Friday, February 29, 2008

Women Being Rude About God

I and others have made the point before but apparently not everyone on the internets is convinced judging from Ophelia Benson's need to reaffirm the value of uppity, offense-giving women and the comments it has spawned (more here and here).

The issue at hand is a big one -- naturalism or supernaturalism? Are we ultimately just highly sophisticated conglomerations of atoms or are we the product of a ghost-meat dualism? The answer ramifies profoundly and people on both sides genuinely give a damn about it. And of course there are many sides, not just two -- there are the materialists, the undecided-but-concerned, and a few thousand varieties of dualists. The question is magnitudes beyond 'is Pluto a planet or not?' or 'do cats make better pets than dogs?' or even 'is George W. Bush the worst president ever or just a moron tragically removed from his sit-com?' and the emotions and volume are correspondingly higher.

That it matters to all parties on all sides is the central reason it is not reasonable to expect discussion of it to give no offense. Discussion of it is bound to give offense almost by definition. Subjecting the matter to even the most initial questioning is, in and of itself, offensive to some parties given the views they hold on it, and given the stakes.

There is no charming way to say either "your god does not exist" or "god indeed exists, but you've spent your life worshipping the wrong one" or variants. Taking the other perspective: there is no nice way to say "you are going to burn in hell for eternity if you don't change your mind, and by the way, I am going to be partying with god while you're suffering eternally."

So if this or that take on these matters gives offense; if this or that stance presumes or asserts or implies that a contrary view and/or its adherents are mistaken, stupid, vacuous, evil, useless, dangerous ... how can I say this nicely? ... Too. Fucking. Bad.

To the extent we're true to the conclusions and their implications, there's no nice way to say what we find to be true about these matters.

It's certainly not the case that one side of this huge tangle of controversy gets to make its affirmative claims and then stand back and scream foul when a counterargument is made, on grounds that the counterclaim is offensive. Offense is the price of admission to this discussion for all parties. Period.

Clinton's Forest-and-Trees Problem

Hillary Clinton is running a new ad criticizing Barack Obama on experience, stating, in part,

It's 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep. But there's a phone in the White House and it's ringing. Something's happening in the world. Your vote will decide who answers that call.
Wake up! Saber-wielding fanatics are coming!

Sigh. I suspect these points have already been made so I'll try to keep it brief.

Whether the Democrats ultimately nominate Clinton or Obama, Clinton has already made a very forceful two-pronged case for John McCain: that the more experienced candidate is more qualified to be president (McCain it is), and that the more bellicose candidate is more qualified to be president (McCain it is, again). If the Democrats nominate Obama, Clinton has added an extra layer to the pro-McCain argument: "Even Hillary Clinton said so" to each of the two prongs.

I understand she wants to win against Obama. Why does she want to lose to McCain?

If "experience" makes a person this goddamn shortsighted, it should be both denounced and rejected.

Happy Leap Day

It's Leap Day, and for the curious, the Bad Astronomer has a very thorough write-up of the hows and whys and wherefores of Leap Days and Leap Years.

My focus, of course, is on how I might turn the phenomenon of leap days/years into a diatribe about religious belief, conservatives, and/or small towns. Not that I can't think of ways to do so, but I think I'll decline (for purposes of this paragraph of this post). It's Friday, after all, and what are Fridays if not a day to lose focus?

I will say I pity the kids born on Leap Day. Not only do they get to celebrate birthdays only once every four years, but far worse, they are likely to have been born to the kind of mother who would actually bother to accelerate the onset of labor in order to have a Leap Baby. And such mothers surely wouldn't stop there. They'd be the kind of mothers who would dress their children in embarrassing costumes, enroll them in pageants, make them recite poems for houseguests, treat them as channel-changing / key-finding / denture-fetching tools, leave the dentures out when the children had guests over, and drop discussion-ending rhetorical questions like "who said life was fair?" with alarming frequency.

I was not born on Leap Day.

Heh: A Cavil for the Blogospheres

Don't you hate blog posts like this one?


Suppose this post ended above that line. I don't mean to pick on Greg Laden or his excellent blog, but the above is both an illustration and an example of the sort of blog post that is starting to balloon into a pretty big pet peeve: it just links to something, somewhere, by someone out in the reaches of the internets, and gives little context or background. I'm just supposed to trust that by clicking the link I'll land on something Jeff-Spicoli-totally-awesome.

Well, maybe I will, but what's wrong with telling me what kind of totally awesome treat I'm bound for? What's wrong with working from the assumption that maybe, just maybe, not every reader will find it as totally awesome as you did without a little context? Pray tell, how about increasing its awesomeness by excerpting it and stirring in some of your own awesomeness? We do have the ability to write our own commentary here in the blogosphere. It's rather well known for that. Sweet Jeebus H. Rove! I can't believe I'm having to explain these things to bloggers of all people.

I frequently encounter articles and blog entries I don't necessarily feel prepared to comment upon but that I'd like to share with my six readers. For those instances -- and they are legion -- I have made use of the "shared items" functionality of google reader. The last several items I've shared in this fashion appear in one of the boxes on the side of the blog currently titled "shared from reader."

Moreover, for those of you as addicted to google reader as I am, it is possible to add my shared items as a feed unto itself -- it behaves just as any other blog. And the feed will work in any valid "content aggregator" that knows how to handle RSS feeds, not just google reader. Here's the link and here's the raw URL used for subscribing to my shared items (not the URL to the shared items themselves):


War in Iraq: A Bigger Rip-Off Than Cable

According to Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, the Iraq War will cost the USA $3 trillion. That's three trillion -- three thousand stacks of dollar bills stacked a billion high each. A dollar sign, a three, twelve zeros, and a whole mess of commas.


This should add some perspective as we head deeper into the 2008 presidential and congressional campaigns and start hearing more and more from pro-endless-war "fiscal conservatives" about what we can't afford.

In a phrase, yes we can. We can afford what we prioritize.

The article cited above puts the $3 trillion in some perspective:

even one of these trillions could have paid for: 8 million housing units, or 15 million public school teachers, or healthcare for 530 million children for a year, or scholarships to university for 43 million students. Three trillion could have fixed America's social security problem for half a century.
Understand that these amazing amounts of money are in addition to regular defense spending. Also:
$138: The amount paid by every US household every month towards the current operating costs of the war

$19.3bn: The amount Halliburton has received in single-source contracts for work in Iraq

$5bn: Cost of 10 days' fighting in Iraq

$1 trillion: The interest America will have paid by 2017 on the money borrowed to finance the war
Do these incredible expenditures reflect our values and priorities? No.


this is cross-posted at the Out of Iraq Bloggers Caucus here.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Hymen Intact? Ask God.

There are times when reading the back pages of the newspapers is fun, and then there are times when it gives forth stories like this:

Across the country, "revirginization" appears to be gaining steam. Spiritual efforts to reclaim virginity emerged back in the early 1990s and now, prompted by abstinence-only school courses taught to thousands of girls nationwide, and by religious teachers, there are reports of more and more young women ... attempting a sexual do-over. Other women are opting for a more radical route to reclaim their virginity: surgical replacement of the hymen, the small membrane that stretches from the walls of the vagina and that typically breaks when a woman first has intercourse ...
"Revirgination" ... "surgical replacement of the hymen" ... "radical route to reclaim their virginity." Did anyone need these phrases? Can anyone, lying prone on a deathbed, fade to black contentedly upon hearing them just in time? It's more of religion's bounty, it must be said. But if you really want to feel a rush of vomit vault into your mouth, check this:
The fact that some women believe they are able to recapture a kind of sexually virginal state underlines the idea that virginity is not nearly the black-and-white issue most of us think, that it has come to be as much a concept as a fact.
Oh goodness no. Virginity can't possibly be reducible to anything as brute and sordid as one's actual sexual history. It's far, far more precious and sacred and mystical than all that; it's way over on the 'spirit' side of the duality, never on the flesh side. It's all about what you and your favorite god jointly agree it to be -- no more and no less.

The British Make Terrible Chickenhawks

Clearly the Brits have a great deal to learn when it comes to being chickenhawks.

Prince Harry, the youngest son of Prince Charles and the late princess Diana, has been fighting the Taliban on the front line in Afghanistan, the defence ministry in London said Thursday.

The 23-year-old prince, an officer in the Household Cavalry regiment, has spent the past 10 weeks secretly serving in the volatile southern province of Helmand, where most of Britain's troops are based.
No, no, no. Fighting? In a foreign land? In the military? Where the fast bullets fly?

This is wrong from the word 'go.' Doesn't Prince Harry realize that they also serve who sit on their asses and write children's books, stay drunk, and campaign for their wealthy chickenhawk Ken Doll of a father?

Doesn't Harry realize that actual life experiences of war risks endowing him with doubts as to its honor and glory? This is a big roll of the dice.

This just isn't done. Calls need to be made.

Which Side Are We On?

This WWII-era poster continues to faithfully represent the values of the enemies of the United States.

The only question is which side the current occupants of the United States will take.

We know the side the Bush-Cheney junta has taken, and, sadly, we know the side the presumptive Wide Stance candidate has taken.

In a lame attempt to defend McCain's cowardly embrace of torture, David Frum appeared on the 2/22 Bill Maher program and repeated the word "professional" a great many times; I gather his point was that the CIA, unlike the Army, is "professional," and can therefore be trusted to torture captives in a "professional" manner -- a claim that's absurd on its face, and the sort of thing that would instantly be construed as an attack on the "troops" if uttered by a liberal.

(H/T Sullivan )

We Are the Ones

Andrew Sullivan and one of his readers have converged on the defining message and biggest promise of the Obama campaign:

The Obama model is: you will only get [positive change] if you stand up for it, risk your job, status, even life for the sake of your own integrity. Stop whining and start explaining and persuading and acting.

So many [well-meaning] people over the years have asked me where our "leader" is. It's the wrong question. We are the ones we have been waiting for. Be the change you want to see in the world. And the world changes. In exact proportion to the number of [well-meaning] people who have abandoned their fear and self-hatred, it already has. No excuses, guys. And no need to wait. [emphasis mine]
I've bracketed out the particular reference in quoting Sullivan -- he happened to be focusing on gay rights -- because the message applies across the board.

"We are the ones we're waiting for." I almost soiled myself with glee when I heard Obama use those words in one of his recent victory speeches. Be careful about spreading this around, but that is nothing more or less than humanism distilled to a single sentence (the idea that we are the ones we are waiting for not the stuff about soiling oneself. Humanism takes no stand on self-soiling.)


It is fair to ask if the USA is actually ready for this message. Do people really want to get off the couch and not only demand but work for something better in the realm of health care, the war in Iraq, trade agreements, environmental protection, etc.? Or would they prefer that someone in Washington handle such matters, and then claim the right to throw a snit when that doesn't work to their liking?

To be fair to the people on the couch, we do have a representative system in this country; it's not crazy for people to expect elected officials to represent their interests and priorities. But surely it is possible and worthwhile to aim higher than the Bush-Cheney junta, which asks nothing of people beyond going to the mall, whining for tax cuts, and becoming terrified of terror on cue.

One thing I know, or think I do: we will never hear anything like "we are the ones we are waiting for" from the McCain or Clinton campaigns. I don't know about you, but that's all I need to know.

Irrational Irrationality Quiz

This "door game" (they're trying to sell a book, so viral marketing alert) gave me an interesting result: based on the little finger-wagging homily at the game's end, it assumed I behaved in a specific way, a way it labeled as irrational, but I actually didn't behave the way it wanted to criticize. I behaved rationally according to the terms of the game, and got no credit for it. Now I'm just confused and angry, and would demand my money back if they had charged me any. It almost makes me wish they had.

--- Spoiler alert! ---

The text quoted below in smallish red type is the finger-wagging homily in question, and the homily and my discussion after it will spoil your experience of this game if you read it before playing:

You switched 3 times less when the doors were shrinking.
More frequent switching when the doors are shrinking is most likely a reflection of an irrational tendency to keep your options open.
This tendency cost you points in the game, but it could have much larger implications in life...
Jeepers. I switched less -- not at all, in fact -- the second time around even though the other doors were shrinking. I just let them shrink and felt no compunctions about it. In fact, the smaller they got, the whinier and less appealing they seemed to me, so I was pleased to see them dwindle to nothingness. And by not switching I lost no points. Sweet!

While I never turn away a chance to be labeled rational, I am not convinced in the claims of what is rational and what is irrational in this exercise. I doubt that even a very focused, strongly analytical player would be able to draw valid, predictive conclusions about the game's behavior in the course of a single round of 50 clicks. And that's all the preparation one gets for round two, and round two includes an entirely new variable that a player could reasonably expect to impugn the reliability of any patterns culled from playing round one.

Whatever. I see what they're getting at, and no doubt it is fleshed out more fully in the book they're trying to sell.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Newest Post Below the Fold

For any of you five readers who don't get this precious, precious blog through RSS (you may or may not know who you are), I just put something a few notches down below the fold. It's long.

The SSRI Delusion

Antidepressants don't work:

Meta-analyses of antidepressant medications have reported only modest benefits over placebo treatment, and when unpublished trial data are included, the benefit falls below accepted criteria for clinical significance ... Drug–placebo differences in antidepressant efficacy increase as a function of baseline severity, but are relatively small even for severely depressed patients. The relationship between initial severity and antidepressant efficacy is attributable to decreased responsiveness to placebo among very severely depressed patients, rather than to increased responsiveness to medication.
Which is to say, taking aspirin or gargling with mouthwash is as effective against depression as those expensive SSRI drugs.

Don't you just love how there is such a thing as "unpublished trial data," and it just happens to be the data that wipes away even the small sliver of possibility that these drugs work? Fabulous.


It seems William F. Buckley has died. I know what I hate, and I didn't hate WFB Jr., even though I can't recall agreeing with him on more than a handful of things over the years. I always appreciated that he didn't dumb down his vocabulary, sentence structure, or arguments even when addressing an American tee-vee audience, a fact that was endlessly interesting and important to me in high school for whatever reason. I suppose I considered watching Firing Line as a poor kid's SAT preparation.

He always had good guests on Firing Line, and sponsored many enriching and smart debates on Big Issues. And while I was too young to witness it in so-called real time, I will always perversely cherish the moment when he threatened to "smash your goddamn face" during a rather tense conversation with Noam Chomsky (link to video). Who hasn't wanted to smash Chomsky's goddamn face once or twice? I admire the man, but Jesus Abraham Lincoln Gettysburg Address Christ he can be annoying!

So RIP William F. Buckley, Jr. As the Portland Mercury put it this morning: "If only the Rush Limbaughs and the Ann Coulters of the world could be more like him. Which is to say, dead." Indeed.

Fire and Brimstone, Black and White

Commenting on a recent post, Laura stated

I really believe [hellfire and brimstone religion] has a lot to do with temperament. If one is a fearful person, or a black/white person, one may need the structure and reassurance (?!?) of religion, which appears to provide answers to scary questions. In my opinion, those answers are scarier than the questions, but I know plenty of people who are convinced the Bible is literally true and this seems to make them happy and secure.
This jibes with my experience of very religious people, but the interesting part is what lurks behind Laura's observation that the answers are scarier than the questions. Hell, especially in the hands of its most enthusiastic believers, is portrayed as the most terrible place imaginable, where the most unspeakably hideous torments await the thought criminal -- far worse, even, than either Ponca City or Klamath Falls.

I will go so far as to say I find it impossible for a sane human being to believe, on the one hand, that hell is a possible fate, and on the other hand, that hell is a possible fate for the believer in question. I think it's rather easy to believe in hell when you're thinking about Hitler or Karl Rove, but virtually impossible to believe that I am -- likely, probably, realistically, foreseeably -- going to the same hell where Hitler currently roasts while sitting at stoplights in a subterranean K-Falls. Not far below the surface of a fire-and-brimstone believer is a person who believes his own "salvation" is assured -- or, at worst, will be assured after the completion of an ongoing program of god-pleasing penance.

Maybe this is just a roundabout way of saying that black-and-white thinkers have a highly developed capacity for self-excuse and rationalization, such that they always exist in the white.

I am no mind-reader but I think I'm right about this, and if I am, it gives the lie to the fatuous claim made frequently by Dinesh D'Souza (cf. here and here) that hell is too terrible to be explained as a self-soothing delusion. It most definitely does qualify as a self-soothing delusion, provided we assume, as I do, that believers in hell are actually believers in hell for other people.

Flashback: The Confessions

The following is quite possibly the largest, most ungainly single post in the history of large, ungainly posts: a straight paste of my first ever blog (which might be the first blog ever! It's possible I invented blogging!) which ran from June 1997 to September 2002 and chronicled my fascinating experiences riding public transit in Portland.

For now it's still posted in its original location -- er, actually that is its second location after its true original location on, which was long ago swallowed and/or renamed as

The formatting sucks and it's not indexed because that's how we rolled back in the olden days. It was all done in a primitive text editor, and we had to walk uphill both ways in the snow between keystrokes. I have not attempted to pretty it up or even spell-check it because I am appallingly lazy that way.

Why? Why do salmon swim and chickens bob their heads? Also because I might be taking the comcast files down soon.

Happy reading?

Also: I've placed a permalink to it on the side -- "commuting confessions" --- so it's slightly easier to return to. It's a big post.

Confessions of a Commuting Private Sector Insurance Bureaucrat

check this location for lessons from the school of public transit


(9/24/02) I've decided to believe the tech slump is responsible for the reduced incidence of cell phone use on the train. Something is responsible, and I'm thankful for whatever it is, because it seems the cell phone has died as a social indicator on the train. It's been a long while since I've seen anyone gabbing self-importantly into a cell phone, pretending to be able to hear the other party -- indeed, pretending there is another party -- amid the din of the train. Nowadays, the trendy thing to do while riding the train is to sleep, albeit in a state of cat-like readiness to guard against pickpockets and the sudden arrival at the third stop after one's intended destination. It would not be vain to point out that I started this trend; my potent charisma has edged the world in my direction once again -- in the direction of nodding off whilst trying to read. This is an offshoot of another trend I am behind: becoming so bored with reading material as to lose consciousness. Yes, I started that. Look no further.
I did not start the scented candle thing, but the train could use a little of this. Not only would it enliven the stuffy, ass-smelling cabin space with the smell of loganberry, pine, cinnamon, musk, spice apple, and other familiar scented candle favorites, but it would set a wholly different mood. A little fire makes people slow down and behave, almost instinctually, or so I have decided to believe. (A lot of fire makes them stampede -- let's not overdo this.) Replacing the harsh fluorescent lighting with candles' flickering would create an autumnal evening ambiance, and combined with the soothing smells, it could only propel the sleeping trend. I see this as a matter of 'when' rather than 'if.'


(9/16/02) A frog! When a middle-aged woman approached me to ask if the forthcoming train would take her to the Lloyd Center, I immediately perceived her French accent. Facing a fight or flight moment of sorts, I checked my mental resources to see how much of my years of French language schooling had held, and finding scant pickings, I decided I would keep things English-speaking (this would be 'flight'). Still, it took some effort to fight off the flashbacks to French class, and I almost blurted out a random 'oui' here and there in saying that, yes, this train does go to the Lloyd Center, and yes, it will stop right beside us, and yes, it will be here soon and yes, Je vais aller au biblioteque et peut etre le chien est noire et le ciel est bleu. Zut alors!
Avoiding any actual franglais vocalisms, I gave what assurances I could that this is the train she wanted and returned to my crappy magazine. Soon the Frenchy fell under the influence of a loud-talking Ugly American who boarded with her and regaled us all with a review of his fleeting encounters with France and the French language: a boyhood friend whose parents were multilingual Swiss; a fabled uncle who participated in D-Day; his adoration for bree; a long-standing never-realized dream to visit Paris. He found a pretext for mentioning Jerry Lewis and rude waiters, but here, as if to enact some French postmodernist theorist's fancy about representation, reality, and the play of signifier and signified, his recollections seemed to drift into television cliche. He ran out of material before long, and in the quiet I fell asleep without learning whether the French woman made it to Lloyd Center.


(9/10/02) I have changed schedules slightly, and I now to catch a morning train predominated by short-statured, forward-staring, non-reading, cap-wearing, drowsy, silent Latino men. They're everywhere! I know there is the usual individuality underneath all this uniformity, but it is not to be seen on the train. Do all of us pasty whites look this way to them? Maybe I should wear a bow in my hair or carry one of those jumbo rainbow swirl lollipops to break up the rut, because there's nothing worse than being just a member of an ethnic group -- except, perhaps, for being sealed in a barrel with hundreds of angry hornets. That's definitely worse.

(9/3/02) I just couldn't get a bead on a comfortable sleeping position today, so I kept waking myself by falling asleep just enough to lose neck control just enough to keep knocking my head against the window. I was sitting at the front of the train car, in everyone's sightlines, so I hope I at least gave an entertaining show.
What finally broke the pattern was the clattering sound, which to my dreamy logic seemed to be that of a metallic clipboard falling on the train's floor. As I reflected on this and woke more and more, this seemed less and less plausible -- metallic clipboards, let alone invisible ones, being out of place on the train -- but the sound was what it was. A conspiratorial flash came upon me for an instant -- "someone must have made that sound purposely to bewilder me" -- but this quickly fell behind the Invisible Clipboard Theory in plausibility. Besides, it begged the question: so they made the sound to annoy me, but what is the sound?

I suppose I could have asked around, but asking around just isn't done on the train, unless it's by one of the sad sacks who ask around for spare change to fund their release from the latest blameless predicament. I may not have the dignity to keep my head from ricocheting off the train window, but I am certainly not going to ask around. Dignity demands that I act like there was no clattering metallic clipboard sound, that I am above taking notice of clattering metallic clipboard sounds, that I am locked in a solipsistic world that no metallic clipboard can penetrate -- just like everyone else.


(8/22/02) Because our so-called President was in town, hawking platitudes to raise money for one of our so-called Senators, the downtown area was a mess today. I half expected the trains to be delayed by the protesters-of-everything -- "Bush Knew!" one sign proclaimed dubiously; something slyer might have been "Bush Knows!" or "Bush Comprehends!" or "Bush is scrupulously honest about his sexual activities when testifying under oath, and the Republic is stronger for it!" But stepping past sign-wielding longhairs and cop-straddled horses alike, I approached the tracks to see a train creeping past, and knew this was my best (maybe last) chance to escape the pro forma pepper sprayings. I hopped aboard to find less crowded conditions than expected. I found a great resting place where the metal handrail would gouge the small of my back, thus helping me avoid one of those embarrassing collapse-asleep-from-a-standing-position-on-the-train scenarios mentioned so often in commuter journaling.
But the fun was not to last. Soon what had been a moderately crowded train car had become a uncomfortably crowded one, and by the time we finally crossed the bridge, it was absurdly crowded, then insanely crowded, and finally lugubriously overcrowded a stop or two after that. In this situation, when the train stops and more riders consider squeezing in, the only defense is to lock into position to secure the few precious cubic inches allotted, which meant, for me, a solemn commitment to accept whatever the handrail dished out. I made this decision freely, or as close to freely as anything else on a commuter train.

Still they squeezed aboard; "all aboard" seemed more and more literal. The last two squeezers consisted of a tallish and forgivingly cleanish couple who made me and my handrail the apex of an extremely compact equilateral triangle. The male of the pair soon revealed himself to smell like underarm sweat weakly suppressed by deodorant, and the female could not help but brush her breasts against my shoulder every time the train leaned or shimmied. I don't mean to sound principled about it -- this would have been fine if she had been more attractive, but she was average-looking, and obviously taken by Mr. Armpits. I tried to avoid eye contact with both of them, which seemed to convey just the right misimpression that I hadn't noticed the breast contact.


(8/15/02) I am not toying with Buzz-Cut these days, really I am not (see 4/11 and 4/24/01 posts more on Buzz-Cut). It's just that he arrives at my park-and-ride lot at shortly before I do, and that I climb out of my vehicle just a few seconds after he does, and that I walk a short distance behind him at the same pace. This is not stalking or "shadowing," it's just the way things play out. Buzz-Cut is a time-piece of sorts -- when he gets out of his vehicle and walks to the stop, that's my cue to do so. When he stands there hungrily engulfing that last cigarette before the train's arrival, that's my cue to stand several feet away (downwind) and read a magazine. When he drops a cigarette butt on the sidewalk and gets on the train, that's my cue to drop a business reply card and climb aboard.
I am no more stalking Buzz-Cut than I am stalking The Twins, my pet name for the indistinguishable men who stand at the far end of the train stop, farther downwind of Buzz-Cut. I don't think they perceive themselves as twins, but I do: each is a white male, 40's, with graying brown hair and a mustache. Dressed in blue jeans, respectable t-shirts, and work boots, they could pass for construction workers, warehouse foremen, groundskeeping crew, bait shop clerks, feed store clerks, window washers, or small-scale dope peddlars. They carry nothing in the way of a man-purse -- they care nothing at all; they don't speak, read, smoke, or do anything besides stare down the tracks in a state of ambush-predatorial eagerness for the train's arrival. They seem every bit as preoccupied as I am with establishing position on the stop's platform -- a commuter's version of fighting for position under the backboards -- but they lack my crafted insoucience. They seem to care if they "get the rebound" or not, and this makes all the difference. It also makes a difference that I don't stand within a few feet of someone who looks exactly like me, which is a downright eery thing to do.


-- four months or so --

(4/19/02) The hucksters of Street Roots, Portland's only publication written by street urchins that isn't x-rated graffitti, have a temporary new outlet for their energies: handing out train rider surveys. The woman who twice woke me in calling out "rider surveys!" seemed to take special care in handing me the dullest pencil of the bunch. I am pleased to say it was no shorter than the other pencils -- a generous 2-1/2" -- so I played the hand I was dealt and completed the survey smudge by smudge. It asked fascinating questions like, Where was I going? Home? Work? School? How far did I have to walk to my stop? How many times did I use the transit system in the last month?
I didn't say I completed the survey accurately -- for example, for all the years I've worked in the same building, I have no idea what the name of the cross street is. If the street's name doesn't appear in an address I regularly write or get return-address stickers for, you can count on me getting it wrong. So it is with my workplace's cross street, so for purposes of the rider survey, I made my best guess: I put in a street name that seemed fitting and proper for a town like this and a location like that: "Green." I will say no more in defense of the bald guess I offered, only that, upon later inspection, it was wrong. There doesn't seem to be a "Green" street anywhere in the vicinity.


(4/11/02)I have three basic problems with the man who uses my stop, which I present in ascending order of importance: he is ugly, wearing sloppily feathered hair that might be taken for a retro tribute to Leif Garrett if he weren't exactly old enough to have forged a bond with that haircut back when Leif Garrett was current; he carries a dirty lunchbox bearing stickers that betray an immoderate level of brand loyalty to a certain make of hand tools; and he smokes cigarettes. Let me address the latter and most serious charge. Invariably, he lights a cigarette before the train arrives, knowing he will not finish it and will cast it, half-smoked, onto the sidewalk. I would argue this is not only bad for the cigarette, but for society at large. Society must absorb the discarded cigarette in the form of persistent sidewalk litter, or at best a slightly more overstuffed train stop trash can (supposing, for the sake of argument, that someone should ever pick up and discard a cigarette butt).
I have wondered if a reasonable response is to sprinkle the ground around him with ligher fluid or another flammable liquid so that when he drops his cigarette, a large fire will be created. This will dramatize the fact that he is dropping a flaming piece of garbage, and has a better than even chance of pushing the costs of his misbehavior back onto him, in the form of painful burns, panic, and embarrassment. Is it not my duty to do this?


(4/5/02) I am just Trekky enough to recognize the Klingon lapel pin the man wore, and enough to see the Klingon influence in his self-important boorishness: upon boarding the crowded rush-hour train, he pushed his way to the driver's pod, knocked loudly, and demanded to know why the train hadn't allowed someone in a wheelchair to board. "Is meeting the schedule more important than allowing the disabled to board?!?!" After a long pause for baffled head-scratching, the driver muttered something about the need to make his signals. This prompted a prolonged debate on the finer points of how the trains synch with the lights, how the doors operate, how the 'driver assist' signals work, and what the exact sequence of events over the last few minutes had been. Finally, having made his triumphant point, the Klingon retired to a nearby seat to snort with self-righteousness. When his stop finally came, he found the gall to complain about the lateness of a train that he himself had delayed. Klingons!

