Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Letter to Regina Mobley

Dear Regina,

My wife just told me the great news. WVEC is doing a story about the HRT experience. It thrills me to know that soon -- at least after your broadcast tonight -- the entire Hampton Roads viewing public will have a taste of the joy of riding our local public transit system.

Since your story is slated to run tonight, I'm sure the footage has already been shot, edited, and is now awaiting the push of the play button. So, I'll pretend that my simple request reaches you through a tear in the fabric of time, catching you before the remote cameras roll. My request is this: please use a hidden camera.

I know you guys have them. I've seen plenty of undercover exposés done in the interest of the public's need to know. And you know how people get when they see a news camera. We certainly don't want this story to appear staged, do we? My hope is that some degree of stealth will capture things on the bus as they really are.

For example, if the guy in the back of the bus sees a news reporter, he might feel pressured to censor his cell phone shouting match with that "fuckin' bitch [he] gon' beat to deat' when [he] get home." And how is anyone going to be comfortable cracking open a cold forty-ounce on the way to work when there's a lens in his face?

Hopefully, Regina, you also realize that a bus stop gang beating takes on a completely different dynamic when there's a camera rolling. It's just not as exciting when the participants feel like they have to "perform". Do you real want to rob any potentially new passengers of that authenticity? Let 'em get a taste of the real thing. Isn't that what truthful reporting is all about? Besides, all that upfront conspicuous journalism is just bad for business. The rolling sales force of bootleg CD and DVD pushers and perfumed oil merchants might be suddenly timid about offering me their wares, thus causing a big dent in their profits.

And what of the drivers? Don't they have enough to deal with? Do them a favor and keep this project on the low-low. I've never driven a bus full of people, but I imagine it's gotta be hard to hear the riders shouting turn-by-turn directions when there's a reporter in your face asking you, "What's the more difficult part of your job?" (The answer to this, by the way, is, "All these fucking people asking me shit all the time.") Plus, the pressure of a news crew may cause a driver to feel as if he or she has to be on schedule. Where's the fun in that? We all know that unpredictability breeds excitement, right?

So, Regina, since you'll most like be reading this either today until the story airs at 6:00 p.m., or perhaps long after, I hope you've done the right thing and assembled an honest and accurate glimpse into this rolling stop-and-go world. You owe at least that much if not to your viewers, then to HRT's loyally unhappy passengers. And if you do read this after the story, let's hope your hindsight doesn't need contact lenses.

Oh, and if by some anomaly of quantum physics this does get to you through that rip in time and you're the one considering going undercover, you may want to find someone in the studio who doesn't look like they stepped off a TV news set. 'Cause, honey, you just ain't ghetto enough for the bus.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The H(u)RT Demographic

If you're like me, you had that one dream of stardom when you were younger. Yeah, you know you did. Like around twelve or thirteen. In my case, my friends and I wanted to form a band, blatant modeled after, fake personas, and all. Of course, none of us knew shit about playing guitar. I mean, I had a crappy generic Les Paul ripoff I could play a few chords on and my friend had a bass he couldn't play, but we and a couple of other guys had it all figured out. We would take the stage and just blow people's minds out of their asses. A few months later, reality thankfully set in before public embarassment did. We all realized it was a stupid idea and we didn't know what the fuck we were talking about.

And that's where HRT is these days. It's in its parents' garage, making the big plans before knowing how to really rock out. Unfortunate, they haven't hit the humility realization stage yet. Kinda makes you turn away and let out that "Ooooo" sound that you make when you're watching someone really fuck up in public.

HRT has been around for quite a while, but all during that time, public transportation never quite caught on with the local mainstream masses. The previously mentioned demographic 'gets' public transportation simply because they have to. In most cases, there's no other choice available. But for the Yuppies, WASPs, and DINKs, public transportation has always seemed too low-class for the middle-class.

Even with HRT's recent marketing push for the Max program and the forthcoming light rail system, John and Judy next door will see no compelling reason to venture into the abyss of the bus...the Abusabyss. Gas prices could double and Mr. Hummer would rather ask for a hefty raise than forego the uncorrupted solace of his own vehicle. Go ahead and run next door and ask him. I'll wait.

