Paul Station waiting for the 8:57 p.m. southbound Blue Line to take me to Union Station and the train to the airport. I’m going to meet some co-workers for the business part of this trip.

I’ve used the DART system three times now, all during the daylight hours. It’s busy. But tonight, the platform is almost empty. There’s three of us: a tall, muscular guy with a tank top and a head rag, a young kid with an Afro, white dress shirt and black slacks, standing back in a corner and looking nervous. And me.

A fourth guy arrives on the platform. He’s an older guy in a faded blue baseball cap, faded blue shirt, and jeans. He walks behind me and on down the platform for a few steps, then stops, turns, looks at me, and walks back over to where I’m standing.

"Lookit that kid," he says to me, nodding to the nervous-looking kid in the corner, "he’s all scared somebody’s gonna mess with him."

He laughs, shakes his head. Ain’t nobody gonna mess with him, he tells me. He’s too old.

I laugh at the shared old guy knowledge that the older we get, the more invisible we become. Unless, as I point out now, looking old makes us look like easy pickings.

He ain’t no easy pickins’ – he makes hand gestures suggesting wringing a chicken’s neck and popping off its head. Then he tells me how a street tough tried messing with him down here one night. The guy stepped right in front of him, blocked his every move to step away. Kept calling him a “mother-mmm.” Probably high on something, he tells me.

He recreates the conversation like this:

“Why you be messin’ with me?”

“Cuz you a mother-mmm.”

“So what you gonna do, kill me?”


“Look, you a young G, I’m a old G. Why you be messin’ with me?”

Young G doesn’t say anything at first, just stands there lookin’ tough. Then he says, “Better go have another beer, old man.”

I’m close enough to tell the old man is sober as a church mouse. Helluva story, I tell him.

We make some small talk, and one thing leads to another. I tell him I’ve been visiting my mother. He asks how old she is. Pretty old, I reply. He knows that because I’m old. We both laugh. He tells me his mother’s old, too. I tell him my mother’s all alone these days, everyone else has died. He tells me it’s the same with his mother. All her brothers and sisters, gone.

I’m enjoying the conversation, but I still feel wary. The lyrics to an old Tom Waits song are running through my head.

. . .and wherever you say you're from
he'll say he grew up there himself
and he'll come on and make you feel
like you grew up right next door to him . . .
. . . she’s lucky to be alive
said the doctor to the nurse
she only lost half a pint of blood
twenty-nine dollars and an alligator purse.
We reflect on what a blessing our mothers are. Then I ask him what he does. He’s a cop.

“A cop?”

“A cop.”

“No kidding.”

I don’t think he’s a cop. Maybe a security guard. Maybe.

Later, I think he sensed the break and just went right to it.

“Say, I’m lookin’ for some chicken.”


Chicken. Does he mean "chick," as in "young girl?" Couldn't be. We're both too old -- for either end of that business. "Chicken scratch," as in "spare change?" I'm feeling very much the foreign tourist now.

“Chicken,” he says. “You know, chicken. I’m hungry. Can you help me out?”

“Uh . . . ” Sometimes a chicken is just a chicken.

“Thas awright, thas awright.” He backs right off. He’s still smiling, and the Blue Line to Ledbetter is rolling into the station. We board the same car, but he goes left and I go right.

The car is full. I notice I may be the only male not wearing a jersey from some NFL or NBA or NBL or NHL franchise. But my thoughts return to the guy on the platform.

He’d worked really hard on that pitch, put in a lot of time. He had imagination, energy, style. It was interactive street theatre. I thought of the kids back home, squatting on the sidewalk on Central, calling out listlessly to passersby, “Spare change?”

I’m thinking I should have sprung for a buck back there on the platform. I can even believe it would’ve gone toward the purchase of some chicken.


The photo at the top of this story is posted with the kind permission of Antonio Edward. You can see the photo and links to all Antonio’s remarkable DART night photos on Flickr at:

Sunday, January 18, 2009


A combination business/personal trip to Dallas gave me an opportunity to sample yet another urban public transportation system – in this case, the Dallas Area Rapid Transit system.