(3/28/02) A male within two months of his 48th birthday boarded the train, took a seat, and began jabbering. I know his age because this was one of the things he jabbered about; another was his surprise that people can manage to sleep on the train. "How do they do it?" he asked excitedly. "I could never fall asleep on the train, I'd sleep past my stop!" he mused. To this, an old fart bearing no small resemblance to Henry Kissinger saw fit to reply, "I do it all the time." (He sounded nothing like Kissinger.) To illustrate how he manages to sleep, Kissinger acted it out by sloping his head back and simulating an exaggerated snoring sound. To the more serious charge that sleeping on the train causes one to miss important stops, Kissinger waxed philosophical, reminding his younger train fellow that the trains run back and forth constantly, so that missing a few stops costs only a few minutes. To this the chattering 48-year-old snickered and launched into a discussion of the importance of staying on schedule when you have a job, the terrible boredom that prompted his mother to unretire, his need to replace her back porch steps because a dog "chewed them all up," and sundry other topics. As I was getting off the train, he was loudly remarking that the two women sitting directly across from him have exactly the same eye color. Exactly the same!

(3/26/02) I like cleavage as much as the next guy, but I don't expect to catch it peeking back through the suggestively low-buttoned plaid of a hairy man. It doesn't really make sense but I saw what I saw on today's train: a burly man with the exact shape and placement of cleavage. This was no everyday case of man-boobs, which are common enough, but man-cleavage, which is far rarer -- not to say more precious. I sense this image will linger in my memory for a long time, though I don't want it to.

(3/19/02) Maybe I should be surprised there isn't more of this kind of thing: today's homebound driver became terribly cranky over the fact that someone had held the doors open, causing our train to sit through an extra round of stoplights. This fits the putative norm of train operators: schedule-obsessed, fastidious, petty little anal-retentives, too weak for the police force or fire department but needing a career in the market-shielded public sector. Yet the outburst was as exceptional as it was churlish. It began with a accusative blare of "someone is holding the door open, so the train can't move." A pause of a few seconds -- surely painful ones for the operator as the favorable stoplight neared its end, some of his life-force bleeding away with it. With the turn from green to amber to red it became sarcasm: "folks, we are going to have to wait for another light because someone held the door." Another second's pause, but there was more to be said, now embittered: "there's another train behind us that is sitting still, having to wait because we didn't make our signal." A few more terrible seconds pass, now indignant: "you know, folks, the fine for holding the train's door open is around $250" -- the "around" undercut it all. The "around" told us with complete certainty that no one has ever been fined anything close to $250 in the entire history of the transit authority, indeed in the entire history of transit authorities, for the offense of holding a door open. The operator had sought to put the fear of god into us (or at least the fear of the transit authority) but had only succeeded in calling attention to its fecklessness. We now know that a the mislaid shoe of any unwashed teenager can, by blocking a single door of a single car's train, disrupt the flow of the entire transit system at rush hour. Along the way it can send the train's operator into spasms of hair-pulling anxiety; it was probably enough to cause beads of sweat to form on his nose-bridge that caused the mirrored sunglasses to slip.

(3/12/02) A woman with mirrored sunglasses and 1980's hair boarded followed closely by a guy with a "trashy Jesus" look (by which I mean: emaciated with long, straight hair, serious of expression but lacking dignity or solemnity -- probably because of the filthy logo cap, the Prince of Peace with a favorite brand of cigarettes). Sunglasses loudly announced that Trashy Jesus was NOT her boyfriend, no matter what he seemed to think, as she slalomed quickly through her fellow passengers in order to create distance between herself and him. For his part, Trashy Jesus alternated between glaring menacingly in her direction and glaring slightly less menacingly out the window of the door he was blocking.
Once she reached the far end of the train from Trashy Jesus, Sunglasses began rattling off her grievances with him, angrily gesturing and blabbering for all who would listen. There was only one slight downside to this otherwise splendid Springeresque moment: I stood directly in line with Trashy J, and because I resembled him in coat color, height, and anonymity, her vituperations might have seemed directed at me. For a moment I had to wonder which measure 11 offense she was accusing him (me?) of, and above all, what were the mandatory minimum vigilante penalties.

I happily report that not wearing a cigarette brand baseball cap had turned out to be the right choice: no one seemed to mistake me for Trashy Jesus. It ended peacefully when Trashy J heeded the scorn building toward him and deboarded. Sunglasses had not had enough, though, because she was off the train at the very next stop, last seen heading and bellowing in his direction.

Small as it was, this was enough to remind me that for all of my caterwalling, nothing I've written or said has succeeded in improving the appearance or personal habits of my fellow commuters. Sure, not wearing a cigarette-themed baseball cap was the right choice today, but over the long haul, is it really worth it?


(2/28/02) Basically, I don't like the people who ride the train with me. During the morning ride, the least frightful seat partner is usually a tiny Latino man who always wears a hooded green sweatshirt. He's an attractive seat partner because he's usually asleep, which indicates he won't fondle me or try speaking to me. Sure, he might drool a little, but a little drool beats fondling and small-talk. Right?
I don't like their reading material. Just today, the woman sitting beside me on the way home was reading something that was intended to provide a spiritual justification for remaining single. The title and bullet headings concerned accepting chronic singlehood with humility and grace. It's either crap like this or those true crime books. The bottom line: I've grown tired of the train and its passengers. Not that I'm going to become one of those sad sacks who sit in crawling cars all day, but I no longer find much humor in the stinky commuting people. Don't worry, I'll probably change my mind in a couple of hours.


(2/5/02) The ultimate wretched, broken-down P.O.S. beater car managed to hold its place in the park and ride lot for three mornings. For three mornings its open (missing?) driver-side window welcomed in the steady rainfall; for three morning it slouched crookedly on its 3-1/2 mismatched tires; for three morning a trash bag served as its back window, flapping in the wind like the dingy flag of White Trash America.
And then it was gone. It had been towed -- surely not driven away -- before I was ever able to get a closer look, spit on it, bend the antenna a little more, toss some more trash in the window, sit behind the wheel of that baby and imagine what that last bittersweet drive to the park and ride had been like, or otherwise leave trace amounts of DNA. Something about such a misbegotten car brings out the worst in me: maybe it's all those county fairs offering up a car like that for sledge-hammer blows. Or maybe it's all the times I've been stuck behind one, breathing its dying fumes, wondering if it would actually move when the light went green. Or maybe it's my Inner White Trash yearning for the familiar, and in classic white trash fashion, yearning to destroy the familiar.


(1/22/02) Fate had prepared me for encountering the Neanderthal on the train by supplying a Neanderthal-themed PBS documentary the night before. The distinctive Neanderthal markers, still fresh in my mind, presented themselves in the young man sitting in front of me: a smallish skull with prominent eye ridge, short inseam, primitive linguistic abilities. I am certain about the short legs and the tiny head, but I admit I could be wrong about the linguistic ability: I inferred it based on his choice of clothes, full body Adidas-knockoff sweats, and his choice of diversion, a hand-held television blaring one of the local news broadcasts. I don't see a reader here.
Based on the way he stared directly into the chests of several passing women, I lean toward the theory that the Neanderthals disappeared by interbreeding with modern humans.


(1/17/02) The woman standing between me and the train's doorway casually explained to another passenger that due to her recent surgery for "woman problems," which lasted 90 minutes longer than the doctors expected, she was surprised she was able to stand. Just as I finished working out an alternative exit path in case she collapsed, she successfully cleared the way, and all was well.

(1/11/02) Since I was heading home on a Friday, I was feeling charitable enough to respond to the street urchin's question, "Is this train going to the airport?" It helped, of course, that this train was not going to the airport, meaning I would not need to share it with the street urchin. After confirming that he should await the Red Line train if he wants the airport, I boarded my Blue Line and reflected on our encounter. What business has a street urchin at the airport? Hanging out at the tracks and jumping boxcars, however hallowed and time-tested a means of getting from place to place, translates poorly into air travel. There's the issue of comfort -- the cargo holds of most commerical airliners are neither heated nor pressurized, and are probably poorly-lit and filled with rigid boxes, pointy suitcases, and other street urchins. There's the issue of security -- unlike a train, jets never slow down enough to hop aboard while they're in motion, so they have to be boarded before takeoff. This requires stealing aboard without getting detected by the conditional-release ne'er-do-wells who man the ground crews, who have been told to watch things a little more closely after 9/11.
It is possible, of course, that the street urchin was more interested in the airport scene per se than in actually sneaking on a plane. Perhaps he has heard tales of the enormous piles of cash necessary to purchase anything in the airport terminal, and thus envisions a panhandling bonanza.


(1/6/02) Let no one doubt that my morning train operator runs a hands-on commuting operation. In addition to the helpful narrative as we cross the bridge (see 10/11/01 post), he also disables the doors' automatic open feature on cold days to conserve what meager heat we enjoy inside the train. This is thoughtful in its way, which is not to say it is effective -- the interior is barely warmer than the outdoors. More interesting is how it empowers/burdens the passengers with the necessity of pushing the door release button, and this is too much to ask of most. As the train rolls to a stop and the doors fail to part in the usual fashion, the facial expressions range from flummoxed, to pouty, to angry, to panicked, until a calmer passenger breaks ranks and pushes the big button with the 'door open' pictograph. Ordinarily I play the calmer passenger in this drama, but sometimes I choose to go with pouty or pouty-angry. For me, it's a matter of whimsy.
It goes without saying that I have the wherewithal to pick my reaction due to my experience as a bus rider, where things weren't handed to me. These train riders have had it far too easy, with the auto-opening doors, pre-recorded voiceovers, consistent schedules, and so on. It has made them into a pack of trembling milquetoasts.

I have no good excuses for the five week absence. I wish I could attribute it to the fact that no one stunk, made a ruckus, got in the way, or otherwise fouled the commuting experience during that period, but that would be false. Notwithstanding the holidays, I endured the usual assortment of poor dressers, butt flashers, loud yackers, users of poor grammar, tossers of cigarette butts, and selectors of horrible reading material. Speaking of which, how many Dean Koontz and "Left Behind" books are there? ("Too many" is an accurate but imprecise answer.)


five weeks during which I shut my pie-hole

(11/21/01) The Down's syndrome sufferer first mentioned in the 8/13/98 post reappeared, looking not quite so youngish but showing an even firmer religious devotion. How fares his search for a good, clean, Christian wife? I couldn't bring myself to ask, and even if I had been willing, I would have had to interrupt his stemwinding defense of Christian morality, directed toward an invisible figure he called "grandma." Loud enough for the entire train car to hear, it repeated a fixed set of phrases, roughly as follows:
"Grandma, I'm not going to hell, you're going to hell. I ask for God's help every day. I turn away from the devil and do what God tells me, not the devil. I'm gonna be saved. You're bein' mean to me, I'm not bein' mean to you. I ask for God's help every day."

However instructive this might be, it was particularly awkward for the passengers sitting in the direct path of the diatribe, who at first took the finger-pointing and the moniker "grandma" as somehow directed at them. What else could they do but to convey with body language that they were not, in fact, grandma, and for that matter, had done nothing to take the devil's side in the dispute? Gradually it became clear that grandma was not physically present, and that the humans actually present had no role in the drama.

His stop came and he deboarded, never ceasing to condemn the foul alliance of grandma and the devil.


(11/9/01) Of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson, basketball commentators rightly said they made the players around them play better. Of the man sitting across the aisle from me today, it was equally true to say he made the passengers around him stink. Though he looked a little less uncouth than most stinky train passengers, he emitted an extraordinarily powerful stench.
The first woman to take the empty seat next to him lasted only until the next stop, when she rose and chose a lesser of evils, standing far away. Her replacement was a Japanese teen who found herself hemmed in by her tragic sense of politeness: staying put, her strongest reaction was to bury her mouth and nose in her the sleeve of her GAP sweatshirt. Though I was much farther away, the waves of dizzying odor forced me to question my own decision to stay on the train, much less to stay seated in the vicinity.

Before long, the mighty waves of stink forced me from my seat and into the more breathable air of the far end of the train car. This retreat was less comfortable from a strictly butt-leg perspective, but looking back, I regret nothing. The man reeked, and I question how others were able to stay in his vicinity, and why they chose to. What's their secret?


(11/6/01) I happened to glance toward my seat partner -- I on the window, she on the aisle -- just in time to see her sighing exhale whisk a nose-hair across her magazine. Yes, it had to have been a nose-hair: it was dark and short and thick, and unmistakably a hair. Since the nose-hair flitted in and back out of view so quickly, its exact whereabouts could not be determined, so I was, in effect, its prisoner. I hoped she would get up and deboard before me, but she did not. My stop came, and I had to hope for the best as I arose and crossed into the nose-hair's last known trajectory. It might be attached to me now, resting in the folds of a sock or the velcro of a jacket.
One thing is certain: that nose-hair still exists, and until the microbes consume it and transform it into microbe poo, it will continue existing, floating from place to place on currents of air we barely perceive, moving from person to person, in and out of the train, drying in the sun and soaking in the rain, far and near, high and low. You, dear reader, may be but a few paces away from it now -- ask not for whom the bell tolls.


(10/25/01)The dipshit sitting in front of me today was innocent of the fact that we are at least five years beyond the point when cell phones carried a cachet of wealth, social standing, or techno-savvy. His loud blabbing of business deals and the need for a timely "callback" hearkened to a byegone mode of ostentation corresponding to a time, apparently, when dipshit was sitting on the couch digging through a bag of something by Frito-Lay and managing to miss a great deal.

(10/18/01) The train and its riders are thickly colored with the detritus of sunshine patriotism: flag pins, flag buttons, flag caps, flags imprinted on the trash that Americans defiantly fling, as if to say, "You can mail anthrax and crash airliners, but you'll never take away our freedom to litter the train." Seen as an embodiment of everyday habits and normalcy, even the half-finished cigarettes that smokers toss to the side as the train arrives seem more patriotic now. Every uncovered female face I see on the train speaks to the extent to which we Americans see the pages of the Koran as so much paper and ink that we might have used to wipe our rear ends or print a copy of Horse Illustrated. Such unholiness! Such insoucience toward eternal justice! Obviously we don't take Pascal's wager seriously here in the USA.
But what about tomorrow? What about when the first body bags start coming home (filled)? What if America is urged to peace, understanding, and cheek-turning by someone more convincing than Richard Gere? Will his kind forever be booed, or will we reach a point when the handsome and trendily-Buddhist are given their untrammeled say? The EZ-mount flags streaming from so many minivan windows are also EZ-dismount.


(10/11/01) Lately, the operator mistakes his role for that of an airline pilot and addresses the passengers thusly: "Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen. It's [exact time to the minute] as we roll into beautiful downtown Portland ..." He follows this with a brief recap of the inaccurate local TV/radio weather forecasts, and then a final pleasantry, usually a command to have a nice day. It differs from the usual airline pilot spiel only by skipping the gratuitous details about the altitude and wind speed, and the even more gratuitous excuses for why our luggage is lost.
But there is another distinguishing detail: we are on a train, not a plane. The airline pilots own this discourse, and the train operator's appropriation of it seems not only trite and lame, but signals an insecurity. Was commuter train operator his second choice? Is this compensation for getting kicked out of pilot school? Worse, does the man's medication (illicit or other) make him believe he is flying a plane?

The passengers' response can only deepen any insecurities. People look up from their crappy books and smirk as though they've heard this before. The passengers who have never traveled by air have heard it only on the train, so they don't necessarily know what they're smirking along with, but they smirk. No doubt some smirk with, not at, the train operator, but all smirk; some use the additional noise from the operator's voice and the smirking to cover a fart they've been holding in, but the smirking is undeniable.


(10/5/01) What a friendly toothless prostitute! As she skulked by, she offered her still-current bus ticket to a hobo guy standing on the train platform. She addressed the hobo from across two lanes of traffic, so it was loud enough (albeit gum-muffled) to catch everyone's attention -- the better to demonstrate that her poor dental health does not keep her from assisting the needy. He declined, but not without betraying a bit of interest in the offer. After an instant of hesitation, he mumbled a "Nah" and returned to plucking goodies from the trash bin.

(10/1/01) As I arrived at the park-und-ride lot, the ugliest, filthiest, loudest, most run-down beater truck imaginable pulled into the spot, smelling of burning oil and dripping rust, displaying temporary tags. From it emerged exactly the guy one would expect from such a jalopy, a hunk of partly-shaved American testosterone in jeans and monochrome t-shirt -- but there was a problem. He was carrying a book. True, it was probably a book about fishing lures or pullin' trannies or kicking ass, and true, he carried the book at maximum distance from his body, like a pail of bleach he didn't want to slosh on his jeans, but it was unmistakably a book.
A book. What a fruit-cake pretty-boy wuss.


(9/27/01) Like most mass-commuting Americans, the events of September 11 changed how I experience everyday events. Because a harsher world suddenly demands it of me, I now mentally prepare myself for the possibility that hijackers will seize control of the train and attempt to drive it into a skyscraper. I can no longer casually dismiss the sight of a crazed man muttering and picking his fingernails with a small knife -- is he grooming himself for the heavenly gates? Are those his last prayers to consecrate a last vicious act? Is there any room to give these gestures the benefit of the doubt? Am I already dead?
I am somewhat comforted to know that certain high-ranking generals have been granted the legal authority to sic warplanes on wayward, unresponsive airliners and commuter trains. The byegone statutes that granted this authority only to President Bush and Mayor Katz seem ineffectual, even quaint, by post-9/11 standards.

Not surprisingly, the train operators have used this experience to argue for what they have long wanted: the right to bear a sidearm. Not unreasonably, they have conceded the need for ammunition that will shatter on impact rather than piercing the train's hull. But what if their aim isn't true? What if the bad guys somehow gain control of the guns? What if they succumb to the temptation to use the guns against run-of-the-mill morons who block the doors, litter the sidewalks with cigarette butts, and blast terrible music? What if, what if, what if?

They also want a stronger door separating the operator's pod from the passenger cabins, but I think that has a lot to do with preventing smell infiltration and securing a quieter napping environment, and very little to do with security.


(9/14/01) The loudspeaker was blaring again today (see 7/31/01 post), but with a new evil twist: the decibel level would vacillate from normal to painfully loud and back again, according to no rational scheme save for maximum ear damage. "Doors to MY RIGHT. POrtas a MEEDA RETcha." My sense of smell was occupied in this ride with either my seat partner or someone else in the vicinity, who seemed to be emitting a continuous stream of fart gas; and as for my eyes, they were treated to the usual array of overly-tatooed youths, cranky-faced elders, and ugly folk inbetween. One member of the latter category stood out: he wore thick glasses and even thicker denim, a dirty shoes and even dirtier hair, and sat staring at the exact same half of the exact same page of the exact same newspaper for upwards of twenty minutes. Either he is an extremely slow reader or, for reasons unknowable, chose to portray one for the duration of his train ride. It is also possible, I suppose, that the newspaper had printed an especially dense passage from Derrida, Barthes, Foucault, Heidegger, Nietzsche, or the like.
This exceptionally sensory ride concluded the first full week of service that included the "Red Line Service" to the airport, a change that failed to disrupt the schedule as I had expected. Given the newness, a few kinks remain to be worked out, and no doubt we will be consistently off-schedule shortly.


(9/5/01) Acts of religiously-motivated defacement today: none. Men left panting and wheezing by the three step climb into the seating area of the rear of the train: one. I wonder if the panting and wheezing would diminish if he didn't smoke? Wheezy knows the schedule well and times things to be ready to drop a finished cigarette butt on the sidewalk just as the train is pulling up. He never says anything, but the look on his face suggests he is feeling very gassy (or trying not to), and he seems to have a lot of red shirts. I think it would be lovely for someone to gather all the cigarette butts he leaves on the ground, fashion them into a glamorously coordinated cig-butt necklace and bracelet set, and give them to him at Christmas. Or how about a nice cake with cig-butt filling? I'm just saying cigarette butts can be used in a number of great gift ideas, and maybe Wheezy is dropping hints?

(8/31/01) While it sat in the park-n-ride lot, my vehicle was vandalized: my Darwin fish ( plaque was forcibly removed. I imagine the loser who did this falls into one of two categories: a recreational drug user, almost certainly male and under 30, lacking steady employment and prospects for same, who paid little attention in school, and who, in his later years, will bitterly complain from his prison cell that "no one ever gave me a chance." The other possibility is that this was an act of prissy, sniffing intolerance carried out by a member of the religious right, upset that this nation has failed to become the Christian Sparta he pines for by not encoding his hand-picked Bible verses into law. My Darwin fish reminds him that differing cosmologies are not only legal but freely embraced, and since the ideas themselves cannot be suppressed, its symbol must be expunged.
Either way, this was the act of a social parasite who cannot or will not think for himself.


(8/29/01) I'm not sure if today's human spectacle was a copy and paste from the cheapest blacksploitation, the meanest Jerry Springer show, or the shrillest anti-welfare state rhetoric. I rubbed my eyes to rid them of the foul stereotypes, but no matter how hard I rubbed, it kept coming back into focus: a smallish black man, I'll say middle 30's, wearing a purple vest with nothing underneath but overlaid with the gaudiest, fakest plastic jewel I have ever seen. Behind him followed his hillbilly bride, a very plump, pimply, mostly toothless white woman wearing a stained, tight t-shirt over stretch pants. When a seat opened up, Mr. Stereotype directed Mrs. Stereotype to take the inner seat, and when he took the aisle seat -- I swear it is true -- he unfolded and they began discussing the finer points of the application for government-assisted housing they had fetched from downtown.

(8/9/01) How crowded was today's train? It was so crowded that two fare inspectors declined to board, which was a shame, since they could have thinned our ranks enough to allow free breathing. But no, these pot-bellied inspectors knew they would inconvenience themselves, not just mere passengers, so they let the unpaying majority go free one more time.
I present it as though the fare inspectors had a choice in the matter, but they didn't: there simply wasn't room for two more humans, let alone portly ones that would need to squeeze their way through the train bugging people for proof of fare. In theory, the only way to inspect for fares in that situation would have been to force everyone off, then allow only fare-bearing passengers to reboard. This would have caught scores of fare-scofflaws, and would have made an already insufferably crowded and hot train ride incalculably worse for everyone -- and isn't that the goal and the essence of fare-inspecting? Just what are we paying them for?


(8/7/01) "Information gladly given; however, please do not disturb the Operator while train is in motion." So reads the sign posted near the Operator's command pod. What are we to make of it, besides the useful insight that the train's driver is to be called "the Operator"? Well, for starters, that we had better limit our informational requests to the shallow and simple, since that's the only kind we're likely to satisfy -- gladly or otherwise -- during the brief times when the train is motionless. Fuller answers to deeper questions will have to be sought from someone other than the Operator, someplace other than the train -- unless, perhaps, the question posed to the Operator is framed in a true-false or multiple-choice format.
What happens of informational requests that take place while the train is moving? Is information ungladly given? Not given at all? Does the Operator answer, but sarcastically? Falsely? Misleadingly? In the form of a question? In the form of a koan? Does he make that lip-zipping gesture and turn away?

Whatever we make of the above, we cannot fail to note how the posting undercuts itself rhetorically in the counterpoising of "gladly" and "disturb": information is said to be "gladly given," and yet, when the train is moving, we are "disturbing" the Operator by the very act of asking a question. Is train-Operating so absorbing? It goes on tracks, for chrissakes. And what are passengers? Are we a "disturbing" tick-like presence, or are we "gladly" abided?


(7/31/01) The alarming din that kept me awake during the ride home was not a baby's crying, not a preacher's lecturing, nor even someone else's snoring: no, it was the train's voice-over (see 10/4/00 post), blaring its informational payload at maximum strength, too strong, indeed, for the speakers, which crackled and whined with the force. The normally soothing Spanish voice that tells us to deboard on the right, for example, boomed at us in a way reminiscent of the otherwordly screaming of the possessed girl in the Exorcist: "PORTAS A MEEDA RETCHA!"
As if the ghastly, distorted announcements weren't bad enough, the train's conductor broke in with what she took to be reassurances, delivered at 110 decibels: "I KNOW IT'S LOUD, FOLKS, BUT I CAN'T TURN IT DOWN." Why not? I wanted a long-winded technical explanation. After all, my eardrums were already thumping, why not finish them off? Heck, why not a sing-along? And then, after repeating this non-explanation, she broke in with a sonic coup de grace: "I KNOW THE SPEAKERS ARE LOUD, FOLKS, BUT A LOUD TRAIN IS BETTER THAN NO TRAIN." I will be the judge of that, thank you very much for sparing me your editorializing, I wanted to say. Once my hearing was completely burned out, napping came quickly and easily.


(7/24/01) It was a moment of genuine racial tension, as seen on TV. A young black man boarded the train and seized the attention of all aboard by declaring himself the "only black m__ f__ on this train," an assertion that was true enough, and from whence he launched into a foul-mouthed denunciation of the "b_tch" who had just broken up with him. The string of intentionally shocking obscenities that followed (excruciating details regarding his and her genitals, etc.), the recognizable hip-hop usages and cliches (tell-tale arm gestures, yo-ho and other cheap rhymes), the meek, discombobulated response of his predominantly white audience (perfect stillness, total silence, suppressed outrage), the clothing and the hair (his and ours) -- all of it amounted to a train-bound staging of a gangsta rap video. He was genuinely angry, and yet the edge was blunted by the obvious way in which his every gesture was traceable to familiar hip-hop tropes seen on MTV, BET, NBA telecasts, and other sources. He played the rough "urban youth" we all recognize from this world; for him, we played the appalled, mouse-like whites who flip past, pausing only long enough to condemn.
Soon enough, our train arrived at a major transit center, and the transit system constabulary, notified by walkie-talkie of the trouble, boarded our train and brought the spectacle o' menace to an end by escorting the young man off the train. Normal crowd noise resumed immediately, in which many a relieved sigh and nervous giggle was heard. My giggle was actually directed at the large, hairy ears of the transit cop, but it was lost in the mix.


(7/20/01) The dictionary illustration for the word "oaf" wandered onto the train: extremely tall and slow-moving, his shirt was at least a couple of yards of greasy plaid, his hair was dirty curls ringed around a sunburnt bald spot, his chins were thickly stubbled, and his eyes bulged like a chihuahua's. For a moment, he conversed with a woman who was -- in her mind at least -- actually speaking into a cell phone, but when, at last, he realized she was not actually speaking with him, he redirected his anti-establishment rhetorical questions toward the more populated end of the train: "Why can't a guy drink without being harrassed by the cops?" "Why do we got to pay just for a ride out of downtown?" His eyes met mine, and recalling our acquaintance from a few moments hence when he had asked me for spare change (and I had given my customary "no thanks" answer), he addressed me in the familiar: "What time is it, man?" I gave him the nearest five-minute approximation, which alerted him to an urgent appointment at the stop we were nearing -- a meeting of the Order of the Oafs? a photo shoot for the dictionary entry for "lout"? He slowly deboarded, making available a seat and a half for the standers.

(7/13/01) When someone approached to take the seat she was guarding, the muttering lady shooed him away, saying, "I have to go to the bathroom very, very badly." In the most rigorous terms, this is a non-sequitor -- "I have to pee" is not an answer to "may I sit in the seat beside you?" -- but the message was plain enough, that taking the seat involved a risk of getting peed on. At best there was sure to be a lot of fidgeting. The man got the idea and declined to take the seat.
In subsequent muttering she explained that she could "barely move" because of bladder stress.


(7/7/01) Today took me away from the familiar local transit authority and into the care of the men and women who daily risk, if not their lives and fortunes, at least sunburn and a tedious insurance claims process, to boat travelers across the line dividing the USA from Canada. I noted that the chatty 11-year-old Texan was in the restroom as we crossed over the line, and thus met Canada with a purged digestive system, as every boy should. Later he would offer that he and his family hailed from Arlington, Texas, and that his dad had driven them all the way to Washington in just two and a half days despite many detours. He went on to ask us about our experience with head lice. None, we said, whereupon he told us of the four infestations in his short life. Wow, the things you learn traveling to exotic new countries.
Once in Victoria B.C., we took a half-hour bus ride to the acclaimed Butchart Gardens, courtesy of a driver who underscored his aboriginal status by saying "eh" and pronouncing "about" as uh-BOOT in a single, densely-Canadian sentence. During the bus ride, I got a good ab/lower back workout because my inferior Canadian bus seat had a faulty recliner mechanism with exactly two positions: rigidly perpendicular and slowly drifting backward into the lap of the person behind me. I managed to drift off for a while despite feeling the burn.

Arriving in Butchart Gardens, we found that for $18 Canadian (~$13 US) apiece, it offers well-manicured flowers, bushes, trees, walkways, fountains, and approximately 18,000 Japanese tourists taking snapshots of one another. Garden-rific! But it was not only Japanese and Americans: while waiting near one of the women's rooms, I heard, in no less than six distinct languages, the question "There's the women's room. Do you need to go?" and the answer "No."


