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Public Transport

I know my role, and the others know theirs. We shuffle on stage and we are, if not comfortable, at least expert in our characterizations. We are consistent in our performances, and we never disappoint. All of us, we are naturals. We are on this stage so frequently, we know each other’s moves implicitly, and act accordingly. At once actors and audience, we provide the expected but also honor the illusion of the first time. Since we are an ensemble it is never clear if or when we are being observed individually: Are all eyes on me now, or on one of my fellows, or is the gaze of interest alternately shifting among us? We are equals, but occasionally one of us can be a star, if only for this specific show, or a specific set of moments in the show. It is, even so, a fleeting stardom, for when we leave the stage we are pretty much forgotten. It is something like “Grand Hotel” that we are putting on: People come and go, nothing ever happens. But, of course, it does.

I am about to board the bus, the one I take to work most days of the week, traveling from my home in the northwest sector of the city into the heart of town. A mere public conveyance, yes; but, even more, a moving theater, with all the men and women merely players. There is, really, no more placeless place than an empty municipal bus – featureless seats, bare metal bars, transparent walls, undistinguished materials, so typical and mundane as to be unnoticed – a people-moving tube. But, in another way, it is like any performing venue between shows, ghost light illuminating the emptiness, which comes alive when the actors arrive, move in their rehearsed ways and become the characters we will come to know them as.

inside bus

Enter, me. The action is already begun. I have my role: I take an empty seat, if possible, or wordlessly show, through  body language and facial expression, my unhappiness at having to share a two-seater with a stranger of dubious pedigree and quite apparent outsized bulk. In other words, he/she (and, sometimes, it is literally he/she) has two-thirds of the bench, I have the remaining third and my legs in the aisle. In this instance, my part is The Uncomfortable Guy, every part of me clenched. But, if I am lucky, or I am taking an earlier or later bus, or there is a school- and city-government-closing holiday, I can get a seat to myself: one indentation for me, the other for my tote, and I keep the sharers at bay, like sandbags holding back a flood. And I pursue my favored role: Observing Guy. With book or writing pad in hand, or just seeming to gaze out the window, I take note of the drama around me: sometimes Pinter, sometimes Mamet, occasionally Becket, rarely Neil Simon; Shakespeare is not in the repertoire. I like to think I am invisible, but of course I am not – I  am a character in my play, and also one in everybody else’s, these overlapping life-plays where the dialogue is the same but the subtexts vary with each viewer. I am seated, positioned to observe – and under the cold, fluorescent white and blue lights, in line-of-sight of the mounted surveillance cameras, on this mobile thrust stage, the Play of Me begins.

Two rows ahead: Is that Sleeping Like the Dead Guy, or, given the crumpled nature of his body and the way his head bangs against the window with every bus bump, simply Dead Guy? But, several stops later, in a miraculous bit of Lazarus rising – his subconscious brain somehow aware of his whereabouts, like a somnolent GPS system – his arm lurches up, pulls the signal cord just in time, the bus halts, on cue he rockets from his seat and arrives at the back door just as it opens … and he is out and gone, sucked into the void like an air passenger through a depressurized hatch … a memorable exit. And, then, forgotten.

phone

Spotlight hits and follows other action and players: the two Geek Girls, standing in the front, looking, it seems, to become good or better friends, trading and agreeing on opinions and biases, finding common ground, heartbreakingly sweet and innocent, as they stumble towards some sort of rapprochement leading to a form of intimacy; the Glaring Guy, who always goes to the very back of the bus, to the farthest corner, and hates; the fast-moving and -talking Twin Women, who look alike, speaking alike, come on the bus together but sit apart; Makeup Lady, who uses her time on the long nonstop express part of the journey to gaze into her compact mirror, work a brush through a palette of pink and “skin tone” cosmetic paints, and redo her face, making herself look gaudy and available, for someone; Drunk Guys, lots of them, fidgety and trying so hard to appear sober that they seem spastic and paranoid; Sightless Guy, a middle-age man who always takes the first seat behind the driver, flips open his cellphone and spends the ride shouting into the receiver, as if the person on the other end is deaf, or that, though he is the sightless one, by speaking loudly he can be seen; in smaller roles, the Day-Laborer Duo, the Dreadlocks Dude, the Father with Precocious Child, the Off-Duty Bus Driver Bumming a Ride. At night, when every ear is blocked by mobile phones or earbuds or giant headsets, and every face is illuminated by personal screens, the lot of us is tired, and those who aren’t are suspect, but none more so than Al Qaeda Guy, who has a cellphone in one hand, a suspicious bag in the other, he seems on edge and makes all the rest of us edgy, too – all of us victims in a post-9/11 world.

