Travels on the 43 bus.
"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes." - Marcel Proust
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Dear Stranger, Sat there, with your black suit and black shirt ‘n’ tie combination from Next Mensware; with that ‘just out of college’ look, and beginning your long journey into world of business; driven at first by reasonable wants though soon to be a slave of desires that you never asked for, but were thrust upon you by a merciless industry; with your lingering acne that makes you feel like you are paying for crimes you never committed, and slicked back hair that shouldn’t be receding yet; with that thin moustache that you stroke, and wispy sideburns that should make you look older; with your JD sports bag at your side and Independent on your knee,
You seem like a nice person, but you’re sat in my favourite seat.
I found a seat upstairs on a busy bus, my knees poking into the aisle. A baby was screaming below. Relentless and mind-numbing, it was enough to silence most of the passengers. How do they make such a powerful, aching noise? It’s a wonder of creation, it really is; few other sounds even come close. I’m pretty sure when the baby’s mine I won’t feel quite such a strong desire to put as much distance between me and it as possible, at least I hope.
The front row was occupied by token ‘front-row foreigners’. It is an unmistakable phenomenon of the 43 bus that the front row seats are nearly always occupied by people speaking a language other than English. When they talk, they talk loudly, safely aware of the linguistic ineptitude of their host country. Today’s representatives sat on a double seat each, managing a conversation while they stared out of opposite windows. Not long ago I had been on a less busy bus, in the second row back, and I was puzzled by a passenger in front of me who appeared to be talking aggressively to himself in a tongue I didn’t recognise. Every few minutes or so he would mumble something, but he never ceased gazing out of the window. I thought perhaps our rainy grey climate had driven him mad. Then, after about 20 minutes, a person I hadn’t even noticed on the other side of the bus mumbled something in the same language and they both laughed. Neither made any physical movements to suggest they were communicating, but the synchronized laugh was unmistakable. Wierd.
I sit diagonally in bus seats, being blessed with above average height, leaning as much against the side of the bus as the back of the seat. This puts my head slightly further forward than the average person, and when someone sat down in front of me today it occurred to me just how close our heads were. There was this complete stranger and her ear was only 40cm from my face. It’s not that this was unusual, it happens all the time, but I had never really noticed it before, and that surprised me. I looked at her ear for a while, then stopped when I realised it was a bit of a weird thing to do. I was breaking one of the Rules of the Bus, albeit an unenforceable one. (In contrast to the ‘No Turning Round and Looking at People Behind You’ rule, which is enforced by the nervous and astonished stares of said people, stares which say, ‘hey, what’s he doing?, he’s breaking the rules, err...please don’t do that’.)
I looked out of the window at the car drivers below me, none less than 2 meters from a stranger, all separated by glass and metal, and I was glad that I could get on a bus and sit this close to someone who’s name I’ll never know, even if they did have ear wax.
Heavy cloud quickened the onset of dusk while I stood at the bus stop, preparing for my journey home. While I waited I watch the world around me, and I saw the colours and the contrasts, the depth and shadow and lights, a beautiful composition of movement and stillness. For a brief moment I found myself really looking at the world, taking it in like you take in the masterpiece of a great artist. It was pretty cool. I wander if it’s a talent that I can cultivate, seeing the world like this?
It’s usually left to the painter, or photographer to take a piece of reality and present it to us in this way. They say ‘look, here, at this tiny segment of reality, this reality that you exist in every day, which rushes past too fast to see, isn’t it something?’ And yes, it is, it’s awesome. At least, that’s how I felt as I stood there waiting for the 43.
My heart started beating faster. I tried to deny it. But there he was, sat at the back of the bus smoking. Oh, why had I been so foolish as to suppose that I would be the one, that I could be the one, to move over to him and ask him if he would kindly put it out? Excuses came flooding in, thick and fast: ‘I suppose I can’t really smell much, it’s not like it’s going to make my clothes stink from that far away…. I’m sat quite near the front, and some windows are open… It would seem pedantic to make the journey all the way to the back of the bus just to ask him to not smoke, perhaps if I was sitting closer… I don’t think he’s on his own, I’d probably be stared down before I even got to him, perhaps if he was on his own… he looks pretty aggressive, what if he’d had a bad day and my polite request pushed him over the edge? It could get messy… Perhaps it would be wise to start with a smaller less aggressive looking person and work up from there… he’ll have finished it soon anyway…’
And so my internal monologue continued, until he finished his cigarette. I breathed a sigh of relief. I’d come up with some pretty good excuses, I thought, which proved useful when, 15 minutes later, a second person lit up.
