Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

The funny thing about riding the bus between towns; decorum, civility, and simple common decency – all these things are up for grabs.

There are myriad ways that people maneuver to occupy a seat (or two) on the bus. Some spread out all their belongings on the window seat and sit on the aisle seat, which allows them to block any option for sharing its use- very clever. Others pretend, and lie when asked, that the open seat next to them is “taken”. Others just physically occupy both seats and give you preemptive terrible nasty looks.

But the one I like the best is the “sleeping passenger” technique. This one requires serious skill.

Some passengers sprawl and curl horizontally on both seats and prop their belongings as pillow; some flop and lean diagonally into the next seat (typically accompanied by loud, obnoxious snoring); and some pretend to sleep or snooze while sitting upright, dropping an arm or hand onto the adjacent seat. This last one is the most susceptible and approachable to an incoming passenger needing to find an open seat in a crowded bus.

And here is the issue: As soon as you step on the bus, you have less than a second to quickly scan the bus and consider your strategy for finding an open seat. You have one shot as you step further into the bus, while the passengers behind you go through the same process- but you can’t track back, since most of the time the “open seat” you passed in search of a glorious double seat is typically taken by someone less ambitious.

So, target the upright pretend sleeper. This is your best option. The sprawler is not visible and this leads you to think that a two seat option is there waiting for you, and the lean-to boorish snorer is just too much to deal with.

So, when you step on the bus, look for the pretend sleeper, and let sleeping dogs lie!

Such is the curious nature of life on the bus.


Travel Expense

I often wonder, where we would be – fiscally and socially, if we rely only on public transportation to get around; what is the cost, per mile, to travel from place to place? What is the experience?

Today, I had to go to Saratoga Springs for business, so I traveled 75 miles from New Paltz to Albany, then 35 miles from Albany to Saratoga Springs. On the reverse trip I traveled 25 miles from Saratoga Springs to Schenectady, then 18 miles from Schenectady to Albany.

It costs $25 to take the bus between New Paltz and Saratoga Springs; $1.50 between Saratoga Springs and Schenectady; and $2.00 between Schenectady and Albany.

The disparity in the travel expense is incredible, when you consider the cost per mile for the entire trip, compared to the cost per mile for each segment of the trip between towns. I traveled a total of 153 miles and paid $28.5 which yields an average cost of $0.18/mile, yet the 25 mile segment between Saratoga and Schenectady only cost $1.50 ($0.06/mile).

Perhaps the rationale for this is based on pure demographics, ridership, and the relative ease of connection between locations.

Once you understand the regional transit system, and you plan accordingly; the only question is the social experience of using public transportation; it is certainly not a financial one.

Here, intolerance I believe, is the essence of the problem.

A culture not accustomed to public transportation does not know how to manage sharing space and dealing with some discomfort; both of which are unavoidable on the bus. One is exposed to a forced interaction between strangers; rubbing shoulders, listening to loud music, even louder conversations, and this requires a degree of tolerance.

The real cost of travel is far less a financial consideration, then a social one; and we are simply not prepared to deal with circumstances that dictate we engage with others in a such a visceral way.

“It’s a Whole ‘Nother World; Behind the Walls”

Heading southbound from Albany to New Paltz on the 1:30 PM (I usually take 4:30 bus) after traveling for the past couple of days between towns upstate. I look at the empty seats and notice a bus driver, wearing full uniform, with decals and all, sitting on the third row, driver side; and I immediately ask myself, puzzled, “Why didn’t he sit on the first row, behind the driver, this is typically reserved for the driver to put his stuff?” He’s well settled in, bags and gear on the side seat; gives me a look that says, “I own this spot.”

“Ah; he picked the king seat”, I immediately tell myself, I get it!

It’s the same seat that my father would have me take, when I was a kid and had to travel alone overnight to Mexico City.

I have no scientific data, or statistical information, but I am convinced; the third row, driver’s side is the safest spot on the bus, just the right place to be — not too close to the front and not too far from the back of the bus.

