porcelainandporcupines

in which we revisit an ancient grievance, for no reason in particular

Posted on: August 6, 2012

The lovely piece written, I believe, by Zadie Smith aside, (published many years ago in McSweeney’s #6, and which, I have discovered, is not available anywhere online) there are probably few today who would argue in favor of the inherent majesty of bus travel. For, though it is true, as Ms. Smith points out – you’ll just have to trust me that she does – that when traveling via motor coach, one is elevated above the rest of the traffic through which one is being ferried, allowing one to let go of the care and worry of that traffic and be transported with ease through the hours of the early morning or late evening (both ideal times for bus travel), there are drawbacks to that form of travel that can be difficult to overlook : that, despite the lofty perch, one is in closer proximity to one’s fellow man than is generally desirable, closer than one would likely be were one anywhere else on the road; that one is still subject to the whims and vagaries of traffic, yet, having ceded the responsibility of driving, one is being piloted through that traffic by someone who, driving buses for a living notwithstanding, will never be as good a driver as oneself.

Yet, despite these inconveniences, or perhaps because of them, there are undeniable moments of triumph that can happen when traveling by bus. I experienced one such event in the summer of 2004, when I went to New York for the weekend to visit then-friend Naopi. This particular weekend was the weekend of the Republic National Convention (which is how I remember that it was 2004 : mnemonics, y’all!), which meant that New York City, normally somewhat desolate during the summer months as locals flee stuffy Manhattan for the shade of The Hamptons or Belize (if Gossip Girl is to be believed, and I think she probably is), was really, really empty on this particular weekend, as people hied away from, not just the summer heat, but the intrusive presence of Republicans.

And so it was that, albeit unwittingly and despite our strong(ish) ideological differences, the Grand Old Party did me a great favor that weekend : lo, it came to pass that, with the streets cleared other traffic, the bus on which I traveled went 40 blocks down 9th Avenue in Manhattan without having to stop for a single red light.

Those unaccustomed to bus travel may not recognize the profundity of this occurrence, but any seasoned bus traveler will tell you immediately that this type of unfettered movement through a city is, quite simply, miraculous. Because, whatever might befall you on the interstate portion of your travels, the traffic in the city is always worse : not just red lights, the city also features pedestrians, one-way streets, vehicles parking or backing up, and, in the specific case of NYC, a giant park in the middle filled with horse-drawn carriages that have to be navigated. To travel 40 blocks unimpeded by any of these obstacles is unheard of, and I, once I grasped the magnitude of what was happening, was elated by it. Was I disappointed when, on that 41st block, we had to stop? Slightly. But most of me wanted to rise from my seat in applause, for such an achievement is so rare that it can make even the hardest of cynics focus on the thing achieved (40 blocks!), rather than on what was not (41).

Let me interject here to confess that it may not have been exactly 40 uninterrupted blocks; that weekend bus trip, momentous as it was, was a long time ago, and a lot of things involving numbers and distance* have happened since then. However, if the exact number of blocks traveled that night was closer to 35, or possibly even 54, it was still impressive enough that, after debusing and  greeting Naopi on the platform, I immediately shared with her this victory of travel and the tremendousness of my mood as a consequence. A seasoned bus traveler herself, Naopi’s spirits too were elevated; so swept away was she that, even later that night, when we arrived at their apartment, she immediately shared the wonder with The Big Boss Man.

The Big Boss Man, a.k.a. Naopi’s father – so called in deference to a fantastical letter he had received from an employee back in the day when he had been a small business owner; the hand-written letter had been addressed To My Big Boss Man!, and that its author was not a native speaker of English I guess in retrospect makes us kind of racist for turning that into an actual term of address; the body of the letter went on to explain that the wife of this non-native speaker was very unstable and so, should the employee ever be absent from work without explanation, especially for several days in a row, the police should be notified to inspect the garbage bags the wife always had with her, as she had most likely killed him and was now dragging at least portions if not all of his dismembered corpse around with her in the aforementioned  bags. So, I guess, in addition to racist, that we all got years of enjoyment out of this letter makes us pretty callous as well. Unfortunately, neither Naopi nor The Big Boss Man could recall what ever became of the employee, so whether he was murdered or prospered or fell somewhere in between will always be a mystery – responded to the news (of the uninterrupted 40 blocks – that’s what we were talking about) with a wonderfully satisfied smile and pronounced “The lights on that street are timed beautifully.”

And with that, the crushing disappointment I did not feel idling at that 41st stop light suddenly fell upon me.

Even now, 8 years later, it’s difficult for me to admit just how deflated I was by that response. Because, for all that my presence as a passenger allowed me to be a witness to greatness, whatever success that bus experienced as it was piloted through the streets of New York actually had very little to do with me : I wasn’t driving the bus, after all. And, honestly, a bus traveling 40 blocks without having to stop is, in the grand scheme of things, not really all that impressive : it’s not winning more Olympic medals than anyone ever in history or walking on the moon’s face, and it is not a story that will resonate with anyone’s grandchildren. But on the bus, at night, when they’re not showing a movie and it’s too dark to read and e-readers haven’t been invented yet so shut up, jerk, and you’re excited to arrive at your destination and the only other thing happening on the bus is an unpleasant smell every time the bathroom door opens, an uninterrupted 40-block cruise down 9th Avenue is an epic event, for which credit belongs to the bus; I, even though just a passenger, was entitled to some share of it.

For The Big Boss Man, this was not the case. Although he, too, was aware that something had happened, for him it was not an amazing confluence of unrelated events – of boredom, long days, politics and summer travel – but rather the anticipated and entirely mundane result of civil engineering. Yet, in his celebration of the predictability of traffic signals, he not only stole credit from the bus, but gave lie to the very notion of credit itself; that, after all, was the way traffic was supposed to move down 9th Avenue : smoothly. That this was a singular event was no longer an achievement (40 blocks!), but instead highlighted the failure of every other bus trip I’d ever taken, now and forever besmirched by red lights that should have been been green.

Unintentional though that may have been, I always think of The Big Boss Man whenever someone, wittingly or un, attempts to crush a tiny victory. Even though, in some ways, I feel like I should have anticipated that response from him; after all, when he traveled from Boston to New York, or vice versa, he always took the train.

* I don’t know what exactly that image is, but it came up in a Google image search for “things involving numbers and travel”. And one thing you should probably know about me : I will always choose the link that includes ponies. And a pony fighting the evil unicorn from a barbershop duet? If that doesn’t say porcelainandporcupines to you, you should probably leave right now.
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