Friday, May 15, 2015

Adventures in Commuting, Part I: Through the NJ Urban Wilderness, by Bus

"If you don't know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else."—Attributed to Yogi Berra

The syntax here might be a bit—er, unorthodox—but most people know exactly the wisdom behind these words by New York Yankee great Yogi Berra, who turned 90 years old the other day. As the recipient of 10 World Series rings, the Baseball Hall of Famer knew the importance of a carefully prepared plan before game time—and, just in case that didn’t work and your starter’s best pitch wasn’t up to snuff, the equal importance of  a good backup plan.

The other morning, it quickly became clear, the bus driver for my Transport of New Jersey (TNJ) route for my morning commute got behind the wheel without an adequate backup plan in case of a foul-up. After careful consideration, the other passengers and I decided that he had struck out.
But then again, that’s the kind of judgment you’d expect when a commute that normally takes an hour drags on for another two.

This past week, in analyzing the little-appreciated impact of the Bridgegate scandal that now imperils Chris Christie’s Presidential run, a local columnist noted the spike in blood pressure that can occur when just 20 extra minutes are tacked onto a commute. Multiply that over 18 times, and you will wonder why the whole batch of us didn’t end up in the hospital.

The day didn’t get off to a great start. Despite arriving at the bus stop in my hometown of Englewood, NJ, the same time as the day before, it had taken me 15 minutes longer to get a bus—any bus—headed toward my bus destination, the Port Authority at 42nd Street in New York. I was ready to take any of three different routes: the 20, the 14E, or the 166-X.

But the first bus to arrive, a 166-X, was standing-only. Taking that was a non-starter. You do not want to take a bus for longer than a couple of miles and endure the requisite swerves, jolts, or, more often, long spells of standing still that add intolerable pressure on your heels.

Several minutes later, another 166-X arrived. Actually, three buses arrived in a row—a common occurrence when one bus picks up all the passengers waiting forever while the one supposed to follow 20 minutes later eventually overtakes it.

The bus I took was the first of the three to arrive at our stop. Quickly I boarded it. Later, after we understood the qualities of our driver, several other passengers wondered if it would have turned out differently for all of us if we had only taken one of the other two buses.

From the number of stops we made and the number of passengers hopping on, it felt to me as if nobody was getting on the other buses. In hindsight now, another possibility looms: that the TNJ, starved for funds by a governor with dreams of success in tax-averse Iowa, had cut lines and service.

Well, time to suck it up, I figured. Once we got on the highway, we’d make up for the time. I fished a magazine out of my bag and got lost in my reading.

I should have known better than to be so optimistic. This, after all, was my morning commute, where anything could happen.

Suddenly, I became aware that the bus was barely moving. Someone across the aisle told me she had heard about a tractor-trailer accident that was messing up traffic into the Lincoln Tunnel. Indeed, the area I saw just outside the bus looked nothing like I was familiar with, nowhere near our normal tollbooth.

“I’ll bet we’re headed for the train station in Secaucus,” someone behind me said. This news, while hardly ideal, was at least indicative of progress. A couple of years before, when a problem developed on the approach into the Lincoln Tunnel, we had been brought to the Secaucus station. The PATH train, I knew from then, would leave me off around 34th Street, but I could make my way to work pretty easily from there.

The only trouble was, the bus inexplicably hurtled past this exit as well. 

By this time, I wondered if a dangerous lunatic had succeeded in overpowering our normal driver and was driving us to, oh, North Philly or New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, for reasons best known to himself. Unwelcome thoughts gripped me of someone then overpowering him and driving, like Sandra Bullock in Speed, nervously at the wheel.

A passenger confidently strode to the front of the bus. “Hey, driver, do you know where you’re going?” he asked. “ ‘Cuz right now, there are a lot of people back there in a panic.” How did he know what I was thinking?

The response was curt. The passenger shrugged, explaining to someone while making his way back to his seat, “We have to let him find his way.”

When we passed a sign for Newark, my anxiety mounted.  Some people speculated that the driver might be heading for Jersey City just before he did a U-turn and got on I-95 North. “He’s going to try for the Lincoln Tunnel again, only this time from the south,” someone else declared authoritatively.

Not everyone was so confident, though. Another passenger strode to the front of the bus. “Driver, do you have a game plan for getting us to New York?” he asked.

“Yes,” the driver said dismissively.

We drove on. A sign for the tunnel loomed to the right—bigger than life, with no discernible traffic on the exit. It looked so inviting. The route was there for the taking. I thought I had never seen anything so wonderful in my life. I smiled to myself.

The smile didn’t last long. Our driver should be moving into the far-right lane for the turn. Instead, he was in the next lane over. It began to seem entirely conceivable to me that, if the driver didn’t act more quickly, he—or, more accurately by this point, we—might miss the exit.

Other passengers had the exact same reaction, and began to sound like a Byrds hit of the Sixties: “Turn! Turn! Turn!” they yelled all at once, from what seemed like more than half the rows on the bus.

“Listen, I know what I’m doing,” the driver said.

We rode for several more minutes. No other sign appeared offering a route into New York. The Vince Lombardi Rest Stop, the last on the turnpike, appeared off on the right. “I wish I could be left off here, call Uber, and have them take me home so I can stay there the rest of the day,” I heard a middle-aged female passenger say not far behind me.

A weary, resigned silence had settled on the bus like a shroud when our driver cleared his throat. “Folks, my apologies,” he said. “I took the wrong route. I’m sorry. I’m going to turn around again and see what I can do this time.”

Earlier in the route, I would have been angry and triumphant over the admission. By this time, I felt exhausted and forgiving. He had, after all, manned up, without making excuses. 

But more than that: When I had stepped on the bus, the driver looked in his mid-to-late fifties. Now, this two-hour-and-counting ride must have aged him a minimum of 15 years. My guess was that he hadn’t been on this job long since he knew so little about the area. But he would surely be counting the days to retirement at this point, even if he were to be pushed to leave early.

After his second U-turn, the driver pulled over on the turnpike, opened his door and spoke to a state trooper. If he asked for directions, that was taken care of in short order. Our driver seemed more in the mood to vent to a friendly face about difficulties without a radio to communicate with or a GPS to guide him.

I finally made it to my midtown office, three hours after I left my house that morning. When I had finished relating what happened that morning, a colleague came up with a surprising question: Did I know the driver’s name?

“No, I don’t,” I answered. “Why do you ask?’

“Think it could have been Moses?” he asked. “After all, he led his group through the wilderness forever, too.”

I thought that this would be the end of this week's commuting problems. Little did I know that another horror story would unfold the very next day, enough to shrivel up a commuter's spine and harrow his very soul...

(The image accompanying this post was created by my friend John. To my knowledge, Charlton Heston was never a TNJ bus driver.)

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