I flashed my pass at the driver and trundled upstairs only to be greeted by a strong smell of unwashed person. At least that’s how I describe it, but it’s probably a medical condition or something. It smelt bad, and I felt sorry for who ever it was, stinking like that all day long. That small piece of sympathy somehow made the smell bearable (kind of). I can accept such an experience as just one of the many intricacies of bus travelling; you take the rough with the smooth, and that’s ok.Not so when the rough is a smoky bus.
There are like fifty no smoking signs visible from every seat, yet every now and then someone near the back on the top deck decides that their desire to light up is more important than the comfort of every other non-smoker there. The smell of weed is the worst; it makes me feel a bit sick. I want to get up and say something, not be nasty, just ask them kindly to put it out, please.
But I don’t, I just sit there with everyone else and pretend I haven’t noticed it. I feel so English, and shy, like if the person in question were to walk past me and slap me on the head I’d apologise for being in the way. It’s pathetic. I’m not exactly small, and on a half full bus I needn’t be afraid, yet I am. In fact, I suspect the smoker justifies their decision by telling themselves that if anyone really cared they would say something. So perhaps I will.
To pass the time I read the biro scrawl graffiti on the plastic in front of me:
‘I heart Holly’
‘Niall 4 Holly’
‘Holly is 100% fit’
‘Holly is Bad’ (I didn’t know people still said that)
‘Holly is potes’ (What?)
So all the best to Niall and Holly. I hope they have a happy life together, or a least a happy week. Of course, Holly might not even know who Niall is. These may be the only glimpses of expression that Niall's desparate but shy heart will afford itself. Unrequited love is both beautiful and devastating. Beautiful because it capture’s a tiny glint from the many faceted diamond that is love, but devastating because that’s all it captures.
I wondered if unrequited love was a bit of an oxymoron; could there ever be such a thing? Surly it should be called unrequited infatuation, or something. Love is too big and complex a thing to be one sided. To really know what it is to love someone don’t they have to love you back? But then perhaps not. Perhaps a parent can love a child who hates them back, and perhaps a God can love His creation even if they reject Him. Why is our vocabulary so feeble in this area?
A few splatters of rain hit the window, someone on a ladder was cleaning the MacDonald’s sign, and the bus pushed on to Piccadilly.
A brisk walk to the bus stop, a short wait for the bus, and pretty soon I was reading a not too grubby copy of the Metro News on the top deck. We passed a t-junction and I noticed a little middle aged man pulling out onto the road on one of those fold up bikes with wheels the size of side plates. He wore a white and pink helmet, similar to the kind given to six year olds before six year olds needed to look cool too. Little luminous yellow bike clips held is cords away from the probably rusty chain. It was an endearing sight, but I felt and pang of sorrow for him. It would take a long time to get anywhere with wheels that big, and it was pretty cold out. I hoped that his helmet kept his ears warm, because I couldn’t imagine it being useful for much else. The bus pushed on and the little man went out of sight and out of mind.
A fairly uneventful journey passed; people got on, people got off, doing things that people on busses do. I smiled for the fiftieth time at the shop in Rusholm called ‘Kebabish’, and repeated too myself a few times. What an inspired name for a kebab shop.
I expressed my thanks to the driver and jumped off at the usual place. The story typically ends here, except that after I crossed the road I looked up and who should be two meters ahead of me but the little man with the fold up bike! Not only was he going to the same place as me but he was getting there before me. I was humbled. He looked healthy and invigorated and no number white and pink plastic helmets would damage the self assured manner with which he carried himself. Here was a man who had a lot more than I had credited him with, and I was ashamed at how I had prejudged him and his little bike with wheels the size of side plates.
