Category Archives: transit culture

On poems and pipelines (or, We are water, part II)

You might already know that I am a fan of Poetry on Buses. I’ve loved the program in all of its incarnations, but the post-2014 version is the best yet. The 2016/17 theme, “Your Body of Water,” was so timely and compelling, it motivated me to sit my non-poetic self down, write an actual poem, and submit it. I am so glad I did.

Last month, I had the privilege of reading that poem at the Poetry on Buses launch party at the Moore Theater. WOW. What a powerful celebration of art, community, and LIFE!

There were “poetry buses” parked outside the theater, where attendees could read and listen to recordings of some of the selected poems. In the lobby, there were more poems, as well as an interactive display where people could pledge to protect water. (I didn’t actually visit that display; I was too focused on being nervous about my reading.)

The poems read onstage were presented in four phases to evoke the water cycle, with the Native Jazz Quartet improvising beautiful water sounds between readings. Several local artists also performed, including the incomparable writer/rider/rapper, Gabriel Teodros, who just so happens to be my bus friend from the 48.

A poetry bus! (photo credit: 4Culture)

Poets (including me) onstage during the “evaporation” phase (photo credit: King County Metro)

The entire evening was masterminded by poet planner Jourdan Keith, whose mission in life is to remind us that “we are all bodies of water, connected to other bodies of water.” If there were ever a time when it was critical for us to understand this, it is now.

In her sobering 2010 Ted talk, Jourdan asks, “If you know you are a water body: capillaries, creeks, streams and rivers, containing runoff from farms, rooftops, airports, and driveways — your bladder, an estuary. If you knew you were as contaminated as Puget Sound, or the Orcas that swim in our waters, what would you do?”

This is the question we must urgently ask ourselves, as greed and disregard for life threaten the water all of us depend on – in Flint and Evart, Michigan; in Louisiana, New York, and North Dakota; and right here in Puget Sound.

Right now, Kinder Morgan is preparing to build a pipeline from the Alberta Tar Sands to the Pacific Coast in British Columbia. Known as the Transmountain Expansion, it will be the second pipeline to travel this route, with more capacity than the original. The project was approved by Prime Minister Trudeau late last year, and if built, will increase tanker traffic in the Salish Sea sevenfold, further stressing our endangered Orca population and dramatically increasing the chances of a major oil spill.

And so much is at risk if the pipeline itself leaks, which they all eventually do. Thank God there are people with the courage to resist.

Would we allow rapacious, profit-driven corporations to threaten our water if we understood that they are also threatening our lives? If we understood that the damage we inflict upon the planet shows up in our bodies? I am not confident of the answer, but I am grateful to Jourdan Keith and Poetry on Buses for reminding us of what is at stake.

Over 300 poems about our connectedness — to water and to each other — will be displayed on buses and trains throughout King County until this time next year. I hope they will inspire you to keep riding.

Guerrilla driver appreciation

Yesterday, a local public radio station aired a story about the Seattle roots of Bus Driver Appreciation Day (now known to everyone except me as Transit Driver Appreciation Day). Eight years after Hans Gerwitz first proposed the idea, the day is celebrated across the US and even in a few other countries. Honoring the work of bus drivers is not a tough sell.

But the thing is, pronouncing one’s appreciation for bus drivers is not the same as showing appreciation. And it’s actually pretty hard to figure out how to do something nice for a bus driver. Every March, there’s a flurry of social media action and lots of official acknowledgement; a number of municipalities have even issued proclamations. But very little of that professed appreciation actually trickles down to drivers. Most of the time, we riders come in contact with them while they’re doing they’re difficult, demanding jobs, so there isn’t time for much more than an enthusiastic, “Thanks for the ride!”

This year, I was determined to do something a bit more meaningful. So, I found an energetic and enthusiastic partner — my friend Myesha, who also happens to be a licensed massage therapist — and the two of us spent a decent chunk of this rainy holiday parked (under a borrowed pop-up tent) at Mount Baker Transit Center, offering drivers on layover free chair massages.* We figured, given the nature of their work, they probably have their share of aches and pains.

I’m not sure how many massages Myesha did today, but I’m guessing it was fewer than a dozen. Most of the massages were shorter than we would have liked, because the drivers had only a few minutes of free time. Still, I hope we brought some joy (and relief) to the drivers who took us up on our offer. We certainly enjoyed the time we spent with them.

