Adventures in Commuting: The Way of the Flask

busfiveI know how I’m going to die—I will say goodbye to the world sometime this winter after being transformed into a human popsicle inside the ice cube tray/commuter bus I take three days a week from my home in Front Royal to my job in Rosslyn. You think I’m exaggerating but it almost happened last season, my tender sophomore year of commuting.

On that particular day, we stood at 4:30 a.m., bundled in coats, hats, and scarves, at our usual spot in front of the port-a-potty, beside the giant recycling bins and fragrant garbage dumpsters. Since I’m “kidney yang deficient,” according to my acupuncturist, and tend to feel cold all the time, I had smothered myself in seven layers of outerwear, not caring how much I resembled a bag lady.

If I were a less neurotic person, I’d just wait until the bus pulled up before getting out of my warm car and into the warm bus. But I am a mildly neurotic and anxious person who needs to get on line early even if the wind chill factor is negative ten degrees. Thank god I discovered silk long-johns and socks last year—they’re expensive but more important to me from November through February than any designer outfit, not that I ever have or ever will buy from a designer—I’m much too cheap for that. But if I were into fashion, I’d insist on buying the long johns first.

So we’re standing there trying to talk through the wool around our faces, hopping a bit to bump up the body heat, praying like Jesus freaks that the bus won’t be late. Our toes are numb, our bones ache like they’ve been cursed, all exposed patches of skin have frosted over. Oddly, the bus manager’s husband wears only a light parka though the temperature must be in the lower teens. Is he nuts? I’d say he’s an alien or android except that his southern drawl is too authentic. He must have a coat phobia like my husband has a fear of carrying an umbrella.

Some of my fellow passengers cradle their bodies around hot cups of coffee from the McDonald’s across route 340 but I wouldn’t dare—that would make me need to pee in the horrifically noxious bathroom on the bus and would keep me from my precious one hour of almost-sleep during the drive to DC. Other passengers always wait in their cars until the very last minute then run up to the bus just as it arrives—smart asses.

After what seems like ages but is probably only 15 minutes, we see her pulling into the lot, our big silver palooka of a bus. Although the logo on her side is lovely, a silk screen image of rolling green hills with the Blue Ridge in the distance, this is not a new vehicle or even a slightly used vehicle. It appears to have been built in the 1970s, which is like a century ago in bus years.

But right now, she looks gorgeous and I love her. No matter how ancient that vehicle is, we want on it like thrill-hungry kids in line for the latest coaster. Everyone stands a little taller, bags in hand, ready to board. So what is this? Why is the driver getting off so stiffly and why does he have that look on his face, the one that says, “You don’t want to hear what I’m about to tell you”?

parkinglot

We look at him. He looks at us stoney-faced and grunts out, “Sorry, no heat on the bus today.” I’m not sure I heard him correctly—my hat and three scarves have distorted the sound. “You’ve got to be kidding,” says the lady who raises alpacas. She strikes me as a tough, no-nonsense type. Her pointy cowskin boots tell me she doesn’t take any bullshit. She does not look happy.

“Can’t get her going,” says the driver. Oh crap.

“Sounds like we’re gonna have to cuddle up,” comments the man in the light parka, grinning as we shuffle up the steps. What does he care? He’s a temperature-impervious superhuman android alien.

Some riders keep blankets onboard. They grab them and wrap up like larvae in cocoons. Others share afghans and quilts with their bus buddies. I score a seat to myself and hunker down in my long wool coat. My scarves are so huge, I take one from around my head and use it as a throw.

But nothing really helps. It’s reptilian cold on this bus, cold as the blood of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Dick Cheney combined, frigid as Michelle Malkin’s so-called heart. We can practically hang our hats on our breath. The next 60 minutes feel like 8 hours. We shiver, we shake. Our bus is a moving tomb. We dream of chemical hand and foot warmers—I swear I’m going to buy every single one in stock at the general store downtown.

I try to do the mind-over-matter thing and imagine the beach, my favorite place, with the hot sun beating down on my skin and the smell of coconut tanning oil wafting through the air. That seems to warm me a bit, which makes me wonder if I have hypothermia and have started to hallucinate. Isn’t that a sign that it’s all over? Is this the end? What a ridiculous way to go—on the way to work—that’s not romantic at all. And I really don’t want to die looking like a bag lady.

It must not be my time though because somehow we make it to Rosslyn alive. One hour and 15 minutes after leaving Front Royal, the bus spits a few of us out like something it couldn’t digest. While the rest of the passengers get dropped off in DC, I scuttle into McDonald’s and grab a hot cup of java.

The next time I ride, it turns out that we have plenty of heat—too much in fact. It’s so hot and dry, I strip off all my outer layers during the ride and then rebundle for the walk to my office. The heat makes me incredibly thirsty and turns my skin into parchment paper. As soon as I reach my desk, I down some filtered water and pull out the Burt’s Bees body lotion. While I slather on emollients of milk and honey, I remind myself that having to moisturize is a small price to pay for safe transport.

In any case, it must be pointed out that we commuter bus riders are a strange tribe. I’ve decided that waking up at 3:30 a.m. causes some kind of genetic mutation. Otherwise, who in their right mind would crawl out of a warm, comfortable bed to face the cruel cold air of winter at that unnatural hour? This spontaneous genetic mutation alters our bodies so that we feel sort of OK getting five or six hours of sleep a night and being away from home for 14 hours a day. It’s a clever trick our bodies play on us—we aren’t aware enough to know how exhausted we really are.

offramp

But there is something I secretly like about this schedule. All those hours in the black of early morning, whether warm or cold, standing beneath the moon as it glows all over the park and ride lot, all over the trees ringing the asphalt, all over the bright red dumpsters, all over the stray cats that scurry under parked cars, all those hours feel exactly like a dream, more than a little surreal and much more than a little drug induced. They lie well outside the mundane realm of daylight.

For a writer, this is a good thing. It means stepping through the looking glass into a place with fewer rules, where you don’t need permission for anything, where no one is looking over your shoulder. Most days, when I get to Rosslyn, I spend a little time writing before starting in on my regular day job. For someone who works full-time and is Momma to a small child, this time is pure gold. I might even kill for it, seriously. This crazy schedule and commute are my deal with the devil and I’m willing to pay the consequences, at least for now.

Of course, I don’t really have a choice since I don’t know how to drive on a highway and wouldn’t want to anyway. I guess I should be grateful that any commuter bus service exists, or I would be out of a job and my family out on the street pretty quickly. We still don’t have the hang of that emergency fund thing, the one where you’re supposed to save at least three months salary in case of a layoff—or is it six now?

So despite all the interesting rides (and there have been many), I’ll say thank you to my commuter bus service. May you continue to prosper and grow. May your vehicles fill to capacity. May everyone’s ride be fantastic. Looks like I’m sticking with you for better or worse. Please just ignore the flask of Maker’s Mark taped to the bottom of my seat—it’s the best seasonal survival kit I could think of. Except for the driver, I might even pass it around. I have a feeling we’re going to need it.

-Heather Davis

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