(6/26/01) A group of pre-teen girls boarded the train just in time for a disturbing illustration of the realities of male anatomy: an older man, newborn-naked except for headphones, shoes, and a pair of boxers, came walking calmly alongside the train as it rolled to a stop. Thankfully he did not board, so we were spared a closer look at the contrast between his body hairs and his gleeming white fleshtones, but he did set his midsection jiggling with an ever so suave backhanded hurl of his cigarette butt.
The girls wanted to point and giggle but there was an undeniable undertow of despair and shock in their reaction. Television and print media have fed these girls sunny images of washboard abs, granitine pects, bronze shoulders, and jawlines sharp enough to cut paper, but what they saw today, in their very presence, might have been enough to push them into a nunnery. It was a sight to make outright celibacy more sensible for all, female and male alike.


(6/18/01) I chose to sit beside the man with the NASCAR cap because I have never really understood NASCAR or its fans well enough to resent them genuinely, and because I had seen him many times before, which means he is a train regular, which in turn probably means he is employed, which in turn probably means he is mostly sober, mostly clean, and not an escaped convict. A parolee, perhaps, but not a fugitive -- not so bad. In any case he seemed preferable to the elderly man planted next to the other open seat, whose defiant crankiness was evident in his liberal spreading of newspaper sections in the open seat and his tragically outdated "Members Only"-style jacket. Newspaper readers new to the train often attempt the ploy of dropping used sections of the paper in the vacant seat next to them in hopes of deterring seat partners, but it never works, on train or bus. Newspaper makes for an equal or better surface as compared to the seat cushion itself, and intimidates no one.
So I sat beside Mr. NASCAR not expecting that I would be subjected to a persistent fart smell. At first I was able to tell myself he had just uncorked a silent gas release, and then another, and then another -- maybe he had had attended a chili and Fritos buffet for Father's Day? But it quickly became apparent that Mr. NASCAR was the headwaters of an unyielding stream of odiferous methane au Frito Lay, and that I was downstream. All I could do was to wait for it to stop or to slow down, but it never did. He did not seem to be eating; did he have a chili and Fritos IV connected to his arm opposite me? I could not rule it out.

At last, the train approached my stop and unloaded enough people to give me room to rise from my seat, which I promptly did. To my dismay, he arose behind me and stood waiting near the door, not far from where I stood. In hindsight he looked rather anxious. The stench still lingered but was slightly dispersed by now, and I took comfort knowing only a few more stops would see me deboard to inhale the airs of downtown Portland, unsweetened only by pidgeon droppings, bus fumes, construction dust, and a thousand things more foul -- but none of them Mr. NASCAR's butt-exhaust. As I reached my stop and charged out, I was appalled anew at the sight of Mr. NASCAR passing in front of me, matching and exceeding my already-elevated pace, all but running up the sidewalk toward what must have turned out to be a very unfortunate porcelain fixture.

Fellow train commuters, let's make a point of clearing out our bowels before boarding, shall we? If that means squatting over the hole in the top of one of the concrete waste baskets near the stops and wiping with a discarded paper cup, then so be it. We've all been there.


(6/13/01) Out my train window, near one of the downtown stops where the street life is so very -- let's say unpredictable -- I caught sight of a man in a phone booth who was taking the phrase "punching the keys" all too literally. He was walloping that telephone keypad! He was rearing back and knocking the hell out of those keys! Whether he successfully placed a call in this fashion is doubtful, but let no one doubt he kicked that phone's puny, sorry little ass.

(6/7/01) How is it possible to speak for forty straight minutes in a public setting like, say, a commuter train? How can this be done? What do you say? I would not have thought it possible had I not experienced it myself today. The man was chattering as I entered the train, he chattered continuously as I sat a few seats in front of him, and he was still chattering as I reached my destination and left, or rather fled, the train. Because of his peculiarly high voice and rapid enunciation, and above all because it did not stop for longer than it takes to draw a shallow breath, the talking was too all-consuming to permit reading, contemplating the day, re-tying shoes, scratching itches, looking around, hoping for a pleasant afterlife. It started out as all I could hear, but soon became all I could experience. But what was he saying? What could he have been saying with all those Spanish words?

(5/31/01) The train crosses the bridge again, so with the nastiness of the shuttling experience safely behind, things could be worse. The whiny threesome of elderly who sat surrounding me (two behind, one beside) saw nothing good in the resumption of normal service nor anything else: one of them actually saw fit to complain that the train does not have three-person seats. While this would have compacted their cackling into a smaller area, the prospect of doubling our seat partners hardly sounds appealing to me. The man sitting beside me, for example, was the least talkative of the threesome, but he more than compensated by trying for some kind of perverse world record for hankie overuse during a train ride. Every time I glanced over, he was swiping it across his forehead, or snorting into it, or using it to dig something more out of his nose, or pressing it back into his pocket for a few seconds, or something else. Whatever it might mean to the woman behind me, three-person train seats mean, to me, getting stuck next to two hankie-obsessed geezers instead of one. I decline.

(5/22/01) Since it was the heat of the day during the hottest day of the year to date, something was sure to go wrong with the ride home. Naturally, it did. The shuttle buses delivered busload after busload across the river and stacked us several deep at the train stop, but there was no train. Squint as we might, there was no train to be seen, only our overheated selves. With buzzards circling above, hot and shadeless spaces of interminable time rolled by, the minute hand crawled like the hour hand, and sweat trickled almost audibly, when finally a train approached. "Not in service" its sign read, where it normally reads "Gresham," the end of the line. I was willing not to quibble over the distinction between Gresham and the concept of not in service, to take this as just another quip directed at Portland's eastern stepchild suburb, but in fact, it was true. The train crawled by without stopping to open its doors to the sweaty masses we had become. My crude finger gestures seem so feckless and trite in hindsight, but what more could I do? It was too hot to expend the energy screaming or throwing anything.
It was only a stuffy eternity later that another train showed up and packed most of us in. Only the pushiest of us made this train, and we quickly learned that the only thing worse than packing shoulder to shoulder onto a train with several hundred cranky, sweaty people is to do so with several hundred pushy, cranky, sweaty people.

Finally deboarding from this wretched ride, I walked by a parked car and noticed what I first thought was a perfectly circular mass of red and yellow vomit on the ground. Looking up, I noticed the blob was directly in line with the back door of a car, and directly behind the door was a young girl looking sheepish and a little peaked. Yep, vomit. My opinion exactly, I thought.


(5/18/01) We have passed the difficult first week (of two) during which the train will not cross the bridge due to hazily-described "service enhancements" to a stretch of train track. The sort of "service enhancements" I'd like -- generous cash and prizes for passholders and a kickass sound system -- would require no service interruptions, but alas, I am not in charge. To cross the bridge during this period, we have been forced to deboard from the train to ride shuttle buses, a process which has, among other things, dramatized the behaviorial chasm separating the train commuters from the bus commuters. Suffice to say train riders do not perform well on the bus. For an analogy, we could turn to evolutionary biology and note the differences that emerge between geographically isolated strands of squirrels due to differing adaptational pressures, and what havoc ensues when the geographical barriers are lifted and the two populations are allowed to intermingle again. Yes, strictly speaking, they can still interbreed, but they don't really want to, and probably shouldn't. So it is with train riders suddenly placed on a bus. The train riders, accustomed to slightly wider aisles, a more stable ride, and less flexible stop durations, have the singularly anti-bus habit of expecting a clear path between themselves and the exit to form well before the bus has actually come to a stop. No. In the world of the bus, decorum requires that you stay put until the vehicle has come to a complete stop, because until that time -- for sitters no less than for standers -- the priority is on maintaining position against the forces that would cast loosely-moored passengers out the window or into the aisle, forces that do not remit until the bus is fully stopped. On the bus, surrendering your solid footing and firm grip in anticipation of a full stop makes as much sense as going limp and letting Newtonian physics do what it will. If you're willing to go this far, you might as well wet yourself and spout indiscriminate obscenities while you're at it. (Many do.)
Train riders also do not observe the protocols for boarding and deboarding the bus. Before watching the train riders scamper into the bus through whatever portal is large enough, like chipmunks fleeing floodwater, I would have said any fool knows to enter through the front, and exit through the back. But no, in the mind of a train rider, all the doors are the same; there are no distinctions to be drawn; a door is a door is a door; in and out, front and back, right and wrong, are the same.

Another problem with this shuttle bus arrangement is load balancing. With perfect consistency so far, the trains have been egregiously overfilled on the way home, which has forced me to stand more often than not. I would rather sit because it is easier and more comfortable.

A portion of my resentment is reserved for the transit agency overseeing the operation, which has not only failed to enforce, by condescending scolds and disparaging eye-rollings, the commonsense standards described above; but which has augmented the offense by exposing only the cleanest, sparkliest, seemingly newest buses to the train riders' boorish habits. So new are these buses that they have no musty smell, bear no detectable graffitti etchings, and exhibit vacant ad spaces. Why? Are the normal bus riders not worthy of these better buses? Of course they're not, but does it follow that the train riders are worthy of them? Hardly.

I give thanks this dispiriting spectacle is only going to last two weeks.


(5/4/01) I was not feeling well myself, and maybe this explains why I was so very annoyed with the innocent snorting of the fellow across the aisle. That's my most generous take on the situation, but I prefer to think there was a more solid basis to my annoyance, namely, that his snorting was intrinsically and undeniably annoying, and would be found so by any reasonable observer. Try as he might to conceal it under each offering of noise in our shared environment -- the announcements of the stops, the squealing of the brakes, the coughing spells of the other riders -- his snortings broke through all too clearly, all too frequently. I would not have been surprised if he had opened his jacket to reveal a pot-bellied pig perched in his lap, so fantastically relentless was his snorting.
Another result of my not feeling well: I had that special form of nasal congestion that increases the olfactory sense, or smell-power if you will, which made me exceptionally aware of how badly my fellow riders stink. And dear god they stink. But for all that, I did not snort, not even once, the better to distinguish my own behavior from pot-bellied's.


(5/2/01) I have noticed a terrible phenomenon, which I hope to be anomalous, that the local commuter train becomes overcrowded on sunny days. This is totally contrary to my experience on the bus, from which people flee when the temperature rises and the clouds part. I can understand why people avoid the bus when it gets warmer -- because it is stuffy, loud, and filthy -- but all the same apply to the train, and yet the response is the opposite. Are people really such wimps that they avoid that short walk to the nearest train stop when there's a touch of wind or rain, and can only find the energy and courage for that walk under optimal weather conditions? If so, is my level of contempt high enough?
For example, today's overstuffed ride put me in contact with someone I have never seen on the train before, a forty-something male with a rudimentary combover and huge compensatory muttonchops. As if his appearance wasn't appalling enough, he had the habit of laughing at the things he said -- things that were not the least bit funny, so that his loud cackling was more punctuation than emotion. "I still have five stops to go HA HA HA HA-HA HA-HA-HA HA!"

As I say, I hope this good weather crowding is an anomalous reaction, a temporary bout of judgment brought on by the remission of seasonal affective disorder, but as I look toward a hot summer -- my first on the train -- I gulp with dread. I will have to devise optimally aggressive seat-getting strategies, because with everything I am lugging in my man-purse these days (coffee cannister, books, a horrendous backlog of pennies), standing for the entire ride is unthinkable.


(4/24/01) It was Tan Lump vs. Buzz-Cut, the rematch! (see 4-11 posting) Tan Lump -- now confirmed to be female -- was not tan but more of a grayish blue today, but she was determined to be as lumpy as ever. This time, Buzz-Cut would have nothing of it. He coaxed her into consciousness with much more persistent calls of "miss! miss!" followed by a defiant occupation of the seat she half-covered. This woke her and forced her to retreat into her seat as best she could, but the arrangement would not last. At the next stop, Tan Lump muttered something, forced her way up, muttered some more, took a seat next to someone else, then muttered some more, largely about the deficiencies of the train seats: "They're worse than airline seats!" she spewed. "How's a grown person supposed to fit in one of these?!" she fumed. Being in a train filled with people sitting more or less comfortably in their seats, and amid others forced to stand for the lack of available seats, she could not have selected a less receptive audience for these remarks.

(4/20/01) "Do you have the time?" asked my large seat partner. I never know how exact an answer to give for this question, so I held up my wrist and showed him the watchface while muttering a nearest-ten-minutes approximation. Then he showed me his watch. "See? Japanese characters. I got this while I was in the service." Which branch of the military issues Japanese-language watches that don't work, the smartass within me wanted to ask. But he was large, and by the standards of the train, very polite and seemingly harmless. So I pretended I could see the Japanese characters he was pointing at (I couldn't) and returned to reading my magazine.

(4/11/01) A giant tan mass, more lump than man, lay against the window and consumed a full seat and a half. I noticed this just in time and selected another of the scant available seats, but the buzz-cut man boarding behind me did not fare so luckily. His choice was between sharing two seats (25-75) with the giant tan lump or standing, and he chose the lump. I give him credit for playing it in textbook fashion: he beckoned toward, then nudged the lump (referring to it as "Miss" based on evidence I missed), but Tan Lump held its position without a stir. Now his pride was at stake, so what else could Buzz-Cut do but squeeze himself onto the half of seat not consumed by Tan Lump? So he did, and perched ever so precariously there, gave off a few exasperated sighs as the train and its riders, indifferent to the injustice done him, rolled on.

(4/6/01) An escaping wad of drool disrupted today's nap on the ride home. This is the first drool-wakening I have had in a while, but I will not, dear reader, insult your intelligence by suggesting I have not had my share. Anyone as prone as I am to inopportune bouts of sleeping is certain to be prone to unfortunate circumstances of waking. For anyone wishing to pretend ignorance of the phenomenon I describe, I will humor you as follows: The drooling itself did not wake me; rather, the unconscious act of sucking, a quasi-insinctual effort to retain the slobber that would tumble from my lips, actually woke me. By the time I was conscious, the drooling and my body's countermeasures were nearly finished, and all that remained was the check for puddles. I examined the obvious trajectories -- chest, the sleeve on which my head had rested, the wall against which my head and arm leaned -- but found nothing. The instinct worked! No actual drooling! Or did I simply miss it?
It was good, in a way, because by waking up I was able to listen in on the life of the gay man with car troubles sitting two rows behind me. How do I know he was gay? How do I know he had car troubles? Because he blabbered these and several other details into his cell phone, boldly treating the entire train car as his phone booth. The commuter train operates by a 'don't ask, go ahead and tell' standard when it comes to deeply personal matters like sexual orientation and everything else imaginable, and this standard is very loosely observed.


(4/4/01) Oh, the carnage we just missed! A car came within inches of getting broadsided by this morning's train. The squeaky toot of the train's horn suggests a perky "head's up" where "look out you f__king moron!" was called for here. The conductor should have several horning options (low, medium, loud, booming, eardrum-shattering) and a few well-chosen spoken phrases to broadcast: "get the hell out of the way", "the train loves you", a robotic "danger! danger!" and a hissing "I'm watching you." I would also like to see a few cuts from the absurdist school, such as: "Luke, I am your father," "those shoes don't match that belt," and "I feel like chicken tonight."

(3/29/01) The man in front of me first smelled strongly of corn dogs, but later he smelled more like cigarettes. Is there a chemical similarity between corn dogs and cigarettes that the corn dog people and the cigarette people are holding back from us? Are cigarettes just aged corn dogs? Vice-versa? I think this man has the answers, and I want them (but I don't want to talk to him). I want the truth (!), whether or not I can handle it.

(3/26/01) A befuddled old woman wandered onto the train holding a lit cigarette, which seemed to be the moment no less than four anti-smoking militants had been awaiting for years. The train's cabin filled with their crazed hooting: "Put that thing out!" "No smokin' here!" "OUT! OUT!" She was torn between responding to the shrieks, looking for an ashtray, and fleeing, but she quickly realized there were no proper receptacles in this smoke-free environment, so she did what every other smoker seems to do: she tossed the lit cigarette onto the sidewalk. Judging from her frightened body language I count this as an innocent mistake (possibly excellent character-acting), but this is not to excuse the large numbers of smokers I see daily who litter the train stops with their still-smouldering butts as the train approaches. They know the situation, and they know that they are doing: these people are filthy parasites.

(3/19/01) Where's the rooster? (See 3/14/01 post for the rooster's first mention.) There was no rooster call to welcome me to my train stop this morning, which raises the ugly specter that the train stop rooster is not immortal, or was never real to begin with. No, this is not delusional; there really is a rooster lurking somewhere within earshot of my morning train stop, and that rooster does beckon each morning in telltale rooster fashion -- cockadoodle doo! -- it's just that there was no rooster call this morning. Why? Are we no longer worthy of the rooster's attentions? Has the rooster moved on to another stop along the line? One suspects urban roosters are more transient than their country cousins because of the uneven hen density in a typical city setting, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. I like the surrealist touch with which the rooster invests my mornings. I want the rooster to return. Come back, rooster!

(3/16/01) Over the intercom in a sassing, unmistakably motherly tone of voice: "Would the person standing in the door move it so we can get going again!?" Seconds later we were rolling. What a stroke of brilliance to place a pissed off mother figure in charge of train discipline!

(3/14/01) The fundamental unit of experience on the train, the thing that makes it so exciting to ride day after day, is incongruity. Things are seen together that just don't belong, and today provided at least two clear examples, one on the ride in, and one on the way back home. My arrival at the stop was heralded, as it is most mornings of late, with the unmistakable 'cock-a-doodle-doo!' of a rooster. I have never managed to spot the rooster visually, but it is obviously there, screeching as only roosters screech, for reasons known only to it and the brotherhood of roosters. Because I have never seen the rooster, I can't be sure if it lives with other chickens or under what circumstances. Nothing I can see suggests formal rooster accommodations; it may be a lone rooster, or may roam the city in search of a suitable chicken harem, having found an agreeable temporary roost near the train. The very fact of the rooster's presence casts doubt on the availability of logical, intuitive explanations.
On the way back home, a 50-something man sat in front of me wearing denim overalls, a baseball-style cap, heavy facial hair, and headphones. With a hard hat over the ball cap he would have looked perfectly at home at any construction site in this country, but: pouring from his headphones, at a level of volume that bespoke a work history with a jackhammer, was music that sounded exactly like, and might have been, the Pointer Sisters: upbeat funk-disco with multiple vocalists yelling more than singing. Recalling almost all the lyrics I could muster from the troubling heyday of the Pointer Sisters, the following ditty fell into my brain:

he's so excited
and he just can't hide it
he's about to lose control
and I think he likes it


(3/6/01) She coughed and she coughed and she coughed -- she almost coughed the train down. It was a very wet, hacking cough, too, not a nice dry cough, and it easily lasted a full minute or more. At last she had enough breath to break in with, "That's just the sound of bone cancer when it gets in your throat." Cough, cough, cough. "So it's NOT contagious." When the coughing subsided for a few minutes, she failed to offer a medical theory that would connect bone cancer to the throat, but offered all of her deepest thoughts on the unfairness of human mortality: "There are 90 year old's alive right now who are not as sick as me. But I'm dying." To illustrate her disgust, she tossed a piece of wadded, moist tissue into the street through the opened train doors. At the next stop, when I and several others deboarded, she wished us off with a part-sarcastic, part-defeated "Have a nice day." I didn't, so it happened, but what were we supposed to do? Cure her? Issue a point-by-point rebuttal to demonstrate that, to the contrary, the vagaries of human mortality are fair and proper? Assure her that we had listened to her diatribe against mortality so closely that we will proclaim its despairing message to the purblind masses, even after she's gone? For what it's worth, that is what I have started here.

(2/28/01) I like milk as much as the next person, but not at the train stop. Yet there it was, roughly 2/3 of a gallon of 2%, sitting atop the brick retaining wall that keeps cars from driving in, on, or through my train stop. The cap to the milk jug was screwed on, and in every other way it seemed to have been placed there intentionally (natural explanations being virtually unheard of). Yet no one was within fifteen feet of it, and no one was looking toward it. There are, it seems, strong taboos prohibiting contact with abandoned jugs of milk.
But are they strong enough? The next day, the jug of milk was nowhere to be seen. What could have become of it? Who did what to it? How do things like this ever get taken care of? Do we simply allow omnivorous scavengers, like crows, to do what they will? How did they get the cap off? What in the evolution of crows prepared them to exploit abandoned cow's milk? Do the people who clear the streets of smushed squirrels also scan the retaining walls for milk jugs? How? When? When do they ride the train? The milk raises questions, but gives no answers.


(2/21/01) Today's entertainment arrived in the rumpled form of a man in his 50's yelling at someone not to bug him. We soon learned that "bug" is one of his favorite words and most pressing afflictions: not only the man on the train, but the people at work bug him, and the people upstairs bug him most of all. They hum all night long, and the never-ending humming interferes with his 8pm to 4am sleep schedule, not to mention his 5am shower. Oh, the humming and the bugging! In voice, he sounded exactly like Norm from the TV show Cheers, except he slurred as a real-world (perpetually drunk) Norm would, and he was not half as witty.

(2/16/01) Today featured a rare encounter with a fare inspector, and surprisingly enough, he didn't catch anyone fareless (hapless maybe, toothless certainly, but not fareless). Let us not rest easy in the assumption that my fellow passengers had actually paid their fares, for subsequent events called into question whether Mr. Inspector was completely "with us." I was sitting a few rows from the end of the train, so when Mr. Inspector passed me and examined my monthly pass, I figured his last, best hope to find a freeloader would be the two people sitting at the end -- sulky baseball cap man or smiling Chinese man. But no, when they both produced valid fare (or seemed to) Mr. Inspector decided to make a second pass through the meat of the train, starting with me. While I would be the last to deny that riding on mass transit can perturb our perceptions of time, I would suggest that by hoping the month of February would end in so short a subjective space of time pushes this phenomenon beyond its limits. As he took his second look at my pass and noted that we were still in February and that, therefore, I was still current with my fare, his disappointment was evident, but his hopes were unshaken as he continued ahead to the rest of the passengers.
We can note the folly of Mr. Inspector's actions without missing the underlying truth: normal conceptions of time and space are of little consequence on mass transit. There is no minute longer than the one during which your seat partner's index finger is digging out the contents of his nostril; and no minute shorter than the one when the doors open for your stop and you have to pass through a thick gauntlet of teens, each wearing an absurdly puffy black coat, to make it out.


(2/8/01) Anyone who says you can't judge a book by its cover is curiously unfamiliar with the widespread practice of labeling book covers with titles, subtitles, authors, reviews, and other text that can give important clues as to the book's likely readability. Which is a roundabout way of saying I should have seen it coming when I chose the open seat I chose, next to the woman in the bright red fleece vest and matching lipstick. The first few seconds were just fine: she seemed to slouch back in to a sleeping position after a brief shifting to accommodate my taking the seat. But then, she snapped awake and offered me an all-too-hearty "good mornin'!" To which I replied, after my customary pregnant pause and slightly disappointed body language, "morning." (If I must use spoken language, I try to stick to one-word sentences on mass transit.) Unfortunately, this was only the prelude to our morning together.
"Are you going all the way to downtown, or gettin' off somewhere earlier?"
"All the way downtown?"
"Yes." I tried refocusing on my book.
"I can't seem to stay awake this morning. Will you wake me up when we get to downtown?"
I mulled over this for an uncomfortable length of time, but not so long that it would invite further comment from her; her halitosis was mind-altering. "OK."
Approximately three stops later, she snapped awake, darted her head around to try to get a fix on our current location, and begged, "are we downtown yet?"
"Nah, just nearing the bridge." I broke my single-word rule to quell her fears, put her back to sleep, stop her fidgeting, and seal off the halitosis.

Needless to say, I had to plan the means of waking my new friend. Briefly I pondered thinking of a single word that would be sure to rouse her, but only the obvious ones came to mind: "Fire!" "Up!" "RisenShine!" I decided I didn't want to say anything for fear of reply, so when the time came, I nudged her bright red fleecy arm, having already checked it for cleanliness.

She woke up immediately, and seemed a bit startled, as if she had been dreaming of being accosted by a stranger on a commuter train. As I tried to direct my nasal intake away, she explained in excessive detail that, in her judgment, she needed to get up and stand that very moment to avoid falling asleep again; besides, she was "getting real hot." I arose and gave her room to do so, without saying a word, much less commenting on her heat buildup.

I say I should have seen this coming, but how? There were no clear warning signs. Note to fellow train riders: I need clearer warning signs. If you are going to need help with sleep monitoring, or if you are susceptible to odd patterns of heat buildup, or if your halitosis can warp leather, please indicate so in a highly visible or audible manner. Tried and true methods include muttering to yourself, exuding hostile body language, grabbing at invisible objects, drooling, and extreme dishevelment.


(2/6/01) The man who sat in the last open seat of our four-seat section seemed quiet and unassuming until he began audibly muttering demi-words with about every fifth exhale. "CUUUUUU." "DOOOOOOO." Then he took sudden notice in the book of the woman immediately across from him, and asked, "What's that book about?" "Um, Australia" she answered. "HUH?" "Australia." "HUH?" "The island, Australia," "OH." This was everyone's cue to avoid all forms of eye contact, and that's what we did.


(1/23/01) Little wonder that the man wore mirrored sunglasses and a hair-hiding cap to afflict the comfortable with such terrible truth: a train ride from the west side of downtown to the eastern edge of town costs $1.50! Yes, $1.50! And you're not even guaranteed a seat! Bravely he spoke truth to power -- or at least to my half of the train car -- in repeating this fact over and over, to anyone who would listen. His plot to foment revolutionary outrage was unsuccessful, however, as most of his fellow commuters simply avoided eye contact with him and pretended to see or listen to something more interesting, of which there was nothing. A survey of the surroundings indicated nothing that would deservedly distract from a raving whiner: not the trash-strewn embankments down to the tracks; not the idled construction vehicles we had passed a few dozen times before; not the ad banners inside the train, that by ad large promote the train itself; not the reading material in a few scattered laps, that ranged from Koontz to worse; not the rubberized gaskets that seal the train's windows from rain; certainly not the other passengers themselves, each duller than the last. The raving whiner was where the action was, no question.

(1/17/01) A teen street urchin cornered me as I was awaiting the train and managed to hand me a Christian leaflet. He assailed me with use of the phrase "just something to think about" with such relentless repititiousness that I might have accepted anything from him to make it stop. Like many Christian leaflets handed out downtown and elsewhere (and unlike just as many), it begins very generally but gradually proposes more explicit Christian imagery, and attempts, thusly, to induce in the reader a life-altering epiphany by the end: "Wow, it turns out Jesus is the answer!" In this case it seemed targeted at young adults -- I am glad, I suppose, still to be considered one -- to whom it offers escape from The System(sic). Will the Christianity of this leaflet liberate me from The System(sic) embodied in President George W. Bush, whose heart Jesus famously changed, and that of his Bible-toting nominee for Attorney General, John Ashcroft? It would seem an odd moment to propose an antagonism between the forces of Christianity and the forces of The System(sic).
This street encounter with religion is by no means the most annoying, just the most recent. Putting aside the hellfire-screachers that dot the downtown area, the most tiresome proselytizers are the Orange Gownies, my gentlest term for the eternally-smiling, shaven-headed, book-lugging twenty-somethings who cannot allow anyone to pass by without a line like, "Have you ever met a monk?" This is meant to take us off guard and entice us into a conversation that will lead to our induction into a religious community for which we can wear orange gowns, shave our heads, lug piles of books filled with insipid new age happy-talk, and challenge passers-by if they have ever met a monk. Yes, I have met a few dozen monks by now, all of them intentionally bald, and I am sick of all of them.

Then there were the Chinese women who had memorized just enough English to panhandle on behalf of the institution of marriage. This one was as brief as it was mysterious: to be clear, they did not wish to marry me, they just wanted me to understand that entering into marriage ought to be mine and everyone's first priority. I really was showing them my ring when they approached and parroted pro-marriage transliterations, really I was.


(1/8/01) At first I thought it was cute how the insane couple sitting across from me used pet names for all the train stops: "Skiddy" fountain, "Oldie" town. But then as we hit "firsty" avenue followed by "thirdy" avenue, the code was broken and the cuteness died off, replaced by a slight but creeping dread over their increasing level of excitement. I tried to get a sense for the exact mood they were in, but both were turning their heads too quickly, their eyes darting too much. The excitement resolved itself into a richly-narrated deboarding drama:
"Get goin' would ya" said the insane man to the insane woman. He carried a nasty walking stick.
"I am going! The door ain't open yet!" she answered.
"Hurry up!"
"I can't walk through doors!"
"Uh-huh! I can! I walk through doors all the time!" He poked the door with his nasty stick to emphasize its insubstantiality, and as if it agreed, the door opened at that instant.
They waddled out a few steps and then the woman paused, froze, looked around confusedly.
"Where the hell is Angel!?!" she screamed, utterly lost, as the train doors shut behind them.

