Reading Railroad

Rereading books takes time.  When I was a professor my reading time was largely limited to the summer and winter breaks.  Those who haven’t experienced the academic lifestyle firsthand may not realize just how incredibly busy you are during term time.  Class prep, grading, delivering lectures, leading seminars, committee meetings, office hours—it really is much more than a nine-to-five job.  Time to sit down and read through books is limited, and since those books are heady, academic tomes, they take considerable time.  (I’m reading an academic book at the moment and I can only get through a finger-full of pages at a sitting.)  All of this means I’m generally reluctant to reread books.  Not that I’m a traditional academic anymore, but because I have a huge and growing stack of books I haven’t read yet.

Nevertheless, a project on which I’m working required rereading Gerald Brittle’s The Demonologist.  I read this about two years ago, while commuting.  The thing about reading on a bus is that the quality of reading time is strained.  Recall isn’t the same as when you’re in a comfy, stationary chair, and no stranger’s head is lopping onto your shoulder as they doze.  (Yes, that happens, and frequently for those of us on the first bus of the day.)  In any case, my copy of this book doesn’t have an index and I couldn’t remember if some specific instances were discussed.  The only thing for it, then, was to read it again.  My second reading was done with more skepticism than I could conjure on a bus ride, but still my original sense remains: we willfully cut out much of human experience if we stop our ears completely.  At least in principle.

Ed and Lorraine Warren were self-taught ghost-hunters.  More often than not, their cases turned into what they believed were demonic cases.  Since academics tend not to publish much about such things, the self-taught are pretty much free to declare themselves experts—just switch on reality TV and check me on this.  Experts are those with experience who are willing to share it.  The other day I met someone who, like me, used to live the commuting life.  We both agreed that telecommuting was a more authentic way to exist—your otherwise mandated three or four daily hours traveling can be more sanely used at home.  Still, we had to agree, bus time could be used for activities like reading, and once you stop commuting you have to carve time out for it.  In such a situation rereading a book is at times necessary.  When I was a professor, I reread frequently.  But then, it was mostly articles or books that I wouldn’t take on in their entirety.  In the reading life there’s never enough time.

Whose Bus? Omnibus!

The long-distant commute is an extended social experiment.  Although some of the people on the bus know each other—from overheard conversations while in line it’s clear that many of these commuters go to New York daily—they want to sit alone.  The idea behind a bus, short for omnibus (Latin, “for all”), is essential equality.  When I commuted daily from central New Jersey, I was a passenger from the originating city on the route.  By the time New Jersey Transit buses got to New York it was rare for a seat to be empty.  Now I take TransBridge, a bus line that operates out of Bethlehem.  The buses are much nicer, but I’m no longer from the originating town.  By the time the bus arrives at 4:30 a.m., it’s already half-full.  (Half-empty if you’re an optimist.)  That’s not a problem, of course, but the way people claim territory is.

Typically those who get on at the initial stop sit in the aisle seat, place their bag in the window seat, and do their best to fall asleep before reaching my stop, which is only 15 minutes away.  When you go to get on, in other words, there are almost no seats and the happy, dreaming commuter knows you don’t want to wake him or her to get them to move their bag and let you in.  Like most people I’d like to have two seats to myself—who wouldn’t?  But the fact is the bus will be full and these people who do this every day should know that.  But still they try to block others out.  As a social experiment, it is worth some consideration.  If you put your bag in the aisle seat it’s easier to accommodate the person who’ll inevitably sit next to you.  But this is Trump’s America—everyone for himself.

I’m a fairly quiet person, and I don’t want to disturb anyone’s slumber.  Many people not only sprawl out like they’re in bed at home, but they wear dark glasses and headphones so that you have to nudge them to get their attention.  Then they act as if you’ve insulted them.  Or they’re doing you a favor by letting you sit in “their” seat.  I suspect the fact is that none of us wants to have to go so far to work.  And I know that sitting next to a stranger can be less than ideal.  When I buy my ticket, however, I know that I’m opting for an omnibus, and those who do so should be clear on the concept before handing over their money.  Or maybe I’m just dreaming.

 

Vapid

The smoke encircled his head like a thief.  And not in a saintly way.  I was going to have to rethink this.  You see, the culture of the early morning commute is one where you stand in line with strangers before dawn.  Having grown up a victim of second-hand smoke at home, I can’t stand it now.  Should I go wait in the line (which was growing) where the last guy was smoking, or sit in my car?  Work anxiety always wins out in such situations, so off I trudged.  I discovered, however, that the man in front of me wasn’t smoking after all.  He was vaping.  What was this chemical stew hanging in the air that had just come from his mouth?