Why this anti-transit mindset here in Hampton Roads? It's not like we're living in a rural community. Or is it?

When you look at more developed cities like San Francisco or Seattle or NYC, it's clear that we're just not ready. We don't 'get' public transportation. The Hampton Roads area simply hasn't matured enough as a metropolis to readily accept public transportation as a viable choice. Do I hate this area? Not at all. I love Hampton Roads. I love that it's a growing seed of so many things -- arts, music, business, culture. It just needs to practice its guitar and develop a better sense of its own reality before it can rock with the large-scale public transit band.

It's my hope that HRT will get its rockstar head out of its air guitar-playing ass and grow itself in careful stages. To generate mass acceptance, there are several things that need to happen first:

1. Massive bus cleanup. The buses are just plain dag-nasty. From hobo piss to fresh blood splatter (this afternoon, on the seat behind me) to blunt guts (the shredded inside of a cigar, scooped out to make way for pot being stuffed in its place), no one in their right mind would put their squeaky clean ass on a bus seat if they've been on one before.

2. Massive transit center cleanup (specifically Hampton). I could write an entire post about the Hampton Transit Center men's room. Actually, I think that'll be the next topic I cover. Lucky you.

3. Require all drivers to attend customer appreciation seminars. Let 'em stand in a circle and catch each other falling, hold hands with their inner whatever, go on a team building retreat. Whatever it takes because the majority of HRT drivers are just fat-old-Baptist-man mean.

4. Pay large groups of Caucasians to ride for a few months. Go ahead. Hate me all you want, but you know it's true. Whitey from the burbs wouldn't be caught dead on a bus where they're in the 5 percent minority. Think the nightclub scene from Animal House ("Do you mind if we dance wif yo dates?"). Pay some white people...a good mix of old suits and young trendies...and you'll ace the suburban populist vote.

Once that stuff is covered, the public will sit up and take notice and want to get onboard. Then, HRT, you'll be totally rockin'.

The Maxitude

A little background info to get things started...

I live in Norfolk, VA, where the local public transit system is Hampton Roads Transit, or HRT, which it will be heretofore known as. I work in an office in Hampton, which is almost exactly 20 miles from my home, making my daily round-trip commute about 40 miles. With gas prices currently hovering around the $4.00 mark, you can see why I choose to hop the bus.

Over the past few years I've been a bus crackah, the buses have generally run on time, a few Friday afternoons and severe weather conditions being the only exceptions. I have to switch buses twice each way on my commute, with the Hampton-to-Norfolk route being the one with the most potential for tardiness. However, on the whole, I'd have to say I've been content with the service.

...That is, until they started the Max.

All of us riders had been getting warnings about the upcoming route changes. (I would call them updates, but the HRT memos taped to the bus stops had a kind of sinister propaganda poster urgency to them.) The 61 Express that took me across the water would be no more. The new wave of public transit would start on June 16th and it would be called The Max.

The Max would be no ordinary tin box on wheels with hard plastic seats like the other buses (referred to as Cheesewagons in HRT-speak). The Max would be a comfortable glide across town that would, according to their marketing crap, make my commute "the best part of my day" and "carry commuters long distances in a reliable, timely manner." Shit, where do I sign up for that?!

So, it's now the end of July and I'm just not feeling the awesomeness. Not only has the Max bus (specifically the afternoon runnings of the 961) been habitually late, but just about every other bus has been late as a result. See, instead of maintaining some semblance of stability by keeping the drivers of non-Max buses on their regular routes, they switched EVERYONE'S assigned routes. For the first two weeks of Max-ness, most regular route drivers had to either refer to a turn-by-turn printout while they were driving, or rely on directions shouted out by passengers, which can have some seriously comic results.

Here's an example...According to the Max schedule, I can catch the 961 going from Hampton to Norfolk at 4:15 which would put me in Norfolk at exactly the time I need to be there.

Perfect. Except for the fact that I have never actually seen the 4:15 to Norfolk. EVER! It's right there on the schedule, but it's simply never shown up. Of course, HRT customer service had an explanation of this when I called; heavy traffic on the interstate. Now, I'd buy that if I knew for certain that HRT did NOT purchase extra Max buses (for just such an emergency) when they started building the fleet. They did purchase extra buses, right?

