Terre Gorham 0000-00-00 00:00:00
The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round Two or three times a week, I take a public bus to the Middle East, that area of Memphis that lies between the University of Memphis and I-240’s easternmost loop. It’s not to be confused with the Near East, which lies between McLean and the University of Memphis, nor with the Far East, which is the wilderness beyond I-240’s eastern loop — the land from which postcards are sent to loved ones back home. I wish I could take credit for this clever stratification of what Downtowners and Midtowners refer to in the collective as “out east,” but credit belongs to Michelle and her “Memphistanista: Notes From Memphis” blog. Anyway, these bus rides have introduced me to a new social stratum and its inherent rules of behavior that don’t enter a car driver’s realm of experience. The fact that public transportation involves a group of strangers sharing one small space, hurtling toward assorted destinations to continue very diverse lives, lends itself to codes of conduct quite different from what’s found sitting alone in the privacy of an auto. First, you don’t need a Ph.D. to determine how to get a car from point A to B. An advanced degree is helpful, however, when deciphering the bus schedule. To my knowledge, there are no GPS devices available to aid bewildered bus riders — yet. Once you’re sort of sure which bus to catch and where, you must dress appropriately for spending 20 to 30 minutes out in the current weather conditions. You must then anticipate what the weather might do from the time you step outside your door, walk to the bus stop, board the bus, depart the bus, walk to your destination — then reverse the process. There’s a reason you see riders carrying parkas in July. You just never know. Second, there’s a reason they call it “catching the bus.” Should you be standing at your stop and become engrossed in, say, trying to read the bus schedule, and you fail to appropriately “cue” the driver (flapping around your dollar-fifty fare works well, as do emergency flares), the bus roars by and — pay attention here — you run with waving arms to catch the bus. Once inside the doors, you are greeted pleasantly by a perfect stranger known as the bus driver who is now in charge of your life. Bus drivers like to stay on schedule, so off he roars the minute you step onboard, leaving you to lurch awkwardly down the aisle as seated passengers enjoy the show and make side bets. If I’m ever stopped for a DUI and asked to walk the line, I’ll tell them I have “bus legs.” Unspoken etiquette dictates that you don’t sit next to anyone unless you have no other choice. The nonverbal rules also specify that you shouldn’t carry anything so large and cumbersome that you have to borrow someone else’s lap. I once saw a lady maneuver into one seat with a Santa Claus–size bag of laundry, a jug of laundry soap, and a box of dryer sheets. She jingled faintly with quarters. Next, there’s the issue of temperature control. On a bus, you take whatever suits the bus driver. If she’s having a hot flash, frostbite warnings blink on the overhead screen. If he forgot to bring his winter jacket, the steam sauna is free of charge. Sometimes, the driver pulls over to the curb in front of Mapco Express and flips on the emergency flashers. He steps off the bus, crosses the parking lot, and there we all sit captive in whatever climate he has mandated until, 15 minutes later, he re-boards the bus, which promptly fills with the aroma of a chili-tamale dog slathered in onions with a side order of jalapeno cheese bombers. We motor on, in salivating companionship. A cell phone rings. A baby cries. Conversations erupt and die. An old man shifts and shuffles his bag of urban treasures. Life is reduced to a microcosm inside a vehicle that transports those without transport, everyone making his way in his own way. Over time, a community of sorts develops. We start to acknowledge one another with a nod as we lurch down the aisle. The guy behind you buys a chocolate bar from the entrepreneurial dude up front — then hands the candy bar to you with a small smile and a short wave as he steps off the bus. The gal with the “Will Work For Food” sign hands out her phone number in case you have a lead. The young, tired mother is the first to offer up 50 cents when a fellow rider can’t quite make the fare. A special type of community evolves on the bus — an intriguing, inspiring slice of life that I would have missed behind the wheel of a car.
Published by Downtowner Magazine. View All Articles.
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