(12/28/00)It was hockey hair day on the train! Of the three men sitting within my view, two wore the 'short up top, long and stringy in the back' look that swept the English-speaking world starting in the mid-1980's. Though they sat side by side, I quickly placed them into alpha and beta roles based on Hockey Hair Alpha's greater age, greater willingness to speak, and his cryptic assurance to Hockey Hair Beta that "you don't got to work tonight if you don't want to." HHA apparently learned to speak from people who were missing several teeth, because he spoke with the characteristic 'teeth missing' ultra-lisp. Of course it is also possible he was missing teeth himself, but that would be a rash inference since I did not get a clear look at his mouth's interior. HHA wore a bomber jacket with faux leatherette marbling that so betrayed the vinyl material that the jacket forced us to question our assumptions: why leather? why not vinyl?
Hockey Hair Beta (HHB) shed dandruff oh so casually and profusely that again, it problematized the commonplace assumptions that cleanliness is better than filthiness and treating a problem is better than letting it fester. To go with his letterman-style jacket, HHB wore a rumpled baseball-style cap, sporty but for the cigarettes tucked into the gap between hat and hair. Soon enough, HHB untucked one of these cigarettes and began manipulating it longingly, which gave HHA the idea to dig a cigarette from his own pocket. Both toyed with the cigarettes and maneuvered themselves into smoking poses, but though each had referred to the Gateway stop at least once, the nicotine urge pulled them off the train two stops short.


(12/22/00) Our holiday travel took place on AmTrak, which differs from the commuter train in crowdedness, restroom availability, the proportion of fare payers, and the bistro car. Obviously we look Japanese to AmTrak ticketing agents, because we were assigned seating on an all-Japanese car of the train. At first I worried about this -- should I be trying harder, generally, to look less Japanese? -- but then, when I realized that I was the only male on my car who could (or would) read the signs pointing me to the restrooms, I became happy with the situation. It may be that Japanese are unaccustomed to restrooms on the train, or maybe they prefer to avoid American restrooms, or perhaps my frequent trips to and from worried them, but whatever the cause, I enjoyed nearly exclusive use of the facilities. I noted that unlike typical airplane crappers, the door's lock and the 'occupied' sign did not engage automatically when shut from the inside, but required a separate motion. On my last two trips to the restroom, I intentionally left the door unlocked to create a funny, 'should have been caught on video', cross-cultural encounter, but again, my Japanese fellow-riders studiously avoided the crapper, so no such moment occurred.
The bistro car was magnifique! We fed two grown adults (an apple, a turkey sandwich, a bag of peanuts, and two OJ's) for under ten dollars! The sandwich seemed larger at the point of purchase, but after unwrapping it from its several layers of plastic wrap and seeing it unmagnified, it was disappointingly smallish. The layers of plastic, I later surmised, were to protect it during its transportation to the bistro car, which is accomplished by tying dozens of the sandwiches together and floating them down the river, just like logs.


(12/14/00) The cold weather snap increased the passenger density in the usual fashion, the trains loaded with people who suddenly consider mass transit a viable means of getting to and from work. I continue to believe the foul-weather fans of mass transit should be assigned seating on sleds dragged behind the trains, but again, my citizen petition failed to gather enough signatures to put this on the ballot. Who am I to set aside the will of the people? Well, I have a compelling answer to that ostensibly rhetorical question, but I will not bore anyone with it.

(12/6/00) At the right-front of the Siemen's train cars and possibly others in the line, there is a coveted single seat, which I finally had a chance to sit in today (normally it is among the first to be occupied). I found it disappointing. The lack of a seat partner left me feeling adrift, as if I could tumble into the aisle at any moment. This worry forced me to use my left foot as a rigid brace, which in turn made my normal dozing position, with my head in my right arm resting against the window, all but impossible to achieve. This difficulty was compounded by the fact that at the very front of the train, I had no shoulder to peer over for reading material, and the people behind me were supplying nothing in the way of easedroppings. I was thus forced to seek diversion in the faces of those behind me as reflected in the tinted windows that shield the train conductor's secret pod from view, but the faces offered only a mix of the dozing, the unattractive, the unattractive-dozing, the looking-down-reading, and the unattractive-looking-down-reading. As a last resort, I tried to glimpse something new along the train's route, but it was the same billboards, roadways, apartments, and weeded hillsides as always. It was positively suffocating.
Beware the lone seat at the front of the train.


(11/29/00) I noticed today that Bush-Cheney Lady is no longer wearing her Bush-Cheney button. I wonder why not? To the extent that it changed minds and votes among train commuters during campaign 2000, isn't it just as useful for generating support for the Bush-Cheney 2004 reelection campaign? Has the button somehow lost its power? In the absence of the button, the disappointed scowl she still wears is no longer tinged with anti-liberal indignation, but reads as just another dyspeptic face.

(11/21/00) A large man smelling of tires and motor oil took the seat next to me on the train. Prior to this experience I would have said I loved the smell of fresh tires, and I still do, but now that love is tempered by the realization that the new tire smell does not mix well with the oily man smell. We live and grow.
He was playing one of those hand-held video poker games that showed months, if not years, of intense use. It emitted little poker ditties, one to indicate a losing hand and another for a winning hand, and at least while I was peering in, tire-smelling man was losing. Losing what? I do not know what is at stake in hand-held video poker. It is a mystery to me.

When my stop approached and I tilted expectantly toward the aisle, tire-smelling man said, "You need to get off here?" at a decibel level that first, established that he probably can't hear very well; and second, caused the person immediately in front of us to think he was addressing her. She said nothing, but her about-face and the rapid clip at which she deboarded the train spoke for her. It said, "that large man that smells like tires may be a stalker." No, I think he's just a large, loud-talking, poker-fond man who works in one of the tire trades.


(11/13/00) I would like to thank the man who sat next to me, then fidgeted and muttered for the next several minutes, for demonstrating that my wierdo instincts are still sharp. I saw him meandering his way through the train with unkempt hair and clothes, but as I had the inside seat, I was trapped. A little farting was as bad as it got, so I really can't complain, and I am reassured that I can accurately identify the freaks that dot the train-riding demographic.

(10/24/00) The trouble began when a very sullen-faced lad, perhaps 20, boarded the train blasting a live version of The Cure's "Disintegration" on his boom box. The look on his face suggested he was either suicidal or spoiling for a fight, and either way, no one wanted to challenge his right to play loud 80's gloom-rock on the train. But after a few stops, someone worked up the boldness to say something, and by the time I heard anything of what was being said, it had become an argument over whether a particular teenage girl was a slut and whether boom boxes belong on the train. Teen girl and sullen boy exchanged increasingly abusive words until, pop, she slapped him across the face, then balled her fists and taunted him for more. Though he restrained himself, barely, from retaliating in kind, he did spit back when she spat on him. He also pushed her a little. The spitting and the pushing was apparently too much for a long haired 30-something male, who issued a train Monroe Doctrine, that any hostility against teen girl was to be seen as hostility against him. A familiar scene of primate brinksmanship followed, with sullen boy and long-hair facing one another and daring the other to "do something about it." Neither did, but long-hair made it clear that no one on the train had any desire to listen to sullen boy's "shit" music, while sullen boy, valiantly trying to perfect the Springer verisimilitude by adding an element of sexual dysfunction, expressed his opinion that various peoples' mothers are prostitutes. Summoned by an emergency-response mechanism that my newness to the train leaves me unable to account for, an agent of the transit authority soon arrived, armed with a cell phone and a firm grasp of protocol. He got between the primates, called for calm, referred to the prohibition against loud boom boxes, and escorted sullen boy off the train. His parting words were "I already had your mama" but no one believed him.
Oregon voters may be interested to note that the slapping and pushing, quite possibly the spitting also, constitute measure 11 offenses (assault II) and as such carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years 10 months under current law. (The slapper was over 15 and would therefore be tried as an adult.) Measure 94 will repeal measure 11's sentencing structure, so as you cast your November 2000 ballot, consider: if some droopy 20-something was blasting The Cure on your train, and if a righteous teenager spat on him and slapped his face, and if the droopy 20-something spat and pushed back, would it be worth 11 years' 8 months' room and board? Frame the question another way: isn't Springer dull now that no one ever slaps, spits, or pushes? I rest my case.


(10/19/00) An accident of timing allows me to see a piece of downtown's street-begging mosaic form. I ride and deboard from the same train as the tiny, ancient man who hands out The Watchtower in front of the mall, so I get to see him take position and begin his day. The Watchtower, you will recall, is the promotional organ of the sect that believes in an afterlife featuring love, understanding, and harmony among bunnies, lambs, tigers, people, water-borne bacteria, and all the other creatures. There is no hell, they insist, only a lot of bliss and comity among all living things. It is a nice vision, but while I have read my share of the literature (the cover from a few feet, anyhow) I feel less than convinced. I can't imagine what I would have in common with plankton, and to the extent that I do stretch my imagination to allow for an afterlife where plankton and I are "tight," the band of credibility has snapped, and anything now goes. Why not postulate complete intersubjectivity with fiberglass, or the color mauve, or the number eight, or the moons of Jupiter while I am at it?
Anyway, my strategy with the Watchtower man is to follow just a few feet behind him, then zip by him just as he takes position and pivots toward the oncoming wall of train deboarders. It's all about using his own body leverage and momentum against him as taught in the martial arts (I've read covers there, also): he sees me, but I am already beyond his pursuit angle and moving away.


(10/11/00) I overheard a woman report that her little Patty now loves reading since her discovery of the Harry Potter series of books. But isn't this a little rash? Sooner or later, little Patty will finish all of the Harry Potter novels and will be left with the same old non-Harry Potter books that estranged her from reading in the first place. Sadly for my fellow commuter and her daughter, there is no reason to suspect the Harry Potter series has inspired the love of anything beyond ... the Harry Potter series.

(10/4/00) The transition from bus to train has proved to be an alienating one. My psychological dependence on the presence of a driver is like an open wound the driverless train can only aggravate. At first I was assured by the presence of the train's voice-over, that so clearly enunciates the name of each stop as we approach; tells us, in both English and Spanish, which side of doors we should expect to open; delineates the zone boundaries; and warns us when the doors are closing to prevent embarrassing or painful mishaps. After a few days of repeated listens, however, it became clear that the voice-over is mere disembodied voice, with no human attached. The deliberate way the man says "Oak, south west first avenue" and the merciless way the woman says "the doors are closing" is too distinctive and yet too perfectly repeated to be anything but a studio recording. I am left to wonder: with only the train, the fabricated voice-over, and us passengers, just who is in charge here? Supposing I don't like the way a fellow's muddy bike tires are rubbing against something, who will hear my appeal? Who will pick up on my disapproving body language and enforce some discipline? A recording that says "last stop, zone two"? No. The tires rub, teens sit in stairwells, seats are hogged, stray legs flop lazily into walkways, flagrant naps are taken, newspapers are scattered, hot dogs are eaten -- all in perfect impunity. The train is a breeding ground for bad transit habits.
Of course there is the option of hitting the emergency button, but with what effect? What will it do? Will it conjure a driver or other transit system employee? (Does the train have a driver?) Will it cause the people behind the voice-over to appear? Will the doors open? Will oxygen masks drop from the ceiling? Will lights flash and buzzers buzz? Will the train stop? The button is attached to a speaker, so I suspect it will connect us with someone, somewhere, using a variation of walkie-talkie technology -- a voice. But what if my emergency is precisely the overabundance of voices and the lack of a human authority? I want someone to push that button and say, boldly, "Um, hello. I called because someone is eating a hot dog and there are newspapers scattered around and DAMMIT I AM LONELY HERE. I am surrounded by grim-faced, dispirited, dead-eyed commuting trolls and I NEED SOMETHING MORE, some SIGN that behind the harsh lighting and the empty voice-over is a HUMAN BEING who cares." Who does this speaks for me.


(9/29/00) I have whatever disorder or personal failing it is that causes motion sickness when I am not facing the same direction as the train is moving. I haven't vomited yet -- let's not get ahead of ourselves -- but I find it difficult, and my selectivity in seating is higher as a result.

(9/20/00) Now I am a train commuter. It is the same transit system on the same side of the same town, so despite a slight uptick in the quality of my fellow passengers, I see no reason to discontinue these important outposts. My sense of continuity was affirmed this morning when a man left his truck idling to pester, then ridicule, then theaten with fisticuffs, another man on the platform awaiting the train. These two seemed to share a common past of angry white-trash rivalry. His words were too slurred to make out, but I did distinctly catch his repeated taunt of "you wanna do something about it?" I wanted desperately for his truck to start rolling away, and I think he wanted it also, since it would have given him a more graceful out than the one he eventually chose, of getting back in his crappy truck, spewing a few more choice words, buckling for safety, and driving away.
On the way home, I could not escape a strong mustard and relish smell. Being new to the train and seeing no obvious source of the smell, I could not rule out experimental potpourri or perfume, but I looked down to see a woman biting into a mustard- and relish-coated hot dog not three feet from where I stood. This sight astonished me on at least two levels: that an uncovered hot dog had been brought onto the train, which looked somehow indecent or immodest (one would never see a bare hot dog on a bus, as the driver would confiscate it); and that I had gotten that close to the hot dog without seeing it. It's a good thing I have a sense of smell or I might never have noticed that hot dog.


(9/11/00) On this momentous day, the last day of my commute using the bus line that has offered so much spectacle and has taught me so much about the human condition, I paid careful attention for some dramatic finale. Alas, the bus is not theatre. It was an uneventful ride both to work and back, the only drama provided by the boarding of my next-door neighbor, which forced each of us to pretend not to see one another not only for the duration of the ride, but also for the duration of our common walk from bus stop to home. He took one side of the street, I took the other; I walked briskly, he walked slowly; we avoided eye contact, said nothing, and all was well. It brought to mind the many psycho-social parallels between riding the bus and using a public restroom. Verbal and eye contact are minimized as each participant, to the degree possible, wills himself into a solipsistic, purely functional, asocial world. Activities like reading and listening to headphones are acceptable so long as they are kept discreet; hand washing afterwards is rare but advisable; small wiggling motions perceived out of the corner of the eye may be perfectly innocent or may betray furtive masturbation; the lighting tends to be poor and the smell can be unbearable; any toilet tissue you find is not to be trusted; etc. Goodbye, beloved bus!

(9/6/00) There was a saliva puddle underneath the seat I chose, approximately 2" radius. This failed to intimidate me in light of my prescient selection of saliva-tight footwear. It was disturbing to note that it was almost perfectly circular, suggesting it was still fresh and subject to slosh and drift. This is not to say I touched it or examined it closely, and I was unusually mindful of where I rested my feet, but I was mostly unaffected. A reassuring mantra helped me through this experience as it had many others: 'if this is the worst thing that happens to me on the bus today, it won't be such a bad day.' I didn't have to observe the puddle being made, after all; nor did I discover it too late to be sure I had avoided it; nor did I first witness it on my person. All of these would have been worse, as would have almost any encounter with the saliva puddle's creator or a venemous snake. One has to keep perspective.

(8/25/00) For the sake of historical accuracy, I should mention the insane shaved-bald man with the stuffed coyote. His obsessive nose wiping and general fidgeting first caught my eye, and upon closer inspection, I noticed he was cradling a stuffed coyote, roughly modeled on Wiley Coyote of cartoon fame. Judging from the ragged duct tape that just barely secured it to the body, this coyote's head had been torn off many times over the course of its relationship with its human keeper. Things were good between them on this day, however, as seen in the way the man squeezed his coyote tightly as the bus pulled away from my stop. It was a sheltering hug that said, "I love you, coyote, and no one needs to know about us. We are in an alliance against a hostile world that refuses to understand us. I forgive you, and I am no longer angry enough at you to pull your head off."

(8/16/00) The foolish motorist who sat idling in the bus loading/unloading zone did not plan for the world's crankiest bus driver, but that's what she got. With more than a little relish, World's Crankiest pulled alongside the mis-parked car to hiss, "You're not supposed to be parked there, folks! I'm going to need you to move your vehicle, folks!" World's Crankiest would probably have continued the upbraiding for hours, with special sarcastic emphasis on the folks, but the call of the route pulled him back to duty. He still allowed for a final gesture of spite, which was to spring from his seat with pen and paper to take down the license plate of the offending vehicle. Something in the rapid availability of pen and paper suggests that World's Crankiest compiles a list of this kind during every shift, and submits it to the Portland Police, who, by now, no doubt expect his daily call and have learned to humor him enough to avoid making the list he submits to the mayor. The mayor, in turn, does just enough to stay off the Governor's list, whose staff does enough to stay off the Senators' lists, who live unafraid of our lame duck President. Hence the buck stops before it reaches the Supreme Court, but with the election coming, the Justices should not rest easy just yet. They should make some room on the nation's docket for the daily afflictions of World's Crankiest.
(See the 5/1/00 intergenerational warfare post for the first documented encounter with World's Crankiest.)


(8/8/00) I found a five dollar bill! This is the first time I have ever found anything on the ground near a bus stop that wasn't a cigarette butt, an ant, a piece of broken glass, or another bus commuter. I picked it up, but naturally I wondered if I was the subject of a social psychology experiment or one of those hidden camera pranks. With this in mind, I looked around and tried to render "did someone lose a $5 bill?" in body language. What few people were around did not seem interested. Then I walked over to another rider waiting at the stop, flashed the bill, and asked him "did you just drop this?" Rendered selectively deaf by his wariness of cash-related street chatter, he couldn't quite make out my words, so I repeated them. He indicated No. Satisfied that giving one stranger a solid chance to recover a lost bill would place me in the upper half of the ethics adjudged in the social psychology experiment, my good deeds were at an end. I still have the bill now. A vague superstition tells me I should use it on something related to bus commuting, like sanitary wipes or a butt donut, or on something frivolous, like some canned wieners or a butt donut.
As for the five dollar bill, if anyone can list off the serial number before I spend it, I will gladly return it. Descriptions of the missing bill lacking the serial number, no matter how detailed, will be rejected.


(7/31/00) I was on the window seat, and my seat partner did not share my stop. The way she got out of the seat forced me to head toward the back of the bus, which placed me directly in the path of a older man, obviously new to the bus and to the concept of getting out of others' way. He stood planted directly in my path, facing toward me but not really looking at anything, just ensconsed in his own reveries. "Excuse me" I said as I did my best to squeeze by. My man-purse became lodged behind me, trapped between Standing Geezer and a seat back (fortunately it wasn't anyone's head). All I could do was to treat it like a snagged fishing line and yank harder -- either the handle would break free and I'd mourn the loss of my favorite items in the belly of the man-purse, or else I'd free the snag. I freed the snag, but I think it whipsawed Standing Geezer a little. This was, of course, a regrettable but necessary instance of tough love, one that I hope will inspire Standing Geezer and all who bore witness to mind the narrow aisles of the bus, which were not designed to handle both walkers and day-dreaming, adult-sized meat posts.

(7/20/00) She was beeping and beeping. She wore the mirrored sunglasses that unerringly bespeak "attitude," and for a frantic five minute stretch of time, all her substantial attitude was focused on a hapless old bicyclist attempting to share the road with the bus. For his part, the bicyclist bore signs of a newbie to bike commuting: not-splatterproofed clothing, pant cuffs flapping perilously close to his cranks, regulation headgear, geometrically precise hand signals. Peace was restored when we finally whipped past the bike rider and got enough of a lead to avoid any more close calls. Now that I have seen a bus aggressively tailgate a bike, I no longer consider it rude when I see cars tailgating one another -- another instance of how bus commuting has broadened my horizons in so many ways.

(7/14/00) As always, I had used superior body positioning and forethought to secure a favorable place in the queue awaiting the bus. Normally this is all to the good, but today, it forced me to miss the startled response to "WHAT BOOK IS THAT?!?!" that boomed from a male voice toward the woman boarding the bus just behind me. Collecting herself, she mumbled the title, something or other that garnered a positive blurb on the cover from John Gray, generator of the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus platitude franchise. The man either lost interest upon hearing the title or (my theory) was only asking out of ritualistic duty, because there was not a word of follow-up chit-chat. Rather, he slumped back into his seat and prepared himself for the next stage of the ritual, which was to adjust and readjust his cap, hair, and shirt collar with the meticulous obsessiveness known only to the spiritually transfixed. The rites ended in a spirited dash the front of the bus to instruct the driver to "stop here! please stop here!" Since we were nearing a bus stop and another passenger had thought to ring the bell, the driver complied.

(7/6/00) Through the gap left by teeth long missing, a partly sane man part-whistled his dissatisfaction with the prices charged for lawn chairs these days. Lest anyone mishear the substance of his baleful plea to the cosmos, he carried visual aids with him, two mostly folded lawn chairs he balanced precariously between his lap and the aisle of the bus. No one could pass by him easily, but the injustice and inconvenience of this must be weighed against the reality that he had to journey all the way downtown to get these two chairs at what he considered a tolerable asking price, $17.50. Can you believe they wanted $25 for the pair at the other stores?

(6/26/00) A theological dispute between half-wits completed a scene already combining the discomfort of intense heat and the tedium of sitting behind a raised draw bridge. For the most part it was the usual set of near-thoughts that make up this particular argument, but there were standout moments, as when the non-Christian offered her immediate mastery of the walking stick, at age 6 (!!!), as proof of reincarnation (apparently she is the reincarnation of a six year old who was very handy with a walking stick). To which the Christian replied, in what would quickly become the totality of her position, that Satanic forces had planted that opinion in the mind of her opponent. It became apparent that every idea or opinion disfavored by the Christian had been so planted among humankind, without exception. She went on to debunk Buddhism by pointing out that Buddha is dead, whereas Jesus is alive and sitting at the right hand of God. As it will in these discussions, the talk soon turned to the eternity of hellfire awaiting all unbelievers, whence the non-Christian offered the exotic syllogism that since heaven is the direct opposite of hell, and since hell is a place of fire and heat, heaven must be a place of ice and cold. Your God is a popsicle! she seemed to say. It was a swapping of unfounded and indefinite propositions sure to provoke a "whatever" from even the least jaded, so it was a relief when the draw bridge closed and the sound of the bus's driving drowned out the rest of what was said.

(6/16/00) I have nothing against the hearing-impaired, but I have been known to complain about people who invade my personal space with wild hand gestures. I will proceed to do so now. A young deaf woman took the seat immmediately in front of mine, and her partner, with whom she conversed using sign language, took a seat across the aisle and a few rows behind me. This placed me -- in particular, my cheeks, eyes, and forehead -- directly in the path of their furiously signed exchange. Since I can't read sign language, I don't know what she was saying, but she was saying it very quickly and energetically, and without any apparent concern for how closely the finger and hand gestures came to me. I tried to make eye contact with her to communicate my worry, but I seemed invisible to her, like the white of a page trying to catch the attention of a reader. She never actually struck me, but I felt the wind of her hands on my face a few times. I was pleased to be able to vacate the bus without having to resort to the one phrase in sign language I do know.

(6/9/00) "I am over by the jail." These six words, composing the first full sentence spoken into a cell phone by an unsavory-looking fellow passenger, reveal as much about the demographics of my bus as any other conceivable six-word sentence. Despite the many jails within the reach of the cellular calling area, this rider needed only specify his location as "by the jail," suggesting the callers' shared familiarity with the jail in question. I make the assumption the jail attached to the county courthouse is the only jail along my bus route, but if so, this was inconvenient urban planning. Locating all the jails in the area along my bus route would have been a great boon to the jail-set ridership of my bus and to the police charged with herding, collecting, and warehousing them.

(6/1/00) Today, finding herself displeased with the careful social balance associated with our both dozing off, my seat partner attempted to reserve all the dozing for herself by threatening my comfort level. "Sorry," she said, rather too loudly. Sorry for what? I had to wonder, and she knew I had to wonder. Had she slobbered on me? Had she urinated on me? I checked, and the answer was No and No. Still, the shock of it had me out of a frame of mind for mild dozing, and thus her insidious plan had succeeded: she could now doze while I fretted.
As background, consider what happens when both seat partners doze. There is no one to keep guard, no one to shove back when a head nods and bobs into the neutral zone bifurcating the seat, no one to keep pickpockets honest, and no one to render non-verbal clues to the dozer that an important stop, such as a major intersection, is nearing. Dozing on the bus, if done well, is built on a parasitic relationship, hauntingly similar to that between ventriloquist and dummy.

So you see that by her utterance, my seat partner slyly made me the ventriloquist to her dummy, which only sounds like it favors me. As she settled back into the corner of her seat and resumed dozing, it fell to me to take charge and monitor against foolishness.

Feeling uncharitable, not to mention sleepy, I resisted. I tried to match her chin nod for chin nod, eye droop for eye droop, but I couldn't. She had won. I still could not see what she had been sorry for, but I was awake, and reduced to shifting needlessly to try to rouse her. This failed; her dozing was peaceful and even. I was defeated, but I had learned a new technique in the endless social give and take of the bus.


(5/26/00) I noticed a would-be passenger waiting for a bus at a no parking sign. He will wait there a long, long time, since buses pick up passengers not at random street signs but at defined bus stops. Still we must admire this firmness: not willing to accept the current configuration of bus stops, he awaits not simply the bus, but the transit system to convert the no parking sign near his residence to a bus stop. This vigil may last for weeks, months, or even decades. Here is a man with principles, a man willing to take the long view, and to deny the servility of so many of his fellow bus riders, myself among them, who walk down the street to seek a bus stop. This man dramatizes that in our meek, craven acquiescence to the transit authority's capricious siting of bus stops, we ride a slippery slope toward vile subjection and the erasure of our individuality. We might as well sign power-of-attorney over our personal affairs to the transit agency, give it the keys to our homes, consult it on matters of faith, and secure its approval for bathroom breaks.

(5/23/00) The bus driver had a little helper today, a 30ish man wearing one of those lifting braces and all black. When the bus came to a stop where a wheelchair-bound passenger was waiting, the helper waved the passengers out of the folding seat and flipped it into wheelchair-ready position as the driver watched. It was hard to read the reaction on the driver's face behind the huge sunglass lenses dominating his face. It was a basic expressionless insect look, all eyes and mouth, but nothing to suggest he was impressed with the toadying. The toady-in-black seemed to expect nothing for his service, but retired to a seat at the rear of the bus after his feat of seat folding. I was left to wonder if he was a plant of the transit system, part of a long-range plan to inculcate rider habits that shift driver's job duties to passengers The intent may be to de-skill the driver job to drive down its rate of pay, and the eventual goal may be a completely self-serve bus system. Scoff if you must, but car drivers have learned how to pump their own gas, have they not? and what were family-wage gas pumping jobs have become the sub-entry-level employment of last resort for the hapless. I will continue to watch for suspiciously selfless acts of rider 'helpfulness': engaging the turn signals, adjusting mirrors, collecting fares, counting change, cursing traffic, returning lewd hand gestures, etc.
Cf. 12/10/97 post regarding self-serve doors.


(5/10/00) When she first boarded and took the seat directly in front of me, I was unbothered if not relieved. She was well-dressed, her hair was tolerably kempt, and yes, she radiated a perfume scent that was not offensive. Not yet. She bore all the marks of a commuter on her way to work, not one of the scattered trolls who seem to ride the bus because they aren't sane enough to realize they don't have to. But soon her perfume, clearly one of the bus-activated formulas, became stronger, then pungent, and finally stifling, until I almost lost consciousness in its burgeoning cloud. I tugged open the bus window and gulped some morning air to get myself through the ride, gladly trading car exhaust for mall exhaust.
Naturally I observed the reaction of the person who sat next to her several stops later, who showed the same progression from blithe acceptance to near-choking. As he had no window in reach, I can only hope he survived the ride.

The danger here is that this passenger, whom I believe to be regular on my bus, has long since burned out her sense of smell, and responds by coating herself with ever-escalating levels of perfume. If this is so, she will pose a greater and greater risk to the air quality inside the morning bus, which is already degraded by mildew, filth, dust, farts, unknowable chemicals, and unspeakable particulate remnants exhaled by other passengers. Can I hope the astringent properties of the perfume will somehow neutralize the airborne grunge? I can hope lots of things. Hope is easy.