I pass a barbershop on my journey each day called ‘The Men’s Room’. It look’s the business, it even has one of those red and white striped twirly things out front, which are there, incidentally, because back in the day the barber would sharpen his razor on a rotating cylinder of stone with a spiral of velvet wound up it so that the blade would be sharpened and polished alternately. (I might have made that up. If you have any idea why that spiral thing is there, do let me know.) Anyway, what I was going to say was, would you really want to have your hair cut in a place that shares its name with a public toilet?Perhaps they have a row of urinals up against the back wall, and, I suppose, it wouldn’t be too much of a problem if they did, because with name like ‘The Men’s Room’ you can be sure there won’t be any women around.
After I’d been thinking about this I looked down at the car next to us. There was a nodding dog on the dashboard, except given the particular vibrations and movements of the car it wasn’t nodding at all, just shaking its head side to side. The occupants of the car were trying to decide which way to go, holding a map and pointing fingers, and the dog just kept on shaking its head. Like a perpetual pessimist it sat there, forever pronouncing negative judgement on their every decision. You can bet I’ll never have a nodding dog at the front of my car.
The bus stop is on a roundabout next to a church. It’s one of those classic English estate roundabouts as displayed in happy pastel colours in children’s Highway Code books from the 80’s, complete with a pelican crossing. It would be illustrated with a man waking a dog, two children holding hands as they cross the crossing, and a mother with a pram on the pavement, all smiling. And it’s actually like that sometimes, except that everything looks somewhat muted in real life, and the colours have faded, rinsed through by too much rain. It looks like someone has gone into photoshop and reduced the contrast. I think to myself, ‘isn’t the world supposed to be vibrant, full of colour and life?’ And a lot of the world is like that, just not this roundabout on a south Manchester estate on a cloudy weekday morning.
Some developers have been trying to improve matters for the residents of the three high rise blocks that overlook this intersection of roads. Scaffolding goes up, wrapped in opaque plastic sheeting, and for six months the building is shielded from the world. Like a magicians curtain it hides the secrets of the trade, before it is lowered eventually to reveal the transformation. One has been finished, another is having the curtain dropped, and a third remains cocooned in plastic, emitting the noises of industry from within. The redevelopment is certainly making a difference, but it will only be a matter of time before they blend in again with the washed-out grey of their environment, like a chameleon in slow motion.
I was listening to radio news on the bus home and they were kind enough to give me some information about the holes in the road(see previous post). Apparently Thames Water spend £500,000 a day fixing leaks, and some of the pipes are 150 years old. So I guess there’s lots of leaks to fix.
I arrived at the bus stop today and all four people waiting there looked at me as if my flies were undone. I was pretty sure they weren’t because it was windy and I would have been able to feel a draft. So who knows?
I watched the familiar route roll by in the hazy spring light and felt generally positive about the day. This is the time of year for digging up roads and pavements, apparently. Every few hundred yards there was a hole surrounded by orange plastic barriers and a pile of dirt. Occasionally there was a man in a yellow jacket digging, or pointing, or drinking tea, and I was suddenly overcome by a deep desire to know why they were digging each particular hole. I wonder how many holes are dug in error? (‘Really? Oh, you see I was holding the plans like this’).
Fortunately my excavational curiosity passed. It would just have to remain as one of the many things I didn’t know about the world, and I have, at least partially, come to terms with the reality that there will be countless such things. Sometime during my school years, while I was amassing knowledge at an unchecked rate (at least that’s how if felt), this awful truth dawned on me: there will always be a vast, huge, unimaginable plethora of knowledge that I would not only be unsure about (such as the labelling terms used in the cross section of a river bend), but that I would never have the slightest clue about.
Now this wasn’t an epistemological worry, for I’m pretty sure that I had no idea that the word ‘epistemological’ even existed. I wasn’t worried about the frightening limit to what could be known by us as humans. (If no one else can know it either, that’s fine by me.) I was worried by the realisation that there would always be things that other people knew that I didn’t. Early on in school, teachers are reluctant to tell you that the limits of knowledge go beyond the ‘Fun with Physics’ textbook. Once I learnt what electricity is and why something has a colour, I thought I was well on my way. But it was the lowly calculator that broke me. Anyway, such is life, and man is humbled by his own achievements. I pressed the ‘stop’ button and said thanks to the driver. I will never know how to drive a bus like he does.
