What I Do For Love

You might not think there are a whole lot of nuances to riding the bus, but there are dozens of subtle differences between a good bus ride and a bad bus ride. Having taken up with a man who lives four hours up the crowded main artery of our megalopolis, I ride the bus. I ride the bus every other weekend. He rides the bus, too. We ride the bus.

You might think this romantic, and if you play the Simon and Garfunkel song “America” repeatedly on your iPod, sometimes it seems like it almost could be. But “America” is about travelling. Conducting a long-distance relationship via the bus is commuting. There is an important difference right there. Travelling means going somewhere you’ve never been before, where outside the bus window are wondrous new sights and inside the bus are people who think you are strange, and possibly a burlap sack full of baby chickens. Travelling means the windows of the bus open and the smell of earth mingles with the smell of people in a not entirley unpleasant way and you either smell good or so bad that you can’t smell yourself at all and maybe you are standing up and holding on for dear life while a refashioned American schoolbus does unthinkable speeds on dirt mountain roads. Commuting means travelling a hermetically sealed corridor, each backed-up exit of which is all too familiar, in an unloveable hermetically sealed pod that smells of fake cleaning odors and the odors they are not entirely successful in masking.

The bus we ride is a Bonanza Bus, which is now a subsidiary of the Peter Pan Bus Company. I just realized yesterday that that explains why all the buses say things like, “Lost Boys Adventure” on the sides. I thought this merely creepy, until I realized it was a literary reference. On a good bus ride, things come to you, answers to inconsequential little questions that have nonetheless been nagging you, and you feel a sense of satisfcation that the calm, liminal space of the semi-open road has granted your brain the quiet to let these answers float to the top of your consciousness. On a good bus ride, you write down what comes to you in your notebook and you are grateful to be on the bus that has revealed itself to be a point of rendezvous with these new ideas.

On a really good bus ride, you get two seats to yourself, near the front, out of view of the television screens and in view of the windshield. On a bad bus ride, you have to sit next to someone with a lot of stuff, who is eating reheated chicken parmagiana out of a plastic container. Just when you decide you would like to see the television screens, so confounded are you by the enormous novel you thought you would read on the bus which you now realize is much too complicated for the bus, someone’s enormous head is in the way. On a good bus ride you do not have to pee, but you are not thirsty. On a bad bus ride, you simoultaneously have to pee and are thirsty. On a really bad bus ride, you decide to use the bus bathroom, and find it in a condition that leads you to believe that the bus is also used as a part-time psych ward. On a bus ride that takes an unexpected upturn, you find the bus bathroom space-shuttle clean. On a good bus ride, you return phone messages in a low voice and everyone around you is sleeping and does not wake. On a bad bus ride, a college-aged girl one seat away shrieks, giggles and recounts the story of her Christian youth group’s trip to Israel at the top of her lungs to five or six different people. On a good bus ride, the bus is full of gently slumbering adults, all travelling alone. On a bad bus ride, a jovial group of middle-aged or elderly people, on the brink or in the full throes of hearing degredation, are travelling together and really enjoying each other’s company. On a bad bus ride, there is a baby or worse, a toddler, and the baby or the toddler cries. On a really bad bus ride, the baby or toddler has a frazzled, borderline-abusive mother who screams at and/or swats the child, who cries and screams louder. On a really, really bad bus ride, the toddler kicks the back of the seat. On a really, really, really bad bus ride, the kid kicks the back of your seat, the mother apologizes to you and then hits and threatends the kid. You contemplate adopting her kid because she is so mean to it. You contemplate irreversible surgical sterilization procedures. You contemplate stabbing your eardrum with a plastic fork.

On a good bus ride, you fall into a blissful, peaceful slumber after the rather interesting ride from Port Authority to the Bronx, during which, if you are having a good bus ride, you think, “New York, New York! What a wonderful town! What a veritable couldron of communities and traditions! What an enormous theater of thousands of tiny, fascinating interactions! What a crossroads of the world! What a heartening mix of strong-willed humans, flawed and insane and beautiful, trying to make their way in this crazy world! What a great and terrible city is my city, my beloved city. Look! The hospital where I was born! Look! The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and beyond that, my grandparents’ apartment, and beyond that the Whole Wide World! Look, a filthy river, even that is beautiful in the sunlight!”

If you are having a bad bus ride, you think, “New York, New York, a festering cesspool, a snarl of traffic, a pit of smog, an outdoor loony bin that could drive anyone insane who isn’t already, where it costs twice as much to rent half the space as anywhere else in America, and you can never get in or out without two hours in traffic or delayed on the runway at LaGuardia Airport.” If you are having a really bad bus ride, and the bus driver has a heavy foot, you can experience not only traffic all the way up the West Side, through the Park and up through East Harlem, but nauseating traffic that rattles that pages of your New Yorker vertiginously before your eyes (“New York! A city in which I am compelled to read this pretentious, relentless, incomprehensible magazine with unfunny cartoons that I will spend my whole life hoping to be published in and fearing I never will be!”)

If you are having a good bus ride, you awaken from your slumber–amazingly!–just as you are pulling into town, just as the city of your destination appears on the horizon. On a bad bus ride, you wake up with a crick in your neck and fuzz in your mouth and eighty exits of Connecticut still ahead.

On a good bus ride, you feel well-being and goodwill for your fellow passengers sloshing pleasantly in your belly like cool water running over stones. On a bad bus ride, you hate everyone on the bus. And there are many to hate. Besides the verbose cellphone talkers and the screaming babies and the loudly conversing elderly, there are the pick-up artists. Never have you heard such bland pick-up lines. Who disgusts you more, the overconfident schmuck with the gelled hair and one of those demented cell phones that just sits on his ear all the time or the incredibly bland girl who pops gum and self-tans, you cannot deduce. The two middle-aged women behind you have just made friends and are complaining about quitting smoking and how gentrified the upper Cape has become and how much they overpack. This would be heartwarming if their complaints, you feel at this moment, were not so pedestrian and pathetic. Who cares if you overpacked? you rage in your mind. Don’t bring so many of your middle-aged scarves next time you go to the Cape and save us all from hearing about it! There are the boisterous, generic men from parts of the country where men are larger and more manly. These men have belt buckles that cannot be bought in the blue states and what they are doing on the bus, you are not sure, but you can feel their anti-choice tax-cutting values spreading toward your seat like an oil slick. Red state America, you mutter in your spleen, teeth gritting, nostrils flaring, red state America is riding this bus with me. I live in this vile megalopolis that has turned every square foot from the White Mountains to the Blue Ridge into a Staples, a Barnes & Noble or a Target, the one fungus of population center in which people are so closely packed that they are forced to vote for a party that expresses at least a modicum of humanity, and yet red state America is on this bus with me.

The bus is the most democratic and proletarian of all modes of transport. The bus is how everyone gets around, and when I’m riding the bus, I am not sure that I really like everyone all that much, which I find myself in an enclosed space with them and the smell of their reheated chicken, their interest in booklets of crossword puzzles, their delight in straight-to-video movies. What amazes me is how it can go any which way. It’s the same world outside the window and the same random permutation on the bus itself and the same person sitting in my seat and wearing my shoes, and sometimes it is beautiful and sometimes it is horrible.

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