Archive for the ‘public transit’ Category

The first two days of this week, I left the house at 8AM to get to the Open Web Vancouver conference at the Pan Pacific Hotel. By doing so, I revived all the memories of commuting that I had almost forgotten, working from home for the past three years.

Understand that I have no particular problem getting up early (although I don’t see any virtue in it, either). By the time I start work at 9:30AM, I have shaved, read The Globe and Mail, run, done several exercises, bathed, and cleaned four bird cages, so I’m well-accustomed to functioning first thing in the morning.

What I’m not used to any more is the company of strangers first thing in the morning. The local bus that takes me to the Skytrain is tolerable; once past the high school a block away from our house, it is half empty as often as not anyway.

But once I climb to the train platform, I’m submerged in a crowd, which takes some getting used to. Moreover, some of the people on Skytrain can be – well, eccentric would be a polite term. For one thing, when you’re pressed shoulder to shoulder with people, you quickly learn that a surprising number either smoke so heavily that it must sit like starch on all their clothes, or else have an active fear of water, considering their personal hygiene.

Then there’s those who carry on their private cell phone conversations at the top of their voices in a crowded Skytrain car. I once heard a young man begging and crying for his lover (whose gender was never clear) to take him back, while those of us around him squirmed in embarrassment. It was, as humorist Kate Clinton, once said, an invasion of my right to know.

But, usually, I’m the only one who apparently finds it surprising that people would have personal conversations in the crowd. This observation that makes me think that if all those mentally troubled people who argue with themselves in different voices on the Skytrain would only be given a cell phone to hold to their ear, they would immediately become integrated into society. They would never be stared at again.

Then there’s people like the intrepid shoplifter I saw once, who boarded wearing three or four shirts and carrying their hangers in one hand and all their wrapping and labels in another. The supposedly deaf people, some of whom carry cards illustrating sign language and want you to buy them and one of whom sold elaborately folded and brightly colored origami that he arranged on a branched stick. The self-important men in three piece suits who try hard to maintain their dignity. The painters and maintenance workers coming home in soiled overalls and looking seemingly pleased at the way that everyone else keeps their distance (I suppose it gives them some personal space). The trusting innocents who actually sleep on the train (quite aside from possibly being robbed, how do they avoid missing their stop? And why, knowing they have to be up early, don’t they sleep the night before?).

And always there’s the Skytrain police, whom – I learned from the newspaper this morning – have a nasty habit of tasering fare evaders (And what do they do to vandals? Suffice it to say that long-term employees at Gitmo have been known to pale when they hear). One or two of them seem to take sadistic glee in hectoring teenage Chinese Canadian girls. All of them seemed to enjoy holding up the entire system while they do fare checks. They always travel in pairs, if not in groups of four or six, no doubt because to do anything less might put them in danger from the innocent commuters whose travel time they’ve just prolonged in their paranoia that someone, somewhere, might actually be riding for free.

With all these people playing out their dramas before the audience of commuters, there’s only one rule that can help you cling to even a shred of sanity: Read a book, carry an MP3 player whose playlists you can endlessly adjust, look out a window if you can see one, but, whatever you do, don’t make eye contact.

However, even this policy doesn’t work with the people who regard the delicate art of squeezing on to crowded car as an invitation to create a mosh pit. Inevitably large and overweight, these people wait until the second before the doors close to take a flying leap on to the train, trusting to the crowd in the car to cushion their fall and keep anyone from actually falling over as they land.

The worst of these people used to be a large woman on a scooter. Don’t ask me how she got the scooter airborne, but she was merciless in crushing your toes as it landed. If you complained, she would lecture you about respect for people with disability in such a loud voice that everyone would stare at you as though you picking your noise and describing the process with a gourmet’s delight.

Even on the rare occasion when you meet none of these types, the average commute still you feeling jagged and unsettled. I can’t believe that I endured similar commutes for years – and thank luck or fate that now I usually don’t have to.

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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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