Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders.
—Carl Sandburg, “Chicago”
The other day I ventured on a business trip. It was good but the best thing about it was when it ended. It involved getting up at 3:45 am. I normally go to bed at 4:00 am. Yes. As far as my as my zombie condition allowed, I busied myself taking photos from trains and buses. I’m a firm believer in the ugly being pretty when it comes to it.
I wonder if edges can be straight (as I claim in the title). For the purpose of this post, let them be so. Today’s prompt is to present something edgy and make sure the edges align. My edges always align, I’m OCD, so it’s a no-brainer. If you wonder how on earth I managed to take such a crappy photo, I was on a moving bus.
Whenever I don’t know what to blog about, I blog about Trainspotting. It’s my favourite childhood film (sic) and one of my favourite books. The book is better than the movie, but the movie is good enough to have achieved a cult status in my book (see what I did here?).
Trainspotting still matters. A sequel to the film is currently being shot, which is bound to fall short of the original, yet I’m so much of a fan that I’d be actually willing to see it in the cinema.
While I don’t teach either literature or film, I managed to sneak the showing of the Trainspottingtrailer in one of my classes after I found that my students were completely oblivious of this masterpiece. Of course they would be, they were not even born when it was made.
I imagined the trailer would be a largely useless though interesting experience with no relevance to my English class, but there was a funny follow-up. For the final test, there was a listening exercise I lifted from one of the teachers’ books I use, and the tape contained a dialogue concerning the trainspotting hobby.
It was in fact an excruciatingly artificial mock radio programme featuring an agony aunt tackling teenagers’ dramas. A kid complained that his friends laughed at him because he was a trainspotter. The good soul advised to the kid that he might try to find fellow trainspotter friends. Problem solved.
I had a hard time trying not to crack up while playing the tape to the students (I know, I have a weird sense of humour). I was however pleased that my trainspotting lesson proved to have a practical use, provided that test writing is practical. After all, it turns out that nothing is irrelevant. (Which is an alternative to the equally valid opposite claim that everything is irrelevant.)
My last day at work (for the moment, not forever) started early and poorly. The night before, my Wi-Fi had died in my arms and despite the tender loving care it promptly received, it failed to revive. I went to bed immediately after that since I had no clue what to do without Wi-Fi. (Feel free to judge.) I spent the whole night tossing, turning, having Wi-Fi-less nightmares and worrying about the patient, whom I left intubated and comatose. I woke up at 5 am, an hour before the alarm, and went to check the intense care unit straight away. There was no change.
I rebooted everything, again, and, in depths of despair, opened the Control Panel to run the network troubleshooting feature. I have my doubts about this one because whenever I can’t connect to the Internet, it asks me whether I wish to search for solution on the Internet. (Well, I’d love to, but you know, I can’t connect to the Internet.) During this resuscitation operation, the cat was chewing on my nightie and on wires spilling all over the place. Exactly at the point when I gave up, the modem’s yellow eye blinked and Wi-Fi went live.
My Wi-Fi proceeded to be significantly more alive than me, which I partly appreciated and partly hated. Since I had the time, I selected a thirty-minute yoga video to whose accompaniment to perform my usual morning torture. I reasoned it couldn’t possibly make me feel more exhausted than I already was, but I was proven wrong. On a more pleasant note, I allowed whole twenty minutes for painting a full face on my head and another twenty minutes to blow my hair completely dry, front and back. I normally don’t have the time, so I leave the back wet (if I can’t see it, it doesn’t bother me).
As it was my last day, I was carrying a heap of books, a pile of tests and other teaching resources to return to the teacher whom I was substituting. At the same time, I was supposed to hold oral exams that day. Now, the first task was calling for hiking boots and a backpack, while the second one required a smart dress and heels. I compromised, put on jeans and ballet flats but a nice blouse and blazer and took my two largest bags, dragging half my weight in them.
I arrived at the bus stop twenty minutes before the bus departure. I was semi-conscious by then, as I don’t see the need to be wide awake during routine tasks. I lit a cigarette, obviously, to balance out my previous rigorous yoga practice. A nice girl aged fifteen tops approached me and asked, very politely, for a cigarette. That woke me up and I suffered an acute fit of laughter. I countered the kid with a staccato series of questions and answers, including, Don’t say! Why? I don’t think this is going to work out. Buy your own packet for god’s sake. The girl just stared, having lost her speech capacity, and then walked away.
I seated myself and my oversized bags on a bench. A bus which wasn’t mine pulled up and belched out a dozen small screaming kids and their teacher. I clutched the metal grille which formed the bench I was sitting on and did my best to fend off the kid attack. It was worse than a zombie apocalypse. By the time they were done with me, I was painfully awake and traumatised. My bus was delayed, as it only leaves on time when I miss it, and when it did show up, an alien stewardess, who surely wasn’t even employed at the company, emerged from the door.
My distress, however I didn’t think it possible, further deepened. This was supposed to be the last day of my regular routine, I didn’t sign up for begging teenagers, murderous kids or Martian stewardesses. The stewardess’s name tag said Jane Charlotte Something. I knew she was an alien. I told you so. No one in my country has two given names (unless they are pretentious pseudo-celebrities) and no one in my country is called Charlotte (if you wish to name a Czech girl Charlotte, you name her Šarlota, which is a fully legitimate Czech variant that all your fellow countrymen will be able to spell and pronounce).
Charlotte introduced herself as Charlotte into the bus mic, further confirming her extra-terrestrial status by using her exotic second name as if she didn’t have a perfectly normal first name. She sounded like she hated her job. See, I knew she wasn’t a regular employee, as the company takes pride in employing only stewards who can maintain a fake smile throughout the whole day. Customers everywhere are not only entitled but outright expected to vent their frustrations on the staff, so when it was time for complimentary hot drinks, I asked for coffee, no milk, no sugar. I knew Charlotte would mess up. I was sorry for her by the time she returned to ask me what it was I wanted again.
The rest of my day didn’t suck (that much). A manageable number of students arrived for the oral exam and none of them forced me by the sheer power of their incompetence to abuse make a rightful use of my competence to fail them. A special thanks goes to the students who gave up and didn’t show up for the exam at all (you saved me work and saved my day, guys, kudos). My usual coffee shop, where I waited for my bus back, played nice chill-out music and my usual latte came with a complimentary choccie. It only does so on good days. When I discovered that the choccie contained hazelnuts, my happiness (if I had the capacity to experience such a thing) was complete. All came to a full zen circle when the return bus came staffed with Patricia, a stewardess so good at her job that I often wonder if her fake smile is real.
It’s my last week on teaching duty and I’m getting somewhat nostalgic about it. Not about the teaching, which I find a thoroughly depressing experience, but about my commute ritual.
I hope the people I’ve been commuting with will miss me as much as I’ll miss them. Poor stewardess Patricia, who serves my regular bus line, will find my seat no. 53 unoccupied (or, worse, occupied by a stranger who picked the seat on a whim rather than because it’s their spot) and will have to abandon her own ritual of bringing me my usual medium sparkling water without me having to ask for it.
Also, my favourite underage waiter in the coffee shop where I always wait for my return bus will have no one to ask what kind of latte I’m having today (my preferred choice is the one with coconut syrup).
The doorwoman at the university building C3 will probably be relieved because she never remembered who I was and routinely insisted that I identify myself. It clearly makes perfect sense that a random person asks for a classroom key so that she could surreptitiously teach there a bunch of ignorant kids.
Who is bound to be most pleased with the end of my teaching stint is my cat. The cat demands that I sit at home and keep her company. It’s a question what she gets out of it because while I’m home, she doesn’t pay me any attention. That’s a feature she shares with my students, whom I for this reason won’t miss at all.
My country’s public transport operates on a self-service system which places responsibility and trust in the hands of travellers. The passenger is required to procure a ticket prior to getting on the vehicle and then punch it in a mechanical device placed in vehicles. This operational plan is conductive to creating blind passengers, wilfully so or otherwise. (Not blind passengers as of blinded by punching their eye instead of their ticket but blind passengers as of seeing passengers who don’t see the need to have a ticket.)
I stopped indulging in the sports of trying to obtain a free ride and hoping to get away with it at the wrong moment. It was precisely at the point when I learned to recognise reliably, at the distance of twenty meters and more, all ticket collectors on duty in my city. Ticket collectors are devised as the controlling mechanism – they occasionally materialise on buses and trams and demand to see your ticket. (I usually tell them I’ll show you mine if you show me yours since I’ve noticed the ticket collectors also punch their tickets.)
This morning I was waiting for a bus with a senior ticket collector waiting alongside. He is the longest-serving public harassment official to my knowledge and I can always tell him by his passive-aggressive mien. His hair was horribly mangled, as per usual, but his face, curiously, was still not. I’d expect that ticket collectors get jumped at on the regular by frustrated ticketless citizens, the risks of their jobs matching those of tax and debt collectors.
I climbed on the bus, punched my ticket, taking care not to punch the ticket collector, and shoved my freshly defaced ticket in the man’s face before he even came out as the public enemy. I think I blew his cover. The bus driver clearly knew his man too, for he punched a button and the bus loudspeakers started to advise the travellers that there was a raid and that they should get their tickets ready for inspection. I applied my ear buds and shut the noise off.
After six weeks of commuting and teaching, I have settled in the routine so well that I perform it while semi-conscious. Today I perfected the drill and went through the day half-asleep. The teaching went smoothly and I fit among the habitually half-asleep students just fine.
Then I dozed off on the bus. I woke up to find myself in the middle of a field. Fortunately, I was still on the bus. Disturbingly, I was rather disoriented. I went through the obligatory series of existential questions: Where I am? Who I am? What am I even doing here? WTF?
What discomforted me most was that I couldn’t remember if I was on my way to work or on my way back. I searched for clues. I tried to recall if I had had my meagre slice of crisp bread already. If I had, it would be noon (I teach afternoon classes) because I eat that thing for lunch. If I had not and if I were hungry, it would be evening.
I had no recollection of eating anything and I wasn’t hungry either. That was extremely puzzling. Then it occurred to me that I could just check the watch. This brilliant solution worked because it was seven pm, hence I must have been on my way home. What a pleasant discovery. In case you wonder, I’m writing this post while fast asleep.
At some point when I wasn’t looking, I became a certified regular commuter (CRC). You know you are one when you find yourself on first-name terms with the staff of your usual bus line. Before that, I was just an unverified frequent rider (UFR). A frequent rider is the transitional stage of a person who ditched paper tickets and uses her transport company’s dedicated phone app but still doesn’t know all the ropes. Even before that, I was a random unaspiring occasional (RUO). An occasional is a loser who prints out her tickets and doesn’t yet have her favourite seat.
My newly earned status as a CRC entails the social duty of small talk with staff. This isn’t going very well for me because I’m not precisely the interactive kind. I imagine, however, that I might soon unlock a more advanced status when the transaction of polite phrases will be replaced by a simple and elegant exchange of mere meaningful looks. I also hope to get access to the function of a permanent seat reservation, so that the staff, for the sake of our continuing peaceful coexistence, would ensure that no one will ever be able to book my seat. Everyone knows it’s my seat. Only some aggressive individuals still sometimes try to cheat me out of it.
The first sign of my promotion to a CRC appeared when stewardess Martina observed that I surely love to travel with them, considering how often I indulge in this pastime. Since I’m no good in conversation, I didn’t manage to respond anything beyond the tentative and hesitant Uh, well, yes, I guess… She also addressed me in Czech, though she sees well that my ticket reservation app is set to English – you shove your phone with the reservation screen on in the stewardess’s face so she can check your ticket number – hence she should deduce that I’m not comfortable using my mother tongue.
The second sure sign of my CRC status occurred when steward Francis gave me a quick glance, confirmed with me that my reserved seat was at the back of the bus as per usual and checked me in without having to look around in his passenger list for more than one second. Normally, it’s up to the staff to tell you your seat number, so this was an interesting inversion. Also, I don’t need to be told which seat I have reserved – only amateurs accept the seat automatically allocated to them by the system without changing to their seat.
Here is my seat, selected below in yellow. Looking at it, I see I need to change the language of my web reservation account as well. Bloody Czech everywhere. It’s like I live in the Czech Republic.
Since I’ve been off antidepressants, whose side effect was apparently depression, I’m so Zen, which is so unlike me, that I’m scaring myself. Among the appalling symptoms that I now manifest is the fact that I don’t even hate my commute. I find it almost delightful to spend two hours a day sitting shielded from weather and people on the bus.
I still may have some hope of not turning into an entirely zened-out person with her chakras so aligned that nothing can mess with them. This hope is founded on the anger that possessed me when I was ordering my bus tickets and discovered that my seat was taken. As I’m a frequent rider (as of frequent flyer), it should be generally and universally known that seat no. 53 is my spot. How dare someone challenge my carefully thought-out seating arrangement?
My reaction to the loss of my chosen seat was akin to Sheldon Cooper’s on The Big Bang Theory. While I didn’t approach the trespasser while yelling in her face THAT’S. MY. SPOT. ! YOU’RE. SITTING. IN. MY. SPOT. !, my thoughts were preoccupied with murder. I didn’t enjoy my alternative seat at all because it was on the wrong side of the bus. As everyone, I hate to end up on the wrong side.
I still approve of the seat allocation system though. I believe it is essential that people’s names are matched with specific seats in the unlikely, as they insist, case of an accident. Should the bus drive into a bridge with everyone dead belted in their seats, it will speed up the identification of the bodies immensely.
I imprudently shared this positive view with my colleague and co-traveller, who didn’t appreciate its ingenuity and looked upset. Especially in the light of the incident shortly after the bus set off when the driver hit the brakes rather hard and rather unexpectedly, sending all unbelted passengers and unattached objects flying. If I hadn’t been belted, I would have certainly cracked my head on the seat before me. This way I was only hoping that we hadn’t run over a kitten.