Now that I’ve gotten my feet wet, I’m ready to build on the momentum. Fellow bus chicks, let’s make BDAD/TDAD 2018 the best, most creative, most love-filled, most driver-pleasing holiday ever. Let’s work with agencies and with other riders to come up with delightful surprises that do more than pay lip service to our appreciation. Next year, let’s really do this.

Who’s with me?

***

* Since I wasn’t giving the massages, I was the official Bus Driver Thanker. I also kept track of the time, so that everyone made it back to their vehicle on schedule.

A February adventure, Bus Fam style

On Saturday, my crew took a transit trip to the Tacoma Musical Playhouse. We rode three routes on three different systems: the 14 (King County Metro) from our neighborhood to downtown Seattle, the 594 (Sound Transit) from downtown Seattle to downtown Tacoma, and the 1 (Pierce Transit) from downtown Tacoma to the theater. It was a two-hour trip, including walks and waits. Good thing we had our books, cubes, and snacks packed and our adventure hats on.

Even though we ride the 14 regularly, there is something about traveling during “off” hours that makes it more fun. When buses are less crowded, drivers are more relaxed, and there is a solidarity and camaraderie among passengers that leads to conversations — and frequent bus-wide discussions. Our early Saturday morning 14 was one of those special rides, and it put us in just the right frame of mind to enjoy the rest of the day.

The 594 was exciting for Chicklet and Busling, who are used to city buses and did not know what to make of a Sound Transit commuter vehicle. When I showed them that their seats could recline, they just about fell out.

The 1 ride to the theater was a 30-minute trip down Tacoma’s busy 6th Avenue. Who needs expensive vacations when you can take the bus through a neighboring city? It was fun to notice the differences : the velvety bus seats (which are easier to ride on because they are not slippery but which kind of freak me out because I once read that they’re teeming with scary bacteria), the location-specific bus ads, and the shops and other sights.

It was also pretty amusing to experience all the things that were the same. There was the bus breakdown. Two stops into our first 1 ride, our driver had to “switch coaches” because of an unexplained mechanical problem. There was the Inappropriate Questioner — this time, a middle-aged white woman who yelled across the aisle to a young, light-skinned black man that he looked just like Gregory Hines (he didn’t) and then proceeded to interrogate him about his knowledge of the famous dancer. There was the Manspreader (in his defense, the bus was half empty, so he wasn’t actually encroaching on anyone), who spent the better part of the ride scratching his back with a butter knife. And, at the stop where we got off, which is a half block off of one of Tacoma’s busiest streets, there was this.

Different city, same bus problems. Exhibit D: junk blocking the sidewalk.

Despite the minor setbacks, we arrived at the theater with plenty of time for a stop at the restroom (which had a chaise!) and a little exploring before the show started.

And about that show…

And now, perhaps, you understand my motivation to travel all the way to Tacoma to watch a “family musical.” The show was absolutely wonderful and somehow managed to please all four of us. Not only was it historically accurate — it even included the story of Claudette Colvin and dispelled many myths about Parks’ life — but it was also entertaining and incredibly inspiring.

We tend to see history’s heroes (and sheroes) as Chosen Ones, special people who embrace their destiny as our saviors. The truth is, heroes are almost always regular folks with families and fears and bills to pay. This was certainly true of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, E.D. Nixon, Joanne Robinson, Virginia Durr, and the countless unrecognized people who risked and sacrificed for 381 days.

Their resistance was radical and dangerous. They faced violence from terrorists and from those who were sworn to protect them from terrorists. They had no reason to believe that their boycott would be successful, and they had every reason to believe that tremendous harm would come to their families if they continued. Yet day after day, setback after setback, they faced down their fear and doubt and chose to act with hope and courage. Their example is an enduring reminder that justice is not inevitable. It requires struggle. It requires us to persist in moments when it would be far easier not to.

I am grateful to Sue Greenberg and the Tacoma Musical Playhouse for bringing this beautiful struggle to life for my family.

And speaking of family…

My other motivation for a bus adventure to Tacoma was (and will remain) my hilarious, adorable three-year old niece, HD. After the show, HD and her mama met us for lunch at a fun burger joint near Wright Park — another 1 ride in the opposite direction. They also took us on a tour of Stadium High School (which is a short walk from the restaurant), so my Harry Potter-obsessed children could pretend they were visiting Hogwarts.

Coolest high school ever

Stadium’s stadium

After our rainy tour, we decided to continue our sightseeing on foot. We said goodbye to our guides and walked the mile to the nearest 594 stop. Then we headed back north, spending most of the ride napping contentedly in our reclining seats.