I sit on the second row, settle in. Two guys, regular looking, climb aboard take the first two seats across the aisle; I think nothing of it — they don’t know each other, all very routine.

The bus takes off, a conversation starts up between the two guys; difficult to understand, a kind of shorthand, with phrases and references to places I don’t know, one of them is wearing black boots, khaki pants, a sweatshirt, and a winter hat, he’s got a bag of cookies in his hands; the other, sitting in front of me, I can’t see, except for his black sneakers and khaki pants — neither have carry on luggage with them.

The conversation becomes more understandable; they are talking about where they are headed naming recognizable places, both looking for a place to stay, affordable, under $70; comparing places where they have stayed before, experiences they’ve had, last time they were out!

I understand; they just got out of prison — now it makes sense; the earlier unknown references were places they been, you know, inside.

One looks at the other and says, “I could tell who you were, the moment is saw your boots”, “It’s all I had to choose from”, the other replies. “I did a little better, I got these nice sneakers, didn’t want to wear the boots”, the first one concludes.

He continues the conversation, now in as comfortable and open a tone as you would expect between two friends that haven’t seen each other for a long time, “I was traveling south, a few years ago, was thumbing it, a trucker picks me up in Georgia, he tells me he’ll take me but I have to help him drive his Cadillac to the next town where he lives!” Can you believe it”. “He just trusted me, no questions — I loved it down south, had a great time there”.

“I know, the second guy replies”.

“It’s a whole (and before he could finish) ‘nother world, behind the walls”; the second guy completes the sentence.

The guy with the black boots, and khaki pants — rolled up because they’re to long — opens up the bag of cookies, passes it around to everyone, looks at me and says, “Take some, I can’t eat them all”.

I take one, “Thank you”, I said. The thing is, I don’t like cookies! But; I figured, this was the prudent thing to do, this time.

It’s a whole ‘nother world; on the bus!

It’s in the Shoes


You can tell who goes where by the shoes they wear.

It’s 5:30 AM, a little chilly from the wind blowing across the Hudson, as I walk up a long flight of stairs that lead to the platform where I can catch the commuter train to the City. I look up, see a small hulking figure wearing a hoodie. I can’t see his face, just his tennis shoes, looks like he’s standing at the top of the stairs. I’m a little apprehensive, hesitate, and just for a moment, it reminds me of that scene from the French Connection. But he moves on, so I keep walking up the steps. I open the door, see another guy, well dressed, standing at the other end of the platform, staring at the floor.

I walk towards him, keep my head down just enough to see him, but so as not to catch his eye. As I approach, I notice the man is wearing a nice pair of shoes; they’re well shined. Then it hits me — it’s the shoes; they tell you everything you need to know, instantly!

I walk down the stairs leading to the platform, pass by lots of figures, some huddled up to keep warm, others scurrying about; they wear working boots, scuffed, tennis shoes with big knobby soles, some wear dress shoes. I head to machine, get my ticket, turn around to look at the people with the shoes. The working boots, wear jeans, heavy jackets and head gear; they’re workers going to the City, what else would they be. The tennis shoes, mostly women, carry large bags, nice coats, no head gear.

One woman is inside the coffee shop, she’s wearing heels, black stockings, a dress, coat with a puffy neck, and she’s made up her hair. She talking to a guy, looks like they know each other — they’re discussing stocks and bonds.

The train is coming, I now know everyone on the platform, what they do, where they’re going, who they know; it’s in the shoes, they tell you everything you need to know!

I sit down; picked a two seater near the door. I put my bag on the aisle seat, you know, to prevent anyone from seating next to me, protect my space — a typical defensive posture, almost universally understood. Everyone does it.

I settle in, can’t see shoes anymore. Everyone takes their usual seats. The ticket lady comes into the cab. She’s smiling, she knows everyone on the train, well, except me; I’m the newbie. But she smiles at me anyway — must be the way I’m dressed. I have to wear a suit today, look formal. I’m going to try and meet an important potential client at an event this morning, in Long Island; have to impress, I’m wearing black and clogs. The ticket lady is wearing bus driver shoes, very shiny; goes with her tidy uniform.