I worry about second-hand vape.  How desperate must a person be to smoke a device?  You see, my trust in technology goes only so far.  People are slowly beginning to understand that electronics don’t solve every problem.  Vinyl records are starting to come back, even at Barnes and Noble.  Independent bookstores are returning, despite the rise of Kindle.  I’m still waiting for it, but film cameras may once again appear.  There’s something about the Ding an sich.  The tech of the stereo was invented for the analogue record.  Yes, the MP3 is faster and cheaper, and you can buy just the song you want with the click of a virtual button, but we still have our favorite LPs around.  This isn’t misplaced nostalgia, like those who long for the 1950s.  No, this is simply the recognition that faster isn’t always better.  Some things were meant to linger.

Vaping is, however, an example of how a bad habit becomes a vice with no point.  Initially meant to come to the succor of smokers who couldn’t do it indoors, vaping was also quickly relegated to the outside.  Many people, it seems, don’t want to breathe someone else’s smoke.  Do you develop artificial cancer from artificial nicotine?  Another commuter comes up to the guy in front of me.  Like a couple of kids on a 1970s schoolyard, they exchange vape flavors.  The first guy doubles up with a coughing fit.  Spits off the curb.  The second guy says, somewhat anticlimactically, that this one’s strong stuff.  I have to wonder what future generations, if there’ll be any, will think of our love affair with devices.  The bus pulls in.  I’m the only one on the whole thing who clicks on the over seat light.  I have a physical book to read.

Seeing the Future

Nine.  That’s the number of people before me in line.  It’s not yet 4:30 a.m., and our day began at least an hour ago, but work won’t start for another two.  As the bus pulls up to the stop, I think about work.  Well, like most people I think about work a lot.  You see, I’m often asked about how to get into the publishing business.  There’s a cosmic irony to this because I had never planned to be an editor and never undertook any of the usual training.  The anticipated trajectory of a doctorate in the humanities used to be teaching, which is what I did for many years, but when an educational career slips off the rails in a capitalistic society you have to be willing to learn real fast.  (Fortunately the long years of schooling do help with that.)

I’m sure that I’m not the only person whose career plans didn’t pan out as anticipated.  Back in seminary one night long ago, three friends and I had a “future dinner.”  We prepared a supper and each came as who we would be twenty years down the road.  I recall that I was a world-traveling professor and the author of several books.  “Come on,” my friends complained, “be realistic!”  It’s a bit beyond those two decades now, and I was a professor for many of them.  I have written several books, although so far only three have been published.  World-travel?  Well, that’s been a bit modest in recent years, I have to admit.  One of the other friends I’ve lost track of.  Another committed suicide after graduating.  We really can’t see far into the future.

Publishing is a challenging gig.  My rapid career contortions perhaps prepared me better than I think.  I have a kinship with those who ask about how to get started in it.  Generally we’re educated people who like books and wonder what kind of career you can find with that combination these days.  (There are more of us than you’d think!)  Compared to higher education academic publishing is a small world.  I’ve come to know many more academic colleagues since being an editor than I ever did as a professor.  I have something they want—a reputable venue for publishing their latest book.  Often I have to do a lot of educating since publishing doesn’t work the way that most people think it does.  It’s like being a professor without the status.  No, I didn’t see this in my future.  As I look for a seat on the already crowded bus I wonder how many of these other early risers planned their careers just like me.

Difficult to see where this is going.

The Rules of Waiting

Tom Petty must’ve been a commuter.  On a winter’s morning after switching to Daylight Saving Time, waiting is the indeed the hardest part.  For a bus, that is.  In the dark.  The saving grace is that humans are rule-makers.  Before I even began commuting into New York I’d been instructed in the etiquette.  Those who get there first leave some kind of avatar—a briefcase, an umbrella, a lunch box—in their place in line and then sit in their cars.  Being the paranoid sort, and also thinking myself tough, I’ve always just stood at my place as the chill wind finds its way down my collar and then buffets me almost off of my feet.  With the time-change, however, I decided to do like the commuters do.  I walked out to the line of objects to find one widely separated from the others.  Being a law-abider, I put my lunch down after the errant water bottle.

“Hey,” a stranger called me on my way back to my car.  “Somebody just left that water bottle—you should move your bag up next to the backpack.”  Thanking him, I did so.  Not only was this person I didn’t know watching me in the dark, but he was also keeping the rules.  Indeed, when the bus crested the hill and commuters lined up next to their possessions, the water bottle remained unclaimed.  It was still there fourteen hours later when I got off the returning bus.  Now, I’m not a big fan of anarchy, but this incident demonstrates just how inclined we are toward civil behavior.  There’s no bus stop police force to ensure nobody jumps line.  Even at the Port Authority waiting in the queue at the end of the day the rules are mostly self-governing.  Those who don’t obey are scolded by their peers and generally comply.