(5/1/00) We had some intergenerational drama on today's bus. A scruffy teen with a skateboard in tow climbed onto the bus and sat a few seats behind me. As we reached the end of the downtown free zone, the cranky driver -- a mix between King of the Hill's conspiratorial Dale and The Simpson's frail Montgomery Burns -- unbuckled and rose from his driver's pod, marched back to the teen, repeated that we had reached the end of the free zone, and demanded the teen's bus fare.
"I am refusing to pay" the teen enunciated clearly. He was calm and untroubled.
"Well, this bus isn't moving until you pay your fare" returned the driver, quivering with rage and fear at the prospect that today's useless young people would win another round.
"I am refusing to pay."
This dialog repeated twice more and might still be cycling, but for another passenger, not apparently related to the teen, who broke in to wave a transfer toward the driver and said, "here, I have an extra transfer. There's your fare." The driver returned to his pod, utterly defeated, mumbling spitefully.
It is worth noting that this kind of free-riding is so commonplace it is strange the bus driver was able to notice it. Obviously this was the end of a very aggravating day, but it would not be the last provocation. When the teen deboarded, I watched both combatants for their final gestures of contempt. The teen bounced spryly to the curb, smiled, and waved with a V hand sign (victory? peace?). The driver replied by mouthing "fuck you" as he glared at his opponent on the sidewalk.

Two more stops passed, and the driver, now safely a few blocks beyond his teen antagonist, directed his ire toward a threesome of giggling teenage girls who had boarded several stops before. He stopped the bus, rotated toward the teens, and singling one of them out, pointed his finger and said, "young lady, I don't ever want to see you put a transfer into my face like that again. You almost poked my eye. You know what I'm talking about." She said nothing, but the look on her face said "What-ever."

Obviously, the teenagers of today have failed to master the intricacies of paying bus fare.


(4/14/00) On a weekday, during rush hour, the suspension bridge my bus crosses was raised as my bus approached it. There is right and there is wrong, and this, dear readers, is wrong. Under no circumstance should a mere boat interfere with the flow of rush hour vehicular traffic in the downtown area. On this I can agree even with the car commuters I otherwise revile. I urge a letter-writing campaign to identify the offending boat and have it ritually sunk, with or without its captain and the bridge operators aboard.
Which is not to say things were altogether rotten as we sat languishing on the bus. The driver, a cynic in her own right, looked forward to reaching the other side of the bridge and being asked impertinent questions by those waiting: "Are you running late?" Questions like these, the driver remarked, are unworthy of reply. This called to her mind a sharp exchange she had once had with a rider who threatened her; in turn she told the rider "I'll skin you like a catfish and salt you down Cajun-style." She was proud to relate that her comment had been captured with word for word perfection on the comment card that made it to her supervisor.

Looking out her window, the driver noticed what I had noticed a moment before, the SUV with two open cans of Budweiser sitting in its cupholders, in plain sight of anyone who would look, their red and white contrasting with the SUV's fake woodgrain paneling. She cranked open the window to her driver's pod and courteously warned Mr. SUV of Oregon's open container law, and noted that we were sitting less than a block from police headquarters. Ensconced in the fake world of his fake truck and fake beer, Mr. SUV ignored her advice. No doubt the open beer cans were part and parcel of the same rugged, independent self-image that had inspired his choice of vehicles, a manly iconoclasm that cannot abide the advice of a mere bus driver. Perhaps he could join the bridge operators and the ship captain? All aboard!


(4/13/00) Portland is reputed to be an 'ugly town,' but you would not have known it from today's bus ride. Seemingly half of the attractive women in town crowded their way onto my bus (an estimate based on 1990 census data, so probably understated). I am not sure if I should complain about this or not, but I always err on the side of complaining, so here goes. I expect my fellow bus riders to be ugly, foul-smelling, foul-mouthed, ill-tempered, un- if not anti-grammatical, psychologically imbalanced, sickly, and even a little scary at times; but attractive? This is abnormal and -- I almost want to say -- suspicious. Was there a meeting somewhere along my route? About what? I do not want to sound paranoid, but what is the conspiracy of attractive women dedicated to accomplish?
My sense of ease increased as a couple of fat guys in tight pants and a series of ne'er-do-well's boarded to bring the demographics back to normal.


(4/10/00) Because of his size, large beard, and flowing, slicked hair, the man sitting in front of me could have passed for a filthy Santa Claus. He had that perma-squint that in another context might have been mistaken for a twinkle, but here it seemed like a straightforward symptom of drunkeness. The clothing was all wrong for Santa also: there was no red suit and no boots, just a pair of brownish corduroys and a striped white shirt not buttoned up quite as far as I would have preferred. The shirt covered "a bowl full of jelly," however, and when he shifted from the aisle seat to the window seat and back again, we saw how imperfectly that shirt covered his torso. It was mostly tucked in over the front, but the back of the shirt and the top of the back of his pants were separated by a flesh river at least four inches deep.

(4/6/00) Every morning lately I am greeted with the cranky visage of cranky man. He sits in his customary position near the back of the bus staring forward, sometimes at me but not always, looking like the world has wronged him. Though it is early in the morning he wears a five o' clock shadow, and believes in fighting the chill with layers -- lots of layers, and denim is always among them. When it seems directed at me, his cranky face makes me wonder what I have done wrong. Have I not worn enough layers? Have I failed to wear denim? Have I selected a seat he had earmarked for something special? Does he resent monthly pass holders? Do my shoes not match my belt? I can't think of any specific offense against him but I am not necessarily pleading innocent.

(3/27/00) Upon boarding the bus this morning I was accosted by a bug-eyed elder handing me a ridership survey. Based on his shabby clothes and broken sentences it took a moment to decipher that he was an "official" agent of the transit system, rather than a common bus troll, but the moment came and I accepted the survey. He didn't offer me a pencil with which to complete it, but luckily my man-purse is outfitted with an assortment of pens, so I got to work filling in a lively mix of truths and falsehoods. According to this snapshot of my life, I boarded the bus both leaving work (false) and going to work (true). The two jobs are necessary to pay for my four working automobiles (false), all of which I leave at home in favor of the bus (true) because my license has been suspended (false). I had taken upwards of 20 bus trips in the last month (true). There are seven other people in my household (false), but none of them take the bus (true). Our total household income is off the charts (false).
On the open-ended comment line, I wrote "could you serve more delicious sandwiches and tarts?" but my handwriting was purposely illegible. Only the question mark, and possibly the "could you" from context, will be discernible to even the most dedicated survey input drone.


(3/16/00) The challenges of a linguistically diverse world find their way onto the bus from time to time. The conversation coming from the seat behind mine illustrated how mental illness magnifies these challenges. It was an elderly Chinese woman pinned into her window seat by her seat partner, a forty-something man with a blandly pleasant conversational style honed in what must have been decades of counseling. The sound was cheery but the sense was not, as when he explained matter-of-factly that his mother and sister are dead, and his father is in a rest home several states away. This was his answer for the Chinese woman's polite struggle to participate in the conversation in which she had been unwittingly immersed, using the tiny number of English words at her command, one at a time, delivered with gestures of hand and face to form sentences: "Mother," "Yea," "Work," "Oh." This was more than the man needed to carry on, of course. To one such open-ended expression he replied by presenting an expired rubber strip from a squeegee, and explaining its essential importance to the tool: "This is the old rubber I took out of my squeegee today. See how it's worn? You can't use a squeegee with rubber like that. So I took it out. It's OK if I keep it."
"Uh, Retire?"
"My dad retired after thirty years for the railroad. His boss said he would have fired him if he wasn't in the union. But he was, so the boss got fired."
"The cement on that building rotted away so they're tearing it out. Cement doesn't last long. When cement gets wet it rots and falls. Now if they used brick, that's a different story. It's hard tellin' how long brick will last, they can just put a new brick in."
So went the cultural exchange until a detail suddenly remembered, or a rapid mood swing, sent the man sprinting off the bus in distracted silence.

(3/8/00) "Aaasssss-hoooole!!" The bellow shocked me to full consciousness, issued by a would-be passenger arriving too late to the stop. "Yea, like I'm gonna stop for her now," was the driver's reply, muttered loudly enough to win the sympathies of the first few rows of passengers. "There's another bus just behind me," he added to solidify his argument. It was a fragile alliance he was forging with current passengers and against a would-be passenger, and he knew it.
The moment's tension increased when the bus had to stop at an intersection only a short distance ahead, when it was unclear if the shouting, cursing woman would approach the door to make nice-nice or continue the obscenities. If she had done the former, it would have been fun to watch the driver strain under the burden of his customer service training by pretending he had not noticed when she called him an asshole. If she had done the latter, it would have been fun to listen to more name-calling, and to watch the driver strain under the burden of his customer service training by not responding in kind. She did neither, but reserved her anger for the next bus that came along. That would have been the bus to be on.


(3/2/00) I first noticed the two women giggling at what a man standing next to them was saying, but I couldn't hear his words. It didn't look quite right because he was very poorly shaven and wearing a long trench coat, so naturally I checked the integrity of his pants. I was looking for signs that the pants were especially suited to flashing, but they looked normal (if a little disheveled), and noting the light-hearted nature of the conversation, I concluded nothing too foul was happening. The man had a long piece of transparent tape stuck to the back of his coat -- had someone taped a sign to him earlier? -- and then I noticed that his speaking part in the conversation did not end even as those around him made their way off the bus. Nor did his position change, standing over the two seats closest to the driver. The driver was the only one left within earshot, and I could only infer the substance of the speech from the increasingly frantic pace of driving it inspired. The driver seemed to be making the familiar mistake a dog makes of fleeing a ribbon tied to its tail, looking back and seeing it is making no progress, speeding up, looking back, speeding up, etc. All the accelerating the driver did opened up not an inch more distance from the mumbling man, but it did keep me awake and get me home faster.

(3/1/00) The wait for this morning's bus was distressing, starting with a surprise peopling of my bus kiosk. I rounded the corner to the structure expecting to have a quiet moment alone, but there he was, a smoking man, wearing black to conceal himself. My first impulse was to demand that on future mornings, should he choose to use my bus stop, he must have the courtesy of wearing bright clothing, but I declined this first impulse in favor of backing out to await the bus unsheltered.
The smoky man disappointed me again by boarding the bus before I did, and taking a long time counting out the fare, nickel by nickel, dime by dime, ponderously dropping each coin into the fare purse as if parting with a beloved friend. It seemed to take a few minutes for him to count out the entire fare, but I admit time is distorted by crankiness, early morning drowsiness, bus ridership itself, standing on a bus stairwell with your face only a few inches from someone's butt, and other factors.

I concluded that not only should monthly pass holders board first in all cases, but each pass holder should be granted a peremptory challenge for that month, a chance to expel a non-pass holder for any reason, no questions asked. Though it is only the first day of the month, I would have gladly used my challenge on smoky, all the more when he selected the seat I would have taken, a window seat toward the back and a full row from the nearest passenger.

I sat directly behind him, and in an effort to annoy him back, I ruffled the pages of my book to make noise, but he didn't seem to notice. This is what I, a monthly pass holder, am reduced to.


(2/17/00) The highlight of the ride home was when the insane woman sitting behind me, her seat partner having just deboarded, leaned forward and resumed her confessional within a foot of my ear. The front half of the bus and I learned that she is Mary Jo [something or other], who lives with her brother in apartment number [number] of the [apartment complex name] apartments. She is anxiously awaiting her monthly social security check, and spends only as much money as she must on food to save for the home purchase she hopes to make within the next few years. She is dieting, D-I-E-T-I-N-G, spelled for emphasis. Despite her plans to move, she does not mind living in apartment number [number] of the [apartment complex name] apartments, where folks mind their own business -- "for the most part," she added darkly. She started to describe her small but respectable collection of furniture, but we reached the stop nearest to [apartment complex name], where she deboarded, continuing the monologue for a sidewalk audience.

(2/9/00) As I sat trying to fight off sleep, the main thing keeping me awake was the periodic eruption of a Butthead-like chuckle from the man sitting directly behind me. Naturally I wondered what he was laughing at -- the teen who kept asking people to sell him a cigarette had long since deboarded, leaving no one especially risible -- and soon after I wondered if he was laughing at me. As subtly as possible I adjusted my posture and checked my upper body for foreign objects or unsightly splatters, finding nothing. The chuckles continued, separated by half-minute intervals, or so I gauged through my dozing. I realized I could not rule out the possibility that he had anesthetized the back of my scalp and had begun shaving humorous designs or phrases into my hair. The bus is no barber shop: viewing the back of one's head is nearly impossible, so I could not squirm free of the notion. Only when I finally got home was I able to verify no new designs or phrases.

(2/7/00) Today saw the delicate balance between tactfully monitoring the bus crazies versus optimistically ignoring them. The young man in the University of West Virginia sports jacket boarded with a plastic bag full of groceries, and quickly diverted his attention away from the muttering woman who took the seat next to him. He thought it was enough to place the grocery bag in the space immediately between them to create distance, face the opposite direction, and fire up his headphones, but all of this actually gave her the opening she seemed to be awaiting. He did not notice when she stopped muttering and began staring at his groceries. He also did not notice when, without removing the items from the bag, she lifted each and pressed the plastic close to the label to read it, or to seem to read it: the corn chips, the cigarettes, then the RC Cola liter, then the apples, then all of them again a few times over.
An attentive and concerned fellow passenger saw the situation developing and defused it by asking the woman, "Are you new to Portland?" which shocked the woman back to her own personal space. I think her initial answer was "Gracious!" but it quickly trailed off to muttering. Soon after, whether by luck or deliberation, the West Virginia jacket guy got up and took a different seat near the far end of the bus, leaving the muttering woman behind. Later on she did a little light clapping to a beat only she could hear. Or was it mild self-applause for her success with the groceries?

It is impossible to know. Maybe things are different in West Virginia, but here, it pays to keep at least one's peripheral vision trained on the bus crazies.


(1/28/00) Never let it be said I only pick on the elderly. I think the twenty-somethings sitting behind me were trying to set a new record for the use of the word like in a five-minute conversation. I did not check if a representative from Guiness was present to record the likes of the following:
"Like, I was like turning the like corner of like fourth and like Jefferson, and this like guy with like his arms full of like groceries or something like wasn't watching where he was like going ..."

"Like did you like run into him?"

And so it went. The word like starts to sound very alien after only a minute or so of this. I have been known to overuse the word myself, but I cannot compare with these people.

I was disappointed when the address they had been like discussing came and went without their hoped-for deboarding. Picking through the likes, I gather it was the location of a recent like party where like all these like people they know like did something worth like talking about on the like bus.

They stayed aboard, but their presence became almost literally overshadowed with the boarding of Enormous Man. Enormous Man is a bus regular of late, one I have been searching for a delicate way to report on. Instead I will note that he is enormous, standing at least 6'7" and weighing at least 350 pounds, with a head of curly, formless hair that makes his huge head seem even bigger. I have never heard him speak, but I picture it sounding like Lurch from the Addams Family. As with a bus or a locomotive, he is so large that it can be difficult to judge how quickly he is moving.


(1/24/00) Today's bus-tainment was as engaging as it was tragic (not much of either, as it turns out). A young woman, seemingly a Japanese tourist, found herself trapped by a cup of Seattle's Best coffee. The cup was full to the very edge, and yet too hot to sip down to slosh-safe levels. What is to be done here? There are no good options when one is trapped by a cup of hot liquid, but she bore it bravely. Drip by drip, as subtly as possible, she allowed the coffee to slosh itself out to a more manageable level, where it landed on her hands, on the empty seat next to her, on her clothes, and on the floor. This is as close to a cleansing solvent as the bus floor should expect soon.
The employees of Seattle's Best had obviously pulled the old "let's overfill and overheat the Japanese tourist's cup of coffee" gag, to great effect.


[interlude for various family crises]

(12/28/99) I came closer than ever to sleeping through my bus stop today. Only a miraculously timed wet belch from the greasy man a few seats away woke me in time to deboard. I was glad not only that he sounded in so timely a fashion, but that he was several feet away and not facing toward me. I would not want to dwell on it, and this is speculation, but it was the type of belch that fills an enclosed space (like a city bus) with a smell and an almost palpable mist. Part of me wanted to thank him for waking me, but it was a minor part.

(12/21/99) It was a common enough drama. The bus halted at a red light, behind traffic, a few bus lengths behind the actual bus stop. Those who wished to deboard at this stop began queuing at the rear exit and looked expectantly at the driver, who ignored them. One of those in the queue grew impatient and called out "back door!," the standard way to tell/ask the driver to open the back door. "We're not at the stop yet" replied the driver, unduly irritated. Seconds of pointless tension passed, somewhat subdued by an old man's comment that "he must be a new driver" (he wasn't). The traffic cleared, and the driver pulled up to the stop and threw open the doors. On his way out, the same passenger whose "back door!" had gone ignored heartily bitch-slapped the side of the bus with a glare in the driver's direction, before sliding away in the opposite direction. Again, the driver ignored it all, knowing his bus is fortified against light to moderate slappings, and knowing, better than his passenger adversary, that he and the bus are distinct phenomena: to slap one is not necessarily to slap the other, and vice-versa.

(12/16/99) As I approached my bus stop this morning, I did so warily, seeing the bus already parked at the stop in a 'wait' posture. Often the bus driver will notice he is ahead of schedule and park at a stop to allow time to catch up. As cover against the passengers waiting in limbo, he will scan the surrounding area to identify an approaching passenger to make the idling seem purposeful, generous and humane. On this morning I caught the driver's attention as I approached, and I became the excuse for his waiting. Obviously this passes the onus of all the passengers' sufferings onto me, so I engaged countermeasures. There was still quite a distance between me and the bus, so I slowed down and began fiddling with my man-purse as if distracted by some errand contained therein. I hoped this alone would convince him the wait for me would be too long, but he responded by flickering his cabin lights -- the lights just above his driver's pod -- and waving a "come here" gesture to call my attention to his and the bus's exasperated sacrifice. My only defense was to slow down even more and pretend I didn't see this by staring directly into the pavement below me. My best hope lay in creating doubt about my intentions to take the bus at all; after all, I could have been just a guy walking down the sidewalk, right? Less than a minute of exaggeratedly slow and aimless walking later, my victory was total: he pulled away from the curb and drove on.

(12/3/99) As I passed her on my way to my seat, I heard a middle-aged, tightly bundled woman diagnose herself with "restless leg syndrome," a condition that lead her to kick her legs forward periodically and stand erect each time the bus stopped, then sit back down when it resumed. She was talking to/at the bus driver almost non-stop, but he could not keep up with her rapid topic swings: baseball, the WTO protests in Seattle ("damn hippies!"), the pandemic irresponsibility of drivers, the new weight loss drugs, etc. All the talking and kicking and sitting and standing, combined with the debilitating psychological effects of her very public struggle with restless leg syndrome, so exhausted her that she had to request the wheelchair lift to deboard from the bus. The thought occurred to me that she was just looking for attention, but I would hate to cheapen the sufferings of those with restless leg syndrome with my doubts.

(11/30/99) It must have been a bus equivalent of feng shui that compelled a teenager to park herself in the middle of the aisle, assume a scarecrow position for maximum blockage, and refuse to budge from her chosen spot. Had she been completely naked she would have been large enough to block the aisle, but with her giant, puffy parka and upsized pants, she might as well have been a wall. This is a common enough faux pas for people new to the bus, but she stood out in the duration of her immunity to the pleas of those lodged behind her, who could not help but notice the unoccupied seats she kept them from. At last she relented as the voices of the oppressed rose, but did so half-heartedly, shifting her scarecrow position only slightly to create a narrow corridor. I was hoping there would be some name-calling or other nastiness, but once the sufferers had passed, the teen returned silently to her feng shui-maximizing scarecrow position, and those passing by commented only with flustered looks.

(11/17/99) I could not believe the volume of hair in seat neighbor's ears! He was seated directly in front of me, and despite lacking a direct view into his ear canals, I could see the hair. It billowed out both sides, grey and wiry, and I wanted to tap him on the shoulder and say, "hey, they sell shavers for that." I wanted to, but hesitated because I don't normally speak to or touch people on the bus, and because I'm not very sure they do sell shavers for that amount of ear hair. That ear hair shaver may not have been invented, and may never be.
I wonder if he uses a Q-tip to apply one of the hair-growth tonics, then uses the same Q-tips on his ears? If so, it appears he mistakenly selected the tonic formulated for ear hair, not the one for head hair.

It is important to acknowledge that the man is secure in his ear hair, as it could not have escaped his notice. Since he could see well enough to get on the bus and select a seat, he obviously sees well enough to notice the ear hair. It is part of him.

I'm glad I couldn't see his nose.


(11/12/99) The calm was broken with a question none of us ever wants to hear: "You got a ladybug in your hair. You want me to catch it?" Before the man could answer, indeed, before he could move, the asker, a seemingly older man sitting directly behind him, was sifting through his hair to "catch" the offending "ladybug." It was a bug I never actually saw, but the vigilant man played through the entire scenario, from capturing the bug, to taking a closer look at it, to opening the window for its release, to dropping it out the window.
As this took place during a brief moment of quiet, no one failed to notice. The teenage couple in front of me giggled and exchanged apposite smartass remarks; the couple behind me, who had been talking about how drunk they were and how much drunker they planned to get, took time to watch the entire sequence of events, after which the woman summarized, in her hybrid Bronx accent, "well, good mahning America!"


(11/8/99) Entering the bus and searching for an open seat is almost identical to entering a restroom and searching for an open stall. If your standards are too high (a completely open bus seat, an open stall bordering open stalls), you run the risk of getting so deep into the bus/restroom that there is no turning back, and you are forced either to accept whatever is available at the far reaches, or face the humiliation of reversing course and reconsidering the options you previously rejected. In buses and in toilets, one cannot allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.
This was the harsh lesson of a young woman who boarded this morning, passed up several available-but-partnered seats, and was left with one of the sideways-facing seats near the very end of the bus. Sadly, this placed her face to face with an older man, middle fifties to late sixties, who had been trolling for eye contact. He began almost before she was seated.

"It looks like you're headed for a boring day."
"I suppose. I'm not really awake yet."
A slight pause while he scanned her accessories: "You a student?"
"Um, not any more." It was hard not to sense the irritation and regret in her voice.
"Well, we're all students of life every day," he concluded, failing to turn things positive with the power of his sagacity.

As the human mating ritual was showing itself to be too complex and indeterminate, we can understand his desire to borrow simpler practices from other species. The male weaver bird demonstrates sexual promise by his weaving designs, and so he set out to do the same. He brought out a work in progress, a tangle of colorful leather strands, and began ostentatiously braiding them together.

"This is going to be a hat band when I'm finished with it" he volunteered. "I've already made two like this," he added, gesturing toward the many-colored band around his grimy hat. He was failing to attract any interest. Did she not see he was weaving? He gave the weaving a few minutes to draw her in. It never did -- she was looking anywhere but towards him.

The practices of the weaver bird failing, he reverted to shows of experience and wisdom. "I learned to do this off the coast of Vietnam on a Navy ship." There was nothing like a response; by this time she was using biofeedback techniques to suspend her heartbeat. At last her stop came, and she rose eagerly. Desperate, he slid back into weaver bird mode: "I made the belt!" This, at least, elicited a mumbled, monosyllabic variant of "Oh really?" But she was gone, and a little wiser.


(11/5/99) Who said they drummed road rage out of them at bus driver school? Not today's driver! First, someone merged into his lane at an insufficient speed, so he crawled the bus up the car's tailpipe and tooted his horn as menacingly as possible. (It's too bad the bus's horn is so disappointingly soprano.) Later on, we played a little chicken. I couldn't see what provoked it from my vantage point, but I could sense the bus veering over the meridian and hear the driver pounding on the horn at something. This was a driver not to be toyed with, one who holds that the best defensive driving is good offensive driving.
And who am I to judge? I am goal-oriented, not process-oriented, as a passenger. I assume my driver is a highly trained specialist, ready with an array of expert techniques for all driving challenges, including chicken, tailgating, off-roading, ramp-jumping, slaloming, controlled sliding, controlled colliding, rollovers, whatever. Just get me to my stop alive.


(11/1/99) "Your manners leave a lot to be desired!" So huffed an angry woman's voice as she left the bus, leaving a busload of passengers to wonder, along with me, "don't you think I already know that?"
But we also wondered to which violation of good form, and which transgressor, she could have referred. Was it the usual assortment of teenagers locked in solipsistic embrace with their headphones? The equally oblivious aging Boomer women reading aging Boomer anxiety magazines? Was it the usual collection of old men staring up and forward in a pose reminiscent of lobotomized stupor? Was it those of us who failed to cede our seats, or doff our hats, or hold a door, or toss our cloaks across a puddle, or use the salad fork instead of the dessert fork, or curtsey, or bow, or genuflect, or offer finger snacks when she boarded? We were all guilty on one level or another. Not one rider among us could stare into that comment without seeing a trace of his reflection.

I am fairly certain the accuser was the woman, middle 40's, who struggled onto the bus carrying three seemingly heavy bags full of books, papers, some garments, cups, and various hard to identify trinkets. Since she boarded at one of the last stops before downtown during the morning commute, she boarded a full bus, and was forced to stand. She entered our standing room only bus expecting someone to help, someone to move, someone to stand that she may sit. When some kindness of this sort failed to materialize, it irritated her. Hell, it irritated me. But what am I supposed to do?

Am I -- are we all -- to indulge her inflated sense of bus decorum? Would it be to the larger good to fulfill her outlandish expectations? If we say yes to Lady Three Bags, where does it end? Do we ask ourselves to make room for the gentleman who would find it oh so convenient and accommodating to practice his skeet-shooting on the bus? What about someone who would find comfort in lighting a small fire for warmth? What, pray tell, about someone who innocently expected to bring her herd of cattle along? Just as we don't want any of these things to happen in the bus context; just as we would say to such people, "the bus is permissive, but has its limits;" so we must say to the woman who wanted the bus to be a loving, congenial, altruistic situation: no, the bus is a war of all against all. It is what it is, and the best of all possible rides is one where you reach your destination with your health, possessions, sanity, and level of hygiene intact. If you leave the bus a little more wary of your fellow humans, that's perfectly normal.


(10/27/99) It's time I said a few words about Don. Don is an 70-something car repair technician cut from a Norman Rockwell painting or a 1950's sit-com, complete with the red rag he switches from storing in his back pocket to swiping across his forehead. I know his name is Don because he wears a shirt with a name patch. He prolongs my bus rides home by boarding a small distance before my stop.
I don't think Don can hear very well because he tilts his head and squints his eyes like he's trying to funnel the sound into his better ear. He usually has something very loud to say to the driver, often to do with the weather we've been having. If not the weather, it tends to be thanks and thanks again for responding to his gestures to stop and pick him up at mid-block -- Don doesn't observe bus stops. For today, Don ducked into the bus from the rain and yelled something that included "damn rain again."

Don also has a stubborness about him. He never sits down before the bus begins to move, so he almost falls when the bus accelerates. One would expect a man of his age and evident experience with vehicles to understand this small piece of earthly physics, but he doesn't. Or maybe he understands it perfectly well, he just refuses to adjust to it. That's the way Don is.


(10/20/99) It was a peculiar bus ride, so strange as to seem staged. A disheveled blonde man wearing a Sammy Hagar-esque bodysuit (more orange than red) pointed forward, raised up, and declared, "Now THAT's how a real tattoo looks!" His champion was a sixty-something man with a colorfully tatooed forearm. "That's a GREAT tattoo," he continued, then added darkly, "not like that stuff they're doing nowadays." The tattooed man sniffed in agreement with the condemnation of the stuff being done to diminish the good name of tattoos. I was eventually able to lean forward far enough to see that the man's excellent tattoo was a dragon. While it looked painful and intricate enough, I am not enough the connoisseur to describe its superiority to present-day designs.
As the tattoo talk plodded along, another began from behind, this one a monologue. It was a man helpfully and inaccurately calling out the bus stops as we neared them, mixing actual street names with streets found only in the city of his imagination: "Grant!" (real street) "Fowler" (not a real street) "Divisor!" (possible corruption of "Division," a real street) "Grant!" (real street) "Pillar!" (not a real street). The man gave each fraudulent street its due by uttering its name with the same sharp, crisp, loud delivery as he used on the real streets. He deboarded at "Pillar," which most of us know as "Brooklyn."

As he was leaving the bus, the street-calling man picked up a phrase spoken in the tattoo discussion, "Chinese dragons", and he called it out like it was a street name: "Chinese dragons!" Then, in a parting bit of weirdo wordplay, he inverted it and called out, "Draggin' the Chinese!"