The train gets going. More people come in, the seats start to fill up. Someone is approaching, slowly. I try not to make eye contact, but I can see from the corner of my eye; a cane pops forward, then two black suede shoes. I hear a voice, “May I”, the lady says. She’s talking to me. “The seats are filled up”, she continues. I take my bag, move it out of the way. She sits down.

A nice lady, well dressed. She’s wearing black; black shiny winter coat with a puffy neck, black bag — everything matches.

I’m supposed to get off the train at 125th, the Harlem stop. I’m not familiar with the train routine and am thinking, they announce the major stops anyway, so I’ll be fine. The 125th is a major stop along this route.

The nice lady had fallen asleep. I mind my own business, not noticing the stops; except her shoes. Time goes by, my mind is somewhere else, on the meeting, and I’m rehearsing.

I look up, we’re not moving, the train has stopped a little longer than usual. It’s the 125th!

I have to get out, but I can’t. The lady with the cane and black suede shoes is still asleep. “I have to get out” I exclaim, grabbing my stuff. She wakes up, slowly. I move past her, get to the door. But it’s too late, the train had started to move. I miss my stop, frustrating — now I’m heading to Grand Central station!

I text my colleague, he was supposed to pick me up at 125th. I tell him I will double back, and to wait for me there. 

The train pulls in to Grand Central. I’m in a hurry, have to catch a train back. The train empties, I look down the platform — there is a mass of shoes, all walking in the same direction.

You can tell who’s going where, by the shoes they wear!

Life on the Bus

I grew up in Mexico, lived in some rough border towns for much of my childhood. To get around, I traveled by bus, pretty much across the country; so you learn how to “sense” when something doesn’t fit, or someone doesn’t look right at the bus station or between stops: these places are about routine and everyone, the bums, taxi drivers, passengers, bus drivers, and ticket tellers, move a certain way.

Well, this morning, like every morning I travel by bus, I get a cup of coffee from the coffee shop next door to the bus station in New Paltz, where I routinely take the 8:30 AM to get to Albany. I look through the window of the coffee shop and see two guys walking in to the station; one is tall, has a white beard and a quick gaze, he’s carrying a piece of paper in his hand, the other is short and unassuming; but they don’t fit the scene, they don’t belong.

I enter behind them, walk to the teller window to buy my ticket, and I overhear a conversation taking place between the two guys and two well dressed women, curiously standing in the middle of the station. I take notice because the women don’t look like they’re going anywhere, they have no bags or tickets in hand; and as soon as I had walked in, the two guys snapped their necks, and turned around to look at me — intensely.

So, I thought, “Uh, am I in the wrong place, here. Who are these people. What are they waiting for. Why do those two guys look like cops?”

Because they are!

The tall guy with the beard is dangling a police badge from his neck, which I now see as he turned around to look at me — intensely; the little guy just stood there, but I could see he was carrying a gun- he’s the backup, casing the joint, probably runs very fast.

The story unfolds; one of the women, the one whose voice is breaking as she nervously shakes a bit, is the mother of a young girl who is on the 8:30, on her way home from Phoenix. The girl is 22, a heroin addict, ran away with her boyfriend, he’s 34, he’s a heroin addict too; both had jumped parole and were being tracked by the police — on Facebook!

So you see, this morning is not routine, but no one else in the station pays notice, the passengers come in, buy their tickets, go about their business: one is a well-dressed woman with heels and a short black dress, big handbag under her arm, “Yep”, I said to myself, “She’s going to the City”.

Another is a woman with a stroller and a young child. And all of a sudden, as police cars come into the parking lot and start to position themselves and their vehicles, I’m thinking, “This is no good, what if the runaway guy, or the girl, are armed. Where is the safe spot to move to. How is this going to go down?”

