Saturday, February 04, 2006

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Adventures With MATA

[No, I'm not back. I just wanted to relate this story which is both hilarious and illustrative.]

Saturday, I took the bus from my apartment to Mark's. We were heading out to the Battle Bunker for some gaming. When I got on the 53 at the North Terminal, the driver was talking with someone (apparently a friend) about driving the number 11 bus. I backed up and re-read the number of the bus I was boarding before I gave her my transfer, because I have been known to board the wrong bus and her conversation made me wake up. She laughed and I smiled.

I took a seat roughly in the middle of the bus. Up ahead of me, on the parallel bench was a woman whose expression I instantly recognised. It was the naked, frank way she looked right at me, and the glinting light in her eye, and the huge smile splitting her face. She was mentally ill. I worked in a drug rehab center for ten years and I know that look. But she seemed in a happy place, so I relaxed.

As the bus wound down to the Parkway, she would occasionally say something in a loud mumble, the kind almost loud enough to understand but you have to ask them to repeat it clearly. She was vocalising her internal monologue, the odd thought in her mind popping out through her mouth. She kept looking around the bus at the other passengers, with that blunt smile, but no-one was engaging her.

Then the fun started. A woman I recognised from previous Saturday trips on this bus got on along the Parkway. She has the air of a country woman who now lives in the city, hard and closed in. A bit farther down Faxon, she suddenly leaps up and begins shouting something incoherent.

After a moment, she's saying, "Stop the bus! That's my daughter!" She grabs the bell cord and then runs to the front of the bus. She begins talking in a rushed, loud voice about her daughter just missing the bus. The driver pulls over.

Now I know who the daughter is. She gets on the bus at a later stop than her mom, bringing her young son, and they ride out Summer to the antique minimall area then get off together. Looking back, listening to the mother, it's clear the daughter is now about three blocks back, turning away from her missed bus.

The country woman is now haraunging the driver, to get her daughter on. She asks the driver to back the bus up! When that fails, she demands the driver wait while she goes to get her daughter and bring her back. The driver quietly explains she's on a schedule and needs to get moving again.

Seeing her daughter walking away, not seeing the stopped bus, the country woman climbs back on, loudly complaining and fussing the whole time. She never stops. "I've been told by drivers (later "a driver") that you can wait up to two minutes. It's hard in this world for everyone and we all have to stick together and help each other. Now she's got to wait a whole hour for the next bus. You're running early and she was at the stop at the usual time." Blah, blah, blah. On and on, non-stop, loudly.

After nearly ten minutes (or so it seemed), the driver finally couldn't stand it and they began to argue across the bus. At top volume. The country woman kept saying, "That's all I'm going to say." before she'd launch into another tirade. At one point, in response to a threat to report her behavior from the country woman, the driver said, "You can't get me fired! No one can!" (Which I thought a very revealing statement, indeed. Union? MATA protectionism? Bravado?)

The bus is tootling down to Summer and Hollywood now, and they're still going at it. The rest of the passengers are getting tired and uncomfortable, but no one's saying anything. The mentally ill woman is wide-eyed and po-faced.

The bus stops to pick up passengers. One is a middle-aged, silver-haired white guy in work t-shirt and jeans and cap, with some tools sticking out of his back pocket. He's not lean and hard, though, but soft and slightly overweight. He immediately asks what they are arguing about and suggests they stop it and let the driver drive. He takes a seat on the opposite bench from the mentally ill woman.

Some passengers take the opportunity the silver-haired guy offered to suggest the driver drive and they get moving. But the argument continues, and the white guy occasionally inserts his wisdom and advice. Things are growing heated.

The bus turns off Summer into the Binghamptom loop. And then it all goes to hell. The mentally ill woman, who is black, suddenly says something to a young white girl across from her, ending in a phrase that the whole bus hears: "White bitch." Dead silence from everyone.

Then the mentally ill woman, responding to something the white guy said that I didn't hear, got up and began to berate the white guy in a strong, clear voice. She ended by being three inches from his face and in the same powerful voice ended her tirade with "white bitch."

He flinched and floundered a second, then the ill woman suddenly threw back her right arm, cocked high and ready to slap the living crap out of him. The bus was now pulled over, all conversation but this was gone. But the ill woman then let her hand fall and sat back down.