Since it's true, I will add that a powerful fart aroma faded in and out during the entire ride. It would recede briefly only to return stronger than ever. The source?


(10/15/99) There are people who take riding the bus entirely too personally. A good example would be an elderly man who, during rush hour, at a time of day, that is, when buses run every six minutes, charged into a busy intersection waving his arms and screaming in a desperate attempt to force the bus to take him as a passenger. Our bus had already sat at its stop for a perfectly reasonable period of time, long enough for several passengers to deboard and several others to board, and was pulling away when the man's panicked screams of "BUS! BUS! BUUUUUUUUSSS!" began. Our driver had the good sense to keep moving, since stopping would have further complicated an already chaotic intersection, filled with drivers honking at and braking for the disconsolate, death-daring moron.
His screams of "bus! buuuuuusss!" could still be heard for several blocks as we drove on. By this lugubrious persistence he made a turn from upset-annoyed to fanatical-obsessed, and I gave silent thanks he had not joined our bus.

Explaining this degree of fanaticism expressed in the commonplace give and take of bus ridership is not easy. It was a clear, warm day, so the bus did not represent the man's last hope for shelter. No other passengers seemed particularly affected by the spectacle, and no children on the bus lacked companionship, so this didn't resemble an accidental parting in the unfamiliar city. He had not been on the bus to have left something on it. Neither the bus itself, nor its passengers, nor its driver, seemed unusually appealing. This was not a bus to die for, but someone almost did. Is he pining for it still? Or did he finally flag it down and board it? What then? What dreams were thus realized, what hopes fulfilled, what agony vanquished?


(10/7/99) Today's ride home was the most spectacularly doomed bus ride in the history of the universe. If I had walked home barefoot across fields of crushed glass I would not have fared so badly as to select this bus. Grab your hankies and prepare to regret your suspicions that I have exaggerated.
It started with overcrowding. The stop after mine filled the bus totally, so much that we skipped the last two stops for lack of standing room. I still maintain that in situations like this, riders without monthly or annual passes ought to be relegated to cargo cars pulled behind the bus (sleds in winter), but the local transit authority has not adopted my sensible reforms.

Just out of downtown, our very crowded bus became stopped behind a stalled truck, worse yet on the bridge where a lane change is impossible. It looked to be a very long evening with a great many strangers. Smelly strangers.

Just as the catcalls from the rear of the bus started advocating using the bus as a plow to move the stalled vehicle, two go-getters deputized themselves as traffic cops, hopped out of the bus, and harried traffic enough to allow us to back up and change lanes. To almost everyone's unspoken disappointment, the driver remembered to allow the deputized go-getters to pack themselves back into the bus.

Our troubles had only begun. As we passed a parked delivery truck, I made a mental note of how we had come within 4-5 inches of sideswiping it, and I gave thought to commending the driver's exceptionally tight driving tolerances, honed in the European bus racing circuits, or perhaps at bus driver school. These happy thoughts were shattered, literally, as our bus collided with the oversized rear view mirror of the next parked truck we passed. Interestingly, the driver continued on to the next stop, nearly a full block away, and appeared ready to act as if nothing had happened. The act was futile. The bus buzzed with speculation about what we had hit: the overcrowding had deprived many passengers of a view, and others of the oxygen their brains needed to connect visual stimulus with cause-effect nominations. The driver's ploy ended when the owner of the truck approached, panting. "You the driver of that truck?" the bus driver asked, trying to sound friendly. "Yup" he answered, whereupon the passengers were dismissed from the bus and forced to await, and to overcrowd, the next bus that came along.

I considered myself lucky to make it home only a half hour later than normal, and to suffer no more on this ride. It is my hope that true stories like this one will deepen prejudices against commuting by bus, thus easing the crowding on my route.


(10/1/99) Almost every morning, two Russian women exit the bus at the same stop where I board. (I say they are Russian because they mumble at one another in Russian.) They invariably exit from the front of the bus, a faux pas that delays my boarding by several crucial seconds. It likewise delays the others at my stop, frowny man and long-haired glasses man. The front of the bus is for boarding, the rear of the bus is for deboarding. The exceptions to this rule are too intricate to expand here, but suffice to say none of the exceptional conditions are met at this time or place. I realize they have recently migrated from the former Communist bloc, where bus etiquette may be very different, but this is a melting pot, and it's high time their foreign bus habits boil away. I don't want to have to say something to them, much less throw an elbow, but the look I flash them, somewhere between scowling and condescension, isn't working.

(9/28/99) Cats! on the bus! Pardon my excitement, but this is exceptionally rare. These were three kittens, no more than a few weeks old, lodged in a pet taxi. They were meowing for freedom, but as the pet taxi's carrier overexplained, they were barely able to see at their age, and had no place to go outside the pet taxi. But where, I wanted to ask, really, does a cat ever need to go? Someplace other than where you put it. This is basic cat behavior.
She went on to explain that their cat mother had been run over, and that she had taken it upon herself to 'nurse' them herself -- her word, not mine. The logistics and biomechanics of human-kitten nursing were left to the imagination, ending up as one of few details spared. We did learn that this nursing would take place during her lunch, the implication being these kittens would be a desk ornament before and after, and what a draw! I can only wonder if the nursing will eventually become part of the spectacle?


(9/23/99) I have found the center of the universe: it is a rotund woman wearing glasses and a colorful sweater. Being the universe's center, she boards the bus slowly and deliberately, carrying forward against all opposition as if every other thing is titular and ephemeral. Once aboard, she carefully and painstakingly selects, inspects, and settles into her seat, blocking the entire aisle all the while. Finally, thoroughly in place and knowing her important toils are at an end, she looks up expectantly, and the flow of bus life is allowed to proceed. We are all orbiting around her right now. Close your eyes, look up, and you can almost feel the cosmos revolving.

(9/17/99) One of the articles of Sun Tzu's fighting wisdom, or so I have gleaned from spotty references in print ads and other outlets of corporate boosterism, is to avoid an unwinnable battle. An example of an unwinnable battle in the commuting world would be a bus overfilled, teeming with the snorts, chatter, and smells of too many passengers. The hot weather intensifies the burden. So today I boarded the bus, nearly tripped over the crutch of the man who had himself fallen nearly into the lap of another passenger, noted the density of the more troublesome demographics (elderly, late-teen, loners with literal and figurative baggage), the lack of open seats, and the air of quiet desperation: seeing all of the above I got off at the next stop, and awaited the next bus. It was not far behind. Victory!
My deboarding was an unmistakable rejection of that bus and its passengers, since I obviously wouldn't have boarded a bus to travel two blocks. This would be as absurd as taking an elevator one floor when stairs are available (a wink to my coworkers). Perceiving that busload's hostility toward my rejection, I resolved at once to point and laugh when the bus I was riding passed their bus. By the time it happened, my resolve had been degraded by fears of wacko retaliation, so I downgraded to a smirking expression with no finger-pointing.


(9/13/99) The driver marked one of the hottest days of the year by subjecting us to one of the longest, slowest, most tedious bus rides of the year. His reasoning was simple: when it's hot, slowing down makes walking more comfortable; ergo, slowing down must make bus riding more comfortable. Our sweat and delirium proved the poverty of his reasoning, but it didn't make him speed up the damn bus.
My agonies were doubled by the loud-talking teenage street urchin sitting just behind, who impressed his fellow urchins with several hard-won nuggets of urban wisdom. Examples: residents of Seattle are more generous with spare change than their Portland counterparts; Portland has been under martial law since the L.A. riots of April, 1992; the French Quarter of New Orleans is so named because it is still governed by France, under an agreement struck as part of the Louisiana Purchase. "The French quarter is where they have lots of important things, like Lent, and Mardi Gras, and Fat Tuesday!" Surely only a part of town governed by France could offer three (?) such wonders.

This well-traveled teenage hobo also told a beguiling anecdote of having attempted a wrongful U-turn elsewhere in the South, then encountering a police officer who -- guffaw! -- insinuated he and his spikey-haired buddy were neo-Nazis. "Dude, I was totally wearing tie-dye and my friend had a ban-swastika patch on his jacket!" (Cops, read those patches!) The tale ended happily, with the urchin reporting he avoided the traffic ticket. Was this because of or despite the intimation of neo-Nazism? When it comes to hair spikes, what is the minimum threshold height for assuring law enforcement of no neo-Nazi entanglements? What is to be done to resist Portland's martial law? The urchin deboarded before speaking to these essential matters.


(9/7/99) Today's driver was so very, very disappointing. First he rolled right by a passenger waiting at a stop, not even pausing. The neglected would-be passenger was funny looking, with enormous glasses frames and way too many layers for the weather, so I attributed it to appearance filtering, the bus driver's inalienable prerogative. Several stops later, though, the driver's violations of form hit closer to home when he attempted to skip a stop for which the bell had been rung. The four or five passengers affected cried out together, and the bus stopped, a little beyond where it should have.
By now tensions were rising. What is this driver doing? Whose side is he on? Does he have a sight problem? A hearing problem? A tragic disconnect between mind and body? To the point, what would it take to get him to stop at the right stops? The passengers fell silent with trepidation. Even the child who had been tormenting her parents with purposeless wailing fell to nibbling her Chatanooga Chew bar in pensive silence.

To the relief of so many, the driver drew upon on his reserves of concentration and successfully fulfilled his dropping off and picking up -- until my stop. Maybe I overthought it. Maybe I took too much time calculating exactly where in the stop to pull the bell cord, and pulled it too late to allow the signal to travel into his ears, through his mental relays, and into the braking muscles. He didn't stop. He plodded forward, and just as he was about to accelerate, I snapped him back like rodeo calf with a second, more forceful tug of the cord and a shout of "need to stop here!" I omitted the subject because it was not just me, it was all of us, passengers and driver alike, knitted into the same cloth of driver-passenger obligation, and that, above all else, needed saying. If you think I overstate the drama of this situation, you forget that a bus driver who doesn't stop and open his doors is an abductor. The distance between civility and barbarity is measured in bus stops.


(8/26/99) Something wasn't quite right with the man who was shivering, rocking, gesticulating, and carrying on an animated conversation with the hairpiece of the person immediately in front of him. For his part, hairpiece man did not answer, nor even stir, on behalf of his hairpiece, but allowed the discussion to proceed as if he had no part in it. This was probably wise. Today's hairpieces are, if anything, independent, and the man addressing the hairpiece, being a man of principle, was not to be tangled with. Once again, this is a conversation I wish I had heard more clearly, but the only thing that came through was the dead-earnest question, "do you really want that? do you?" The hairpiece did not respond, at least not in any obvious way. The majority of bus riders, like the hairpiece's owner, have never passed through the particular door of perception that opens the way to congress with hairpieces. Surely we are poorer for it.

(8/24/99) Once again, the vagaries of my fast-paced career have granted me the chance to sample the sweetness of alternate bus routes, if only temporarily. When boarding a new bus, even one on the same overall system, one must mind and adjust to its prevailing human dynamics -- racial, sexual, class, etc. Or you can just sit there and bury your face in one of America's highly segmented entertainment newsmonthlies, as my initial seat partner did.
My travel was against the current of rush hour traffic, so human contact on this new line was sparse. I wouldn't complain about this but for the morning driver's penchant for screaming route information at the top of his mighty lungs. He literally made my ears ring with his "LAST STOP ON 5th AVENUE!" and such, and additional bodies to dampen the sound would have been a godsend. I wanted to move to another seat farther away from the driver, but I was afraid this would somehow provoke him to yell even louder. After all, a fundamental tenet of public speaking (of which route calls are a subset) is to make sure the most distant audience member can hear. I would have become that most distant audience member, and my ears ached enough without being a special target of his booming calls.


(8/17/99) Deranged Woman II made her debut today (see the 2/5/98 posting for an account of the original deranged woman). All was calm and well until she sprang from her seat almost into the lap of another woman who was knitting, and asked, "what you workin' on there?" I could hear it well because it was directly in front of me. The knitting woman could not hear it, however, since she was hearing-impaired. We all learned she was hearing impaired when DWII, having had a very good view of things from the woman's lap, declared, "Oh I didn't notice that thing in your ear -- WHAT YOU WORKIN' ON THERE?"
"Just some knitting," she answered, still adjusting her hearing aid.


The hearing impaired woman mumbled a response, but by now, DWII was in retreat, having seen the embarrassment she had stirred up. I winced as she slunk back into her seat, knowing that some sort of face-saving gesture was to come, and that I was among the nearby targets. Thankfully, she turned her attentions to her seat partner, who was trapped in the inside seat: "HOW WAS YOUR DAY TODAY?" still roaring, unaware that hearing impairment is rarely contagious.

A few stops later and she waddled off. It was only then that I got a good look at her: plaid shirt, mismatched plaid fisherman's cap, vest with many overstuffed pockets, pants held high and crooked by a belt that had missed two key beltloops in the back. She roared something at the driver (still best to assume everyone is deaf) who flashed the forced-happy look of years of customer service training, betraying his unspoken belief that "the customer is always a f**king dumbass."


(8/5/99) Today's bus ride featured real, honest-to-goodness, authentic buck toothed rubes! Hill people! Mountain folk! Active yokels! You get the idea. They consisted of a couple of indeterminate age -- the laws governing aging in the hill country are unique, such that ages 20 through 59 are indistinguishable.
The man wore a tattered, sleeveless t-shirt revealing partially tanned arms, proof that this is not his only shirt, thus a mark of status back home. His left arm bore two tattoos that showed every sign of having been self-administered. One was a shaky playboy bunny facing the wrong direction, telltale that it was done in a mirror. The other was a pot leaf that had at some point, perhaps on the eve of a court date, been half-assedly morphed into a star, the net result being a leafish star.

The woman, Rubenesque but for her inelegance, had long since formed the habit of perching her lips far forward to corral her misaligned, jutting incisors. She seeemed to know all the major swear words, and did not look as if she spent a fortune on her hair.

They jostled over who would handle their prized toy, a cellular phone. The man won possession, dialed a number, and announced with pride: "I am calling from the bus." Pause, giddy laughter, a hand cupped over the unphoned ear: "I AM CALLING FROM THE BUS!" He handed the phone to the woman, who made a few brief statements punctuated with her own giddy laughter, and the call ended. The cycle was repeated once more.

The power of nicotine was strong with them. He parked a ruffled cigarette behind his ear; she clasped one (unlit) in her fingers, poised for that first smoke-permitting microsecond.

United in their love for nicotine and the compelling magic of cellular technology, they entertained the bus without knowing it. I rarely laugh out loud on the bus, but this was special. I looked away from them as I laughed, of course -- the hillbilly fighting arts are never far from the flashpoint of display.


(7/30/99) We, the assembled morning commuters, are witnessing the slow death of heavy metal girl's hearing. She blasts her headphones at a level that allows the back half of the bus to follow the bass line and drum beat of her thrash metal favorites. As her hearing declines and she adjusts the volume to compensate, it is only a matter of time until we get the lyrics also. For those who look her direction, the beat is reinforced by her pigeonesque head bobbing that follows it as if to say, "my body is on the bus, but my mind is ROCKING OUT." There is also the possibility that she is deliberately destroying her eardrums, bus passengers being such an uncanny demographic.

(7/12/99) My morning ride to work was pleasant and unremarkable until I was snapped into a more alert state by the stench rising from a new passenger, who, of course, sat near me. I have often noted the smells of bus commuting, but this was a special new mix not previously encountered. Exact olfactory identifications are difficult in this age of potpourri run amok and chemically sophisticated scent masking sprays, but it seemed to be a combination of formaldehyde, sweat, shaving cream, and a sweet musk I associate with one of the more widely available men's fragrances, the kind dispensed from novelty bottles shaped like cars or deerheads and given as gifts to adolescent males who don't know better. He was not an adolescent, but he smelled like one that had been playing in the formaldehyde. Ah, the forbidden pleasures of youth.
To distract myself from the reduced oxygen intake, I tried to construct a scenario that would attach all of these smells to one 50-something bus rider. Perhaps he had dreams of becoming the next entrant in the vibrant potpourri/stink masking market, and reeked of his latest failed batch. Perhaps he had been teaching adolescent males how to shave in exchange for help with dissection in summer school biology. Or maybe he put in an extra long night at the taxidermy shop, fell asleep in his clothes, awoke and shaved hurriedly, noticed only too late there was no running water, and was forced to rinse with whatever was available, which happpened to be adolescent gift cologne. These things happen.

Whatever series of events lead him to smell this way, his next step was to board the bus heading downtown and occupy the seat directly in front of me.


(7/6/99) I am going to assume that the booming grinding sound coming from the rear of the bus was not a fart. This makes me more comfortable.
While I am on the subject of things I don't really want to know more about, there was this, muttered (loudly) to herself: "I'm fifty three years old! This is how I look! What do you want?"


(7/1/99) A stubbly faced, balding man made it clear to the driver and the front third of the bus that he would not, under any circumstances, vote for Hillary Clinton as Senator. This will matter -- slightly -- if she changes her plans and decides to run for Senate from Oregon, or in the unlikely event that he is registered to vote in New York. Still, she may still win his vote if she changes her loathesome position on the military draft (?) and reaffirms her heterosexuality, which he finds to be only weakly established. How a more forcefully expressed heterosexuality would make Hillary Clinton a better Senator was an article of political philosophy too obvious to explain; I suspect this thoughtful voter is overestimating his personal stake in who wins the next open Senate seat from New York, but perhaps he knows something I don't.

(6/22/99) Today's bus ride didn't just get me to work, it restored my faith in representative democracy. I saw the man who used to be my state representative walking his own dog, and more importantly, scooping up his dog's turds. A lesser politician from some corrupted regime would simply have left the turds in his neighbor's front yard, but that's not how it works here. What's more, he didn't do this with of some kind of polished hardware or high priced gadgetry, but employed the honest, straightforwardly democratic method of grasping the poop in his hand, covered only by a thin plastic glove, and dropping it in a simple paper bag he was carrying. I didn't see what he later did with the bag of dog crap, but that's not at issue here. If I started humming "America the Beautiful" as this scene unfolded outside my bus window, I can't be faulted.

(6/16/99) I wish I could have heard more of the discussion between the two crazies at the front of the bus today. The varied bits and pieces I picked up were tantalizing: the Kennedy's, Princess Diana, proposed etymologies of the N-word, judo vs. karate, the importance of self-esteem. It covered all of the above and much more, and it was thickly laced with obscenity from both. One was a woman carrying two enormous bags, the other a man with a t-shirt at least two sizes too small. At about every third obscene word, the woman sitting next to them looked up to flash an annoyed, embarrassed look toward the rest of the bus, to assure the other passengers that she was not 'of' them, only hopelessly near them in the way bus passengers sometimes must be to crazies. The sensible thing for me to do would have been to trade seats with her, to help her escape the madness and to help me get a better hearing, but caution won out. Conspicuous seat changes in the presence of the unstable is never wise. The shape of a twig probably set them off in the first place, so one can only imagine what a provocative social gesture might do. I have no doubt I will see them again, as their bus-borne relationship blossoms over the warmer months. It is, after all, a conversation that never has to end, since both talk endlessly but don't seem to hear. Ah, bus love.

(6/9/99) Today's ride home illustrated some kind of Law of Conservation of Crappy Little Kids, because just as one loud- and foul-mouthed toddler exited the bus, she was replaced by a brother and sister tandem who didn't like anything. They didn't like mom's seating suggestion. They didn't like sitting next to one another. They didn't like mom's minor threats and shushing. They didn't like the candy allotments. We, the passengers, didn't like them. But what to do?
Good options for dealing with noisy bus children are few. Eye-rolling and shunning of the parents seems to be the preferred socially/legally sanctioned way to strike back, though many of the older women (in particular) seem to be bursting to unload helpful parenting tips.

In any event, any shunning I was to do came to an abrupt end when the driver, in the thrall of a nasty brain-fart, forgot how to operate the wheelchair lift. He remembered enough to load the wheelchair-bound passenger on the bus, but not enough to re-seat the lift apparatus. He searched the McDonald's-esque pictographic bus driver control panel, but none of the colorful buttons seemed to point the way, so it became an exercise in random button-pushing (presumably guessing was a better option than leaving it blank at the bus driver final exams). All the mad button pushing resulted in four complete curb-to-bus cycles, the apparatus sadly raising its invisible payload from curb to bus over and over again, but this was all. The bus, its driver and passengers, were stuck. "This could be a while, folks" was the last of the driver's reassuring utterances I heard before getting out and walking the 20 blocks home.


(5/28/99) My seat partner on the ride home was one of the oldest-looking people I have ever seen in a non-Yoda context. She was very quiet and still, and the only direct evidence that she was alive took the form of a gentle wheezing sound. It struck me as odd that she had chosen a normal seat instead of one of the sideways-facing elderseats in the front of the bus, but I didn't want to intrude or waste her life energy by asking her about it. As the stops continued rolling by without a stir from her, I concluded she had either dozed off or perished, so I decided to arise from the seat rather noisily in order to 1) call obvious attention to the fact that I had been sitting next to her. If she was dead, I didn't want to sit next to her, but I also didn't want to seem to be sneaking away. 2) If she was asleep, I wished to awake her so she could deboard at the correct stop, or at least within miles of it. Naturally, I chose a seat from which I could observe her progress, and several blocks later, despite no apparent uptick in wakefulness or awareness, she sprang from her seat and glided off the bus with the speed and grace of someone a fraction of her age. It goes to show that the elderly are not to be trusted to conform to our first impressions, but as disappointing as it might be, must be evaluated on their individual merits.

(5/20/99) Because of time off for the arrival of Baby N, I have spent little time commuting by bus lately, but this does not mean I have lost contact with the public sector. Yesterday marked my first-ever visit to this locality's dump, or "landfill" as the high-brows call it, and it was a very positive experience.
When I arrived, the landfill attendent -- or "DumpMaster" if you will -- admonished me to cover my truck bed with a tarp next time lest I incur a $20 fine (or did he say $200?). I pretended to take him seriously, but my assortment of defunct exercise equipment, paneling scrap, and paint cans hardly seemed prone to wind scatter, and his warning served primarily to establish his authority as DumpMaster. Being a little out of my element for not having visited a municipal dump in several years, I sassed not.

By clever means of a huge enclosure resembling an aircraft hanger, the trash pit remains reasonably dry and the air does not teem with seagulls. The trash pit itself is recessed 15 to 20 feet below, so trash dumpers get to indulge a very satisfying "casting into the pit" of the hated refuse. The best part was placing a particularly loathsome piece of junk teetering on the edge of the abyss as if offering it a final chance for amends. The reprieve did not come. A sharp kick sent it sprawling into the pit, where it was later crushed under the treads of the pit tractor.

The pit tractor driver may be the true DumpMaster. He spends his day rolling his large tractor back and forth over the top of the trash accumulating in the pit, leveling it out, crushing what will be crushed, breaking what will break. The demented but pleased look on his face answers all questions about job satisfaction: surely this is an employee of the month assignment. Putting aside the stench, his only hazard is the overeagerness of the trash casters lining the sides of the pit. Were he not enclosed in steel and glass cage, several jagged pieces of refuse would hit him every hour.

None of this is to say the landfill attendants were pleasing to the eye, clean, or trustworthy-looking. I would not want to spend much time at the landfill or with the DumpMasters, but the few minutes I did spend were enriching. I hope to return soon.


(4/28/99) The bridge has been reopened -- no more detour! Bus riders are chatting and emitting odors with giddy abandon. The "aaaah" of relief as we crossed the bridge for the first time in 13 months was nearly audible, but was lost beneath what was truly audible, a pair of children wailing about having to go to Grandma's house. The excitement was such that the two people exiting the bus before me collided with the small tree the driver had thoughtfully aligned with the rear door; by now this unfortunate tree bears many bruises and scratches from overeager bus exits. The first passenger hit it with her right shoulder, the next overcompensated and hit it with her left. By careful attention to my footwork I avoided it successfully, not quite needing a spin maneuver I had planned.

(4/16/99) The two fragrant gentlemen sitting in front of me today showed that the worlds of bus commuting and fishing can intersect. One carried two fishing poles, the other a love for flounder meat and a flare for zoology. Listening to him was like watching one of those fishing shows ESPN airs when an appealing sports event is on another network, only we didn't have to wait until we got home to learn from it! "They're flat and they got two eyes on the side. I don't know how they do it but they do it" he said, captivating the front third of the bus. "They're good eatin' though."
The journey home was made complete by the argument between the driver and a woman whose tattoos outnumbered her teeth. The argument seemed to be over whether her transfer was valid, but I'm not certain. As of my exit from the bus, it was still ongoing and nonviolent.


(4/8/99) I have seen several bus driver shift changes lately, and today's driver handled it very typically. He drove like a maniac to his last stop, weaving in and out of traffic Indy 500 style, terrorizing smaller passenger vehicles, challenging the joints and muscles of the oldest and youngest passengers. When he at last arrived at his final stop, he spoke but a word or two to the driver waiting to replace him, as this was no time for chit-chat. After eight hours in the bus seat, the man had to get to a restroom and/or a designated smoking area. This is a stark reminder that the fate of each bus passenger rests on the thinning margin of the driver's nicotine urge and bladder capacity.

(4/5/99) I wasn't a witness to the sad event or massive alcohol abuse that disabled the tongues of my seat partners today, just to the mangled enunciation that is its legacy. The perfectly commonplace bus phrase "does Safeway sell rolling paper?" came out as "duh thay-fwa thuh ru-wa papa?" I couldn't understand the rest, but my seat partners understood one another's babblings. Indeed, they were in such perfect sync with one another that they wore the same style of blue jean jackets with the sleeves cut away, and no doubt had gone an equal number of weeks between shampooings.

(3/30/99) The bus was disappointingly crowded today, which always means I am under social pressure to cede my seat to the elderly, infirm, and uncomfortable of shoe. I mention I am socially pressured in this way, not that I accede to it. The single most important thing is to avoid eye contact with the standers -- their pleading eyes are the pathway to seatless ruin. I try to keep my eyes on the shoes people wear: a few wear fine work shoes, but most have learned to keep dedicated commuting footwear.

(3/23/99) There was a child on the bus today, and he had a dollar. He gazed into the face of the dollar and it inspired him to repeat something about George Washington to his mother/grandmother bus companion (she was too old to be the former, too young to be the latter). Despite several repetitions, what he was saying is a complete mystery, made so by the fleshy gap where his front teeth should have been. "Did Googe Wufington cud ho?" Does anyone know if George Washington cud ho? Cudded ho? Cud ho'd?
Later, the bus driver picked out another youngster toward the rear of the bus and accused him of doing something improper with a yellow line -- crossing it, not crossing it, something or other, I didn't grasp the particulars. The youngster's white trash father companion objected, calling the driver "Mr. Attitude," and moments later, his objections having degraded to muttering that only those nearest him could hear, "asshole." The bus can be a mishmash of cultural expectations, and conflict is almost inevitable. Back in the trailer park, it probably never matters which side of a yellow line young Cletus finds himself on, and as a consequence, the bus environment, with its arbitrary and strict protocols on yellow lines and against smokeless tobacco products, must seem like a rolling prison camp to Cletus and his Pa. The driver, for his part, would probably find the trailer park a noisy, frightening place where children scamper chaotically among the single-wides and double-wides, drinking from 7-11 cups that may or may not be their own, mingling with unclean dogs, paying no fares for anything.


(3/15/99) The peaked look on the face of the old man, the way he was a little hurried in getting off the bus, the way his head convulsed forward, and the splatter sound: these signs point either to a small vomit or a large loogie. Visual confirmation was impossible from my angle, and it didn't seem right to stand up or walk back to get a better view. The exact nature of the bodily function is less important than the realization that a fellow bus passenger did what he needed to do, and didn't allow mere public decorum to stand in his way.

(3/11/99) At a sudden stop of the bus, a standing passenger avoided falling, but tethered to the pole he gripped for support, he pivoted into a seated passenger, resulting in one of the ugliest of bus fortunes: butt-to-face contact, direct if not for a pale blue layer of threadbare denim. Both tried hard to pretend it had not happened: the collider by regaining his forward-facing posture, the collidee by staring into her book.
Later, I noticed the collidee's seat partner was watching a portable TV. No one seemed to take special notice of it, even though she seemed to be flashing it around rather ostentatiously. Does this herald an age of greater acceptance of bus-borne electronics? Or does this simply mark the final death of reading as a commuter's pastime? The TV is as small and light as any of Safeway's economy paperbacks, but delivers all the latest updates on local crime sprees and tire bargains more colorfully than any newspaper. Why, you could have the police artist's sketch of your seat partner beamed directly into your hands!

