Publishers are scrambling (and who can blame them?) to get ebooks out. Since bookstores have been closed (I’d classify them as essential businesses, in an ideal world), they need to get “product” to customers. Still, I’m thinking back to my recent interview with an undergraduate about Holy Horror. She told me the cover really generated interest as she walked around school with it. (This was before the pandemic.) That’s old school book advertising. Although I do learn about lots of books online, I very, very seldom buy ebooks. It seems like buying air to me, and I wonder if publishers are missing out on the free advertising of the person carrying an interesting book around.
Back before the pandemic I’d noticed how just about everybody was walking around with that awkwardly proud “I’ve got a cup of Starbucks in my hand” look. It was everywhere. No matter where I went, for there was free travel in those days, people had only one hand free, showing the world their craft coffee. If only it were so cool to be seen carrying books! I stopped commuting about two years ago, for all practical purposes. When I did get on a bus, however, I always had a book in my hand. Did publishers see any bumps from curious New Jerseyans who saw the strange cover of the weird book I happened to be reading at the time? You never got a seat to yourself on New Jersey Transit, and I know I was always curious about other readers (there weren’t many). I hardly have the profile to define “cool” and “some guy on the bus” probably doesn’t cut it for many people, but still, the thought of someone curious about a book because of the cover is very compelling.
Book covers are artworks. At least some of them are. I recall the ennui I felt approaching some academic books with just words on cloth for the cover. (I later found out the cloth is usually paper made to look like cloth—there are layers in everything.) It was difficult to muster the energy to open the book because you knew there would likely be hard slogging ahead. That’s why I decided to stop writing academic books. The next trick is to find nonacademic publishers so that prices in the range of real readers might be offered. If people opt for the ebook version, how will others see it? And viruses only last on paper for about a day. That’s a quarantine I can live with.
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.
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.
Once upon a time I wrote a book on commuting. It never got beyond my laptop, but I often wonder if it was simply premature. Some stories from public transit can be quite amusing. A few weeks ago I posted on how a woman spoke up after our bus missed it’s turn off the highway and made us all late for work that day. No matter what you think of developers and speculators, one thing we can say for certain is they lack imagination. If you’ve driven this stretch of highway 22 you know that the exits look very much alike. Early in my commuting days a young woman took the empty seat next to me on the way home and asked where we were. “I miss my stop because they all look alike to me,” she explained. She had a point.
So one morning last week I was in my usual seat, reading along, when the driver—new to our route—missed his turn off the highway. The same woman (for we are mostly regulars at this forsaken hour of the morning; if this doesn’t ring a bell search this blog for “commuting”) said, “No need to turn back, they have another bus coming.” I was pleasantly surprised at the learning that had taken place since the last time. I am, however, old enough to remember Greyhound commercials and their slogan, “Take the bus and leave the driving to us.” I also thought of those passengers waiting like evangelicals for the second coming for a bus that would never show up. Our gain in time was their loss. Such are the dynamics of life in a universe not built on the principle of fairness.
The bus can be a microcosm of the moral universe. Evangelists, for example, believe all people must have the opportunity to catch this express bus to Heaven. The bus that comes after the express makes more stops, somewhat like Catholic Purgatory, increasing the suffering for a while, but ultimately making the goal. Missing the bus completely are the Hell-bound for which some claim we must turn back while others insist we press on; there will be another bus. In this case, the same passenger insisted that we help those left behind just a few weeks ago. This led to lengthening of her own stay in Purgatory, so when it happened again she decided those waiting were simply too hard to reach. Or maybe she’d come to believe in predestination. Perhaps it was on some ancient bus that ideas of the afterlife emerged. Experience teaches that much depends on factors beyond your personal control.
“You’re not in control on a bus” my friend Marvin once wrote, in his short story “O Driver.” The commuter is the consummate captive. I don’t like to beat dead horses—we might need all the horses we can get before this is all done—but some commuters need to learn silence is golden. I take a very early bus with some hope that we might beat the inevitable traffic jams coming into New York in the morning. Every minute counts. Some people, however, feel compelled to comment when they think the bus is early. They’re already sitting on the bus, so what’s the problem? There’s another coming in 30 minutes and those of us concerned with getting in before the traffic make a point of being at the bus stop, well, early. The other day a guy got in at the stop after mine. He told the driver that the bus was running early (it actually wasn’t) but the driver obligingly sat for several minutes. The commuter’s always right, right? We got into the Port Authority late that morning. All because of one man’s mouth and his inability to keep it shut. I wonder why they even have that sign saying not to talk to the driver. That only applies when the bus is in motion. So…
The very next day the driver on the route was new. She was on time. Until. To understand this, you need to know my route is an express—it is entirely highway except for one short jog into another town about 10 miles down the road. My driver was doing great. “You missed the turn,” another passenger said. The driver apologized. A three-point-turn in a bus just isn’t possible on the highway, so she had to drive to an exit, wait for the light, and turn around. We were now speeding west, heading to New York City. The passenger, now acting as GPS, didn’t know this area very well. “Take the next exit,” she instructed. The driver dutifully did. It was a ramp with no reentry to the highway. We were touring rural New Jersey for some time before the driver found a place to make another U-turn. “Missing the turn,” the passenger now said, “That turn’s inconsequential. There’s another bus that comes just after this one.” She’s right. No less than three routes into New York follow that jog. But it was too late for us now. Finding our way to the highway, we again headed west. This time our driver took the correct exit, apologizing all the way. The next day we had a new driver.
Actions have consequences. For each and every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. I learned the latter in physics class. The former is a life lesson that might properly be called the mother of morality. When you talk on the bus you’re taking charge of about fifty lives. It has become clear to me through my years of commuting that most people shouldn’t have that kind of power.
The older I get, the more I realize I’m the one that’s weird. Go ahead and say it, “You’re just now figuring this out?!” This epiphany came to me on a stiff breeze. To understand you have to get the idea of commuting on New Jersey Transit. Although twice in one week my route was blessed with a brand new bus, the general operating procedure is to use the oldest, least reliable buses on my route. It is one of the longest routes the company runs into New York City, which means that it is one of the most expensive. You’d think they’d use their best buses, but then you’d be thinking like me. Breakdowns aren’t as frequent as they had been for a while, but other discomforts are fairly common. Just this past week, for instance the heat was stuck on high. Add about 50 bodies to an enclosed, overheated space, and well, let your imagination go.
Now interstate buses aren’t like the school species. The windows don’t open. There are, however, two escape hatches in the ceiling. When I got on board I noticed immediately that it was a sauna bus. The last time this happened (and yes, this wasn’t a unique situation in my experience) passengers opened the escape hatches to create a breeze. Problem was, it was winter this time. The day was struggling to reach 40 degrees outside. As we hit the highway the wind was blowing full against those in my row and I learned what wind chill really can be. There wasn’t much traffic, so the bus was tooling along at about 65. I could feel my left eye beginning to freeze up. My book pages were flapping wildly in my blue-tipped fingers. The personal nor’easter cut right through my winter coat. In my row we were lined up like eskimos, all bundled up. There were no free seats to which we might move. I couldn’t reach the hatch to close it. Nobody said anything.
Here’s where the weirdness comes in. As I child I was raised being taught that true believers think of others first. Other people may not see it, but I consciously try very hard in subtle ways to make sure others get what they need before me. I’m learning not everyone necessarily thinks that way. If I had a degree in fluid dynamics I might be able to describe airflow on a speeding bus. Instead, let me put it this way: the guy who opened the hatch was sitting in the row in front of it, out of harm’s way. The icy blast didn’t hit him, but it did everyone behind him. Passengers tend to think of themselves first. I’m sure I do, too. Just trying to get home after a trying day of work is, well, trying. It’s just that some folks try not to do things that cause others pneumonia, no matter how warm they feel. But then, I’m the odd one, I know.
I was not, as yesterday’s post indicated, looking forward to the renewed commute into New York City. We’ve been having a cold snap here in the Northeast, and although it’s nothing by Midwest standards, standing in it waiting for a bus isn’t the most comfortable of situations. It was cold enough that I didn’t dare take my gloves off to check the time, but my body clock told me the bus was late. The cold was creeping through all my layers and the thermometer said it was in the single digits, and breezy. I’d been a human popsicle for about a quarter of an hour when a pair of headlights pulled in the parking space nearest me. The driver got out—one of the regular commuters on my line—came over and said, “The bus is running late, won’t you sit in my car?” I was truly touched.
It’s easy to think people just don’t care. Those of us on the early morning commute know each other by sight, but not by name. We all awake far too early and put up with expensive, but unreliable bus service. We don’t talk on the bus, each of us using the time as we see fit. It feels like being alone. This offer of kindness was a welcome start to 2018. Many women would be rightfully leery of letting a man they don’t know sit in their car in the dark. Human kindness, however, is a quality that overlooks differences in times of need. She asked what line of work I was in. When I said “publishing” she replied “Ah, so that’s why you read all the time!” I was surprised she even knew that about me. Commuters touch only at the edges, like marbles in a jar.
In the Middle Eastern desert regions there’s a law of hospitality. If you find anyone lost in the wilderness, you help them. It doesn’t matter if they’re a friend, enemy, or stranger. Knowing that anyone might find themselves in such a hostile environment needing help, the tradition is to give assistance. You give water to the person in need. In these days of foreigner-bashing, I feel compelled to note that this woman is not a native-born American. Standing in the exposed cold of my shelterless bus stop I was at the mercy of the weather and human kindness. In a nation bent on expelling “the other” I could’ve had an even more uncomfortable long wait for an expensive government service for which I handsomely pay and which often doesn’t deliver. There are parables everywhere for those with eyes to see.