Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Maybe Old Dogs Are Just Afraid
I have been riding the bus for the past two weeks.
All by myself.
I have lived in Salt Lake City for 17 years, and never used public transportation outside the free ride zone for Trax downtown.
I rode the bus with a bunch of kids from Bountiful to downtown when I was in 9th grade and here from Idaho Falls on a choir tour with my Jr. High--but that was the only time.
I've ridden the BART in San Francisco and the subway in New York City, but I was terrified in the face of needing to ride the bus to work on occasion since we are once again a one-car family.
Usually I like to present a picture of cool confidence to the outside world, but it's all a lie. I have ridiculous, paralyzing fears about common, everyday activities that pretty much everyone can do.
For example, I didn't sleep for weeks before a trip to the east coast where I was going to have to drive in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. It wasn't the traffic or getting lost that I was afraid of. It was toll booths.
Previously, I had managed to avoid toll booths in other states, namely Colorado and Florida, but I knew I couldn't hide from them on this trip.
I had visions in my head of not being prepared with the correct amount of change and having angry, east coast sophisticates jump out of their cars and lynch me for slowing down their daily commute with my small town stupidity.
My fears were unfounded. It was quite disappointing, actually. Nearly every toll booth I encountered was staffed by a smiling, helpful person who could take cash or credit card and would gladly make change as needed.
My first bus venture was chaperoned by a lovely woman with whom I work. She is a regular on the bus, and since she lives nearby she kindly volunteered to help me navigate the messy world of public transit.
The night before my maiden voyage, I sat down with Savannah and quizzed her on what to expect, how to "tap on" and "tap off" and any other insider tips she could give me. Gabi chimed in and regaled me with tales of all the scary people she and her dad have met on the bus.
That first trip went off without a hitch and I felt pretty confident that, just like with the toll booths, the reality of bus travel wasn't nearly as seedy and dangerous as I imagined.
Then I needed to ride alone. I meant to accompany my friend again, but she catches the bus at 7am, and I am more afraid of getting up early than I am of bussing it alone.
I psyched myself up for my solo trip by choosing the perfect outfit. I wanted to exude the air of urban confidence and street "credo" that I believed regular bus riders must possess. Armed in skinny black jeans, suede boots, t-shirt, jacket and artfully draped scarf, I threw a book in my bag and headed out the door.
I walked to the bus stop and proceeded to play it cool. Casually standing there like it's where I belonged. I pulled out my phone, checked my email and played some solitaire--in between looking down the road for the bus every eight seconds or so. Moments like these make me want to smoke. Smoking is the perfect waiting activity.
Once on the bus I smugly congratulated myself on totally pulling it off. Not one passenger, or even the driver, looked at me strangely or challenged my right to be there. I settled in and realized the best part of bus riding: I wasn't driving.
In fact, as my bus prowess grows, I wonder why I didn't do this sooner. I hate driving. If I won the lottery, the first thing I would do is hire a driver. I love not having to point out the stupid mistakes of every other driver on the road--and my daily incidence of four-letter words has decreased drastically.
The other night on my way home I glanced over at a slumped man in two oversized coats sitting across from me with his nose buried in a book. He was reading "A Beginner's Guide to Constructing the Universe." I was playing solitaire and trying not to get "bus sick."
There are many helpful signs on the bus with tips like, "Know when and where the bus departs." and "Cell phones can be a powerful tool. Use your phone's light to attract the driver's attention in the dark or bad weather." But my favorite is, "Do not walk in front of the bus."
I had made about five bus trips on my own, and was feeling pretty good about myself when I noticed that we were approaching my stop and I was the last person left on the bus. Until now, I hadn't had to pull the little cord to signal that a stop was requested. Even after all of my progress, I was terrified of that dirty, germ-infested yellow cord.
I didn't want to do it wrong (whatever that means) and end up looking like a huge idiot who knows nothing about riding the bus. I even thought about just riding along until the bus stopped again and then walking back to my house from wherever I was let off--it couldn't be too far away, could it?
There was an intense debate going on in my head about how stupid it would be to ride along past my stop when all I had to do was pull a cord. Everyone else can pull the cord. Even the druggie kid who had been sitting next to me loudly explaining that he just got out of jail and was heading to donate plasma could pull the damn cord with finesse.
So I did it. And the bus stopped at my stop. And the driver said "Have a good night." And I walked home. And the world kept turning. I smiled to myself and thought, "Hell, this is one old dog that just learned a new trick!"
But I still hope someone else is there tomorrow to pull that cord.