Thursday, October 15, 2009

Riding the bus: Memphis style

A couple of weeks ago I started a new job that, unfortunately, is not within walking distance from our house. I was excited, of course, but booooy was I worried about how I would be getting there. Like I've mentioned before, Memphis is not a walking city. You either drive or take the bus. I don't drive, so I take the bus. To all of you Sofia people, before you even raise your voice, NO, taking a cab is not an option. There are not that many to go around and the ones that are available are 1) unreliable and 2) VERY expensive. The affordability of taking a taxi should be prominently featured on all Sofia tourism guidebooks and brochures. Anyhow.

When I was faced with the option of taking the bus, I was... hmmm... how do I say that... let me think... well... PISSED. I didn't know why exactly. I just felt like I was being wronged. Me?! On the bus?! NEVER. I quickly realized that even though I do go by Princess these days, I really am not one so I'd better get a grip. I also started to wonder (privately) whether my strong aversion to riding the bus wasn't actually some deeply rooted snobism and (oh, god) racism struggling to come to the surface. See, in this city, like most American cities with the exception of NYC, Boston, DC and the like, it's pretty much only poor people that ride the bus. In Memphis in particular, poverty and race are correlated. I was terrified that I didn't want to ride the bus because I didn't want to be around poor black people. I didn't think that was IT. I was just afraid that it might as well be and that, let me tell you, was one scaaaarrry thought.

When I am faced with a big fear, my natural tendency is to attack it straight on. Not sure if this is brave, smart or stupid. It's just how I am. When I was in high-school, I volunteered to solve math problems in front of the entire class even though math was by far my least favorite subject. I guess, I figured it would be less embarrassing to fail if I failed upon my own volition. So, similarly, grumpy and nervous, I decided to start riding the bus.

And I am SOOOO glad I did.

People!!! Riding the bus in Memphis is FUN. First of all, bus drivers are incredibly friendly. They always greet you as you step in and are super helpful when you are trying to figure out how to get to where you're trying to get. Then, when a passenger gets on, they not only greet the bus driver, but also greet everyone on the bus: Good evening, everyone! they say. People don't necessarily respond but most people nod and acknowledge the gesture. Finally, once everyone is settled in, someone will inevitably start a conversation that all are welcome to join. This morning some guy fell on a lady and the entire bus started cracking jokes about how that wasn't really a mistake and how if he wanted to talk to her, he should have just started a conversation. On my way back home, I listened to a heated debate over Memphis mayoral candidates and Miss Kim, the driver, encouraged everyone to go vote.

The thing that I love the most is that if you are waiting at a bus stop, everyone who walks by you says hello. It's like people know that maybe you've been waiting a long time and are ready to just get on the frickin' bus and be done with it. So when they walk by, they tell you... hey, hang in there. It's not all that bad. I LOVE little acts of kindness like that. This morning I was waiting for my transfer and I was the only person at the bus-stop. This homeless guy walked by, pushing his shopping cart filled with all his material possessions. As soon as he caught my eye, he smiled a toothless smile and said to me, Hey, there, Cleopatra!

What can I say, this city has me charmed.


  1. aww, this story was really touching, thank you for sharing.
    i've had my own little fascination with bus stops when I was riding the bus to work in Sofia some years ago. Now, despite all the disadvantages of public transportation in Sofia, part of it was really not that bad. For me, waiting at the bus stops was often just a little thoughtful time for myself. Yes, no one would say hello or smile at me, but I enjoyed being alone and having some minutes to myself and my thoughts. Which was a precious thing to me then because at the time I was renting a place together with three other people and constantly had visitors hanging around.
    I would even compose poems in my mind while waiting at a bus stop and jot them down once I got home :). So intense were those moments for me that even today I remember the songs that I was listening to on my mp3 player while waiting for the bus.

  2. I'm going to see if I can't get my wife to comment on this one :) She had a similar experience when we lived in Greeley, Colorado. Taxis...well, they really don't exist in places like that, so she had to take the bus, which was a pain because it only comes once an hour, but is also scary because only poor people and people of X racial demographic (X is dependent upon where you live) take the buses, so in America, the buses are generally frowned upon.

    She ended up LOVING the buses because of how cool the bus drivers were, and the genuinely nice people she met. I'll be sure to prod her in this direction tonight :)

  3. While living in Germany I knew US guy called Jason. He noted once that Americans are generally more chatty and friendly then the Germans and told me the following story -
    He must have been in his early 20s, first time in Germany, and he went to a restaurant with a few German friends. They had no reservation and the restaurant was full, so the waiter seated them next to a German couple. Sharing a table in a restaurant was a brand new concept for him, but Jason was very enthusiastic about all things different. So he reacted in very American way , he greeted the couple with cheerful "Guten Abend!" (Good evening!) , to which they answered a bit confused. I guess they appreciated his friendliness , although in such situations you are not expected to be overly polite - you just share a table.
    But from Jason's point of view they were all in social situation where, according to US standards, friendly communication was a must.
    So after a moment of awkward silence the couple was about to go back to their conversation, when Jason joyfully asked them "Wie heissen Sie?" (What's your name).
    At that point Jason's friends had to interrupt and explain to the couple that their friend was not a psycho - just an American, visiting the country for first time.
    Then the Germans breathed a sign of relief and went back to their dinner.

  4. oh gawd. I remember the first (and only) time I've had to share a table. It was my very first visit to Bulgaria, and I can't for the life of me remember which seaside town we were in, but it was peak holiday season...July or August, around there. We went to have a nice romantic dinner, and halfway through our meal we have another couple get seated at our table.

    First of wasn't a big table. Second of didn't have four chairs at it in the first place. They went in the back and got two new chairs just to sit this new couple down somewhere. So here I am, totally mystified, and definitely not happy about the situation, with barely enough arm room to reach my wine, much less use my utensils.

    While I recommend anyone coming to Bulgaria to visit the "traditional" type restaurants simply for the experience, one thing I cannot, and never will, stand is the cramped-as-tight-as-sardines-while-at-the-table mentality that people have in the traditional Bulgarian restaurants. You know the ones...they've got the live musicians playing cultural music, plenty of rakia flowing, so much cigarette smoke that you can't see much more than three feet beyond your face, and you are crammed into a bench seat at a long-ass table with 20 people more than should really be seated at the table in the first place, and every single one of them is drunk, yelling, laughing, joking :) It's positively an experience, but not one I'm looking to repeat when I want a nice dinner out with my wife, lol.

    So yeah...that story about the German situation sounds very familiar :)