Leave the Driving to Us

I’ve sometimes wondered what it would be like to be a city transit bus driver. I actually have applied for such a position here in High Point.  And I wondered how long it would take a person to go crazy after driving from wherever they store the buses, to the downtown transportation hub to the Oak Hollow Mall to that other place and another one…. and do that 15 or 20 times a day.

But I think I’m beginning to get the gist of it.  Since May, I’ve made something like 15 trips across the country, driving a school bus.  I average 550 miles a day, and it’s a five-day trip.  I leave High Point, drive to either Paducah, Kentucky or Metropolis, Illinois on the first day.  The second day takes me from there, across Missouri (St. Louis to Kansas City) and a stop in either Rock Port, Missouri, or Percival, Iowa. Then the third night’s stop is generally in Laramie, Wyoming. From there to Bliss, Idaho (just north of Twin Falls,) and then, depending on whether I’m going to Seattle or Portland, either somewhere near Ellensburg, Washington, or The Dalles, Oregon.

My point is that what would have, one year ago, been an exciting, once-in-a-lifetime journey has now become almost routine.  Don’t get me wrong.  I like it.  But when I see that one lonely Conoco gas station, I know I’m near Elk Mountain, Wyoming.  I know by name (almost) the folks who work at the Love’s Truck Stop in Wamsutter, Wyoming.  My friend Ed, at the Amber Inn Motel in Bliss, Idaho, gives me a special rate, and we always have a good, old buddy-type conversation.

I can now drive from High Point, North Carolina to either Seattle or Portland without consulting a map.  I do have my GPS on most of the time, because it tells me how many more miles to my night’s destination, or how long it’ll take me to get there.

Along the way, there’s spectacular scenery, some of which I’ve shared with you.  There are also antelope, deer, prairie dogs, and large birds of prey.  But much to my amazement, it is quickly becoming routine.  But it’s a routine I can live with, particularly when I think of my life prior to this: in a radio station control room or production studio… or at my desk in the cubicle.   No health benefits… I have to keep detailed records (which is not my strong suit) and compliance with DOT regulations about how many hours I can drive (11 in one day, with ten hours of rest.)

Many months ago, before I involuntarily became a single guy again, I applied to Greyhound.  Well, they finally got around to understanding, provisionally, what a great guy I am, and sent me an invitation to interview with them in Charlotte on Tuesday.  If I pass the first stage, then I go to some computer training classes, and a DOT physical.  Then, if that goes well, it’s on to Greyhound University for two weeks, in Atlantic City, Dallas, or several other locations. There, I’ll be put up in a hotel with a roommate, I’ll get a per diem, and have intensive and, apparently, difficult school work: Class work, on-the-road driver training, and more.  All while wearing a white dress shirt, black pants, black socks, black shoes, and a black tie. Seriously.

Then if I  make the cut, I’ll be hired as a Greyhound bus driver.

Lookin' for adventure... and whatever comes our way.  Born to be wild...

Lookin’ for adventure… and whatever comes our way. Born to be wild…

Never, in a million years as a broadcaster, did I ever think that someday I’d wind up driving a Greyhound bus.  And, of course, I can’t WAIT to meet the clientele…  but that’s just me being an elitist. But I’ve heard horror stories.  I’ve also heard horror stories about Greyhound customer service: rude drivers, nasty ticket agents, and all that.  But I will never be a rude driver… I believe in top-notch customer service.  Particularly if they allow you to take a thermos full of martinis to swig on every fifty or so miles.

In any case, my life over the next few months could become anything but routine.

Anyway, if that’s the next chapter in my life, well, so be it.  I’ll tackle it with enthusiasm and verve. Not to mention vim and vigor.  What the hell IS vim, anyway?

I’ll keep you posted.

What Just Happened Here?

How did I get here?

I’m in Laramie, Wyoming, for what seems like the hundredth time this year. But I know it’s just been maybe ten times. Today, as I drove across Nebraska, which takes approximately three thousand hours, I got to thinking. And, God, I wish I’d stop that. Thinking, I mean. It just leads to trouble.

I thought about my life just a year ago. I was, I thought, happily married, I was hosting Morning Edition on WFDD at Wake Forest University… and although challenges lay ahead, I thought I had a partner for life… and a job that would sustain us for a long time.

Now, though, I am involuntarily single… no car… living in my sister’s basement… and contemplating becoming a heavily bearded, grouchy hermit, given to muttering to myself in bus stations, with the occasional anti-social outburst, before going back to muttering. Or not.