Every now and then, our traveling troupe arrives at a major intersection, or a transfer station, where other buses or trains intersect with our path … and, at those points, so many of our cast, featured performers and bit players and chorus, flow out into the wings of the world, and the next bundle of cast members – so many of them looking like stand-ins for those who just left – take their places, and, if they have lines, say them.

As we leave the highway for the inner parts of downtown, there is a strange switch, and it is we who become theatergoers as we look out the big bus windows at the people walking along the streets; they are oblivious to our stares, and so unguarded, in graceful or gangly motion, strutting or stumbling, moving in swirls or keeping their distances, all on missions – are they in the fishbowl, or are we?

And then it is my turn to leave my company of players and join those on the sidewalk. Observing Guy, who may, to others, be Observed Guy, puts away his implements of notation or distraction, rings for his stop, and, whether being watched or being ignored for the better performance of someone else, disembarks. And, from the curb, watches, with a certain sadness, a certain relief, as his placeless-made-placeness playhouse, and its current cast, rumble off, and Observer Guy becomes Just Another Guy on his way to work, and another role and performance, on another stage, until it is time to go home, and another curtain.

bus windows

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From the Back of the Bosch

Here’s the irony – that a place designed to be the jumping-off spot to get you to thousands of other places perhaps has no placeness of its own – and here’s food for thought: Just about every location that we have written about here which we state has “placeness” has always defined “placeness” as being a positive attribute … so, can there be negative placeness, too?

Due to no fault of my own (unless you believe in karmic punishment), I recently found myself the victim of missed intercity bus connections – thanks a whole lot, Adirondack Trailways; up yours, Greyhound; take a full flying leap, Megabus) – and thus spent way, way too much time hanging around departure gates in New York City’s version of the right-side panel of “The Garden of Earthly Delights”: the Port Authority building.

 

Harried, misdirected, ill-informed, schedule-strained, sweaty and nervous passengers, each with too many too-big bags carried and rolled and dragged and pushed from one uninformative loading-dock doorway to another, from one building to another, find themselves funneled into a subterranean hell pit teeming with similar misfortunates, predators, beggars, uncaring and unhelpful employees, homeless, home-bound, home-found and the temporarily and permanently lost. It smells, it’s dirty, the lighting defies international illumination standards and odds are you are either at the moment or will very shortly discover that you are standing in something you wish you weren’t. Lines of good people pushed to the edge wait by sliding doors which open, every now and then, but do not announce imminent boarding or disembarking, but rather seemed designed only to permit diesel fumes to engulf all nearby. Everybody asks questions – Is this the right gate? Is it running on time? Do I need to check my bags? Will I need to change in Springfield? – and for every query there are three answers from bus-company employees, all of them wrong or unclear. Nostradamus is said to have spied the future, but Hieronymus Bosch certainly painted it.

As I waited for the two-hour ride to get home, which took, instead, four hours, was the wrong bus, and instead of an express it made three stops (but who’s counting), I wondered (something you have the time to do if you don’t purposely zone out in an act of self-preservation and actually allow yourself to think) how it could be that this roiling wonderland, with its combustion-engine tentacles slung out to all corners of the continent, could so lack placeness. It had interest, it had humanity (in extremis), it clearly had memorableness, it had uniqueness (unless you live most of the time on Mumbai streets) – but what kept it from having “placeness,” as I had come to define the term, was that it didn’t have engagement, and challenge, and invitation to the senses (instead of an assault on them), and the kind of empathy we’ve discussed in which you feel that you know the place because it somehow includes a recognition, a self-recognition, and a fulfillment, in which you and the place and objects in that place interlock, as if long-lost siblings who know, just know, that they’re made of the same stuff. More controversial is the notion that the Port Authority lacks placeness because it lacks beauty, of any sort; not all placeness requires or projects beauty, but there is something beautiful at least in the notion of a placeness-redolent place, even if it seems more rough than beautiful.

But then I wondered (I had the time; I was into only the 20th minute of a 40-minute late stretch): What if I’m wrong? What if I’m missing the point here – that this place, which has such impact (though horrifying) and is so memorable (in a nightmarish way) does have placeness, but negative placeness, like an evil-twin placeness, or a Bizarro-world placeness, a George Costanza placeness: that whatever you know to be the definition of placeness, this is the opposite … and, yet, has a placeness, too. It is the dark side of placeness, but as with all such darkness, it may be necessary for it to exist so that we know the brightness.