The driver announced to the bus that we all needed to stop it, or did she need to call the police? Several riders in the back immediately piped up that they'd seen a police cruiser just ahead, around the block. It could be there in a moment. But the driver talked quietly to the ill woman and she stayed seated and fairly quiet, the odd mumble her only noise. After some adjustment, the bus continued.

One rider, a middle aged woman with a dignified bearing, made some general statement to the bus about MATA drivers, responsibility and being at the stop on time, which others in the back supported with ragged agreement.

The country woman stayed completely silent, seething (I looked at her once.) inside herself. The silver-haired guy was also silent. At one point the mentally ill woman got up and walked to the driver's side, then sat down before pulling the bell cord. After she got off, the young woman she'd called a "white bitch" said she had seen the ill woman around downtown a lot. Whatever that was supposed to mean....

At this point, we're going well down Summer. As every passenger from the back gets off, they exclaim their support for the driver and wish her well. I expressed my support for her, more quietly to her, when I got off. The country woman hasn't said a word, thin-lipped and hunched over.

High drama on the 53. Is it any wonder that -- given the choice at all -- folks don't ride MATA, no matter how they are enticed or bullied by the social engineers of the world? Being in someone else's vehicle traps you in their world, with all their problems.

One time, about fifteen years ago, I was taking the 50 Poplar back to the downtown from shopping out East. It was packed, with some folks standing in the aisles. I was the only white person on that bus, that day. (That's going to happen in a city like Memphis. I'm not complaining here, just pointing out something that's relevant in a moment.)

I had my headphones on, to screen out folks who might try to start up a conversation, but no music playing. I could hear everything clearly, but no one else knew that.

Seated right behind me was a very old guy who was obviously a long time drunk. He was completely shizzled, right on the edge of nodding off. He was mumbling to himself and, after a while, he kept mumbling about "white m*therf*ckers." When I didn't react, he got louder. I stole glances around the bus and folks kept eyeing me to see if I heard or how I was going to react. I kept an oblivious smile on my face and just sat there. The bus was otherwise quiet. No one said anything, to him or me.

After a very long while, the old man finally got off the bus. The person next to him called the driver back. The old man's seat was puddled with urine.

Ever since, I've always checked my bus seat before sitting down. I wonder how many bus seats Carol Coleta, Willie Herenton, Kevin Kane, Henry Turley, Pitt Hyde or Barry Lendermon have had to check?

Riding MATA requires certain skills. If you depend on the bus to be somewhere at a certain time, you are in trouble. If you expect it to be early, it will be late; if you depend on it to be late, it will be early. That's where the country woman and her daughter made their mistake. Even if the busses cross at a certain stop at the same time, and you have a transfer, don't depend on the timing. I've missed many busses that way. One is late or the other early.

Never assume that just because a bus has a street name on it that it will travel that street. The Summer bus detours part of its route through Binghampton. The 50 Poplar bus detours through the UM area. The 2 Madison winds all over the place near the downtown. If you pick the wrong block, then you're screwed. There will be no bus for you.

Every once in a while, there will be no bus at all. You will be at the right stop, at the right time. Other busses will come by, just not your's. Busses occasionally crash, break down, or have incidents like mine where police are called. I once waited thirty minutes downtown for a bus that never came before I started down to the North Terminal for another (Any!!) bus to get me home. Turns out my bus had an accident and bus traffic had been rerouted temporarily. Who knew?

Now, in that case and in all fairness to MATA, the MATA investigator on the scene immediately offered to give me a ride. Just like that. She was very nice and I was truly appreciative.

But that was a unique situation. I once stood in the middle of Poplar, waving my arms at the speeding bus driver trying to get him to stop for me, only to watch him zip right past with nary a pause. He saw me, too.

Some folks ride MATA because they have to. Some, like me, because we choose to. (I gave up my car about fifteen years ago by choice, in order to live a low-cost lifestyle. I get by thanks to friends and MATA.) Riding MATA takes adjustments and adaptations, as well as learning some skills and accepting some missed rides. But in today's "have it your way" culture very few want to make those adjustments. Fewer still want to be forcibly pushed up against the very kinds of people they tried to keep away from.

Anyway, that's that. And now, back into the Outback to continue the walkabout. Later y'all.