As I drove across Missouri yesterday, I listened to an audio book titled “Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee – A Look Inside North Korea.” As the title suggests, It is about a man who was a “poet” for the North Korean regime, and after having misgivings… and a very scary experience… decided to escape. I heard the harrowing story of his path from Pyongyang through China, and ultimately to South Korea. And I forced myself to think… “My God… I think I have problems… this man risked his life on an uncertain destiny… left his family never to see them again… and… and…….”

And it didn’t do any good. I selfishly clung to my own self pity: crumbled marriage, dead car… living in sister’s basement with the cats who puke on my socks…

But tomorrow, it’s on across Wyoming. Tomorrow, I’ll listen to a book by Sheryl Atkinson, who was pretty much cast aside by CBS News after digging too deeply into stuff that, apparently, CBS didn’t want her digging into. Let’s see if I can become a little less self-absorbed. G’nite!

Second City’s Second Airport

We’re Glad You’re Here!
That’s what the big banner in the baggage claim area at Midway Airport in Chicago says.  And to drive the point home, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel assures us that “It’s more than just a slogan!”  Mr. Warm n’ Fuzzy says that it’s a way of life for everyone here in Chicago.  EVERYONE!  NO DEVIATIONS WILL BE TOLERATED!   I feel so welcomed.

Nonetheless, Midway airport has just become my new least favorite airport.  There may be airports I would like even less, but I haven’t been to them yet.

I awoke Thursday morning at 2:30 in Princeton, West By Gawd Virginia.  Drove 677 miles to Princeton, Illinois, with a stop at the company office in Richmond, Indiana. Delivered the school bus, got a ride to the AmTrak station, a train to Chicago, the L to Midway, and I’ve been sitting here since 11:00 PM.  It is now 3:15 AM.  My flight leaves for Atlanta at 7:05.

"We're Glad You're Here!" --Mayor Rahm Emmanuel "Then get me some food!"  -- me

“We’re Glad You’re Here!” –Mayor Rahm Emmanuel
“Then get me some food!” — me

For the last few hours before arriving here, I was ravenous.  But I thought, “I’ll just grab a bite at the airport.” But by the time I got here, there was not a bite to be grabbed.  And the TSA people apparently go home about 11:30, because I was told I can’t go through security until maybe 4:30 or 5:00.  So I said, “Well, there’s someplace to eat here, right?”

“No,” he replied.   I could have stopped at any number of places to eat when I walked from Union Station to the CTA station… but no.  I was just going to “grab a bite at the airport.” Midway apparently pretty much shuts down at midnight.

I said to the guy, “But this is Chicago!  The city that never sleeps!”

“That’s New York,” he said.

“The city of Brotherly Love!”

“Philadelphia.”

“But… but… it’s a toddlin’ town!  The Bronx is up and the… oh yeah.  That’s New York too.”

So. I sit here (yeah, yeah, all broken-hearted…) in the baggage claim area…. and wait.  I would now eat bologna after it’s gotten slimy.  I would eat liverwurst on stale rye. I would eat cough drops off the floor (mmmmm…. cough drops….)

Not that there isn’t any entertainment. No, there’s a guy driving what looks like a little floor-polishing Zamboni… and he’s having entirely too much fun… almost ran over my feet just a minute ago.

The floor Zamboni guy

The floor Zamboni guy

And there were some Naval recruits coming from or going to the Great Lakes Training Center,  near one of the baggage carousels a few minutes ago, with an instructor, who was instructing them quite loudly.

Midway should try be a little more like its bigger and better cousin, O’Hare.  Come to think of it, I’m not all that crazy about O’Hare, either. But it seems that if the mayor was really glad I’m here, he’d get me a nice Italian beef…

A Tale of Two Princetons

(Princeton, WV) — Today was the beginning of my first school bus delivery trip for Safeway Drive-Away, Inc. I now work for TWO school bus transport companies, so I can make some money (which I need for a car, a place to live, and an alpaca ranch. I lied about the alpaca ranch.)  And it started off in spectacular fashion.  I left High Point about 6:30 this morning, intending to stop at the Safeway office in Richmond, Indiana, and then tomorrow complete the journey to Princeton, Illinois.  But apparently, that was not part of the Grand Plan.