Sure, our excursion had its share of wet socks, waiting, and whining (mostly, in the form of begging for treats at the theater), but those irritations will be quickly forgotten. What we will remember about our February Tacoma adventure is that it stimulated our curiosity and imagination, fortified our courage, and connected us with our family and community. In my book, that’s as close to perfect as an adventure can get.

Brain building while busing

Transit riders enjoy the precious gift of regular time to use as we choose. The great among us write nobel prize winning novels on the way to work. We mortals use our travel time in more ordinary ways: reading, chatting, knitting, gaming, texting, primping, prepping, macking. Also, solving puzzles.

Fellow bus chicks, behold.

Cubes

No, they aren’t mine. I am  still perfectly content to spend my rides reading, thinking, and people-watching. Plus, I’m not much of a puzzle person. The beauties pictured above belong to my beloved Bus Nerd, who, as you can see, has developed a bit of an obsession.

It started innocently enough. A couple of years ago, he picked up an old-school, 3 x 3 Rubik’s cube (same one he had as a kid) and figured out how to solve it. He practiced until he could do it in under a minute, then moved on to a 4 x 4 to increase the challenge. After he mastered that, things started getting out of hand (see photo). And yes, he can solve them all.

Bus Nerd doesn’t limit his cubing to bus rides, but they have definitely become his bus pastime of choice. He uses the cubes to entertain himself on the rides, and he uses the rides to gauge his progress on the cubes. (He knows he’s making progress if he can solve it earlier in the route.) His cubes also supplement his stop sense, since his progress on the puzzle correlates to the progress of the route.

Here is Bus Nerd, explaining his bus cubing better than I can. I apologize in advance for the sound quality.

Back door magic

When I was a young bus chick, getting off the bus at the back door was a really big deal. It wasn’t the actual act that was important, but rather, the moments of apprehension as I stood there, wondering if the driver would see me and open the doors without prompting, or if I’d have to draw attention to my shy self by hollering, “BACK DOOR!” at the top of my lungs – possibly even <gasp!> more than once.

Responses to a driver’s failure to open the back door are unique and telling. A polite reminder. A demand. A desperate entreaty. Other riders share the anxiety of the person who stands alone at the rear exit, trying to maintain cool and decorum as the panic slowly rises. Sometimes we show solidarity by adding our voices to the request, a chorus of back door!s rising together in the precious few seconds before the bus leaves the stop.

But just as the transfer trade has been diminished (though not altogether eliminated) by ORCA card payment, so too will back door panic slowly fade to the background of bus experience. Fellow bus chicks, behold.

back door magic

These are the rear doors on one of Metro’s new(ish)* buses. There is no need for help from the driver; simply tap gently on the yellow bars and the doors will magically open. The experience of using these doors is transformative. Amazing. Empowering. Magical. But, for a nostalgic type like me, it’s also a little bit sad.

In the short term, we will still have our back door drama. Most Metro buses don’t have the new doors. And the drivers I’ve talked to say most riders haven’t figured them out yet. They either don’t notice the instructions or do see them but shove enthusiastically on the doors, which won’t open if pushed too hard.

But over time, as coaches get replaced and riders get experience, “BACK DOOR!” will be no more.

RIP.

***

* They’ve actually been around for about a year, but it took me a minute — ahem — to get around to writing about them. In my defense, I did talk about them here.

Doors closing

One of my favorite things about public transportation is the culture that develops among riders. There are things we just do, regardless of our life stage or social standing, that identify us as bus (or train) people. If you’ve never hollered for the driver to open the back door, panic rising in your voice; woken from a nap just in time for your stop; or engaged in at least one book discussion or sports debate with a stranger, you haven’t been riding long enough.

And if you’ve never hurried to catch a vehicle, only to have it close its doors (or pull away) just as you arrive, well, then you can’t call yourself a transit rider.

Watching this Gothamist video feels like looking in the mirror.

Poetry on Buses (and trains), 2016

poetry on buses 2016

The folks at Poetry on Buses have announced their 2016 theme: “Your Body of Water.” Last year’s theme, “Writing Home,” was provocative — so much so that I thought it might actually inspire me to write a poem (it didn’t) — but props to the new poet planner, Jourdan Keith, for selecting this one. Wow.

“Your Body of Water” is a poetic exploration of our connections to water and how it is protected and cared for by Seattle Public Utilities and King County.

We are all bodies of water, connected to one another through the water web. Your body of water is connected to streams, rivers, lakes, tides, waterfalls, toilets and faucets, to present homes, childhood homes and ancestral ones by memory, by the water cycle, by stories. Come, tell your story through poetry.