The bus rolls in. I had moved to the safe spot; the inside corner between the coffee shop and the station. From there you can see everything, and everyone — the whole scene. The woman with the stroller had also moved there, but she hadn’t noticed anything, she simply moved to the spot where she was out of the way, because of the stroller.

As soon as the bus driver opens the door and walks down, the parole officer and the little guy walk right in, come out first with the guy, then the girl. He is put against the bus, gets cuffed doesn’t resist. She comes out, looks at her mom, in disbelief, and starts to yell at her. She knew. Her mother had turned her in, had called the police — how else would they have known to meet them there. The story, arranged by the parole officer and the mother during that conversation at the station, was that they police followed them on Facebook, knew they were coming home. You see, this way she would not be lying to her daughter, because this was partly true, and she had done the right thing, she told her fried — her daughter needed help, was coming home.

The tragic thing is, though, the parole officer, warrant in hand, had to take the “kids”, as the mother referred to them, straight to jail, then back in front of the judge, then I don’t know where.

The mother had thought the police would let her take them home, have a shower and rest; they had been traveling by bus for three days now and she just wanted to get them home. But this was the wrong thing to do, the parole officer had told the mother earlier during their conversation. “They’ll just pick up and run, and we have to chase them again”, he said. “This is the best thing for them now, they are not kids anymore. I’ve been doing this for 37 years and believe me, drug addicts know how to be convincing; they learn that and play at your strings”.

The girl, cuffed and put in a separate police car, is sitting in the back seat now, her mother, the friend and the parole officer approach the car while the passengers board the bus — incredulous of what they had just witnessed.

I come up to the bus driver, he looks at me, says: “I’m not going to New York” (remember him). “I know”, I replied, “You’re going to Albany, I’m going there too”.

Life on the bus, is strange, but true — on any given day!

An Expression of Our Individuality

I was waiting for the bus at the New Paltz Trailways station on my way to Albany yesterday morning, a young guy, wearing a trendy grey scarf, carrying a smart backpack, eagle scout, outward bound pins all over says to me, “Is this the bus for New York?” (I thought, here we go again). I reply, “No, I’m waiting for the bus to Albany; they look the same! You gotta read the sign in the front of the bus”.

“Oh, he says”.

“It would be easier if we had a coherent sign and schedule information system, and if we had an integrated transportation network, like other civilized countries have- confusion would not be a problem”, I declared, thinking; this will throw him off!

He thinks for a moment, (more like a 2 minutes) and he says, “Well, you see, we live in America, we drive cars, because they are an expression of our individuality! “I may be young, so my opinions may be different, but if we had integrated transportation, we have to pay more taxes and it would cost money”. “When I go out with my parents, I’m the first to volunteer to drive”.

“Ah”, I replied, “You know, the Germans, they love their cars more than we do; yet they have integrated transportation, and they take walks in the forest every Sunday morning”.

So, today, I’m on my way back, and I see this guy, sitting on ‘the king seat’, for you theatre majors (notice the fastidiously correct spelling). He’s wearing a feather on his head…on the bus!

That, dear boy, is an expression of one’s individuality!



Fear and Loathing on the Bus!

The bus driver glances at me (he’s lighting up a cigarette) as I approach the 8:35 AM bus to Albany, and he says, “You’re on the wrong bus”, in a declarative tone. I replied quizzically, “Albany?”, handing him the tickets. “Oh”, he says, “thought you were going to New York (it’s how people upstate refer to NYC- minus the city).

I must look like I should be going to NYC, not Albany!
After all, business people upstate take the bus to NYC from New Paltz, not to Albany.
In Albany, business people take the Northway Express between the two cities; this bus is very posh, and the people are nicely dressed. But between Albany and Schenectady, everyone takes the BusPlus, an express line with limited stops, connecting these two cities along the old carriage road, now a major commercial strip with mini-malls, dealerships and fast food restaurants (all the attributes of the car culture).
Three different buses, three different socioeconomic class cultures and experiences.
It’s all a matter of perception- and fear, but for many, it’s everyday life!