Thursday, January 19, 2006

A Word or Two About Public Transportation

Having no car in Brussels (which may not be a bad thing, given that the few times that I have driven one in the 2 shorts months we have lived there, I have managed to hit a tram and bust through a NATO diplomatic processional), I have learned to rely on public transportation. In fact, I pride myself on the fact that I have navigated all over Europe using local subways, trains, trams and busses, including doing so in countries like the Czech Republic and Hungary, where there are letters in their alphabets that have never seen the inside of a Campbell's soup can.

Rather than take anyone up on the various offers to loan me their cars and/or provide rides, I decided to give San Diego's public transportation system a whirl, and take it from our home in Point Loma to the law library downtown. I thought to myself, I have done this all over Europe, how hard could it be in a town where I speak the language (natively), know the money system and am familiar with the area? Well, as it turns out, "hard" is a relative concept, with apparently, nothing to do with geography!

We have a friend that is house-sitting for us and she has some experience with traveling by public transportation. She told me to walk to the end of my street, take the 35 bus (which comes every 1/2 hour) to Old Town Trolley Station and then take either the red or blue trolley line to the downtown station. To come home, take the red or blue trolley line back to Old Town and pick up the 28 bus. Piece of cake.

I arrived at the bus stop at the end of my street at 10:25, which left me plenty of time to stand around looking like a high-school junior grounded from using the car and forced to take "Old Yeller" to school. If you thought waiting for the bus at 17 was uncool, try it at 36!

At 10:38, I started to panic, wondering if I missed the bus. Lucky for me, the bus stop sign had an information number on it. I called the number and when the operator, Amy, answered the line, I blurted out "I think I missed the bus." She responded in a tone that suggested that she thought perhaps I have missed more than one bus. Long pause and then, "Ma'am, what do you want me to do about it?" I quickly caught my snap and backtracked: "I'm sorry, Amy. Is there any way you can tell me if the 35 Bus has already past the stop at Freeman/Chatsworth? I don't know if you have a way to track these things. I've never ridden the bus before." "Really?", she says, and not in the "really - you have never ridden a bus" amazed sort of way, but in the "really - duh, I couldn't tell" way. Since I'm no stranger to sarcasm, I let Precious slide on this one. She then told me that the bus will be there at 10:31, and it was only 10:29:30. (Yes, she gave me the seconds).

The bus arrived, right on Amy's schedule, and I stepped on. To mitigate any potentially embarrassing situations, I immediately told the driver that I had never ridden the bus and that I didn't know what to do, but I wanted to go to the Old Town Trolley Station. He showed me how to use the ticket machine and pointed me to a seat behind and to the right of him. He said that the bus would make a couple of stops and then end at the Old Town Trolley Station. At this point, I'm good to go.

I get to Old Town and transfer over to the trolley (no problems here thanks to prior experience for Padres games and Street Scene), which I take to the front of the law library. Having reached my destination relatively problem-free, I mentally started calculating how much money I just saved by using public transit and was feeling pretty proud of myself.

After I finished at the library, I jumped back on the trolley and headed to Old Town. Once in Old Town, I got off and went in search of the 28 Bus. Unable to use the "I've never ridden the bus" line, I was forced to fall back on "Does this bus go anywhere near the Navy Training Center on Rosecrans?". The bus driver, who was still on break and apparently took his break time very, very seriously, responded: "Once I'm back in service." I took that to mean "yes" and planted myself in the seat behind and to the right of him. Reflecting back, perhaps I should have gotten off the bus, left him to his Zen time, and then jumped on when he gave me the "in service" signal. Oh, well.

Leaving Old Town, there were three of us on the bus. Me, a young military guy sitting near the back of the bus, and the freak beside me, and, by "freak", I mean F-R-E-A-K! By "beside me", I mean so close that the edge of his disgustingly dirty, disease-ridden, blanket cum jacket was practically touching my white blazer (don't raise that fashion eyebrow at me -- it's Southern California and, therefore, perfectly acceptable to wear white before Labor Day!) and his bare foot (yes, singular), with its layers of dirt, grime, and accumulated toe-cheese, was dangerously close to making contact with some part of my leather boots.

I would try to describe how he smelled, but some scents simply cannot be translated into words. Let's just say that his "odor" would have puked a buzzard. It was the type of smell that commits nose rape -- you know a smell so vile that it lingers with you long after the offending source is gone and taints every smell that comes after.

Concerned about my personal health and safety, not to mention my designer boots, I got up, crossed the aisle, and sat down behind the driver. Without fail, when the bus stopped to let someone new on, the new person always headed as far away from the FREAK as possible, leaving only me, FREAK and the driver in the front of the bus. I don't know what is more amazing -- the excruciatingly slow manner in which time passes when trapped in the blank-gaze of San Diego's dirtiest, stinkiest, one-footed, homeless person, or how hard it is to avoid making eye contact with someone who has no ability to control the movements of his left eye. Everywhere I looked, his left eye seemed to wander over. Not the right -- just the left, leaving me to wonder if there is some hidden neurological connection between the loss of a lower limb and involuntary movement of the corresponding orbital muscle.

As I am pondering this thought, I look up and realize that we have past the Navy Training Center (NTC). Now, the busdriver knew I wanted off at the NTC, but did he stop? No, he just kept going, passing various bus stops along the way. (I'm sure he was smiling on the inside, reveling in the fact that he had just achieved sweet revenge against me for interrupting the remaining 2 minutes of his break and that the carnival freakshow that he was witnessing in his rear-view mirror was just icing on the cake.)

Getting further and further from my street, I ask, out loud, "how do you know where the next stop is?" (In Europe, the stops are conveniently posted on the route map, which is prominently located on the wall of the bus.) FREAK, seeing this as an opportunity to engage me in conversation, says, "blyuh blugag bjlyeho noutts ghhoot", or something to that effect. I ignore him and look pleadingly at the crowd at the rear of the bus, because God knows Mr. Busdriver is not going to help me out!

The young military guy (God Bless the USA) told me that I had to pull the cord to get off the bus. At first, I thought he was joking. Then, I noticed that he was grabbing a yellow cord that was hanging from the sides of the bus. The busdriver then stopped at the next stop, which was about 1 mile from my street, and let me out.

As I am trudging the mile-plus back to my house in 2.5 inch heels, cramming eucalyptus/menthol cough drops down my throat in an attempt to numb the mucous membranes lining my nose, I can't help but to be amazed that I can spend an entire week using public transportation in a former Eastern-bloc country, but I can't figure out how to get off the damn bus around the corner from my house!

© 2006 Cindy Lane. All rights reserved.


Anonymous Rod Thome said...

Cindy, Please learn this 1 word: Cab

10:29 PM  

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