My favorite part about riding the Max? It costs extra! That's right, we Max riders get to pony up an additional $1.50 (transfer upgrade price) to catch the slow bus.

We're so awesome.

Despite all the growing pains and other problems HRT is facing with the new Max program, they have a smooth way to give soon-to-be converts the warm and fuzzy...A TV ad. Let's roll the clip.

First of all, I have never seen this guy or anyone remotely like him on the bus. That doesn't mean I haven't seen guys in suits. They're usually older (50 and up) and often carry with them some array of bizarreness (like the random Tourettes tic or a subtly-placed ladies' fashion accessory) The cocky young professional twenty-something asshole demographic just isn't there.

Now that you've seen the ad, here's my take on a few key moments:

(0:02) Super-fast lightning people. Hell, if I could do that, screw the bus.

(0:08 - 0:12) Jaw-dropping wonder at actually being on a totally awesome real life bus!! This douchenozzle needs to get out more.

(0:14) Ah...stretch out your legs. There's plenty of that seat anyway. Sit anywhere else on the Max and you're kissing your own ass.

(0:22) One last parting glance before going back through the magic Max portal to rejoin the world. Farewell, my fellow travelers...and hobos...and DUI convicts...and bipolar 40-ounce chuggers...

After looking at that, I have to wonder why HRT put so much emphasis on the Max ride being a time to slow down and unwind, forgetting all the stress and chaos. Isn't the whole purpose of commuting to work to get there as quickly as possible so you're not spending hours on the road? I mean, that ad makes it seem like you're sitting next to Hiro Nakamura and time is frozen so that the big ol' Max can weave in and out of the heaviest traffic jams. Then the doors spit you back out and the space-time continuum returns to normal. It's fucking magic.

So, in honor of the tormented mixed blessing that is the Max, I'm introducing a new word into the Bus Crackah glossary...

Maxitude: (n.) The unnerving feeling you get from paying a premium for something that has yet to live up to its promised potential.

Are you feeling it yet?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Hitting the Gas.

After commuting by public bus to my day job for a couple of years straight, I've decided that the following conditions warrant the inauguration of this blog:

1. The Hampton Roads public transportation system and its demographic (to which I do not belong...explanation to follow)
2. The random thoughts that do a 40-ounce-fueled driveby on my brain
3. The inane day job that gives me a twisted reason to ride the Bus of Sin and Suffering

I should also state that this will be an anonymous blog. I don't plan on exposing my identity in here, mainly because I firmly predict I will make observations that others will find equally offensive and true.

Nothing is off limits. Nothing.

That being said, let me explain to you why I ride the bus. It's cheaper than buying gas. Until something shakes the tree and gas prices drop like Bush's approval rating, I'll continue to ride the bus to work. It's less wear and tear on my car and it's better for the environment. In fact, if your takeaway from this is that I ride the bus to be more "green", that's cool with me.

But I have to admit, there are other reasons I ride the bus. Here's a list...You'll soon learn that I really like lists...

1. I have about 3 hours a day to do whatever one can get away with on a crowded bus.
2. Someone else drives.
3. I get to people-watch.

I should elaborate on number three. The first two are pretty self explanatory, but I really need to break down that third one.

If you yourself are a transit trooper, you probably know what I'm talking about. And hopefully, you don't ride in a completely white bread vanilla transit system that is totally devoid of the colorful element (and no, I'm not using that phrase as a euphemism for black people). Fortunately for me, the HRT is a steaming smorgasbord of characters. It's like a casting call for a David Lynch film.

Now, local perceptions of public transit are pretty solid. If you're from the Hampton Roads area and you don't ride the bus, you're exactly right in your assumptions. If you're not from here or you've never ridden a public bus, here's the breakdown...Again with the list...

1. Financially challenged (a.k.a poor) people
2. Black people
3. Persons suffering from any manner of mental affliction
4. The formerly incarcerated
5. Any mixture of 1-4.

Throw in there the assorted Latino, wheelchair rider, punk, and professional whose car is in the shop and you got the crowd I hang with. My bus peeps.

And now, you're in. You've paid your buck and a half and you've found a seat next to me. Right behind the smelly Jamaican guy.

Let's roll.