Yes, please.

How to make a bus mama proud

Parenting is really hard. It’s harder than I ever imagined, and I imagined that it was going to be hard. My baby whispering skills are legendary, but with actual children, I have no idea what I’m doing. Most days, I feel like I’m messing up motherhood — and maybe even my kids.

Then yesterday, at the 8 stop, I looked over at my progeny and saw them doing this.

My rider-readers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It wasn’t a surprise — they read every time we wait at a bus stop (or anywhere else, for that matter) — but in that moment, after a morning of whining, arguing, and selective hearing, it was a gift.

It looks like I’ve managed to get at least one thing right.

Dear Danielle

Around midday today, I boarded the 27 behind a young woman wearing white pants, a gorgeous green and blue blouse, a Seahawks cap, and a long, light-blue wig. Her magnificent outfit alone is reason for sharing, but there’s more.

As I passed the woman to sit down, she said hello as if she knew me and then asked about my kids. I couldn’t place her at all, so I assumed she was someone I see when I’m out and about walking. But this woman interacted with me as though I must know her as well, announcing almost immediately that she was a mother now, too, and walking over to my seat to show me the adorable baby photos on her phone.

I am ashamed to say that I pretended to know her, which made our interaction somewhat awkward. (Of course, bonding over babies can take the edge off of almost anything.) Finally, our conversation revealed who she was: “Miss Danielle,” a young woman who had interned at Chicklet’s preschool one summer. Chicklet, who has always been a tough customer, adored Danielle, because she was patient and compassionate and a good listener.

Back in those days, Danielle was a student at Garfield. After her internship ended, the kids and I would sometimes see her on the bus or around the neighborhood. She always made a point to say hi to Chicklet.

On the bus ride today, I learned that Danielle lives in Puyallup now, and that she has started a job at a sandwich chain all the way downtown. She lives near the transit center, so we spent a good long time talking Sounder versus 578. Sounder is more expensive and doesn’t run often enough, but it has bathrooms, great views, and predictable travel times. Plus, she was given an free unlimited ORCA card through a school program, so for now, cost isn’t an issue.

After she got off the bus, I thought about the Danielle I had known when Chicklet was in preschool, so different in appearance from the young woman I had met today. I thought about the fact that neither of us could have pictured the future she had walked into, one choice and changing circumstance at a time.

This is not an idealization of the past, nor is it a self-righteous hand-wringing about the perils of young motherhood. It is, at least in part, a rage against the unfairness that pushes a young mother searching for housing to the distant exurbs. But mostly, it is a meditation on change.

In the few years since Danielle left our neighborhood, it has become a place she might not recognize. (The preschool where we met her, which has been serving children in the same location for over 50 years, is one of the few institutions that endures.) In those same few years, she became a person I did not recognize. I wonder what changes she saw in me.

Dear Danielle, tenderhearted preschool helper, mama of beautiful babies, hot mama wearing the heck out of her blue hair and white jeans: I hope to meet you again on your journey.

When I grow up…

I have a lot of sheroes. Some of them are world renowned, or breathtakingly talented, or otherwise leading big, public lives. Many are ordinary people who conduct themselves with dignity and integrity. And a few are just ridiculously good at riding the bus. Today, I add another person — one who has integrity in spades and a PhD in busology — to my list of ordinary sheroes. Fellow bus chicks, I present Ms. Janis Scott, “the Bus Lady.”

It just so happens that I attended the same university as Miss Janis. After I finished school, I stayed in Houston to teach, so I am familiar with the particular challenges of riding the Houston Metro. Of course, I lived there before the city had light rail, and long before the agency’s recent restructure, so I don’t have a very good understanding of what it’s like to ride these days. I do know that, in a city that is 627 miles square, with precious few sidewalks, it would take a miracle-working transit system to make busing convenient. But I digress.

Like Miss Janis, I love cultural events, and, theoretically, I take the bus to partake of them. (I say theoretically because I have kids, and I don’t get out much these days.) But there’s more. I, too, have served on innumerable transit-related advisory committees. (Too bad the committees in Seattle don’t offer free rides as a perk.) And finally, almost exactly seven years ago, I, too, had the honor of being featured in a Streetsfilm.

Maybe this means that my destiny is to follow in the footsteps of the Bus Lady. In my vision of my own future, I will be living much like Miss Janis does: doing my life on the bus, sharing my expertise with others, and helping to elevate the needs of riders.

“Common sense and mother wit.” Yes, indeed.

“Mix, mix, mix!”