Saturday, January 09, 2010

The T

Yesterday I took the T to work. By “T,” I mean of course the MBTA, or the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, a system of buses, subways and trains designed to never go anywhere very fast. Usually I ride my bike to the office, a practice I took up in earnest some 20 years ago when I finally got fed up with riding the T. I would have started riding my bike earlier, but I always thought that each cycling trip I made into the city would only bring me that much closer to the day when an MBTA bus — the very conveyance I spurned — would kick my bike and me for a field goal over the Mass Pike. I believed it was inevitable. But one day I boarded a very crowded train and found myself standing back to back with a guy whose butt cheeks rubbed against mine. Naturally this made me uncomfortable, so I shifted my stance a little to the left, only to find that his butt followed my mine. No matter how I contorted myself within the confined space allowed me, it soon became plain that my butt would never escape his, and so we went like that, butt to butt, from Packard Corner all the way to Copley Station. It was then that discomfort and humiliation defeated fatalism, and from then on I braved the Boston traffic.

Now, having told that little story, I’d be less than honest if I didn’t admit that, if it were a Victoria’s Secret model who rubbed butts with me and not some jamoke in a Boston Bruins jersey, I might still be riding the T today. But that was how circumstances arranged themselves, and, as I say, for that reason I’ve been a dedicated bike commuter ever since.

I rode the bus yesterday because the forecast called for light snow possibly leading to slippery roads. It wasn’t so very long ago I would have scoffed at such a warning, but nowadays I’m a bit more respectful of the fragility of human life, especially mine. Where I live I’m given a choice between the bus and subway, with each option having its own advantages and disadvantages, and yesterday I chose the bus. As I stood there waiting in the 23 degree cold, I harked back to the days when I rode the T all the time. If you ride the same bus at the same time every weekday, you see the same people, and after seeing them for a number times, you start to speculate about them, which is always an interesting game. It’s even more fun to invent nicknames for them. There was this one young Japanese guy who wore an old fashioned black cap like you might see in a tintype, and always had with him a book about Picasso. Not the same book about Picasso; he read many different books about Picasso. He was, in fact, mad about Picasso. His spectacles were wire-framed with small round lenses and he had a tiny, smudgy mustache, very nearly a toothbrush mustache. For some reason I thought of a young Emperor Hirohito, and combining that idea with his antiquated look I developed the lengthy and admittedly clunky nickname of The Great Man as a Young Man.

There was also a middle-aged man I used to see all the time who was obviously Latino; in fact, my initial name for him was Señor Hispanic, because he was so classically the type. He had a pencil mustache, a slightly stern, frowning countenance, and a square-shouldered way of moving about. It was easy for me to picture him a beribboned, South American military dictator, so shortly after thinking up Señor Hispanic, I replaced it with Generalissimo. If it ever turned out his name was Bob Jones and he spoke with a Southie accent, no one would have been more surprised than I.

Of course, today I don’t know anyone on my bus route. It’s a wonder I even know how the system works. Several years ago the T got rid of their tokens and have this thing called the Charlie Card. It’s the same size and shape as a credit card with a black magnetic strip running down its back. You can add value to it by using machines for that purpose at the stations. In the old days, I’d either buy a T pass or load up on tokens, but now you simply touch the reader with your card and find your seat.

Now you might wonder why they call it the Charlie Card, and it’s because of this: many years ago, a group called The Kingston Trio had a hit called Charlie on the MTA (before our transit system was the MBTA, it was the MTA). It told the story of poor Charlie who could afford to board a subway train with a nickel, but couldn’t pay the nickel exit fare to get off. Thus Charlie became imprisoned on the train. The refrain went like this:

Did he ever return?
No he never returned
And his fate is still unlearn’d
He may ride forever
’neath the streets of Boston
He's the man who never returned.