I got as nearly as far as a rest area off I-77 just south of Rocky Gap, Virginia.  I pulled in, accomplished what I had stopped for, and got back in the bus, only to discover that when I went to release the brake, the little release button was gone.  Missing.  And there was a little metal rod hanging down where it shouldn’t have been. Most of these buses have air brakes, which I like.  And they make that cool air brake sound like the big trucks.  But this one, for some reason has hydraulic brakes.  And I couldn’t find that little button, and I reached up as far into the panel as I could… but there was no way I could put the thing back together.  And this is a BRAND NEW BUS.  Only 160 miles on it.  So I called the office, and the dispatcher told me to call the Thomas-Built Bus customer service line.  “They’re amazing,”   he said. “They’ll be able to help you,” he said.  “They always do,” he said.

The Thomas guy was very nice as he told me, “That’s a new one for me!”  And he contacted his supervisor who was also very nicely stumped.  They gave me the Freightliner help line number, because the bus chassis is made by Freightliner.

That help line wasn’t very helpful, and we all decided to send a truck mechanic.  From Roanoke. About 100 miles away.

I waited at that rest stop for more than five hours.  There were vending machines, but I opened up a can of kippers… smoked herring… and that was today’s meal. At long last, a big purple truck pulled up beside me, and today’s hero, one Larry Brink climbed out.  It took him an hour or so, but he was able to fashion a makeshift fix, that would allow me to release the brake.  Not putting on the brake is not an option, either. Although these buses do have automatic transmissions, there’s no “park.”  Just neutral.  And the bus will roll.  Today, at least, Larry Brink is my favorite person in the world.

School Bus (left) Larry Brink's big purple truck (right)

School Bus (left) Larry Brink’s big purple truck (right)

So at about 4:15, I pulled back onto I-77.  I decided that, since I could deliver the bus on Saturday instead of Friday, I’d pretty much call it a day, and checked into the Days Inn here in Princeton, WV.  It was only after I’d gotten nicely settled in that I realized I had made a huge, absent-minded mistake. I have reservations on the 7:49 AmTrak train from Princeton, Illinois to Chicago on Friday night and a flight from Chicago back to High Point on Saturday morning. What was I thinking?  I was thinking that I could take a nice drive of less than 400 miles tomorrow, and another, similarly relaxing short day on Friday, with a stop in Richmond, Indiana.

To my chagrin… huge chagrin… I am faced with a drive of 664 miles tomorrow… from this Princeton to that Princeton.  Google Maps says it a 10-hour drive.  Which means it’s actually closer to a 12-hour drive.  By law, I can only drive 11 hours a day.

It’s now 6:30.  I have to get to bed almost immediately in order to get some sleep, get up around 3:00 AM, and hit the road by 4.  This does not make me happy.  But, as they say, it is what it is. Depending on what “is” is.

Who Wants to Live Forever?

I just read an article on Bloomberg News, and this quote, from the lede, jumped out: “If you ask me today, is it possible to live to be 500? The answer is yes.”

The speaker is one Bill Maris, who is the president and managing partner of Google Ventures.  He is apparently ready to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in companies that are working on ways to “slow aging, reverse disease and extend life.”   The idea, apparently serious, is that he wants to find ways to make human beings practically immortal.  He says, ” “I just hope to live long enough not to die.” If you want to read the whole article, it’s here.

But my question is “why?”  Not long ago I was listening to a radio interview during which the concept of human immortality came up, and both the interviewer and the interviewee were quite enthusiastic about the idea of never dying.  But, again, why?very old

Isn’t 70 or 80 or 90 years enough?  If you live to be 500, when do you retire?  At 300?  And what about all those old — really old — people who keep their jobs for hundreds of years?  Where would be the opportunities for people just entering the job market?  And if you retire at 300, and have been working in the public sector and have a fat pension… you think that’s breaking the backs of local and state governments now?  Just wait.

But I think I’d just get tired of it all.   There are days now when I’m actually not all that enthusiastic about pushing ahead to 61.  As I see it, only the very rich would be able to afford immorality.  So we’d have a world in which some people would die at the normal human age: 80, 85.  And those who had achieved and paid for immortality would would be an omnipresent, threatening overclass. And why would someone who has toiled all his or her life for very little want to be immortal?

Frankly, living 500 years sounds to me like hell on earth. How about you?  Do you want to live forever?

The Journey Back

(High Point, NC) — I woke up on Friday morning at the Super 8 in Wilsonville, Oregon, just south of Portland.  I didn’t want to get up.  Ever.  I knew what lay ahead.

I drove from Wilsonville, through Portland, up to Lakewood, Washington, part of the Seattle metro.  I washed the school bus (okay, I had the bus washed at a truck wash.) Then, I drove a few more miles to deliver it to the dealership.  I arrived during lunch, so I waited 45 or so minutes until the folks at the dealership could inspect it, which takes about an hour.  Then we took care of the paperwork, and I was driven to the bus station, where I waited half an hour for the bus to the airport.

