Archive for the ‘travels and travails’ Category

So far, the most interesting thing to happen this week is that a guy fell down on the bus this morning. Actually, there were two guys who fell over; they’d been talking to each other across the aisle and, in unison, rose from their seats as the bus approached the next stop. Neither anticipated that the driver would stop for the traffic lights that came before the bus stop, but he did; and as he deployed the brakes in a completely ordinary and non-dramatic fashion, the two guys in the process of gracelessly rising from their seats found themselves pitching forward in a suddenly dramatic yet equally graceless effort to stop from falling all the way down. Only one of them succeeded.

The one who did not succeed, the one who fell, took an awfully long time to fall completely. He went in curious slow-motion through the stages of falling, first attempting to lurch upright, then falling on one knee, then lurching forward again to crash his face into the legs of the people who’d managed to successfully make their ways toward the door of the bus, and then, finally, landing fully on the floor. It was an effort just to watch. Had I been in a similar position, I’m sure I too would have struggled every step of the way down, but as an observer, it was clear that submitting to the inevitable and just falling already would have been the most elegant path, since only after completing the fall was he able to begin to get back up successfully.

Falling spectacularly in public like that, there are really only two possible ways to react : if you’re embarrassed but overall unharmed, you can dorkily call attention to your situation and subsequent recovery; if you are, at all, in any sort of pain, you immediately start casting blame. Which I say without judgement; after I fell on the ice this winter, I immediately looked for the house number of whoever the fuck would be so fucking lazy as to leave 3 fucking inches of ice on the fucking sidewalk in front of their fucking house, because without that fucking ice, I wouldn’t have bonked my fucking head on their fucking sidewalk. Not that I am holding a grudge.

The guy this morning could only blame the driver, although there were plenty of people who did not fall over or down when the braking happened, so I suppose there was the option to blame himself. Alas, that is not the option he chose, which is really too bad. Because, if he’s anything like me – and one thing I’ve noticed over the past 40 years is that most people are – that fall on the bus was his entire morning : every time someone arrives at work and says “Hey, guy, how’s it going?” he’s going to have to mention that he fell on the bus – again, because that’s what I would do – and I’d much rather spend the morning telling the story of how I looked like an idiot but wound up okay than the story of how I’m limping because of that dumb fucking bus driver.

But ultimately, I’m actually telling you the story of how somebody else fell on the bus because, I’m pretty sure, this has been the single most uneventful 2-week span in my entire life. The only other possible thing I could talk about was some positive feedback I got on a PowerPoint presentation, but you wouldn’t be able to see the presentation, and I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t want to read a description of a PowerPoint presentation. So instead, I went with the guy falling down on the bus. And I’m sure that, our positions reversed, he would have done the same.


While I would not argue that my most defining quality is excessive laziness, I have not yet gotten, and hope never to get, to a point where I wear sweat pants in public. Partially this is because I don’t really like to wear sneakers, and heels with sweatpants strikes me as trashy in a way you have to be truly exceptional to pull off; additionally, the effort it would take to find a pair of sweatpants that don’t have something written across the ass seems in violation of the entire spirit of sweatpants.

So on those days when I can’t be bothered to put on clothes but still must leave the house, I wear overalls. Overalls capture the same laissez-faire attitude of sweatpants, but still get you credit for actually having gotten dressed.  The overalls I have are particularly fetching, because they are the striped sort (which you should be mentally pronouncing with two syllables – “stry-ped”), of the kind associated with train engineers, and with tiny children pretending to be train engineers.

It was these overalls I wore last Monday. I’d had some fancy plans – and a correspondingly fancy outfit – all laid out for the day, but these went astray due to an incredibly terrible sore throat. This would have been unfortunate in and of itself, but it was made ever the more unfortunater by a lack of planning ahead, which left me in the house with no food with soothing recuperative powers, no medicine, and, most importantly, no cat food for Oola’s breakfast the following day; though I most likely would have survived the discomforts caused by the first two, I can’t even imagine the havoc Oola would wreak if denied breakfast.

And this is why I and my overalls shuffled through the streets of Cambridge, first to the vet to buy Oola’s prescription cat food, and then to the new Whole Foods. Which, thanks to some spectacularly convenient urban planning, is directly across the street from the vet’s office. Never have I have I been so glad for corporate machinations and the slow death of Main Street.

As I made my way home, burdened with 4 cans of cat food, three cans of soup, and a two turtle doves, I heard someone call out “Miss!” behind me; tired though I was, I still turned around, and beheld a gentleman, arm stretched out toward me, holding, as though I had dropped it, a stry-ped engineers cap.

