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.

The Myth of the Extra Hour

The selling point of an extra hour of sleep is, unfortunately, a myth.  I’m not talking about young people who can sleep on demand, but your average, everyday working body who adheres to a schedule set by the man.  Like many Americans I probably don’t get enough sleep.  Long years of habit are hard to break, and besides, I still have to commute into New York City.  Not every day, but every couple of weeks.  Still, my sleep-deprived brain knows that means awaking early on those days and since getting up extra-early is hard, why not maintain the status quo ante?  Habitual early risers don’t really benefit from setting the clocks back.  You see, you’re never given something without it being taken away again elsewhere.

Humans can’t seem to help themselves from messing with nature.  There’s always something to do on the farm, and other creatures don’t keep clocks.  Interestingly, standardized time (instead of the more natural local time) only came into being with the railroad.  Trains were scarce and to make sure those down the line didn’t miss one, time had to be synchronized.  Even earlier, the process of navigating the oceans required knowing what time it was back home—local time could be determined by the sun—to determine one’s longitude.   With railways, however, the nine-to-five could become the accepted norm so that business could be conducted and time could be divided into profitable and domestic.  And everyone knows which one is more lucrative.

No doubt some will wake this morning well rested.  Others will have stayed up later, knowing they’d have an extra hour this morning.  For the rest of us, biology moves us along the same trajectory it’d been keeping ever since March.  Daylight Saving Time could be instituted all year, you know.  When we set the clocks back in March we could just keep them there.  The slow, steady rhythms of time would adjust.  Yes, the gods of Greenwich would be annoyed, but mean time could mean time that is useable.  The modern commuter lives by the clock.  Work depended on that train or bus or camel.  You don’t want to miss it.  And if you think camels are an odd addition to the list, it could be that the present writer isn’t getting enough sleep.  No matter what longitude, or mass transit schedule, nothing beats a good night’s sleep.  And changing clocks doesn’t help.

Cheaper than Swords

It’s chilly in here.  What with the early onset winter and the uncertainty of being able to afford the heating bills, we keep the thermostat pretty low.  That may not be the problem with our pens, though.  You’ve probably had it happen too.  You’ve got an idea and you need to write it right down.  You snatch up the nearest pen and begin scribbling on whatever’s to hand—a bill, a receipt, the dog—only to find the pen doesn’t write.  You scratch out circles or zigzags, depending on your mood and temperament.  The pen is, however, persistent in its refusal to let any ink flow.  You grab another.  The same thing happens.  Finally—third time’s a charm, right?—the pen writes and you’ve forgotten what you desperately need to put on paper (or parchment).

Despite wanting others to think I’m cool (I don’t see many people) years ago I started carrying a pen in my pocket.  Not just any pen, but one that would write immediately, the first time, without question or complaint.  Such pens don’t come cheap.  Then, of course, I would lose said pen.  The shirt pocket is an invitation to lose things.  You bend over and, depending on the fabric, what’s in the pocket falls out.  When it happens on a bus or plane—and it does!—your writing implement may roll away before you can reach it.  Have you ever tried getting on your hands and knees on a bus to try to squeeze down to look under a seat?  I have.  I don’t recommend it.  It’s like praying to the god of grime.  Still, I need that pen that obediently writes—I reach for it.

Some have gone the way of electronic writing.  Thumbs flying like a ninja they tap out texts so fast Samuel Morse’s eyes would pop out if they hadn’t long ago turned to dust.  I’m not a texter, though.  Those who know me know I prefer email where ten digits can work in concert and spare me sore thumbs and unintentionally brief messages that could easily be misunderstood.  No, better yet, give me a pen.  Any scrap of paper will do, but the pen is crucial.  How many ideas have died prematurely due to the pen that just won’t work?  I found a reliable pen refill.  I saved the package so that I could remember the brand.  Now I have to work out a way to have the pen with me at all times.  If the option for useful bodily modifications ever becomes a reality, a pen in the hand seems like the most practical of all.  Now what was I going to say in this blog post?