This time was a bit different.  My old friend John met me at the airport transit station, and he took me out for a great seafood meal, and we had the chance to visit for awhile. Generally, I spend 8 or 9 hours at SeaTac, waiting for the red-eye flight to someplace, where I connect with a flight to Charlotte.  It was truly great to see him… and to have someone at the other end of the journey to talk with.  And he has a lot of wisdom and compassion… both of which have been in short supply lately.

John dropped me off at SeaTac, and I left on the 10:45 flight to Atlanta.  And on that flight, I had a most interesting experience.  Because my reservations are usually made within a week prior to the flight, I almost always get stuck in the middle seat. Which I hate.  But this time, as I arrived at seat 16E, I found, in the window seat, a beautiful young woman in her 20s.  And in the aisle seat, there was a beautiful young woman in her 20s.  So there I was, a 60-year-old guy, between these lovely young women, and I thought I’ll bet they’re just thrilled to see me!

But almost immediately, and I’m not sure exactly how, a conversation among the three of us was underway.  The one in the window seat was from Alaska, on the way to meet her boyfriend in Chicago (yes… a flight from Seattle to Atlanta… then to Chicago) and the one in the aisle seat was from Hawaii, on the way to meet her boyfriend in Jacksonville. I remember their names, but I don’t know how to spell them — but they sounded like Hetty (from Hawaii) and Siriana (from Alaska.)

Sunrise in Atlanta

Sunrise in Atlanta

Both of them were friendly, intelligent, and interesting.  Siriana arrived in Alaska when she was a little girl, and had been born in Albania. She speaks unaccented English, as well as fluent Albanian.  For some reason, I’ve always been fascinated with Albania, which was, at one time, before the breakup of the Communist bloc, considered one of the world’s most backwards countries.  I think I surprised her when I said, “I’ll bet you don’t run into to too many people who can name the former leader of Albania.”  She looked skeptical.  “Enver Hoxha,” I said, naming the former dictator.  She pondered for a minute, because I pronounced it En-ver Hox-ha, which is not the way it’s pronounced in Albanian, but she was either impressed, or did a good impression of being impressed.

And since I lived in Hawaii for a few years in the late 70s and early 80s, Hetty (I’m so sorry… I’m sure the spellings of these names aren’t right…) and I had a lot to talk about: Zippy’s plate lunches, Honolulu radio (I worked at KIKI and KPOI when I was there,)  where her school was, what had happened to one of the neighborhoods I had lived in…

She’s first generation American — or Hawaiian.  Her parents came from South Korea, and she had spoken Korean as a first language.  I was fascinated with these two remarkable women.  Korean on the aisle, Albanian in the window seat.  Both of them on similar missions, and both of them thoroughly American.

Eventually, I drifted off to sleep… and so did my new friends.

We arrived in Atlanta at about 6:00 AM.  Siriana  was gone in a flash. Hetty gave me a big hug, with promises to stay in touch (I hope she will…) and we were off to our connecting flights.

As has been previously noted, following airline policy, my gate for the flight to Charlotte was as far as possible from the arrival gate… so I hoofed it to the right place, and promptly fell asleep.  Woke up in time to shuffle with the rest of the cattle on board, and fell asleep again.  I wasn’t even aware when we took off.

Arrived in Charlotte about 9, picked up my checked bag, and waited half an hour for the “Airport Sprinter” bus, since I no longer have a wife to pick me up in Charlotte.  That bus took me to the downtown transit station, where I caught Bus 11 to the AmTrak station.  There, a group of around 6000 Cub Scouts had arrived early for their train trip to Raleigh.  So all of us, Cub Scouts and Non-Cub Scouts alike, waited for an hour and fifty minutes for the train…

… and a little before 1:30, my sister picked me up at the train station in High Point. The culmination of a trip that included a bus, a bus, a car, a plane, a plane, a bus, a bus, a train, and finally a car.  I was still wearing the same clothes I had put on the morning before in Wilsonville, Oregon. I had a headache. My feet hurt. I probably didn’t smell very good.  And I wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about arriving back in High Point as I was when my wife would meet me, take me home and tell me she missed me.

It was back to the rec room lair, shared with the kitties.  I went to church this morning, took a nap this afternoon, washed my clothes… and now I wait for the next trip. I hope you’ll come along on that one as well.