“Oh, that’s not mine,” I responded, hopefully appreciatively.

“But it matches your outfit,” he replied, stretching his arm even closer.

To him, this was a clear indication that the cap was the rightful property of mine.

I, however, was skeptical. “Are you sure?” I asked, somewhat curious about why he was apparently walking around with an engineer’s cap he didn’t want, and how he might have disposed of it had I not walked past him right then.

“Yes. Here, it’s yours.” And so he gave me the hat.

I think a lot of people are going to go through their entire lives without getting an engineer’s hat from a stranger. It took me nearly 40 years to get one, but, having done so, I can tell you for sure : it is absolutely worth the wait.

Many years ago my then-boss and I stood in the parking lot behind the building we worked in, taking a break to smoke and talk about anarchy. Said boss was of the genial sort of fellow who upon moderately close inspection reveals himself to be little more than a self-aggrandizing nitwit, which, while that would certainly be tiresome today, was a fully age-appropriate novelty a decade and half ago. And so, despite his rather pedestrian view on the banality of ties, I did quite enjoy our conversations, Joe’s and mine, and can recall them fondly today without wondering what that might say about me and my development as a person.

While I don’t remember all of the details of the anarchy conversation, I do remember the broad strokes being that Joe was Pro and I was Con, and while Joe painted a pretty picture of the freedom to do whatever you want, I really hung it on the wall by pointing out that the lack of order would apply just as equally to those with darker impulses, and once you give those guys free reign, I would be the first to die. If for no other reason than because it takes me an unbelievably long time to realize when someone who seems nice is in reality a self-aggrandizing nitwit, making it seem unlikely I would be any quicker identifying an actually harmful entity. You take away the rules, and I immediately become the dumbest zebra at the watering hole.

The lethality of total chaos, however, does not prevent me from enjoying the occasional controlled societal breakdown. On the contrary, the low-level havoc created by a brief suspension of the rules of order is, strangely, an environment in which I thrive. The need for a leader suits my natural inclinations toward bossy know-it-all-ness, while the temporary nature of the leadership position ensures that no one will have an opportunity to discover that I have no idea what I’m talking about.

The blackout that hit Cambridge back in November, for example, was exactly the sort of moment in which I shine. Being in the right place at the right time made me one of the first to be informed that the Illustrious Libraries were to be closed, and I rushed back to my primary library location, bursting with the importance of being the bearer of vital news. Once arrived, though I did first inform the ranking members of the library staff, they allowed me to inform our users of the situation. Which, not to toot my own horn (on the internet? the scandal!) I did with such aplomb that those users left in the library greeted the conclusion of my announcement with a round of applause.

Thusly justly fêted, I made my way home through the darkened streets of Cambridge, illuminated only the headlights of the cars that stretched, bumper to bumper, unmoving along the length of Mass Ave, enjoying the company not only of Devin, whose weekend had just gotten an unexpectedly early start, but of hundreds of others who recognized that without power the conveniences of modern transportation had become a burden, and that, in these reduced circumstances, the people with the most power were those who could do for themselves.

However, while the unexpected nature of the citywide blackout is part of its allure, it is, at best, a fickle beast. Its unpredictability is what makes it so welcome, yet occurring only once in the 2 decades I’ve been here makes it an unreliable source for the rush of self-worth that accompanies the exaggerated competence of laughing in the face of little-to-no danger.

Fortunately, winter comes every year, as does the thrill of a potential weather-related emergency. As a person who is not even moderately outdoorsy, I recognize that my opportunities for nature-related victories are limited : I’m not going to hike the Appalachian Trail, or scale Mount Everest, or purposely put myself in a position that could result in losing my mind in the wilderness or having to amputate my own arm. Nature and I have, for the most part, reached a detente in our conquer-or-be-conquered relationship because, up against elemental anarchy, I know that, for the most part, I would lose.

But when Nature brings the fight to me, when the whole city – yay, even the whole state – decides to back down, that’s when I have to step up. Climbing snow drifts and tumbling down the other side for the purpose only of ending up with a vegan cupcake may not be on par with doing so to find shelter or escape from a sabre-toothed tiger. But when the populace at large must stay indoors or risk being snowed upon, it is an act of heroism simply to walk out one’s front door, and I am the hero for those times. And it is with great gladness and pride that I share the plowed but still snow-covered streets, closed to vehicular traffic, with my fellow, foot-traveling champions.

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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