What of the future? The next technological step forward is a hand held TV-VCR combination, which will free the busy commuter of the local broadcasters' offerings. Is it any coincidence that our bus route passes a handful of video rental shops? If I am onto something here, what does the store promoting "adult DVD's" in the window portend?


(2/28/99) They moved my stop! The bus now stops several feet beyond the intersection it once stopped just before, meaning I no longer have to walk across the busy intersection. That's the good news, and I prefer to believe it was done to reward my years of faithful patronage of the local bus system, since, like any American, I think of myself when considering the causes of social changes big and small. The bad news is that the walked leg of my commute is now shorter by fifty to seventy feet, which will reduce my daily allotment of aerobic exercise. To avoid weight gain, I will need to reduce my food intake or make up the exercise elsewhere, perhaps with leg lifts as I sit on the bus -- which begs the question of why I haven't already been doing leg lifts on the bus.

(2/23/99) As usual, I was dozing on the way home, and as usual, something unpleasant greeted my first waking seconds. Today, it was the driver's stringent enforcement of the no pizza on the bus policy: "Another bus will be along in a few minutes!", he insisted, his hand jutted forth in the universal 'halt' position. The pizza chomping citizen halted as commanded, backed into the bus kiosk, and resumed chewing on his crust.
Later, someone kept making a noise that sounded like a butane lighter. I watched for a lick of flame and the scattering of bus riders, perhaps the crack and flash of small-scale fireworks, but it never came. Running through the fire escape scenarios in my head might have been wasted today, but surely it will pay off later. As it is with free throw shooting, visualization is critical to fire safety preparation: I imagine myself cradling my butter-soft briefcase against my head to protect against the impact of the crash caused by the fire panic, then using the hard side of the briefcase to break through the nearest available window of the overturned, flaming bus wreckage. More than a mere man-purse, the briefcase is a powerful, flexible tool for all emergencies. It also plays into oft-visualized scenarios of dog attack, stranded cat liberation, water landings, downed power lines, runaway vehicles, and so forth. Only a fool would commute by bus without one.


(2/17/99) Flag folding has declined as a special area of concern for our nation's elderly. This is my conclusion from watching the way a 70-something man yanked Old Glory from the flag pole and stuffed Her in a box. The box wasn't even specially made for the flag, but originally housed typing paper or something equally unpatriotic. I have seen better flag handling protocols by people 1/10th his age, but perhaps I am naive or ill-informed to expect flagwork to improve with age. None of this happened on the bus, of course, but I watched it from there as we passed, to divert attention from the otherwise obvious eavesdropping I was doing. The conversation coming from the seat behind me concerned the sexual politics amongst the employees of an area fast food establishment. Apparently, the assistant manager, Jim, is quite a catch but for his useless wife, Emily. Mark is cuter than Scott, but Scott and Jay are equally cute. Jennifer and Stacy are "dirty" in the sense of diseased venereally.

(2/10/99) A woman tilted sleepily forward, snapping awake a few times, trying in vain to keep awake by reading her women's magazine with the blaring headline, "My Mother Won't Stop Interfering!" It wasn't enough. Her head managed to stay cocked in a conscious position for only seconds at a time. At last, the depth of her sleep became such that she tilted sideways, her head collapsing into the shoulder of her seat partner. I wasn't close enough to assess the extent of drool transfer, but her seat partner's response was immediate. He arose and took the seat in front of him, a bold and direct repudiation of the sleepy seat partner. Most seat partner rejections are gentler than this: an newly opened seat is taken, or at most, the rejector moves to another seat partner behind, therefore invisible to, the rejected. Not today. The non-verbal exchange of signs among bus commuters is rarely more stark, and we all absorbed a lesson in the perils of dozing on the bus.

(2/9/99) I took a later bus in to work today, so I mingled with a non-commuter crowd. They were broken into two distinct platoons, starting with a loose coalition of elderly and misfits united by their quietly paranoid dispositions and unattractive hair. Soon the ridership was increased by a group of 15-20 school children and their two teacher-monitors. Both adults used Gen-x verbal markers like "cool" and the overuse of the word "like" to distance themselves from their disciplinary roles with a comforting layer of irony, but they still managed to keep the children seated, if scattered. It was nice how almost all the paranoics from the first platoon wound up with a grade school seat partner. Most bore it well -- to the naked eye, at least -- but one or two discovered a need to deboard early.
The Germans have a word for that song that gets lodged in your head: earworm. The street bugler's choppy, looping, slow Variations on When The Saints Come Marching Home was my earworm during the ride home.


(2/2/99) 1999's first face to face encounter with unstable street life took place today. I thought the homeless-looking man was just going to hit me up for spare change, possibly add a few words about how he only needs enough for a bus ride to someplace. But no, he wanted to discuss my clothes. It started as guy talk about ties. He made a comment about mine then laughed knowingly. I didn't understand what he said but I said "yea" and offered a half-assed empathy chuckle, hoping it would be the end of it. He then pointed to his very narrow 80's style tie and bragged about how little he had paid for it. I was not surprised at the stated price, but I tried to pretend to be. An uncomfortable moment or two passed, marked by my silent imprecations to the heavens that he board a bus other than mine. Soon enough his attentions turned to my coat, and his confidence in our relationship had grown to permit a more blunt line of questioning: "Nice coat. How much you pay for that?" "I dunno. I got it as a gift." Not true, but I felt our relationship was not ready for unadorned truth.
He didn't say anything about my pants, shoes, shirt, or undergarments. I wonder why? What's wrong with them?


(1/27/99) What is the deal with the woman who uses my morning bus stop as her carpooling rendezvous point? The bus kiosks were designed to protect fares-paying bus riders from the elements, not car passengers. It's an affront to the quiet dignity of all bus riders to see her misappropriating our infrastructure this way. The only way I can strike back for our side is to stand a little in her way as she's looking for her car to come. So that's what I do.
The poverty of her approach to commuting was illustrated by one of my fellow passengers who used his time on the bus to catch up on his flossing. Could a mere carpooler floss during the commute? And even if she could, would the interior of the car provide the lighting and the smooth ride necessary to examine the gunk pried loose by the floss? And even if so, what are the chances that the flossing would be done in the immediate physical presence of a complete stranger? In the face of withering rhetorical questions like these, I can't help but pity carpoolers.


(1/25/99) I don't know which Backstreet Boy the teen sitting near me was trying to imitate -- the one with the very chirpy cell phone, I gather.

(1/19/99) The conversation from a few seats over had a rhythmic quality: whisper whisper whisper "kiss my ass!" whisper whisper whisper "kiss my ass!" whisper whisper whisper.

(1/14/99) Overheard: "That McDonald's is selling burgers for 29 cents. 29 cents! I got about 10 of them. I ate three and threw the rest in the 'frig. I grew up in Chicago. I used to go to White Castle and get those 10 cent burgers. I'd get about 15 of them, they were just bite-size." The words may not be verbatim, but the enthusiasm for downmarket burgers is faithfully rendered, perhaps understated here. He could barely contain himself. What started out as chitchat with his seat partner quickly gained in volume and urgency until it became an ode to cheap meat that rang throughout the bus.

(1/5/99) When I declined to board the same bus as the woman carrying a caged rat, it was not out of anti-rat feeling but out of a simple, timeless bus truth: the fewer the passengers, the less the chances of encountering scary weirdos. Rat Lady's bus was almost full, and as much as I wanted to experience the mixed reactions to her rat, the crowded conditions compelled otherwise. I've long believed the bus needs a greater animal presence. Having a dog, cat, or even a tame reptile around would provide for companionship, distraction, and a scapegoat for the pee.
On the way home, I found myself in a semi-conscious state in which I couldn't tell if the snoring sound was coming from me or from someone else.


(12/23/98) Positioning himself as a combination of a bus driver, a hotel maid, and one of Santa's helper elves, our morning driver placed a candy cane in each seat. There are so many things wrong with this. First, I don't want to think about what was in the seat immediately before the candy cane. One can only expect so much protection from a plastic wrapper. Nothing is going from that seat to my mouth; I draw a sharp, clear line here. Next, does the driver expect the mere Christmas spirit to overcome the urge to pluck candy canes from all the seats, should the urge strike? Finally, and most importantly, the candy cane in my seat was cracked. Even before I sat on it.

(12/21/98) Oh how everybody LOVES mass transit when the weather turns sour. I refer to those who shun the bus until the weather turns icy, when they suddenly can't pack themselves too tightly into the aisles. The driver indulges their "flexible" opinion of mass transit by allowing them to board, despite the unfamiliarity of their faces, their inability to master the paying of fares, and the other subtle mistakes and faux pas that mark them as bus-inexperienced. Making it worse, so long as there's room to exhale and inhale, the driver reasons there's room for another passenger. I say: seats for pass holders only. Everyone else on top, lashed into place like so much bus luggage, or dragged behind on sleds.

(12/10/98) I was feeling a little adventurous today, so I didn't hesitate to sit in the conspicuously empty seat marred only by several drops of water-looking wetness. What's a little water, I said to myself, and so what if it's urine. A seat partner pinned me in the inside seat before second thoughts could prevail. Soon I learned why the other riders had eschewed this seat. The problem wasn't with the existing wetness, but with its headwaters in a leak just above the seat. Each time we stopped or turned right, several new drops poured forth from above, landing on my arm, my shoulder, sometimes even my head. Soon half my body was soaked and the other dry, and I resembled some kind of weather stroke victim.
What to do? Changing seats just to avoid the water would smack of retreat, and the bus home is no place for humility, much less is it a wise place to display signs of weakness. Worst of all, rising from my seat would make it easy for all to see my half-soaked person, even those who hadn't yet noticed my peril. To them I was just another bus rider, not some half-wet, half-dry freak. They were my dignity; they were all I had.

So I played through, silently cursing each stop and right turn. Eventually, my seat partner exited from the bus, allowing me to shift to the center of the seat, out of the direct path of the water, where I brushed away as much standing water from my shoulder and arm as possible. I waited a minute or two for additional drying, swallowed my pride, arose, and took another seat. No one said anything. No had to say anything. Today, I was the spectacle.


(12/7/98) I was snapped awake by a toddler who was squeezing her chihuahua doll, forcing it to mutter something about Gorditas over and over again. The success of Taco Bell's line of collectible chihuahuas, coming at the zenith of the incomprehensible Beeny Baby phenomenon, can only mean one thing for bus commuters and society generally: more stuffed miniatures that recite fast food slogans when pressure is applied to their abdomens. My bus line has a Taco Bell, Arby's, Dairy Queen, Subway, Burger King, and a KFC within a block of the route, so the urgings to "collect them all!" has a certain inevitability. More ad-friendly plush toys are sure to be pressed into my face and clenched hard enough to unburden serving suggestions.
The rent-a-cop sitting toward the front of the bus did nothing to deter this behavior. Nor any behavior. He was trying to look authoritative but the command presence was undercut by his cheap sub-cop sneakers, and his ragged sports franchise tote bag.


(11/24/98) I had to walk by the sidewalk smokers today because the new route was blocked by someone rooting through a dumpster. From the deepest reaches of the doorwell where the rain had driven them, one of the smokers croaked something, I don't know what, in my direction as I passed. I replied with an perfunctory "good morning" and, after a slight pause, a noncommittal "yeah" that attempted to acknowledge whatever had been croaked without actually engaging it. A few quick giant steps placed me out of conversational range, and eventually onto the bus piloted by Midge. Whatever her faults as a bus driver, most of them stemming from her middling depth perception and flagging reflexes (see 9/21/98 post), Midge is always timely, usually a smooth braker, a reasonably courteous driver, indulgent (but not too) of riders who are running late to their stops, and rarely one to condescend or snip when instructing someone in the finer points of bus ridership. In short, and I mean this respectfully, Midge gives good bus.

(11/17/98) I finally realized whom our morning driver reminds me of: the eldest, most decrepit of the Golden Girls. I forget the character's name -- Golden Girls always struck me as covering ground better covered in Maude and Mama's Family, so I never paid close attention -- but the driver demands the name "Midge."

(11/11/98) I would like to make some obvious points about the bus as a dating "scene." The poor and near-poor have so few convenient opportunities to meet potential mates: cotillions, balls, and socials are painfully rare, and the closest thing to a coming out party is when someone signals reaching the age of consent with an airwards rifle report that rattles all the trim in the trailer park. This is where the bus comes in, one of its many functions. Two recent pairings deserve comment.
First, two young adults exchanged mildly to irritatingly free-form flirtation until, in a sloppy faux pas, the female began expanding on the numerological associations of her wedding date. The flirty comments stopped cold, replaced only with the whir of the bus, punctuated with a clipped goodbye when the male deboarded.

The other pairing revolves around an incredibly ugly middle aged man's obsession with a slightly older woman. Daily, or so it seems, the ugly man tries to maneuver his way into the attention span of the woman, by sitting next to her if possible, and she tries to avoid the same contact. Two days this week, for example, she managed to have a large box occupying the seat next to her, and undeterred, the ugly man forced a conversation with her. He seems immune to fundamental hints of disinterest, while she seems immune to the charms of the wretchedly ugly.


(11/5/98) Clearly, I'm sleeping more and deeper on the bus than I think I am, because once again, an enormous man unaccountably materialized a few seats in front of me (see the 4/22 post for the first instance of this phenomenon). Being too large and orange to overlook, I know he wasn't there when I boarded, but he was certainly there during the last quarter of the ride. Alien abductees are familiar with these episodes of 'lost time,' and they represent their first, best evidence of the abduction experience. The dozing bus rider perceives time and external data in much the same fragmented, disconnected way. And the risk of unwelcome rectal probing is roughly equal.

(10/29/98) The only thing keeping me awake was the powerful stench of my seat partner: a noxious mixture of malt liquor, cigarettes, chewing gum, and nameless filth. I pretended to read, but I was really just trying to keep my breathing steady. The bus was full and I was in the window seat, so moving to another seat wasn't possible; the heavy rain made opening the window impractical. I was left with no choice but to suffer, and to breath deeply when he finally deboarded.

(10/21/98) There was a very sticky liquid on the floor beneath my seat today. I would like to assume it was cola or something equally innocent, but it is not in the nature of commuting by bus to be certain about such matters.

(10/13/98) I shall christen him Spitting Man. Slowly, methodically, he shoved the bus window open several inches, hawked a loogie, and spat it into the street. The rest of the passengers fidgeted, tried to look away, and pretended not to notice. What most of them missed, but I observed, was Spitting Man's second giant loogie, disgorged into the street shortly after he deboarded.

(10/12/98) For some reason, a woman sitting two seats in front of me kept reading and re-reading the same small section of the newspaper. I suspect she was confusing the newspaper reading experience with the TV watching experience, believing that the pages of the newspaper would have different words on them the next time she flipped through them. Not so. In reading over her shoulder, I was forced to read the same tedious headlines over and over, while the rest of the paper, with all the promise of unread headlines, sat parked underneath her ass, unavailable. Of course I was tempted to ask her to pull out a different section, but it's not my place as an over-shoulder reader to determine the pace or content of the reading.
Why was she trying to appear to be reading? Another intractable bus mystery.


(10/9/98) Most people exited the front of the bus today because of the freak hovering within drooling distance of the rear exit. He was large, frizzy-haired, wide-eyed, and wore a very unsettling, eager smile. I'm tempted to compare him to a spider, but he was "ethnic," and perhaps because of Charlotte's Web, I think of spiders as being very white-bread. And female.

(9/29/98) Today, when low-lying branches kept the rear doors from closing and threatened to delay the commute home, I heroically rose from my seat and did what needed to be done: impromptu pruning. I knew the assortment of old coots and befuddled ugly people weren't going to get off their butts, and besides, I never liked that tree. It's on a hill, and when it gets cold, it shades the sidewalk, protecting the ice from the sun. Despite my ill feelings, I acted with moderation, tearing off no more of the tree limb than was absolutely necessary to permit the door to close. I make no promises for next time.

(9/21/98) This morning's ancient driver came within feet of taking a closed offramp, noticed her error, then came within inches of hitting a concrete lane barrier. The tires of the bus actually squealed as we stopped. Fortunately for me, I would have been cushioned by my butter-soft briefcase on impact. Eager to reestablish her legitimacy and authority as bus driver, she began tailgating an even more confused commuter, honking angrily at her tiny Honda as we turned a corner. All doubts were silenced.

(9/18/98) Driven to suicidal extremes by the return of dank fall weather, a squirrel darted wildly in and out of rush hour traffic. I watched with all the interest I would grant a reality-based TV special, but the stick-to-the-route professionalism of the bus driver betrayed little concern for the squirrel's fate. As we passed over it, I felt for a slight bump, but didn't feel one. I don't know whether we missed it or thoroughly and instantly flattened it, but I'm sure a squirrel that reckless is dead by now. Watch for the footage on the inevitable "When Animals Make Bad Decisions."

(9/10/98) As I walked home from the bus stop, a shirtless skinhead-looking teen eyed me as I passed him and finally asked, "are you a Jehovah's Witness?" He must have thought so because of my tie and white shirt, since, at the time, I was not engaged in even the subtlest door-to-door religious exhortations. I giggled and said No, but he seemed skeptical. I chuckled and said No again, but realized that I would only convince him by walking on and quoting no scripture. So that's what I did.

(9/7/98) A change in the crosswalk near my bus stop has forced a slight change in my morning route that takes me out of the sidewalk smokers' orbit of control. Unless they readjust their smoking practices, I never need to cross their patch of sidewalk again! This is monumental! I am most grateful for the the far-sighted urban planners who made this possible. The extra several hundred feet I have to walk to the bus stop is a small price to pay for my reclaimed freedom.

(8/18/98) An elderly woman carrying groceries forced a pre-teen back down the bus stairs with a petulant "Could I get off the bus?!?" Ettiquette is on her side here, of course. Those boarding the bus must always yield to those leaving, unless scary, drugged up weirdos are involved. The stunned look on the pre-teen's face signaled a lesson learned.

(8/13/98) A youngish Down's syndrome sufferer spoke loudly of his intention to "marry a good, clean Christian wife." His repetition of this exact phrase gradually wore down the two or three older women who tried good-naturedly to change the subject.
Not much has been happening on the bus, so I'll describe my latest dream about Bill Gates. Somehow, he heard about some of the things I've been doing at work, so he invited me to his office on the Microsoft "campus" for an interview, which we entered via a Batmanesque network of caves and elevators. Before we could get to talking turkey, he was called away on some important corporate business, so his wife stepped in to entertain me. We went shopping for the finest in produce, cheese, and fish at Pike Place Market in Seattle, and rest assured price was no object. The striking thing about my experience with Mrs. Gates in Pike Place Market was how I never looked at her face.

Before anything else could happen, the neighbor dog disrupted the dream with pointless barking. I need a dog whistle. True, this has nothing to do with commuting by bus, but you clicked the hyperlink.


(7/30/98) The putative queen of the smoking sidewalk urchins has named her heir: another smoker, not quite so old, but with an equally strong sense of greeting entitlement (for additional background, search this page for words like "smoking", "sidewalk," "urchin," and "cigarette"). The summer weather has teased them out of the burrow of their odd hostel, and together they demand my greetings on a maniacally routine basis. I find myself longing for rain only so it will drive them indoors and break up this particular rut.
The walk up the block toward the smoker urchins has become unpredictable. Most of these walks are uneventful, save for barking dogs and collisions with spider webs joining low-hanging branches. The orangutan woman has not been out for weeks, replaced occasionally with a much younger, fatter, more bug-eyed person whose strangely labored gait is characterized by an extreme backward lean. A slight breeze toward her face would knock her to the ground; and judging by how slowly she walks, the time she'd spend getting back up could be measured in minutes. Suffice to say wisdom favors walking the sidewalk opposite her. Other mornings there's an old fart who waters his driveway, and always seems on the verge of saying something testy. Territorial pissings? I can't know. Perhaps, despite my office attire, he associates me with the heating and cooling specialists who park their trucks in front of his house most days. Each morning is a slightly different variation on the same obstacle course, a complex set of challenges that sets the stage for the bus ride to come.

Speaking of, today's ride to downtown was interrupted by a mechanical failure of the hydraulic door closing mechanism. (For our safety, the bus will not drive if the doors are not securely closed. This ensures that anyone lodged in the doors will not be accidentally released to tumble into oncoming traffic.) The door failure was not cured in the usual manner, a cold reboot of the bus, so we were ejected and asked to wait for the next one. As we filed out, some suck-up violated my "blame the driver" mood by wishing her a better rest of the day. Nothing grates against a nice session of finger-pointing, recrimination, and ill-feeling like an expression of compassion, forbearance, and understanding.


(7/28/98) On the hottest day of the year, the put-upon riders of my route were given a bus without A/C. The only distraction was interpreting the Rorschach designs imprinted in sweat on people's backs, but the novelty wore off quickly. It was a ride that begged for distraction not only from the heat, but from the rodentine fellow trying to impress his seat partner with witty chatter. He claimed to notice for the first time the lion gargoyles on the building we were passing. While this may have been sincere, it was probably a ruse to get her to look up so he could get a clear look at her chest. I dozed off trying not to listen to him talk about how easy it is to startle wild horses, or some such.

(7/20/98) Today I saw one of the most talkative people I've ever seen in my history of commuting by bus. She had many stories to tell, and they all blended seamlessly into one sprawling filibuster of a story. It began, somehow, as a story of her son who works at one of the local honey baked ham concerns, and how he rejected his boss's demand for weekend hours, emboldened by the tight labor market we're always hearing about. Somehow this evolved into a discussion of the relative merits of Prego, Ragu, and other retail tomato sauces. Apparently Ragu has come out with a multi-cheese pasta sauce that's to die for. By turns the account became autobiographical, whence we learned of the woman's love of Bingo -- "never for money, always for the prizes!" -- and of her most treasured winnings, a "beautiful blonde doll." This led to the most poignant and revealing moment of her narrative: when she brought the doll home, "I told my son, 'Now you have a sister!'"

(7/13/98)The calm of our slow crawl through the street detour was shattered when an animated man flagged the driver's attention with his tie-dyed shirt sleeves to ask, angrily, "where does this bus stop!?!" To which the driver mumbled something I couldn't hear and closed the bus door. Tye-died man stomped away snorting obscenities and waving his colorful arms. When he reached the sidewalk next to Winchell's, his anger was increased by the sight of a trash can, which he bearhugged, lifted, and slammed to the concrete, accompanied by more foul-mouthed roaring. He taught that trash can a lesson it won't soon forget.

(7/8/98) "Put your elbows inside the bus. Pass it back." Thus did today's bus driver use eighth grade schoolgirl tactics in communicating with the ruffian who was taking liberties with his elbow. Though I was perfectly positioned to pass the message along, I declined to accept the deputization. A cranky old woman sitting a row or two ahead of me did the honors. That's what cranky old people are good for. I admired the way she carried out her duty: the stiff, mechanical way she rotated toward the back of the bus; the glazed, vacant look in her eye as she barked the words. For her, it was not an exercise in dictating policy to her fellow bus riders, but a crude, rote, unfeeling gesture -- another fart.

(6/18/98) Overheard from the back of the bus: "I clean my ears with everything!"

(6/16/98) The only open seat on the ride home was next to a woman with thick lenses that made her eyes look tiny. I took the seat, but soon regretted it when she decided she had missed her stop, more or less shoved me into the aisle in getting up, and bum-rushed the driver with a gesticulating, woeful plea to be set free from the bus. The driver obliged, and I watched her mouth obscenities as she stepped to the curb.
Given the time of day, I knew I would have to move into the window seat she had vacated. Hesitantly, I slid over, and found the seat was dry. I wish my concern with stray bodily fluids on the bus was misplaced or exaggerated. It is not.

Casual eavesdropping kept me awake most of the rest of the way home. Someone was singing the praises of step aerobics; someone else reported that since he has stopped eating grapefruit in the morning, he finds that he is less sleepy in the afternoon. "But I'm still a believer in eating fruit," he concluded, determined not to let the power of his testimony sway the young against the importance of good eating.


(6/12/98) Lately I've fallen into a pattern of sleeping on the bus home. I fight against it, but sleep is stronger. It's a victory when I don't slump into the lap of my unsuspecting seat partner or coat my chin with drool. Who knows? Maybe I'm the subject of someone else's commuting journal. Obviously, the dozing curtails the freak patrol, eavesdropping, sniping, and other reportage that has been the substance of this journal.
Sleepytime perceptions are notoriously fleeting and fragmentary. Today, even as I passed in and out of consciousness, I noticed how my seat partner pinned her knees against the back of the seat in front of us. Something compelled her to avoid foot contact with the bus floorboard -- wearing shoes wasn't enough. What she might fear, I don't know. Somewhere along the way, as I looked out the window and rolled my eyes to try to force them to stay open, I noticed a very fat man walking shirtless on the sidewalk. He was an outy. Struggling for something that would provoke full consciousness, I tried to picture the world through his eyes: what might have inspired him to walk down the sidewalk, shirtless and fat, in the early evening? I fell back asleep before arriving at any conclusions. Later, I tried to read the KFC menu. Do they still do chicken right? Sleep returned. And so it went, a typical bus ride home lately, in and out of consciousness, arriving at my stop with a sore neck from all the chin-dropping. It's a shame.


(6/2/98) Initially, I sat in front of an old woman who was muttering and ruffling a plastic bag, but moved across the aisle when I smelled something. It may not have been her, it might have been something in the seat, or something drifting in the air, but I took the open seats just in case. The smell subsided. Cause or mere correlation?
Today's driver was seemed too good to be true, even if he did wear a stringy beard with no mustache, Judge Bork style. He personally thanked everyone who got on the bus, and announced that we were on the express not once but several times. As we started across the bridge, he asked if anyone was on jury duty. No one knew what he was getting at, so we sat silent. My suspicions ranged from 'he's about to tell a jolly story' to 'this is how hostage situations begin'. He broke the suspense by saying that someone serving on jury duty had written a praiseful letter to his supervisor, and he (the driver) was most thankful. At this point I was still unsure of whether he was really this bubbly or if he had achieved a perfected state of sarcasm. Only later, as the driver reiterated his thanks to every passenger as they left the bus, did I decide he was just damn happy.

On her way off the bus, a woman paused near two moderately filthy men seated behind and across from me, pointed toward the front of the bus, and said something about a towel. I don't know what I missed, but I'm sure it was unsavory.


(5/30/98) On weekends, the quality of the bus passengers declines right along with the quantity. The hopeless, the unemployed, the unemployable, lost country folk, and the extremely old make up the ridership. Speaking of the latter, call me callous, but you may be too old to use public transit if you have to deboard using the wheelchair lift instead of walking down the stairs. And you may be too ugly if you look like a cross between David Lee Roth and Yoda, as one man did.

(5/26/98) I wish the weather would improve, we have too many weather-related passengers in the morning. This clogs the otherwise empty seats I regard as an entitlement due a monthly pass bearer.
The driver on the ride home showed none of the boring commitment to consistency or quality of his co-workers. We overshot the normal bridge detour by two blocks, then rolled down the street in whichever lane was least opportune.

His distractions were increased by the urgent bell ringing of those who missed his whisper-quiet announcement of the express nature of the bus, but he stood firm against the demands. In these situations, the wronged passengers tend to keep quiet until the bus reaches the first stop before sharing their feelings. Most of the time, a scowl of disapproval is all there is. Today, however, a woman kidnapped for an extra 20 or so blocks on the express left the bus with a single word: "Dick."

By the end of the route, Dick's ability to perceive and respond to the stop bell had been severely compromised, and it was anyone's guess where or if he'd stop. The bus stops are clearly marked with highly visible street signs, and the stop bell itself is reinforced by a colorful readout just above the driver's head: it wasn't enough. He didn't bother stopping at my stop, but the squeals of displeasure coming from others forced him to reconsider, just in time to deposit us across the intersection I normally have to cross on foot. Score!


(5/5/98) Today was marked by some unusual sidewalk drama, as the orangutan woman (see 3/9/98 post) was spotted making her way down my side of the street. I slowed my pace so as not to pass her, and with the help of her substantial head start, we reached the smoker's sidewalk patch at about the same time. One of her fellow smokers asked her why she had walked down the other side of the street. I couldn't make out the answer, but I'm sure it included the word "cigarette." Without any further context, this gave me no additional insight into the lives, outlooks, hopes, fears, or motivations of the smoking sidewalk urchins. All I really know is that cigarettes and greetings are very important to them.