Appily Ever After

While in the theater to see The Nun (which ended up being the biggest take) this weekend, I couldn’t help but notice that the pre-movie adds were all about apps.  I couldn’t help it because, much to my own chagrin, I’d left the house too quickly and I hadn’t brought a book to read while waiting.  This may not be news to some people, but different cinema chains have different “channels” of what passes for entertainment and ads to try to draw viewers in early.  The movie house we used to frequent in New Jersey had a variety of goods on show, most of the time.  The one we visited here in Pennsylvania presumed that everyone had their phones in hand, waiting for the show to begin.  On screen was the idolization of the app.

My phone is old enough that most modern apps don’t work on it.  Most of the time that doesn’t matter to me since I’m not addicted to the device.  Of course, when you’re trying to park your car in a town that offers only online options for such a convenience, I sometimes wish I could download the relevant necessary software.  Otherwise, I often wonder what we’ve lost in our lust for connectivity.  Coming out of New York on the longer distance bus recently, the driver called out, as leaving the Port Authority, “Lights on or off?”  The unanimous chorus, for I didn’t speak, answered “Off!”  I glanced around.  I was surrounded by devices.  I carry a book-light with me on the bus, for this has happened before.

“Drink the Kool-Aid” has become post-Jonestown slang for simply following the suggestion of someone without considering the consequences.  I sometimes wonder if our smartphones come in more than one flavor.  I’m not talking about features or physical colors.  As apps chip away at our money, a little bit at a time, they also take larger pieces of our time.  I’ve experienced it too, but mostly on my laptop (I don’t text—my thumbs aren’t that limber, and besides, the apocopated messages often lead to misunderstanding, emojis or not), the wonder of one link leading to another then realizing an hour has disappeared and I still feel hungry.  Perhaps that’s the draw to the modern commuter.  Or movie goer.  I’m sitting in the theater, taking a break from unpacking.  In my version of multitasking, I’m also doing research by watching a horror movie.  Around me eyes glow eerily in the dark.  I’m lost in the forest of unsleeping apps.

Book Naked

Alogotransiphobia doesn’t just strike me when I’m on the bus.  Whenever I travel anywhere I try to take a book along.  To the DMV.  To movie theaters.  To take the paper to the shredding truck.  Anywhere there might be a line.  There comes a time when you realize every second is a gift, and time runs swiftly through the glass.  Life’s too short not to read.  So it is that I find myself in a hotel for a night.  Feeling somewhat like taking a risk, I’ve only brought three books.  Will I read them all tonight?  Most likely not.  But just in case…

Alogotransiphobia is real.  In my long-distance commuting days—in a past still very recent—I tried to calculate carefully.  Would I finish this book in the three hours I knew I’d have on New Jersey Transit?  If even a chance seemed to exist that I would, I would add another book to my bag.  But then that occasional Monday morning would arrive when somehow Sunday night seemed to slip away unbidden, leaving me bleary eyed and foggy brained to face pre-dawn alone on a deserted street corner.  And I neglected to calculate the chances.  Once in a great while, on such a day I would finish a book only to face a very long ride home without another.  Alogotransiphobia would kick in.  I would squirm in my seat as well as in my mind, anxious to get off that bus, as if I needed to shower to wash the feeling of wasted time off me.  A commute without a book was remaindered, unrecoverable time.  Lost time.  Squandered.

For two months now I’ve been delivered from the daily commuting life.  Now I find the opposite phobia.  That which entails staying at home and having so much to do that time to read is stolen back by that cosmic trickster we call fate.  I try to carve out time for reading, but the funny thing about work is that when you do it from home you feel you have to prove yourself.  I suspect employers know that.  A certain type of worker—perhaps one who’s lost a job or two in recent years—will always reach for supererogation.  And such a one will even sacrifice literacy on the altar of an assured paycheck.  Until recent days I was like a hermit on the bus.  Those around me may have been going in the same direction but we were in completely separate places.  I was, during the commute, lost in a book.  Alogotransiphobia was in the seat right beside me.