There’s a natural sort of ethic among those who catch the bus before 5 a.m.  We’ve all been awake earlier than nature would seem to dictate.  We’re in a dark, isolated location outside town.  We look out for one another, realizing that any one of us might easily lose our place in line should the rules break down.  I was struck by the kindness of this caliginous stranger.  Or perhaps it was just his love of order.  Had my representation been out of place, other commuters might’ve grown confused.  The system might’ve broken down.  The last thing anyone wants is chaos before cock-crow.  I decided to interpret it as kindness, however, as I made my way back to my car to put on Tom Petty to face the hardest part.

Care and Keeping of Books

I take good care of books.  It’s my personal goal that after I’ve read a book you won’t be able to tell.  I used to mark books up, but it occurred to me that I want the books to outlast me and if someone else is to get the full benefit of them I shouldn’t be doing such scribbling.  Of course, when a book has to commute with you there’s bound to be some scuffing from being put into a briefcase along with other necessities.  On the days I don’t commute, I try to replicate bus time for reading.  I curl up in a chair with my book and a cup of coffee to warm my fingers, and read.  The other day as I did this, a drop of coffee made its way from my mug onto the open page.  I was aghast.

Reading a marred book page is eternally distracting.  My eye is immediately drawn to the imperfection and I sometimes can’t even make sense of the sentence in which the blemish occurs.  Not because I can’t read it, but because I can’t get beyond the hurt.  Coffee rings are chic, I know, on the cover of a book or a notebook page.  It’s one of the truest clichés of the literary crowd.  Coffee and a good book.  Not coffee in a good book!  I tried to get back into the flow of the narrative.  My eye kept wandering back to the spot I’d unintentionally marred—I’d violated my own principles.  Unintentionally of course—this isn’t Starbucks where the heat is set at a reasonable level and you don’t have to scrunch up to keep warm.  But still.  But still.

After many minutes of feeling like I’d shot a friend, I managed to move on.  I kept turning back to my coffee page to see if the damage was as distracting as I thought it was.  After work that night when I picked my book up again—commuting is a twice a day activity—I turned back to the damaged page and frowned.  Books are, to some of us, friends.  I want to treat them right.  I line them up in order on their shelves, knowing just where to find them when I need them again.  One careless drop of coffee had taken its eternal toll on an innocent tome.  I realize this world lacks perfection; I’m not naive.  Still, this book, which wasn’t cheap, now bears a scar that I dealt it.  Will I ever comprehend what that one page says?  I hope my silent friend will forgive.

Christmas at the Bus Stop

I had to make one of my periodic treks into New York City this week.  Unlike most years when a warm spell comes after the onset of winter, we’ve kind of fallen straight to the heart of the season this year and those of us standing in line for the bus were experiencing it via wind chill.  The cold got some regulars to talking about Christmas.  Although I’m not the oldest one who makes this long trip, the majority of the commuters this far out have yet to attain my years.  Those chatting at the stop had kids at home that still believe in Santa Claus.  It made me recall how we trick our kids with all kinds of quasi-religious folkloric figures, but also how seriously some adults participate in the mythology as well.

Among those chatting, the leaving out of cookies and carrots was almost canonical.  The cookies are for Santa, of course, and the carrots for the reindeer.  The more I pondered this, the more it became clear that this is a form of thank offering.  The story of Bel and the Dragon, in the Apocrypha additions to Daniel, tell of how priests leave out food for an idol.  The offering is gone in the morning and the credulous worshippers assume the statue has eaten it.  Religious offerings, except those entirely burnt up, were often used to support priesthoods.  Santa has his elfly acolytes, of course, but the priesthood for his cult is that of parents eager to make Christmas a special time for their children.  Capitalism’s big pay-off.

Then one of the commuters mentioned how she had her husband leave a footprint in the fireplace ash to add verisimilitude to the ruse.  We never had a fireplace when I was growing up, and I often wondered how Santa got in when we had no chimney to come down.  In any case, my hazy morning mind thought once again of Daniel and Bel.  The way that wily Daniel exposed the fraudulent priests was by sprinkling—you guessed it—a fine layer of ash around the offering after the priests had “left” for the night.  In the morning he showed the people the footprints of the deceptive heathens to the people.  The statue hadn’t eaten the food after all!  Serious consequences followed.  Christmas, despite its commercialization, brings fond childhood memories to many of us, and we’re reluctant to let that go.  The one man in on the discussion (it wasn’t me) said that when he was growing up they had a somewhat different offering.  “My dad,” he said, “told us to leave Santa a beer and a sandwich.”  This guy’s name might’ve been Daniel.