Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Urban Nature Skills

This morning I woke up as our baby tossed and turned next to me. She poked me and whined in my ear even though she hadn't quite woken up either. I picked her up, walked over to the living room, and got the potty out. Once I put her on the potty, she cried briefly and then focused. A few minutes later, she shook her fist and evacuated herself. Then I put her back in the bed next to MaGreen and got ready for work.

I had to walk to work because I left my bicycle there yesterday. Now, over the past ten years, I have lived in Chicago, New York, and Houston, three of the four biggest cities in the US. For six out of those ten years, I have not had a car. Most of the time, I have walked and used trains to get where I need to go. When I lived in Brooklyn, I spent two hours everyday underground riding the subway, crushed in those metal boxes with the city's teaming humanity. And yet, during this decade of big city living, I have never mastered the bus.

How they confounded me, the buses. I was in awe of them. How they rushed by like beasts so big my flesh did not interest them. Even so, I often imagined them hopping up the curb, consuming me, and moving on without stopping.

Buses also symbolized to me a low rung in the socioeconomic ladder that I have never had to cling to. When I grew up in Mobile, Alabama and I read about Rosa Parks refusing to give her seat up to a white man in Montgomery, my first reaction was, "What was a white man doing on a bus?" During the thirty years between the Montgomery Bus Boycott and my childhood, most white people got cars and moved to the suburbs. And like Alabama's other public institutions, the bus system went neglected and whatever remained was left to black folks. That idea of buses has stuck in my head.

These past two years, since I sold my car and have aimed to live responsibly while hoarding enough wealth for my family, I have tried to figure out the bus system when I can't bike. On Tuesdays, I commute by train and bus from Rice University, where I work, to the University of Houston, where I study. During my last trip, I saw a black lady spot a bus that I couldn't see at all. She just stood up and walked to the curb. About five minutes later, there was the bus. It was like those stories of Native American trackers who could detect animals and enemies approaching when they were nowhere to be seen.

Today, after I pooed BabyG and bathed myself, I started walking towards work. This time, I decided to keep a look out for buses. If I caught one, that would be great. But I wouldn't wait for one, because if I walk fast I can get to work in forty minutes. When I reached the Richmond intersection, I slowed down and peered into the distance. I saw something. It was small. A speck. A glint of a bus's wide visage. There were two people patiently waiting at the stop. A black man and a brown lady wearing a Chapultapec Restaurant uniform. They saw that I saw and looked for themselves. In the old days, I would have walked by the bus stop with my briefcase, trying to stride my way through the heat. Today I achieved a new urban nature skill – spontaneous bus spotting. It's a skill I want to develop and pass on to my child like gardening or thinking critically.

Call me the flexible urbanist. The city tracker. The master of Metro. I rode in the air-conditioned bus, the lovely 26, to the Richmond and Main transit center. From there, I hopped onto the Metro Rail which dropped me off at the main entrance of Rice University. I reached my office in prime condition. My natural, antiperspirant-free underarms were dry and my co-workers hadn't even gotten in yet.


Henitsirk said...

I always hated the fact that in California, there is virtually no mass transit (San Francisco excepted). The only time I took any mass transit was in college, because there was a bus stop right outside my door that took me directly to school. I loved that ride: I could relax, didn't have to pay prohibitive parking fees, and it was relatively energy efficient.

Now I live just outside NYC, and I've been to the city 3 times so far. Every time, in a car. Sigh. There's a bus stop 1/4 mile from my house that goes directly to Manhattan. There's a train station within 5 miles.

But I'm still overwhelmed by the thought of going to NYC on a bus or train. (Partly because I have two squirrelly toddlers.) Maybe I'm just spoiled from years of car culture and not working since the kids were born.

Next time I go, I'm taking the bus, I promise!

GreenDaddy said...

Thanks for the comment. I don't want to sound judgmental of people who drive. Houston is not friendly to those without cars. We have a car. We have never taken our baby anywhere by public transport. Maybe when she's a year older.

I think your comment also raises the question of isolation and withdrawal that the primary childcare person faces. If you're not working (for wages outside the home) and don't have a regular reason to learn the bus system, you won't use it. That kind of spirals.

Good luck on your NYC voyages! There's so much to do and see there. I'm jealous.

jp said...

it was surprisingly nice out this morning. probably part of the reason why the underarms stayed nice and dry. i've been biking to and from school and work for the past month. the car broke and it aint fixin itself. and this morning it was so pleasant and unseasonably cool. a joy to ride. jp

Lou said...

Teeming humanity--love that, beautiful though euphemistic as it is. I experienced incredibly teeming humanity last week in the London tube--couldn't fully breathe.