Tag Archives: transportation

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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The Road Not Taken

road to nowhereWe do not think of roads in pieces but as ongoing lengths – we even refer to them, in stories and songs, as ribbons of highway. It is almost as if, if you kept driving, a road would keep appearing under you, as needed, fabricated out of whole cloth over empty land to ensure your continued travel. When we think of roads in sections, it is usually the landmarks to the roads’ sides that we refer to – seldom (other than potholes or known construction barriers) do we consider the roadway itself. Like electricity when we flick a switch, it’s just there. And, in most places, where one road ends another comes off it. A road does not, it seems, in and of itself, have placeness, though its environment may.

That is why a so-called “road to nowhere” is so jarring, and intriguing. For, by the very nature of its stopping, literally dead in its tracks, it seems to go against “nature,” but also, by its causing us to stop dead in our tracks as well and to demand consideration of the absence of its “roadness,” it creates placeness.

Famous, of course, is the “road to nowhere” that was built to connect to the “bridge to nowhere” envisioned as connecting Ketchikan to Gravina Island, in Alaska, the scandalously wasteful, pork-barrel nature of which may have added fuel to the disenchantment with and ridicule of Sarah Palin as a vice-presidential candidate and voice of right-wing Republicanism (a road that, itself, seems happily to, finally, have gone nowhere, although the trip took longer than the projected 15 minutes).

Regularly, on the way to doing some tasks near Norristown, Pa., we have found ourselves quite suddenly and surprisingly on another such derailed road. You come off an exit from a bridge, rolling down the chute, and then you find yourself facing not the straight lanes you expect but instead a chain-link fence that diverts the road you are on to make a hairpin turn sending you off rather quickly in the opposite direction. But, before you leave the area, you can spy, behind the chain link, the road that might have been: multiple lanes go off a short distance, ending in a jungle of overgrowth – and it is as if one had reached the end of the earth before falling off, or disappearing into the wild. From up above, looking down from an overpass, you can see the abrupt disappearance of highway even more clearly. It … just … stops.

hairpin

Having had our curiosity piqued by this odd sight – a circumcised highway imprisoned like a white-collar criminal, without any indication why – a little research uncovered the backstory. Apparently, a link was imagined between two routes, to ease commuting, and, given the grand name of Schuylkill Parkway, the work was begun. And then funds ran out, right in midstream. And so, today, stands a monument to the “dream” of interlocking paths to make suburban sprawl even more conveniently sprawling, and an indictment of pouring tens of millions of dollars into a useless folly and not having the sense to spend a little more and give it usefulness. Better to let it be pointless is the logic, it seems. And should it ever come back to life as a project, how wasteful it will have been to let everything crack and crumble, with more millions needed to bring it back up to baseline buildable again.

But, if one rolls down that exit ramp, and instead of making that sharp turn and continuing on in the opposite direction, if one were to pull over and park in what would have been the road’s median – well, it is a whole different place to be. Indeed, it is a place. If no other cars are coming, one has the great, eerie pleasure of walking on a wide, deserted highway, as if all the world were gone but you, as in some Twilight Zone episode. But even better is to walk to and squeeze through the chain link, and you are in another world: A road almost never used that, in very short fashion, ends. Here, and in few other places, the highway can be looked at as a piece, as the way you might see light as particles and not rays if you had the tools to do so. It is wide and clear, but a snippet … and, in some way, sad, in the way something that does not achieve its potential is a sad thing. And, if you step farther into the stunted road, you can almost feel the quiet, and you can yourself feel like a thief, or a time traveler, or someone (Twilight Zone, again) whose time-metabolism is different from those on Earth, and that there might be cars zipping all around you, but you are out of sync with them, and thus unaffected. It feels like a place of unintentional but no less powerful art. Not holy, not spiritual, but insistent, and resonant with arslocii vibes and possibilities.

turnaround

It is like a movie set and, in fact, the city or county or state could make some money off this white elephant by making it available to filmmakers to use for car-chase and -crash scenes. Sometimes, a motor-vehicle agency puts out parking cones in this space and performs some sort of test or driving contest; it could be the perfect place to teach driver-ed classes. Or to turn into a recreational area – there is plenty of room for basketball and tennis courts. Or make it a performance venue, or show movies outdoors during the summer. Make this thing that goes nowhere be its own destination. Sometimes, nothingness is the perfect place for anythingness, because there are no restrictions, rules or preconceived notions. Sometimes, the place to start is the place where it all stops.

road end

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