Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Wacky Wednesday: Math Anxiety

College Town has two sets of numbered thoroughfares – with “Street” or “Avenue” after the numerals. There are 23 numbered streets starting in the central business district and getting higher in number as you go south. “The Avenues”, as the neighborhood is locally known, begin a few blocks north of downtown and increase in number as you go north, and there are a total of twelve of them. There is room for a 13th one, but it has a name instead of a number. There is a myth that the town planners were superstitious – which doesn't explain why there is a 13th Street. Maybe different rules apply for businesses and residences.

Cutting proudly through these avenues is the jewel in the College Town network of streets, which we shall call “The Promenade”, because that name is an almost exact synonym for its actual name. The other afternoon I was driving up The Promenade when two teenagers got on across the street from College Town High School, which is a couple of blocks south of 1st Avenue.

The distaff half of the pair asked me if there was a bus stop at 8th Avenue. I told her there was one at 7th and another at 9th. She said, “Which one is closer to 8th?”

I looked at her for a moment, to see if she was serious. Apparently she was, so I said, “Well, 8 is between 7 and 9, so I guess it's up to you which one you want.” They opted for the one at 7th.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Wacky Wednesday: Debit Dumbass

This is just a quick tale of wackiness for your Wednesday. Immediately after the intersection detailed in last week's post, there is a bus stop. When I finally got through that dreadful incident, two teenage boys tried to board my bus. The first one was holding a debit card, which he began thrusting at every likely looking slot and hole on the fare machine.

I stopped his aimless actions and told him that we didn't take such cards. He looked quite crestfallen, and said that the card was all he had. I said, “Well, I'm sorry, then you can't ride.” He and his friend shuffled away with their heads hung low.

I have heard that some transit systems do accept fares from debit cards, but ours does not. I've had passengers ask if we do, which is a legitimate question. The important word in that sentence, however, is “ask”. At least they asked. They didn't just start flailing away at the machine with their bit of plastic.

Most of my riders on that route are regulars, and I had never seen this lad before, so he may have been new to the area. His behavior seemed to suggest that he was perhaps familiar with another transit system which did accept debit cards. Okay, fair enough. But if that were the case, and you went to a new system with unfamiliar fare machines, wouldn't you at least ask how to use the card on that machine?

Whether he was new to area, or only to this bus system, he was just a silly teenager, and probably a stoned one at that. That may not qualify as wacky, but coming so close upon the heels of the tweeker intersection, it was definitely a one-two punch of dumbfuckery.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Stupid Question

There is a popular saying, often heard in academic settings, which goes something like this: “The only stupid question is the one you don't ask.”

That may sound trite, but there is truth to it. If you're too afraid to ask a question for fear of looking dumb, then you choose to live in ignorance, and that is a stupid choice.

I talked about this once on my defunct podcast, but I'll quickly reiterate it here. Ignorance is a harsh sounding word, but it basically means “not knowing”. Stupidity is a lack of common sense or good judgment. For example, I don't know anything about nuclear physics. That doesn't mean I'm stupid, it just means I'm ignorant on that topic. However, if I were to attempt to build or operate a nuclear power plant without knowing what I was doing, well, that would be stupid.

However, I don't agree that there are no stupid questions. I know I'm a bit of a cranky old bastard, but I think that if you can't ask a question in such a way to get the information you seek, then that's a stupid question.

Let me give you an example: “Where does this bus go?” I hear this particular question on a daily basis, sometimes several times a day, especially at the beginning of each university academic year, when hundreds of new people flood into College Town. It quickly became my least-favorite question of all time.

You might be thinking that this isn't a stupid question. After all, people need to know if they are getting aboard the correct bus for where they want to go. And I'm ignoring the scores of people who won't bother to read the bus schedule before hand, or even lift their heads to read the head sign on the bus.

So why is this a stupid question? Have you ever known a bus that only went to one place? The question makes a certain crude sense in the question of the regional routes. If I'm driving the Route 20, which goes only between O-Town and College Town, and I'm sitting at the College Town Transient Center and someone asks me “Where does this bus go”, I can simply answer “O-Town”. This is leaving out the likelihood that the person probably wants to go to a specific place in O-Town, but that brings us to the real reason this question bugs me.