That song was on the radio quite a bit when I was a little boy and my mother got a huge kick out of it; sometimes she’d sing or hum it while she cooked dinner. The tune was quite catchy, and I especially liked the banjo in it. My mother thought the funniest part was how Charlie’s wife would stand in the same spot every day and toss her husband a sandwich through the window as he went by. I thought, why didn’t Mrs. Charlie save money on lunch meat and hand Charlie a nickel instead? But of course that would have spoiled the fun of the song.

Our family had only one car, which, during the weekdays, my father left with my mother; so in the mornings soon after my siblings and I left for school, my mother would drive him 8 or 9 miles to the Woodland T station where he would take the train into Boston. When in the evenings she went to pick him up, she took all us kids with her. During the cold months with the shorter days, we’d often find ourselves waiting in the parking lot after dusk wondering which train would be his. You could see perfectly into the lighted interiors of the cars just as if they were rolling displays. We would make a game of who would spot him first, and even though he wore the requisite uniform of all businessmen back then — the khaki raincoat — my father stood out among the rest. Apparently little kids found that exciting, being the first to spot their dad. Is it that way today? I hope so.

But mentioning the Woodland T station reminds me of the most excruciating trip I had ever taken on the T. I was 17 years old, still in high school, and one of my buddies had heard of a bar in Cambridge — the city across the Charles River from Boston — that had a reputation for not being too particular about who they served drinks to. In Massachusetts, the drinking age at the time was 18, so many 17 year olds could easily pass for 18. I was a tall drink of water, as they used to say, and so was my good friend, Mr. Beveridge D. Spenser, who was there that night. Height helped, you see. So we all loaded into a car and drove to Woodland station to take the train into the city.

The bar had a large seating area so we had no trouble finding a table that could accommodate the five of us. Not being sure what to order, I finally settled on a gin and tonic, because I liked the sound of its name and knew gin smelled a little like pine trees, which I thought nice. I ordered it in what I hoped was a casual and convincing way. I sort of tossed it off, just as if I had ordered a gin and tonic a hundred times before. The waitress didn’t care. I could have come in wearing a propeller beanie with a box of crayons and a coloring book and it wouldn’t have mattered. I was served my drink and then I had another. And another. And another.

The evening went gaily on, the conversation seemed hilarious, and then suddenly the whole bar began to swim before my eyes. The tables and chairs and the people sitting in them started to rock and heave as if on the deck of a storm-tossed ship. I looked at my drink and became dimly aware that there was limit to what one should drink. I stopped it there, but the damage had been done.

In time we got ourselves on the train heading back to Woodland station. I slumped into a seat near the driver and sat there with a glassy, 12-inch stare. My friends were talking animatedly, but I was having a hard time merely stabilizing the spinning motion in my head. My internal gyroscope had gone completely wacky. The trip was long and had many stops. As the train lurched and swayed and lurched and swayed, I focused on the driver’s foot as he worked the accelerator as would a yogi in meditation concentrate on a candle flame. My whole world resolved down to that driver’s foot. Then nausea began its evil work. The contents of my stomach churned and started to bubble their way up my esophagus. Up they went, then subsided a little, then up again, this time a bit further. I dearly, dearly hoped I wouldn’t make a spectacle of myself by displaying the partially digested remains of my lunch and dinner all over the floor of the train.

I don’t know how I did it, but I held on and saved the janitors who clean the MBTA trains some work. When we alighted, I informed my comrades of my intention to cross the parking lot, get down on my hands and knees, and evacuate all that my stomach contained. I was as good as my word. As tears coursed down my face, I discharged everything I had in me onto the square of asphalt I picked out for myself. I thought maybe my heart and kidneys and lungs would follow. In a show of compassion, one of my friends ripped a patch off his jeans and gave it to me to wipe my mouth when I was finished.

Now the T is sort of a novelty to me. I don’t mind it so much knowing that I’m not dependent on it . . . and I pity all the poor bastards who are. For instance, yesterday’s bus trip wasn’t so bad; kind of nice, in fact. But will I ever return? No, I’ll never return. You won’t find me riding forever ’neath the streets of Boston. Not this guy.