Like Seattle’s King County Metro, DART has an automated scheduler on its website. You type in where you want to go and from where, and when you want to leave or arrive. The scheduler then gives you three trip options.

It also gives you a lot of information on the infrastructure that’ll get you from your starting point to your destination. In my case, it was from DFW to downtown Dallas, and it involved coordinating airport transportation with the Trinity Railway Express with DART.

It worked perfectly.

I went to the blue and yellow sign at my terminal and waited for the matching colors bus I’d seen on the website. I was on board in less than 10 minutes.

The blue and yellow is a CNG-powered bus similar to our Thomas/Dennis 400 series. I couldn’t find the name of the manufacturer on the buses, so I asked the driver. He said it was Champion out of California. He also said he preferred the Gilligs they replaced with the Champions a few years back. A second driver told me the same thing.

My terminal bus took me to a central station for all five terminals south of the airport. I caught another shuttle (another blue and yellow Champion) to Centerport Station where the train arrived on schedule. I bought a $5.00 pass which got me to downtown Dallas, plus free all-day rides on any DART bus or light rail.

The train car was roomy and the seats were comfortable. My car was maybe a quarter full. We rocked gently along, and “City Of New Orleans” started playing in my head as I looked out my big window at the passing countryside and the skyline coming into view.

One arresting part of the ride took me right by Dealey Plaza – Texas Schoolbook Depository, grassy knoll and all. My family lived in Dallas when Kennedy was assassinated. I was a junior in high school, and while those days of yore feel long ago and far away, a virulence in the culture in those days seems to have re-emerged with this election cycle. I’m still feeling surprised and a little chilled by that train window apparition.

I got off the train at the last stop, Union Station. I walked across some light rail tracks and waited for the northbound blue line – which arrived right on schedule.

Perhaps it was the novelty, but the light rail felt more efficient, more precise, than a bus. The doors opened, and I had the sense there was a certain amount of time I had to get on before the doors closed and stayed closed and inexorably programmed movement began. And when we did move, it was a whole lot smoother than a bus – starts, stops, and the ride in between.

Another thing I noticed: The streets we moved down were reserved exclusively for rail traffic. I’d read about some cities’ problems with automobiles and light rail sharing the streets. Dallas doesn’t have that problem.

Inside, the car was more like a bus: rows of double-seats on either side of the car. Like Union Station, it was crowded, but everyone had a seat. There was a remarkably heterogeneous mix of races and genders, ages and classes. Pretty much a picture of what the ideal ridership for urban public transportation looks like. In Dallas, everyone was on board.

A few stops later, I disembarked and walked about a hundred yards to my mother’s apartment building. I’d gotten from DFW to my mother’s in less than two hours without having to wait in line at the car rental, negotiate the traffic, find my mother’s apartment, then find a place to park. All this for $5.00.

So did I get a bus story?

I did. Look for it next week.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

BUS STORY # 115 (The Lift)

I’m on the way home and making the transfer from the Rapid Ride to the Lomas bus. I’ve developed a talent for catching any Rapid Ride that will deliver me to the Lomas stop in time to just miss the eastbound Lomas and leave me with a 20 minute wait.

Sometimes I watch the Lomas bus go by past the front windows of my Rapid Ride while we’re sitting in the turn lane. Sometimes I watch it go by after I’ve gotten off the Rapid Ride and am heading for the intersection on the other side of the street. Sometimes, though, I can see it is far enough down Lomas so that, if it stops at just one of the two stops before the intersection, and if the stop takes long enough, and if the lights let me cross to the other side while holding up the eastbound lane, I have a shot at catching it.

Today, I have a shot. I’m standing on the northwest corner of the intersection watching the No. 11 bus coming up Lomas toward the southwest corner. Bad news: it doesn’t stop at the far stop. Good news: it stops at the stop just before the intersection. If the light will just please turn red before the boarding process finishes . . .

I’m in luck! Even as I’m almost across the street, the bus hasn’t even pulled away from the stop and up to the intersection. When I reach the sidewalk and turn towards the bus, I see why. The wheel chair ramp is down. There is a woman in a wheelchair on the ramp, and nothing is happening. There are four other people standing around waiting.