Take the case of the Routes 14/17 (they're the same route, but in opposite directions) in College Town, which serve such diverse and popular destinations as the Jesus Center, the state employment/county welfare office, and several shopping centers, including the ever popular College Town Mall. If I were to take the “Where does this bus go?” question literally, I would have to start listing all the stops. Obviously, this would be time consuming and way more information than anyone needs.

I realized early on that most people asking where a bus goes usually had a certain place in mind, but attempts on my part to guess which one always ended in failure. If I judgmentally assumed that a teenager wanted to know if the 14/17 went to the mall, and I said that, then 9 times out of 10 they would say something like, “Oh, so you don't go to FoodMaxx?”, which I also do. There was another side to that coin – sometimes people would use something like “the mall” as a landmark for the general area they were interested in. I could answer yes to this question, but it sometimes backfired because there was another route that would have gotten them closer to where they really wanted to go.

I quickly realized that the best response to the question “Where does this bus go?” was to say, “Where are you trying to go?” Almost invariably, they had a specific place in mind, and I could then tell them whether or not I went there. I say, “almost invariably”, because one time that question didn't work. A teenage girl asked the infamous question, but when I asked my usual follow-up question, she just laughed one of those weird little simpering laughs so common with the species, and repeated her original question. I blinked a couple of times in stupefaction, then I said, “Well, that's kind of a long list. If you could tell me where you want to go, I can tell you if I go there or not.”

I finally got it out of her. Can you guess where she wanted to go? Yep. The mall. If she had just asked that in the first place, we could have saved about half a minute of useless back and forth. I couldn't understand why she seemed so resistant to answering my simple question. Was she afraid I was some sort of creeper who wanted to follow her for nefarious purposes?

In conclusion, the reason “Where does this bus go?” is a stupid question is because it's not very useful for getting the information you need. If you know where you want to go, why not just ask that, and save you and the driver some time and effort? Is that so hard?

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Wacky Wednesay: Inaugural Introduction

Since my current position as a public transit bus driver is my 82nd job, I've been meaning to try to update this blog more often, mostly as a companion project for my memoir High Turnover: 82 Jobs in 35 Years. I've been so busy writing High Turnover, however, that I've been neglecting this one.

So, I've decided to start a new feature here called “Wacky Wednesday”, to come guessed it...every Wednesday. The reason I chose that day and title is because of a curious phenomenon I've noted amongst the bus riding public which I've dubbed...oh, you're good...Wacky Wednesday.

A lot of my passengers are on various forms of public assistance, and the bulk of their benefit payments happen around the first of the month. There are state and county-level payments like food stamps and “welfare”, but the real biggies are at the national level. The Social Security Administration's Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is basically for people who can't work for whatever reason (think “young and crazy”) but who haven't earned enough work credits to qualify for Social Security Disability (SSD), whom for short-hand you can just think of as “old people”. I may have that a little wrong; if you want to fact check me, you can learn more here.

I've always basically understood that the crazies get their money on the first of each month, and the old folks get theirs on the third. Of course, if those days should fall upon a weekend or a national holiday, then they get their payments on a business day immediately before the usual date.

So the first few days of every month are always incredibly busy for public transit. After all, people need to get out and get stuff done when they have money – that's understandable. Some of them will have problems like senility and mental illness that make them harder to deal with, but basically they're just trying to take care of business. Unfortunately, there's also a certain segment of that population – usually from the SSI recipients – who just want to drink, take drugs and have fun. Apparently riding the bus is part of that fun. If they can blow shit at the bus driver at the same time, then they've just upped their fun level to over 9000.

In short, the first week of every month is usually fucking Hell, then things settle back to their normal hellish routine. However, after I'd been at this current job for a while, I noticed a spike in crazy behavior around the middle of each week. I began to think of this time as Wacky Wednesday. I was curious about the cause of this, so I did a little research and found this handy chart.

My guess is that the SSA decided that paying everybody on the first and third was just too cumbersome, or maybe it was having too big an impact on the rest of society. After all, buses can only hold so many gibbering lunatics. If I'm reading this chart correctly, if you entered either program after May 1997 (and if you're not somehow on both programs simultaneously), then you will receive your payments on the second, third or fourth Wednesday of each month. This explained Wacky Wednesdays (WW). That 1997 date also explains why there was no WW the last time I drove public transit back in the early '90s.