Frankly, though fascinating to bump into the dark-matter placeness and realize its existence, I prefer the positive placeness we have written about here for years – the same way I like to arrive at a destination on time, to make my connection. And, next time, to use Amtrak. All things considered, in the Garden of Earthly Delights, I’ll stick to the other two panels.

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Come On and Take a Free Ride

Sometimes when our transit system gets bogged down and people are made to wait for an unreasonable length of time, the vehicle that shows up next has a no-charge policy. This courtesy, or apology, is expressed by the driver folding up a transfer ticket and shoving it halfway into the token slot. Such an act is not only a way of blocking payment but, in another sense, it is a tiny white flag displayed at the front of the bus – a sign of surrender to the angry waiting mobs, briefcases and lunch bags in hand. I think it is nice; a way of asking forgiveness and giving a free ride to the bus-weary.

Whenever this gesture occurs, as it did recently, I am reminded of the massive transit strike that embattled SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) about 14 years ago. It lasted more than 40 days (like the flood) and it stranded people, strained relationships across the entire political spectrum and stained the reputation of regional transit, which people were annoyed with from the get-go. It was a pivotal moment for everyone, mostly for SEPTA. When mediation finally ended the stand-off, SEPTA offered free rides on the entire system for a couple of days.

This was nothing to sneeze at. Let’s take a look at the possibilities: regional rail, elevated line, subway, trolleys, a high-speed rail line, trackless trolleys, buses and jitneys. SEPTA is one of just two U.S. transit companies that provide all of the five major transit conveyances, the other is Boston’s MBTA. SEPTA’s reach is within five counties in Pennsylvania and it connects to two neighbor-states.

We decided to take advantage of the opportunity but had only one day to explore and chose to go to a place we had never been before, a far-flung town to the west: West Chester, Pa. It is about thirty miles from Philadelphia and only nine miles from the Delaware state line. We wanted to ride as many different vehicles through usually rate-changing zones as we could, experiencing new territories that we would have no other reason to explore. We mapped out our route and as Peter Pan might announce, “Away we go!”

Our first leg was on a familiar bus route that took us a couple of miles to a transfer-station stop, one of several hubs where buses and sometimes trains unite. There, we boarded a number 124 bus headed for the King of Prussia Mall, a 30-minute ride on expressway, county roads and a state route which deposited us behind the behemoth mall at its transit center – basically, a parking lot turn-around – to await our next leg. This was a totally unexpected jitney-style bus, number 92, the type you get shuttled about in when you pick up/drop off a rental car at an airport. Being in the city, the only time you see buses this small is when they belong to private residential towers or retirement homes. It felt like a private coach and we had a nice conversation with the driver.

Let’s just say, at this point, that there can be a big difference between drivers of city transit and drivers of suburban transit, in terms of chattiness. I am always friendly with city transit employees, but many people are not. And, since the city drivers need full concentration to maneuver through relentless traffic, they will likely not pay much attention to the throngs on their buses. But put a driver out in the sticks with a small bus and very few passengers and, suddenly, you have a new best friend or, rather, a country store on wheels. It can be refreshing or annoying depending on your state of mind. At least it was different, and it was experience we were seeking.

The mini-bus took us to our destination in about an hour’s time, we walked and explored the foreign territory and then, when ready, we hopped back on the next shuttle bus for our return. But this time we went only as far as the town of Paoli, about midway through the bus route. This landed us at the regional rail station and we hopped a train, riding through the renowned Main Line – famous for the horsey set of bluebloods that settled as landowners, the rail lines having been built to service them and to create new housing.

We stayed on the train, passing through all the communities – Villanova, Bryn Mawr, Haverford, each with its own college or university – and continuing through into the outer rings of city neighborhoods, each successive one shrinking in terms of its open space. Although, at some point, the open space started to reappear in the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods where houses had been removed like bad teeth or had burned to the ground. After twenty-some miles and about 50 minutes, we disembarked in downtown Philadelphia and spent some time there before catching our last leg, our bus home, landing us one block from our house.

If someone else had wanted to sample all the different track-based possibilities, that would have been fun to organize. But the fact is, we have used almost all of them many times and for many purposes. This wasn’t exactly PeeWee’s Big Adventure, but it was another taste of public transportation. This self-designed day trip took us to new places and allowed us to see old places from different angles. There is, for me, excitement in finding my way without a car, using a miraculous infrastructure of systems – the placeness of public conveyance. It’s what we did the first time we all visited Europe and found the self-satisfaction of wayfinding. Either there or here, there is exhilaration in reading maps and schedules and traveling your way through them. Discovery is part of the deal.

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