The driver can’t get the lift to work. He steps out of his seat and down onto the lift. He looks at the gears and chains, pulls at the handles. He gets back into his seat and tries the switch. The chains move a bit, then stop. He turns the engine off, lets it wait a minute or so, turns it back on, flips the switch again. Nothing happens.

There’s a guy standing behind the wheelchair. He seems to be her companion. He apologizes to the driver.

“Hey, it isn’t your fault,” the driver replies.

The man and the woman talk closely for a couple of minutes. She leans forward in her chair and grasps the handles on the lift. Then she pulls herself upright using the lift handles as a support. She tries swinging through to the first step and loses her balance. The driver is out of his seat like a shot, and her companion reaches over the back of the wheelchair. But she catches herself before she falls. She tries again and swings herself up the steps, transferring her hands from the lift rails to the stairs rails and using her good leg. Once she’s aboard, she pivots into the first seat. Her companion folds up the chair, and carries it aboard.

The driver tells the rest of us to wait. He’s going to try working the lift again. It catches, lifts up to the floor of the bus. He lowers it again, and when it reaches the bottom, it folds up and retracts under the bus. The rest of us board.

In the back, someone is complaining loudly about how he doesn’t have time to be waiting on a bus that doesn’t work the way it should. He goes on and on. He’s young, he’s big, and he looks and sounds as mean as he is mean-spirited. Nobody says anything.

He also can’t sit still. He opens and closes his hands, reaches for the railing overhead, does side to side stretches. I’m wondering meth. I check out his face and arms, wait for a look at his teeth. Nothing. Who knows what it is. Maybe he’s late for work again and has been warned he’ll lose his job if he’s late again. Maybe he’s just a jerk.

The couple gets off at Eubank. The guy starts grumping as soon as he sees who’s getting off, but the lift works perfectly. He fidgets and flexes and holds his head in his hands, but he shuts up. I watch the man push the woman south on Eubank as we pass through the intersection.

The photo at the top of this story is posted with the kind permission of Evan McCausland. It features a working wheelchair ramp that looks identical to the one featured in this posting. Evan’s bus is a Flxible Metro model 35096 from the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority (TARTA). You can see the photo and a link to all Evan’s work on Flickr at:

Sunday, January 04, 2009

BUS STORY # 114 (Portrait # 1: Lady)

I’m beginning the New Year with a new subset of bus stories. I’m calling it Portraits, and like the Shorts subset, I plan to run it on a more or less regular basis.

Most stories come from goings on at the bus stop or on the bus. But sometimes all I see are people doing nothing more than riding or driving or waiting for the bus. And even though there’s no “story,” there’s always someone who somehow seems to stand out from the crowd, someone you end up watching more closely and wondering about.

Sometimes the person’s a regular, sometimes a one-timer.

Sometimes the portraits are really short:

There’s a new driver on the route this morning. Trim woman, gray hair long but neatly pinned back, glasses. I’d guess early 50s. She suggests style muted by a quaint primness. She could be a librarian, a non-profit board member, the wife of a Good Book preacher with a small congregation. Maybe all three. This morning, she’s a bus driver.
Other times, they end up story-length. Babushka is a good example.

Here’s Portrait # 1.

She’s an older woman, older than me.

I almost wrote “lady” instead of “woman” because I know that’s what she is.

She is always well dressed, but in a quietly understated way. Well, there is the hat -- a raffia hat with an upturned brim and a scarf wound round the crown.

Her makeup is like her clothes and is always perfect. So is her posture. She is unfailingly pleasant and polite. She will sometimes have conversations with the drivers, and she always thanks them when she exits.

I’ve heard stories from other riders: she takes the bus everywhere, and I’ve seen her often enough during both the commuting times and the off-hours to believe it. These same riders have also told me her son is a doctor or a lawyer or a corporate chief. So why is she riding the bus?

I find myself worrying about her walk from the bus stop to wherever home is. I imagine a small community of folks living and working and walking in that same area who have the same protective feelings I do when they see her. I imagine each of us doing our part to make sure she gets safely home.

And then, of course, I realize I am thinking about my own mother, far away, a lovely lady in so many ways dependent on the kindness of strangers.

Portrait Of A Lady by Hans Baldung Grien, 1530; Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid.