Next stop on the bus: Kookamunga

Published 9:13 am Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Column: Tales From Exit 22

Women are hard to buy for.

Men find that too many gifts come in sizes, colors and styles.

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Some folks go south for the winter. Some go so far south that they can’t get back. Not one to follow oppressive social norms, I took my wife north. We were in Juneau, Alaska, on a gray day. No surprise. According to a USA Today article, Juneau is the cloudiest city in the United States.

I had a brochure of things to do and see in Juneau. The brochure said that the borough of Juneau, with a population of 30,000 people, consisted of 2,717 square miles compared to 469 square miles for Los Angeles and 303 for New York City. It lauded Juneau’s bus system. That gave me a gift idea.

When the Queen Bee married me, she knew I was a prize. I had my own ratchet set.

“Stick with me and you’ll go places,” I promised.

She never dreamed it would be by bus. That’s right, we boarded a city bus. She’d never been on a city bus before. You can see why I rock her world.

“The wheels on the bus go ’round and ’round, ’round and ’round, ’round and ’round …,” I sang as we found seats. Riding a bus is like being at a rich kid’s birthday party — there is always a clown. I had launched into Weird Al Yankovic’s “Another One Rides the Bus” before my wife shushed me. I kept “One of Us,” with the lyrics “What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us. Just a stranger on the bus. Trying to make his way home,” in reserve.

Did you know that most buses are named Buster? Buses bring memories of childhoods spent on school buses. Kids shackled with powerlessness by the big people in charge.

A city bus is an archaeological dig on wheels. A place to study ancient cultures through the examination of remains — us. A spot to see the world as it is. It had the smell of used whiskey and lemon meringue pie. Passengers fueled by alcohol quickly fell asleep, awakening just in time for their stops. They were gifted with internal alarm clocks that even strong drink couldn’t silence. The bus wasn’t a sorting factor. It was a melting pot. The bus wasn’t solely for those with economic health in jeopardy. Everyone rode — from the homeless to the wealthy. I couldn’t tell who someone was by his or her outfit. It was impossible to know what was in the heart of another traveler. There was no point in judging. There seldom is.

A bus is a place to sit and think — or to just sit. I had brought along a used book I’d purchased at the Friends of the Library book sale. The author had signed it, “To Gerald.” It went unread on the bus. There was too much to see.

Loud talkers prevailed on the bus. They were as earsplitting as those who yell into cell phones, though preferable to those strident phone users. At least I could hear both sides of the conversations. I regularly fight the urge to ask cell phone users to employ speakers so I could hear the rest of the story.

The bus was reality rolling through the city. A bus ride would make a great reality TV show. Perhaps it already is one.

I treated my wife to a city bus trip. A thoughtful gift. Before you think I’m parsimonious, you need to know that it set me back $1.50. The best is none too good. I talked to the driver as I got on the bus. He had the look of an undertaker and the charm of a corpse. Reorganizing his face into a smile was more work than he’d consider. He was one of those guys behind a wheel who looked like he’d happily put me under a wheel. An effort at badinage revealed him perfectly intelligible. Once the bus moved and he began announcing stops over the PA system, I couldn’t understand anything he said other than, “Next stop.”

The bus passed some bleak areas. They reminded me that even in the middle of nowhere, I’m surrounded by everywhere. I had no clue where we were going. I thought about asking but did not. Thurber wrote that it is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.

The bus route was like life — each stop was a surprise.

Hartland resident Al Batt’s columns appear every Wednesday and Sunday.