Archive for the ‘buses’ Category

When the gallery owner in Terrace told me he could have a friend deliver my purchase to the South Terminal of the Vancouver airport, it sounded like an adventure. I imagined a scene out of Casablanca, with me standing on a fog-ridden runway as a single-prop plane descended out of the gloom. Or maybe I would sidle up to the bar in the terminal, wearing my trench coat and saying, “Got the bird, sweetheart?” out of the side of my mouth as a mysterious woman handed me the parcel under the table. So, naturally, I agreed. I’d never been to the South Terminal, and it sounded like a mild adventure, or at least a change of pace.

My first hint that my expedition would be more surreal than adventurous came when I board the airport bus at the 22nd Street Skytrain station. The shuttle from the main terminal didn’t run except in peak hours, I was told, but I could easily walk from the last bus stop.

Feeling concerned but already committed, I walked to the back of the bus and endured the long and winding fifty minutes of the ride – to say nothing of the fat woman who boarded on Granville Street and sat beside me devouring a Big Mac and fries, letting me hear every oversize mouthful she chewed and making me almost gag with the rancid smell.

The things we do to avoid passing through three transit zones and spending a little more money.

Eventually, just as reading one more page would have sent me nodding off to sleep, I reached the end of the line. Just to be sure, I consulted the driver again. “You can easily walk the distance,” he assured me. “It’s about a kilometer.”

For some reason, I forgot that no middle-aged North American except me had any clear idea of how far a kilometer was. Instead of taking a taxi, I started walking. I wasn’t wearing the shoes for serious walking, but I figured I didn’t need them for such a short stroll.

The better part of a kilometer down the road, I came across the BCIT Aerospace center. Aha, I told myself – the terminal must be on the other side of the embankment on the far side. It must be great for the students to be so close to the runway. I decided to cut through the school and maybe ask some likely looking official if I were on track. But I didn’t see anyone to ask, and by the time I blundered out into the back lot behind the school’s hangar, I realized that the South Terminal was nowhere in site.

I continued plodding down the road another half kilometer. I saw a sign and a traffic light that would allow me to cross to a turnoff. I did, glad to get away from the highway whose shoulder I had been traversing and arrive at my destination.

Only, it wasn’t my destination. The signs – so far as I could make out (and, frankly, I had to guess the direction) – seemed to indicate that the South Terminal was 1.5 kilometers to my right.

At this point, my spirits and my calf muscles were starting to sag, but I noticed that the signs seemed to point to a curve that went along two sides of a large grass field. I thought I’d save time and cut across the grass.

Unfortunately, I forgot that the shoes I was wearing had low, half-open panels on each side. Before I had gone thirty paces, my socks were soaked from the puddles concealed in the grass.

This must be how the knights on the Grail Quest must have felt after wandering around for months in the wilderness, I told myself. I grimly plodded on, feeling ridiculous and half-convinced that someone must be watching me from one of the distant hangars and doubling over in laughter. But I had gone too far to turn back now, I told myself.

The road turned into a smaller one, lined with two-story buildings that looked like they were put up in the early 1960s. That road wound around to a smaller one, and suddenly, beyond all hope, I had reached the terminal, nearly three kilometers from the bus stop from which I had started.

My shoes squelching, my shirt sweaty and me feeling more than a little dishevelled, I staggered into the terminal.

I regret to confess that there was no sultry dame to greet me – only a bored clerk at the airline’s desk, who interrupted her conversation about the weekend with another employee long enough to pass me the parcel and look on disinterestedly as I checked to see if it was intact. Much to my surprise after my long walk, it was.

Only then did I take the time to look around. The terminal was drab, almost empty, and as romantic as a turnip. I quickly downed a scone and a bottle of juice, and started back. I could have taken a cab, but I was determined to play my folly through to the end. After all, I might not otherwise have time to exercise today,

This time, though, I took the long way around the grass.

Knowing what to expect, I found the return trip less traumatic. It was, however, deadly dull. The side of a highway isn’t the place to walk while reading a book, and the only way I could amuse myself was by singing, secure in the knowledge that no one had the faintest chance of hearing me over the cars.