A Trip to Sisters

(Wilsonville, OR) — Oh, what a day.  I left my little home-on-the-road, The Amber Inn Motel in Bliss, Idaho this morning a little after five.  I’d been asked to take a bit of a side trip, to Sisters, Oregon, which is a few miles from Bend.  My mission: show the bus to the Transportation Director of the Sisters School System.

Before I go any farther, I want to mention this:  Remember the other day, I had my THIRD Room 103 during this trip?  Huh?  Remember that?  Last night in Bliss, Idaho, I had Room 11.  But tonight, what room do I have?   Room 301.  Three 103’s and one 301.  Could it be just coincidence?????  Yes.

Rarely during these bus delivery trips do I get far from an Interstate. They’re predictable, they’re fast, and I know where all the truck stops are.  I have my Pilot/Flying J Professional Driver’s Card, which, if I buy enough Diesel fuel, will get me a free shower or a Cinnabon or something someday.

Anyway, the only way to get to Sisters from Bliss (there’s a joke in there somewhere, but I’m too tired to think of it,) you get off I-84, and drive approximately 30-thousand miles on US Rt. 20 across the state. Along the way is some of the most beautiful scenery in the world: Snow-capped mountains, babbling brooks (I’m just assuming they babble.  School buses are noisy beasts, and I couldn’t hear the babbling.)  And more snow-capped mountains.  And… uh… brooks.  It was a beautiful day, temperatures in the 50s and a bright blue sky.

I’m not appreciating all this beauty in the proper way, though. I still have all those depressing thoughts about my crumbled marriage, the state of my life in general, and whether that photo of Cindy Crawford was photoshopped rumbling around in my head.  And after 100 or so miles of this, It just makes me want to scream sometimes.

IMG_20150305_091828544

Somewhere along US 20 in Oregon, earlier today.

At one point today, I pulled the bus over next to a stream.  I was surrounded by open range (it’s before I got to the mountains) and I just stood there, awed by the sheer nothingness… and the perfect silence.  For a minute. Then, all the thoughts that accompany me all the time kicked in, and I climbed back in the driver’s seat, started the bus, and went back on the road.

A few hours later, I was in Bend, Oregon.  It’s one of the most beautiful little cities I’ve ever seen.  Sisters is just a few miles north of Bend, and Route 20 goes directly through the heart of town on the way.  The one thing I didn’t like about Bend was the traffic circles.  I have no problem with them normally, but in Bend, they overdid it a bit.  I counted 8 of them.  Okay, well, I didn’t count.  But I think there were 8. Or 10.  Maybe 4.  Anyway, tiny traffic circles are fine if you’re zipping around them in a Prius or a SmartCar, which most Bendians seem to do.  But a 40-foot school bus is different.  In a school bus, traffic circles are a pain in the ass.  After a few of them, it makes the driver of said school bus want to drive THROUGH the traffic circle, on a direct path to his or her destination, rather than the “Pardon-me-you-go-first-no-YOU-go-first” crap that goes with a traffic circle.

Anyway, I got to Sisters, Oregon a little after lunchtime, and presented the bus to the Transportation Director of the school system.  He was accompanied by a couple of mechanics… all of whom were very nice people.  And if there’s a more beautiful town in America than Sisters, Oregon, I have yet to see it.  They looked over the bus to see if they wanted to buy a six-pack (or however buses are sold) of them for the town.

Then… a few hundred miles of even better scenery, and again, beauty which I failed to properly appreciate because of the aforementioned stuff.

I have to deliver the bus tomorrow in Lakewood, Washington, a suburb of Seattle.  I’m looking forward to meeting an old friend there as well.  But tonight, I couldn’t get any farther than Wilsonville,  Oregon, a few miles south of Portland.

Tonight is Domino’s night. I have one Domino’s night per trip. When I get to an overnight stop, I’m exhausted. And I can’t go taking that 40-foot school bus around town looking for a place to eat.  So it’s either what I bring, something I can walk to, or something that can be delivered.  I order online because it’s just easier, and I have a “Domino’s Pizza Profile!”   That means I can click on the Pizza Tracker, which actually tracks your order from start to finish.  At the end of the process, you’re provided with information such as, “Tyler left with your order at 5:39.”

That’s the message I received tonight.  So when Tyler arrived, I put on my most menacing face, and cocked my eyebrow.  I opened the door and said, in my heaviest radio drama voice, “Tyler. I’ve been expecting you.”  He sort of giggled.  And then he handed me the credit slip and a pizza.  I handed him a tip. Then I closed the door, cracked a small bottle of Chardonnay, and turned on the TV.

 

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