Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Blind Lineman

I've only had a car for about 2 1/2 or 3 years. Before that, I used to always take the bus. Since I was 14, I'd spend hours a week on public transportation, going to and from school, work, recreational activities, even vacations. I got very good at figuring out ways to get strange places, cobbling together bus and train schedules in a complex web, poring over routes the way gambling addicts pore over horseracing schedules. Being an adventurous person who's easily bored, as well as someone with a mild driving phobia, I wasn't going to let a little thing like lack of a driver's license keep me from adventuring.

When you take the same bus for awhile, you start recognizing people. One of my routes took me through Emeryville, an industrial city on the edge of Oakland. The bus passed a school for telephone linemen, with rows of tar-covered telephone poles lined up at attention in the yard for the students to practice on. A few times a week, a man would get on the bus at the stop across from the school, dressed all in his lineman gear - hardhat, utility belt with various complicated-looking devices hanging from it. He would greet the driver cheerfully, and then sit down in one of the two seats up front dedicated to people with disabilities. He'd keep his cane close to his side as he sat down, careful not to sit on top of anyone else. Because this lineman was blind.

I was always fascinated by this man. A blind lineman? Who ever heard of such a thing? I'd watch him carefully. He always seemed happy, chatting with the driver or whoever else was near him on the bus. He was a skinny man with thinning red hair, maybe in his 40's. He was one of those characters that can only happen in real life. Nobody could have made up a blind lineman.

Things in my life changed and so did my bus routes and routines, and I stopped seeing him as often, although I would occasionally spot him waiting at another bus stop as my bus whizzed by, always with the hard hat and the belt. It was comforting, in a way, to keep seeing him. He was a fixture of my life and my city, the town where I grew up.  But then I stopped seeing him at all, and then I got a car, and my life changed even more.

Life with a car is different. Better, in a way. No more having to build in 2 hours to get anywhere and back (I once went on a date by bus. He stood me up, and then I took the bus back home. I figured I wasted 5 hours on that one.) No more waiting in the cold, windy evenings in shady parts of town, while the sun sinks, wondering whether the bus will be on time. No more avoiding the eyes of the smelly, mentally-challenged men who always seemed to take a shine to me immediately. No more walking for a mile through Richmond - number 8 of the most violent cities in the U.S., the last time I checked -  in the dark to get from the train station to home.

Of course there are drawbacks to not participating in the soup of humanity that relies on the bus. I feel like I'm less in touch with the reality of urban living now. I float between work, home, my boyfriend's place, friends' houses, stores, the yoga studio, the park where I hike, without interacting much with anyone in between. I'm less fit than I was when I walked 2 miles a day to the train station to get to and from work, when I would take one bus and one train each way. There was also some kind of pride I felt when I didn't rely on fossil fuels as much, and some pride in being a middle-class white girl who would dare take the public bus as a regular means of transportation. More than one person expressed their concern for me that I would take the bus at all hours, to which I would flip my hair and say "Well, I've been taking the bus since I was 14, I kind of have the routine down."

But now, I'm one of the drivers, caged in my steel box, able to go anywhere at the drop of a hat without worrying about routes or schedules or connections. I gas up my car like everyone else, putting money in the pockets of the horrible oil companies while rationalizing that there's no other option, since I can't afford one of those fancy new electric or hybrid cars.

Last week, I was driving through Berkeley en route to a friend's house. This was my old stomping grounds, a city where I used to be able to recite the routes of 5 or 6 separate bus lines, including the approximate period between buses, and approximately when each route stopped running in the evening. Driving up University Avenue, I looked over while I was stopped at a light, and I saw him. The blind lineman. He was standing at a bus stop, and he looked exactly the same, if a little bit older. He still had his hardhat and his belt, and his cane. He was standing patiently, waiting for the eastbound 51 bus. Seeing him made me happy, for some reason. I still don't understand how there could be a blind lineman, especially one that relies on public transportation. I still don't know his story. But seeing him again reminded me that the world is a strange and fascinating place, and even though I now drive a car, that doesn't mean I can't take the time to look around me and interact with all the crazy, wonderful, interesting people around me. On the bus, you're part of it, whether or not you want to be. In a car, you're not part of it, whether or not you want to be. But even us drivers can step out of our safe steel boxes occasionally and walk amongst the people who live with us.

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