(4/30/98) A few stops after I boarded the bus home, a middle aged woman played the bug-in-your-hair game with the old man sitting across the aisle from me. The bug-in-your-hair game is where you pretend someone has a bug in their hair when they really don't. She actually took it to the point of rubbing his head a little. While he was above-average for bus passenger cleanliness, I don't think I would have touched his head voluntarily.
Toward the end of the same ride home, a heavily tattooed, bald, shirtless male got on the bus carrying a home-made plywood bookshelf (or workbench?). The fashions revealed a tough guy, while the workbench/bookshelf unit expressed a practical, domestic side. It was a spectacle that said, "I'm a bad-ass who's ready to settle down."


(4/22/98) Fighting to come fully awake in time for my stop, I noticed a man with a canvas bag full of cans and bottles dominating the front of the bus. At first, I questioned whether I was dreaming, since he was so large that I should have remembered when he boarded. He was poking and staring at a small device he held very close to his face -- I couldn't tell if it was a calculator, a PIM, or one of those hand-held video poker games, but he found it absolutely enthralling. As I left the bus, I noticed how dangerously sharp his facial stubble looked.
We seem to have a different driver every day lately. Today's driver annoyed me with his poor grammar: "this bus don't make no stops until 39th avenue"; yesterday's driver annoyed me by making this same announcement after it was too late for anyone to switch to another bus.


(4/17/98) The story of today's bus ride was the story of a puddle of goo. Just before I sat in it, I noticed the wetness welling in the bottom of my first choice of seats, so I picked the slightly less appealing seat just behind it and began monitoring for the inevitable excitement.
It pays to examine bus seats before sitting in them. Three successive passengers approached the seat, noticed the goo just in time, and moved to another seat. It was interesting to note how all of them, like me, pretended not to notice anything wrong with the seat, but just casually turned and took another one. No one wanted to take responsibility for the goo, nor tell the driver about it. Speaking only for myself, I avoided saying anything to the driver for fear of being inculpated in keeping with the "guilty dog barks first" theory we always observed in grade school. We said nothing, tacitly agreeing that it should be someone else's problem. Passenger #4 was that someone else. He sat in the center of it, but to my disappointment, didn't notice that he had done so (or very sucessfully concealed the realization). Several stops later, when he arose from the seat, the entire goo puddle had been transferred to his coat. Thus are city buses cleaned.


(4/10/98) Riding the bus has taught me how popular Frito-Lay variety packs really are. Two days this week, I've seen separate riders carrying grocery bags containing a Frito-Lay variety pack. (Careful readers will remember my report of another passenger with a Frito-Lay variety pack; see the 9/10/97 post.) Above and beyond what may be the intrinsic appeal of the product -- moderate portion sizing, colorful design, and yes, variety -- something in Frito-Lay's marketing of the variety pack has spoken to bus riders.
One of these riders also bought a copy of TV Guide at the grocery store and read it on the bus. Of course, everyone enjoys keeping up with Cheers and Jeers, but the noteworthy thing here was that she was reading the programming listings, and did so for several minutes. There's something unsettling about someone who is so committed to planning her TV viewing that it can't wait until the groceries have been unpacked. It raises the question of why she is not a subscriber to TV Guide; which in turn raises a concern that if she's too poor to subscribe to TV Guide, should she be buying it at the newsstand price? And shouldn't she be taking advantage of the economies of scale decidedly not present in a Frito-Lay variety pack? Of course, it's her life to lead as she chooses; I speak only as a concerned fellow passenger and citizen.


(4/7/98) A tiny woman sat down next to me and went to sleep immediately. Her body folded, bobbed, rocked, tilted, and swayed with the motions of the bus, but she managed not to touch me or fall into the aisle. I can only guess that she has spent many years perfecting this balancing act, with many failed attempts in her past. It raises the important question of what to do when you doze off on the bus and fall into the aisle. Do you just curl up on the floor and pretend it was intentional? Do you sit up and begin reading, to create the impression that you just decided to sit on the floor? Do you scowl at the driver as if to cast blame at the sharpness of his turns and suddenness of his stops? As someone prone to dozing off on the bus, I need a plan.

(4/1/98) Lately I've noticed a new wierdo whose specialty is fidgeting. When she sits, she digs through her purse as if searching for something. As the bus begins to fill, she starts changing seats each time the bus comes to a stop. This continues until seating is too limited to change seats reliably, so she stays in place and digs in her purse until she deboards. Because she looks normal and doesn't say anything, it's a very subtle, attenuated brand of wierdness -- nothing betrays it except for this behavior, which is not immediately apparent. The pattern emerges only after fairly prolonged observation. I have no way to prove, but suspect that her fidgeting happens across buses: fidget, deboard, board the next bus, fidget, etc. She could do this all day and no one would really know.
Since the normal bridge my bus uses has been closed for repairs, the route will cross another bridge for the next year. The transition has been unexpectedly smooth -- so far.


(3/30/98) World's Funniest Commuting Mishaps: the driver and a chatty woman swapped anecdotes of bus passengers falling down on each other. The driver seemed weirdly proud of a career full of sudden stops. She-chats-a-bunch then severely punctured the truth in the retelling of an incident from a few months back in which a passenger allegedly injured herself in the course of exiting from the bus. I was there, and all I can say is that, if she really "fell out of the bus," this unlucky passenger somehow managed to fall all the way from the bus doorway to a spot across a four-lane street. Quite a fall! When the chatty passenger arose from her seat to deboard, two or three pennies fell out of her pockets, which she gathered and offered to a non-English speaking passenger. The way the recipient smiled so joyously reminded me of some stereotype-riddled newsreel from the '40's.

(3/27/98) I like to read on the bus. The problem is, because of the crowded nature of the bus seats, I have to place the reading material in my lap and look down from my upright sitting position. This is an uncomfortable position for my tender neck. While dozing intermittently, I thought today about my need for a rack system mounted on my head that would position the reading material directly in my line of sight, no matter which direction I turn my head. Hands-free reading! But here's the catch: it needs to blend in with the texture and appearance of a city bus so that the other passengers will not notice it. It's not simply a question of their becoming jealous and hostile; no, it's also that I would fear looking like a freak. To the other passengers, ideally, it would appear as if my reading material is floating mid-air in front of my face. This will convert their jealous, hostile, and derisive thoughts to ones of awe, reverence, even adulation. After all, a little fear never hurt anyone (for purposes of the present discussion). On the other hand, if a convincing camouflage is an unattainable dream, benefits may still accrue from a visible apparatus. Maybe the bus driver would take the headset as evidence of a physical handicap, and, frightened by paranoid Reader's Digest articles about the Americans with Disabilities Act, would escort me, arm in arm, to the seat of my choice.

(3/25/98) More mind games with the sidewalk smokers. This morning's obligatory "hello" from the chief urchin was more than a little strained, and I would even say sarcastic. I don't need this crap. They're free to take their cigarette smoking inside or around the corner to another patch of sidewalk. Or they can simply ignore me, which would save me the trouble of addressing them, and spare them the disappointment over my lack of enthusiasm. Maybe I should go the other way and start offering to hug them. I don't know.

(3/24/98) At first my seat partner's look only said "I'm not sure I like the idea of sitting next to you." That didn't bother me; a little paranoia is a healthy thing. But minutes later, when her look changed to "I'm shitting my pants right now," that's when I decided to move to a newly opened seat.

(3/19/98) Apparently new to planet earth, or maybe just to life in the city, my seat partner expressed wonder that someone would be playing a guitar on the sidewalk. The performer's choice of the Beatles' "You've got to hide your love away" was somewhat novel, I suppose, but the performance did not warrant wide-eyed awe on any level. Rather than taking issue with her countrified critical sensibility, I responded with my standard anti-chitchat body language.

(3/18/98) A thickset man with curly red hair poked his head into the bus only long enough to reassure the driver that "she's not here, she went to the store. She's not here. OK!"


(3/12/98) Two disheveled men got on the bus at the same time, so it wasn't possible to isolate which one was responsible for the overpowering whiskey smell that boarded with them. Both looked and acted drunk. The first took a seat very slowly and deliberately: all the caution of a man who's been subjected to a sobriety test or two. The other parked himself near the driver, faced the other passengers, and began talking to no one in particular. I was too far away to hear all of it, but I could tell he was leaping topic to topic with senile abandon: "400 horses" .... "over in Reno" .... "T-formation" .... "now that's saying something" .... "lower than the pidgeons."


(3/9/98) Remember that long string of Clint Eastwood movies from the early 1980's featuring comical orangutans? Well, their physical style is visually recalled to me each morning I encounter the old woman on my way to the bus stop. Knees bowed outward, her arms sprawl wide apart in perfect orangutan simile as she attempts to walk while holding a cup of coffee, a cigarette, a purse, and a newspaper on her way to the smokers' hostel. Since she walks at about half my slowest speed, I have little choice but to pass her on the sidewalk, and this elicits surprisingly hateful scowls (from her). The exchanges are likely only to get uglier, so I've decided to walk on the other side of the street -- the side with the burned-out house, more dogs, and no doubt other unforeseen troubles. We'll see how that works.


(3/5/98) On the way in to work, two loud talkers swapped beer drinking stories up to and beyond the point of passenger saturation. Most people start to quiet down as the bus fills to capacity, but these two were too committed to their tales of beer-fueled manhood. Both agreed that Budweiser is the lowest of acceptable beers, suitable for non-paying guests and visitors. One boasted of "plunking down 150 bucks" on beer over a typical weekend.
The smell of gin vomit kept me awake all the way home.


(3/4/98) One familiar, witless ruse for avoiding the bus fare is to pretend you can't find your pass, and to pretend searching for it as the bus rolls on. Today's entertainment took the form of this charade, spiced with an extra peepshow element. As our hero turned and twirled to fish through each of his many pockets looking for that "missing" bus pass, we received a spectacularly clear view of his crotch region through the large hole in his pants.
On the way home, a woman shattered the illusion of her sanity by issuing a string of loud, angry, mumbling obscenities on her way off the bus. It seems to have been directed at the driver judging from her (the driver's) sarcastic "have a nice day!" rejoinder. I think the crazy woman was the same one who sometimes wears hair curlers on the bus, but I'm not sure.


(2/27/98) No one sat next to Stinking Man today. He was one of only two people on the whole bus without a seat partner. The other was an old woman; I couldn't perceive anything obviously wrong with her that made others avoid her, but there must have been something. Maybe she just looked too eager for a seat partner.


(2/23/98) A woman wearing too much denim sat next to me and soon found herself in a troubling dilemma. Should she continue sitting next to me even as new seats open up, or should she bolt, and risk seeming to reject me as a seat partner? Niceness is taken very seriously here, sometimes a little too seriously. I wanted her to get up, but my strong anti-chitchat urge was stronger. She stayed in the seat, which soon became awkward, since in the end, we were surrounded by several completely open seats. The overture of fidelity felt a little too strong by then, and I was glad to be exiting.


(2/20/98) A leather jacketed ruffian almost slipped and fell on his butt as he boarded. He made up for the loss of face by using various forms of the word "fuck" for the next few minutes.


(2/13/98) On the way in to work, I sat next to a young woman who used the word "karma" entirely too much, and who applauded her own statements (literally). On the way back home, a man and a woman, obviously coworkers, conducted an overloud, overpersonal conversation, the first portion of which was the man's he-doth-protest-too-much justification of leaving work 15 minutes early. He felt it necessary to explicate the entire relations of production as he saw them, with statements of broad social scope like "work is important, but family should come first." His extended apologetic for taking time off from work was wasted on his coworker, who eventually succeeded in changing the subject to matters more personal. Whereupon the man began providing immoderate levels of detail concerning the father-daughter hootnanny he was to attend later that evening. Were I a stalker looking for a new target, this man would have given me a substantial head start. I would have a firm grasp of two or three of his deepest insecurities along with details of time, place, and personal history.


(2/10/98) A man with a very red face, and particularly red ears, annoyed me and his seat partner by making constant small talk. His seat partner just wanted to read her issue of Consumer Reports, and I just wanted to read it over her shoulder. The man with red ears wouldn't have it. When he finally left the bus, I learned of CR's recommendation of Samsung among 19" and 20" TV sets. They're wrong. We have a Samsung and it's a piece of crap.
So, how did I fill the anxious, tedious moments while Mr. red ears was chattering and I couldn't get a good look at his seat partner's Consumer Reports? Aside from marvelling at the deep red of Mr. red ears' ears, I watched the rain water trickle into the "sealed" window of the new bus (lemon). I also noticed that someone had dropped two Cheese Puffs on the floor, perhaps a measure of their disrespect.

My seat partner seemed genuinely relieved when I got up from my aisle seat to let him off the bus. I always wonder about riders like this, of what nasty seat partnering experiences they've lived through.


(2/5/98) There are days when I am, hands down, the cleanest person on the bus. Today was just such a day. The person sitting immediately in front of me smelled like wet dog. Some unseated teenager kept swinging his filthy backpack dangerously close to my face.
Entertainment was provided by the conversation of two women, one sixty-something, the other deranged. The sixty-something woman, I'll call her Essie, made the mistake of addressing a bit of small talk to the deranged woman, I'll call her the deranged woman. For several minutes thereafter, the deranged woman marked each 20 second interval by saying "Not fun!" followed by a loud, whinnying laugh. Essie -- indeed, all the passengers in the vicinity -- tried to stop the madness by turning away and shunning all eye contact, but the conversation, such as it was, continued until the deranged woman deboarded.


(1/27/98) This morning, the fed-up driver was reduced to chanting "push it, push it, push it, push it" at the bewildered soul attempting to deboard the new bus. And so it goes.
I noticed today how good I've become at avoiding eye contact with the elderly and infirm passengers who would guilt me out of a seat. Is this wrong? Not in bus world. The proper exegesis of seat-yielding doctrine goes something like this: the seats near the driver are marked with signs saying "please yield these seats to elderly and disabled passengers" or some such. By avoiding the front of the bus altogether, I am in total compliance with this norm. The absence of such signage over the middle and rear seats tells me, winner take all. As I've mentioned before, the middle and rear of the bus is a subculture unto itself, subject to tentative mob rule but little else.

Smells have been powerful lately. Liquor, vomit, urine, sweat, feces, baby diapers, McDonald's fries: January has been a month of varied and unpleasant bus smells.


(1/15/98) The recent winter storm brought forth a swift uptick in ridership by people who don't usually deign to set foot in a bus. The composite profile of these foul weather fans of mass transit is as follows: male, mid 30's to early 60's, shabbily dressed, hat-wearing. Unsure of bus etiquette, they try hard but fail to look casual. Among their many faux pas: taking the aisle seat first, stupidly believing (hoping?) that the bus will not fill to capacity before their egress; standing when seats are available, thereby crowding the aisle unnecessarily; standing directly in the driver's sightlines to important mirrors; ringing the stop bell multiple times; plowing their way through the crowded bus to the door long before it's appropriate. Fortunately, the weather cleared and they've not been seen since. Their uncouth, oafish ways were an embarrassment to the regulars, and they will not be missed.


(12/23/97) On the morning ride, a passenger departed from standing protocols to her own shame and discredit. The conventional way of telling the driver to open the back door is to yell "back door!" It has always been so, and will always be. Yet this passenger only saw fit to utter such noncommunicative phrases as "excuse me!", "hey!", and a sarcastic "hell-o!". Clearly, she is not fit for bus riding, and stands to do even worse when exposed to the challenges of the new bus. Speaking of which, the new bus continues to inspire comment and controversy (see 12/10 post below). On the evening ride, the relative emptiness of the bus emboldened the driver to hold forth on the "stupid[ity]" of passengers who can't figure out the back door (they must push it open themselves). He complained of becoming very tired of repeating the same instructions at each and every stop. Hearing this, one passenger proved the merit of his observations by objecting that "there should be a sign or something," which, the driver retorted with relish, there is, "right above the door." When my stop came, I wanted to prove my worth by exiting the rear door in the correct fashion, unaided. Unfortunately, jaded as he had become by then, he offered the instructions to me anyway: "you need to push it open."


(12/12/97) Two drunk twenty-something males stumbled on to the bus today. They understood one of the worst-kept secrets of bus riding: you don't need a pass. Paying for the bus is actually quite optional. Though miles distant from the downtown 'free zone,' they simply boarded the bus and didn't give so much as a glance to the driver on the way to their seats. After all, what's the driver going to do? Wrestle them off the bus? Dress them down? What's in it for him? He has a schedule to keep, he is unarmed, and his cramped, shriveled, atrophied bus driver legs do not equip him for physical confrontations with passengers, not even drunk ones.
Of course, drunk twenty-somethings aren't the only ones to board the gravy train. Pathetic old people are much more frequent abusers of the transit system-passenger trust. In extreme weather of any kind, paying passengers account for less and less of the ridership, as the 55+ crowd don their saddest-looking clothes and embark on free sympathy rides. I'm not complaining. Better this than to have them squinting behind the wheel of oversized automobiles.


(12/10/97) Today's bus was new, brand new, with fancy yellow-painted railings for visibility, a new surveillance camera that looked like it worked, less leg room than the older model, and, yes, that new bus smell. The stop bell doesn't sound like a bell, but like that ring you hear on a commercial jet that indicates the captain is about to speak. The most intriguing feature of the new model is the operation of the back door, which does not automatically open. Instead, a green light above it turns on, signaling that the doors can be pushed open. It's the self-serve approach, calling for a more independent-minded bus commuter. It went well enough today -- perhaps the newness increased adrenalin levels -- but I fear that many of my fellow passengers are not outfitted with the problem-solving acumen required by this new bus exiting regime. Change is in the air. Shifts are afoot. It may be that abler passengers will quickly distinguish themselves from the more befuddled, creating tensions, resentments, misunderstandings, momentary breakdowns in the flow of body language, uneasy exchanges, chilly stares, angry glances, impatient glares, sarcastic eye-rolling; with time, older alliances may crumble as new ones are formed.
Meanwhile, what of the driver? What will become of his role, and the perceptions of it, both of which establish his place in the commuting hierarchy? Surely his lesser role in passengers' exit from the bus involves a lesser authority over the passengers, especially the newly independent occupants of the bus's rear end. Will he command the respect of the back-seat passengers in the degree to which he has become accustomed? Will his demands to move back and create room for just-boarding passengers penetrate the rear of the bus, or will we see a greater openness for outright revolt, accompanied by an exacerbation of the festering antagonism between front and back passengers? Will the back passengers, in which I count myself, intensify their perceptions of the front passengers as weakling sycophants, toadies to power, hangers-on, rider-dependent milquetoasts? Increased rider polarization and driver emasculation appear inevitable; only the clear details remain to be seen.

I may be overinterpreting the ramifications of the new bus, but I don't think I am.


(12/03/97) File under useful commuting tips: if you don't ring the stop bell in time, just walk up to the driver, gesticulate wildly, then shriek in a foreign language. The driver won't know what hit him! You'll be off the bus before you know it.
Update: the old lady smokers still pressure me to say good morning to them as I pass them on the sidewalk on my way to the bus stop. Maybe the next thing I'll try is to pretend I'm chewing on something very chewy. But for how many mornings can that last? I need a rotating diversion, perhaps one for each pair of pants to make it easy to remember.


(12/03/97) I sat by stinking man again. Stinking man doesn't move, speak, or make eye contact: he stinks. That's what he does. He also wears glasses. Coughing man, a.k.a. Sir Coughs a Lot, is in the same category; only instead of stinking, he is always coughing. He coughs and coughs, and the monotony of his coughing is only broken by the occassional fidget. Cough, cough, cough. Stink, stink, stink.


(11/20/97) The bus hit something today! I didn't see anything since I was sound asleep and the windows were fogged up from all the other people's breath, but the collision was unmistakeable. At first, the sound mingled with my dreams and I thought it was a mechanical bear. Then I awoke further and realized it must have only been another vehicle. The driver deboarded and did something or other outside -- couldn't see, but he was probably killing off eyewitnesses. Then he got back in his little bus driver seat and off we went. I wasn't even interestingly late for work.
On the ride home, I worked on my body language. I can remote control where other human beings will sit on a bus with artful, slight shifts in body language. For example, sucking demonstrably on a candy sucker with a moderate scowl on my face turns away even the most intrepid and seat-desperate. It suggests "attitude." Usually it's enough simply to lean toward the open seat; it's not so much that this doesn't leave room, it's more like a declaration of intention to use the seat, and all but the boldest will honor it. On the other hand, nothing attracts another rider to the open seat beside you like turning away from the open seat and reading. That's gold.


(10/14/97) It's time I ragged on my bus drivers a little. The bus I ride in the morning is 'supposed' to arrive in 5 minute intervals. Instead, the gap between buses follows an oscillating pattern of 1-2 minutes followed by 7-10 minutes. If you happen to catch the bus that arrives after 1-2 minutes, great: two seats for everyone. If, however, you get one of the 7-10 minute gap buses, the scene is nothing short of bangladeshal: passengers pressed together, old people passing out, children soiled and wailing, livestock braying.
On the way home, our new bus driver supposes everyone knows the routes as well as he does. He bothers to mention that the next stop over the bridge is forty blocks away only after the bus has pulled away from the curb. At least one hapless passenger engages the driver in futile negotiation in hopes of being set free before the allotted forty blocks. The driver shows no mercy, knowing that the difference between an orderly city bus and ugly mayhem is discipline.


(9/23/97)The smell was unmistakable: someone crapped his or her pants on the bus today.


(9/10/97)The unusually dense collection of noteworthy events and personages of today's ride challenged my capacities as a chronicler. Where to begin?
Teens with tattoos: I predict a teen tattoo crisis is inevitable. Once the current round of reefer madness loses momentum, the tattoo trend will be the next to conjure worried Newsweek cover stories exposing the latest evidence of the wayward scariness of today's teens. (You read it here first.) On the bus, there was a tattoo showing session; the young woman had to raise her shirt to show her spider web design. Tres risque. Which, in part, prompted a response from ...

A cross between Forrest Gump and Michael Douglas's character in Falling Down, with none of the romance or appeal of a fictional character. This didn't stop him from taking issue with one of the tattooed teens' preference to stand in the aisle instead of taking an open seat. After suffering the teen's disobedience, Falling Gump arose and took a seat directly in front of me, from whence I could see his profuse nose and ear hair, as well as inside his grocery bag stuffed with old newspapers. Falling Gump also had an unpleasant smell, but he was absolutely no match for...

My nominee for freak of the month, featuring all of the following:

a western style belt strapped across his chest attached to a Walkman;
a keychain with lots of keys dangling from one wrist, various straps and bracelets from the other;
long, frizzy gray hair, knotted in the back;
a bandana tied across his eyes, with small slits for vision;
a pacifier in his mouth attached to a shoestring.
I hesitate even to speculate, but he was given plenty of room by the other passengers. One of the last of whom I saw was . . .

Tiny Asian Man. Tiny Asian Man carried a plastic grocery bag that did not quite conceal the Frito-Lay variety pack that almost equaled him in size.

Bus rides like these are rare and precious.


(9/5/97)I'm not afraid to say it. I'm tired of the Square Dance Center wimps. The Square Dance Center wimps are a group of perhaps three people who always seem to ride the same bus I ride home, and who insist on forcing the bus to stop at the Square Dance Center stop, which can't be more than 100 feet from the previous stop. I don't know why the stops are so close along that stretch of road, but I don't like it, and I don't like the Square Dance Center wimps. They add precious seconds to my ride home, the most important ride of the day.


(8/22/97)Some scruffy punk sat next to me, tilted himself in my direction, and breathed. This would be OK if he hadn't just come from smoking and drinking coffee -- very stinky, very French.


(8/20/97) Today was special because we got new urinal pucks in the men's bathroom with fresh bubblegum scent. Unfortunately, the temptation to direct the full force of your urine stream at them is irresistable, which leads quickly to their dissolution to pale, scentless wafers that no one even bothers to clean out. This has nothing to do with commuting, but I don't care: as those New Hampshire license plates proclaim, Live Free or Die.


(8/18/97) A woman with a very loud voice told the driver that she believes a bacterial infection with which she was recently diagnosed is best treated by 'flushing it' from her system; and that she had spent 'most of the weekend on the pot.' Her account included details of how many times she had to stop along a 30 mile stretch of road (four).


(week of 8/11/97) This week I took the car because I was working in a non bus-accessible location -- one never knows where the vagaries of insurance bureaucracy will lead. Most people treat commuting by car as some kind of pissing contest, mostly over who is and is not going to yield for a lane change. And tailgating is as popular as it is stupid.


(7/29/97) Upon boarding, I had a bad feeling about the scraggly 50-something male I spotted, so I sat a few rows in front of him. He confirmed my suspicions quickly. Two native Spanish speakers were in the very back of the bus carrying on a rollicking, but not disturbing, conversation. Speaking for the English-only community (and representing them exquisitely), the 50-something bellowed back at them, "Shut up! I'm sick of listening to that googly shit!" [sic] There was a pause, then from the back, we heard, in clear, sharp English, "Hey man, you talkin' to me? (pause) What's your problem? (pause) I didn't think you were talking to me." No answer from Mr. English-only. All quiet the rest of the way, except for the resumed Spanish conversation.


(7/18/97) There are no competency exams for riding the bus, but maybe there should be. Spurning several available seats, a woman boarded the bus and made a beeline for the stairwell to the bus's rear entrance, where she planted herself. With the possible exception of the driver's lap, this is the most disruptive spot to sit on the entire bus. It took her two or three stops of people climbing over her to deboard before she discerned that she was, perhaps, sitting in an inconvenient place. She took an available seat, but not without registering her annoyance with a grunt and a sarcastic roll of the eyes. It's probably best she moved when she did, because in the impersonal world of bus commuting, after a couple of "excuse me's" have been tried, "accidental" brushes of the knee, elbow, and shoulder start doing the communicating.


(6/30/97) I sat in front of a very loud conversation between two 40-something men who used the word 'Lord' so much it sounded like a meaningless interjection in only minutes. Among the topics addressed: last night's police bust of a domestic disturbance involving the both of them; how the 'intercession of the saints' is the only true anger management; and a little geometry, to wit:

God (aka The Lord)

As you can plainly see, a marriage can be envisioned as a triangle involving God, the wife, and the husband. Notice how the husband and wife come closer together as each moves toward The Lord. "A natural progression" is what the speaker called it, and he seemed very pleased with the metaphor. I wanted to point out that shortest route between husband and wife would be the midpoint along the base of the triangle, involving a direct line not involving The Lord at all; and that depending on how the triangle is laid out, the married couple may gain very little closeness compared to the distance covered. I didn't say anything. A few blocks later we passed a t-shirt shop and both really liked the "Jesus Saves from Hell" design in the window.


(6/26/97) A man of indeterminate age and sanity leafleted the bus with his home-made flyers promoting something or other that was to take place near Burns, Oregon. Only a small handful of passengers escaped the experience of having him sit beside them and blabber his praise for the event. I was one of the lucky ones because I was already sitting next to someone; and the world's angriest Korean-American woman stood her ground as well. She rides the bus each and every day, occupying an aisle seat next to an empty window seat, dripping with body language that suggests extreme irritation. Even the flyer guy, who's not a regular, understood that nothing in the universe will get her to cede that unoccupied window seat. The next day I saw the flyer guy changing his shirt on the sidewalk, wearing shorts with a tear that exposed most of his ass.


(6/20/97) This morning, an old woman decided she needed me to greet her as I passed her on the sidewalk. As I approached my bus stop, she stood at the entrance to the nearby Christian Right Hostel, almost directly in my path. She glared at me through the fog of her cancer stick and, struggling to move her facial muscles through the dense pile of makeup caked on her face, she barked, "hell-o! are you gonna say 'good morning' today? You always just walk by and never say a word." Please understand: I don't know this woman. We just happen to use the same stretch of sidewalk on many weekday mornings, and for the record, I almost always nod in her direction. Having little interest or proficiency in small talk, particularly before 7 a.m., I murmured something that probably sounded close enough to 'good morning' and went on my way. Dammit, I thought old people were supposed to be too afraid of crime to go outside?


(6/12/97) Further proof that drunks and hippies don't mix: a hippie boarded the bus and proceeded to attempt conversation with everyone who would make eye contact. Like every other predatory small talker, he quickly turned his attentions to the bus driver, a truly captive audience. Soon, the rum-smelling drunkard sitting a few rows back began to take notice, and then to take umbrage. Too drunk to distinguish his inner and outer thoughts, he began to vocalize his opinion that 'no one wants to hear some stranger blabber on and on about nothing' and so on. A good point badly made, for now we had two unwelcome motormouths: one spouting new agey commonplaces about the intersection of buddhism and herbal remedies, the other offering an alcohol-fueled stream of consciousness.