I haven't the courage yet to take my camera with me, so I've drawn a picture of the bus instead. It's called '43 no.1 - in the rain'. I couldn't remember how many wheels it has or where exactly they go, so I just guessed. Notice how it appears to be lifting off the road at the front? Phenomenal acceleration.
After a partially successful day, during which I fell asleep for 45 minutes, I was waiting patiently for my bus home. Patience is key. Nothing ruins a good bus journey like getting anxious about how long it's taking, or getting upset that every other bus has passed you five times before yours arrives. The waiting is part of the whole experience. At the risk of sounding cliched and 'trendy', I think we can live our Instant McLives in such a hurry all the time that slowing down to wait patiently one in a while is a Very Good Thing.
So I waited and watched some people go by and then the bus came and I jumped on, brandishing my £3 day pass. The driver gave me a barely perceptible indication that he had seen the pass. It might have been a twitch, actually. His expression suggested that I may as well have been brandishing a cheese pasty. But I do generally like 43 bus drivers; I suspect I will have more to say about them in posts to come (see how I keep you eager and hanging on for more?)
The evening bus was bustling and animated compared to the mid morning ride. Some people were even talking. In fact, the journey in the evening is usually so different from that of the morning that my whole trip is rather more circular than linear. It had started raining again during the ride home, so my wife decided to pick me up from the bus stop in the car. She's amazing.
The number 43 bus runs from Manchester Piccadilly to ManchesterAirport, and back again. There is nothing particularly exciting about this bus, except that it’s the bus that I get to town (and back again). I suppose it would be fantastic to travel around the world to amazing places and write about it, like a travel writer, but I can’t do that. What I can do is get the 43 bus to town (and back again), and, you know, waste not want not and all that. Moreover, I think getting the 43 bus can be pretty good. Take today for example.
The walk to the bus stop was particularly special this morning. It was raining but it wasn’t too cold. It was the kind of rain that isn’t obviously falling; it just sort of hangs all around, making the world, for a time, a damp place.Damp, but emotive. I past a rusty climbing frame, sitting at the edge of a garden in some overgrown grass, which somehow looked slightly less dejected in the rain than it usually did, perhaps because it could more easily remember, in the glistening wet, the brightness of the primary colours that it once boasted. Gee, what nonsense.
The old men who walk places at had their big umbrellas up, umbrellas that have things like ‘Legal and General’ written on them. One without an umbrella was walking towards one with, and as I passed they stopped in front of each other, sharing shelter and a few inaudible words. They walked up to each other like you might walk up to someone in the next room to see what they were up to.
I got to the damp bus stop thinking that it would be nice to know enough people when I’m old so that I can always find someone to walk up to on a rainy Wednesday morning. A Day Rider went up to £3 on Sunday, apparently. So that’s still only 1.50 a pop, (for the simple there and back again) and you get a good long ride, especially during rush hour. Can’t complain.
It was perhaps as damp inside the bus as it was outside, but warmer, muggy. I went upstairs, which is where I always sit, if I can. I opened a window to de-mug the air and my shoulder wiped clear a small patch of the steamed up window, heavy with condensation. From this peep hole I watched small patches of the world go by.
About 17 people sat with me on this upper deck, and I was stunned by how everyone there, young and old, managed to hold the same silent expression on their faces. It was kinda weird actually.
An old couple sat behind and across from me. I’m not sure what it is with old people, why I was noticing them particularly on this journey. Perhaps because at it was primetime for old people in public places, or perhaps because they carry that native look on a day like this. They are the natives of this land of mid morning drizzle in a south Manchester estate. He wore a beanie hat that rose to a peak and sat slightly high on his head. His brown corduroys had wriggled up exposing a classic pair of old man socks. They were natives of the mid morning 43, but would be equally at home drinking tea in a Sainsbury’s supermarket café.
The number 43 bus runs from Manchester Piccadilly to Manchester Airport, and back again.
There is nothing particularly exciting about this bus, except that it's the bus that I get to town
(and back again). I suppose it would be fantastic to travel around the world to amazing places and
write about it, like a travel writer, but I can't do that. What I can do is get the 43 bus to town
(and back again), and, you know, waste not want not and all that.
Moreover, I think getting the 43 bus can be pretty good.