That 2nd, 3rd and 4th Wednesday payment schedule has also made me very grateful for those rare months that have five Wednesdays. However, that brief respite is tempered by another phenomenon which I've yet to fully comprehend. In the last few days of each month, there is a subtle but discernible upswing in wacky behavior. I call it “ramping up towards the first”.

I have a few hypotheses as to why this could be: 1) some of the more stable wackos (yes, there are such people) may be able to get monetary loans from friends, relatives, designated payees or even payday loan establishments against their impending benefit pay date; 2) some of the less stable wackos (junkies) are probably able to get “fronted” drugs by a friendly dealer against their upcoming payday. Of course, I could be wrong about either of these ideas, but they make sense to me. I can't think of any other reason that people who shouldn't have money or drugs seem so active prior to payday. There is a third factor at work, I believe; sometimes the more desperate junkies are out hustling to find some – any – means of procuring their favorite substances. Those types are often the most edgy and potentially dangerous. In short, there isn't a week without some surge in wacky behaviour.

That was a long way round to explaining the meaning of “Wacky Wednesday”. What it means for this blog is that I will try to publish a tale of wackiness every Wednesday. I can't guarantee that a particular incident actually happened on a Wednesday, but it will definitely be wacky. The one or two listeners of my abandoned podcast “Raise the Thunderbeam!” always seem eager to hear more stories about the crazy people who ride the bus, and I hope this will satisfy their and your morbid curiosity.

So, without further ado, a tale wackiness for this inaugural Wednesday:

This wasn't actually a case of wackiness on the part of a bus passenger. It was just something I witnessed from my bus, but which had a direct impact upon my operation of said bus. In fact, it was one of the most egregious examples of dumbfuckery I have ever seen.

I was in the small town of Gridlock, sitting at a red light on the state highway which passes through it, waiting to make a left turn onto a major side street. I was the third vehicle in line at the light. This is probably the busiest intersection in the whole town, and the traffic light can take a long time to change. There were two tweekers standing on the corner to my left, waiting to cross the highway I was on. It was unusual to even see tweekers in Gridlock – most of the population of the town is comprised of hardworking Mexican farm laborers, and conservative white farm owners. But here were two members of the species in all their glory – skinny, white, no shirts, more tattoos than functioning brain cells and goofy-looking bicycles.

Just as the green left-turn arrow came on to allow me and my lane companions to enter the intersection, these two fuckwits suddenly jumped out into the crosswalk and started walk-riding their bikes across the four lane road. It was almost as if they were waiting for MY left turn arrow to start their street crossing journey. Maybe they were so high they couldn't understand what the various colors of traffic lights mean. Or perhaps they just didn't care one way or the other what the lights were doing. But if that were the case, why did they wait until that particular moment to make their move? Maybe it was just Opposite Day. The first vehicle in the left turn lane managed to get through before the tweeks got in its way, but the pickup in front of me had no choice but to stop so as not to hit the idiots.

The real problem was that this intersection was the kind where the left turn lights are staggered rather than at the same time. In other words, the traffic on my right was going forward with their light while we left-turners were trying to go. I was momentarily afraid that the tweeks hadn't perceived this danger (the pickup was large and had a camper shell, effectively blocking their view), and were about to blunder in front of speeding traffic. Then I had the rather evil thought, “Eh, would that be such a bad thing?”, because I was furious, but powerless to do anything. If I had been at the head of the line, I probably would have leaned on my horn (and maybe added some hand gestures as well), but to have done so from second in line I would have been catching the innocent pickup driver in the crossfire.

Then the tweeks saw the moving traffic, and they stopped in front of the pickup. Incredibly, rather than retreating, they generously waved the other traffic on – while standing in front of the poor pickup. Either a gap in traffic appeared which allowed the meth heads time to finish their crossing, or the on-coming drivers wisely decided to stop in case these morons launched themselves in front of them. I could just imagine what must have been going on in the cab of that pickup – possibly murderous rage, certainly some sort of gesturing, likely a few choice words – but amazingly, there was no horn blowing. Maybe its horn didn't work.

As you can probably guess, this bizarre behavior cost me and the pickup our turn at the light, and we had to wait through another long cycle. I was already running late, and now I was that much later, thanks to some chemical wackiness.

Next week's post features another as-yet unparralled example of dumbfuckery, which happened just moments after I got clear of that tweekeriffic intersection. See you then.