I arrived at the bus stop limping and cursing my choice of shoes. When the bus finally came, all I wanted to do was get home, so I splurged and travelled through three zones to get there. Suddenly, my usual day at the keyboard didn’t seem so bad after all.

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I wish I could say that I take public transit for environmental reasons. Environmentalism is trendy, and I could earn cheap social points by being green. Unfortunately, I can’t claim so much credit. The truth is, I prefer public transit because it gives me a block of time to read. When I’m not reading, the bus or the Skytrain is a perfect place for both thinking and people-watching.

Somewhere on each trip, I almost always use the time on transit simply to think. While I’m on transit, I may be purposeful, but, unlike in a car, I’m not responsible for that purpose. I can sit back, and let my mind wander. without guilt. Moreover, I’m doing it in an unfamiliar environment, with other unfamiliar ones passing rapidly by me outside, and unfamiliar environments often lead to new thoughts. Ride a bus for half an hour, I sometimes think, and I can often find a solution to any problem that’s on my mind.

Flying is even better, because it’s stranger and longer, but transit has the advantage of being cheaper and more accessible. Once or twice, I’ve even ridden a block or two past my stop, just because I was in the middle of thinking through an especially knotty problem and didn’t want to interrupt the process.

If I have a laptop with me, I can input my thoughts, so long as I’ve kept the battery charged. However, closing down a laptop can make me miss my stop if I’m not careful, and caring an open computer through a crowd is a good way to break it.

More often, I simply carry a notebook. The only disadvantage is that my handwriting has degenerated through marking student papers until it looks like an obscure style of cuneiform written in the dark. Nor does the motion of the bus or Skytrain car help. Later, I often can’t transcribe what I’ve written except for a few words here and there. Most, I frankly have to guess at through context.

At other times, I unabashedly gawk at the human parade around me. Generally-speaking, the people who ride transit do not represent a random distribution of the population. As a sample, they’re skewed to the teenaged and the old, the poor and the ethnic (by which I mean, anyone from a culture that isn’t obsessed with the idea of a personal vehicle). These populations are apt to be more colorful than the average suburb or city dweller: the young because they are asserting themselves, the old because they don’t care about fashion, the poor because they can afford to care, and the ethnic because they have their own sense of style.

If you want to hear the latest concerns among teenagers, or get a sense of different speech patterns, all you have to do is ride and eavesdrop shamelessly. What I hear can be embarrassing, like the time I heard a man pleading with his lover not to break up with him via a cell-phone, but it will be a genuine slice of life of the kind that would make short story writers drool. From people discussing their plans for the weekend, giving Twitter-like updates on their cell phones to families swarming with young children and cyclists still dusty from their ride, you can find a bit of everything on transit.

And these are just the ordinary riders. If you could the genuine eccentrics, the bikers who have lost their driver’s licenses and the homeless who sometimes ride for free in the downtown core, then the people-watching never palls. The one drawback is that you don’t always see the end of the drama. I still wonder, sometimes, whether the shoplifter I saw wearing half a dozen shirts and carrying their clothes-hangers was ever noticed by the transit police, or how well the busker with his thirty-second balloon show did. Nor do I know just who the man strumming a guitar for the driver was the other night, although from the way people acted, he might be someone moderately famous.

People-watching never completely palls. If nothing else, it’s a basic precaution for riding. Without being paranoid, it only seems sensible to be aware of those around you on transit, especially at night. However, the one rule you need to remember is: “Don’t make eye contact.”
Not that is, if you want to avoid being dragged unwillingly into a conversation. The eccentrics on the bus are often lonely, and even meeting their eyes for a moment can encourage them to tell you their life story in real time or in repetitive, rambling detail.

Of course, transit isn’t always smooth riding. If I’m foolish enough to travel during rush hour, I can learn more about other people’s personal hygiene and smoking habits than I ever wanted to know. Mostly, though, riding transit is so rich in people and thoughts that being in a private car seems an impoverished experience by comparison.

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