New Bus for London

I’ve just had my first journey on the new Routemaster bus, officially the New Bus for London. As of today the 24 route is to be entirely served by the new bus (aside from the occasional use of the older buses until a handful of delayed deliveries arrive). It will be the first route to exclusively use the new buses.

The 24 is my regular. It stops amazingly close to both my work and my home. It’s a lot slower than the tube but it’s convenient to have no changes and little walking. It also passes some of London’s more interesting locations (including Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, and Trafalgar Square) so it’s good for people-watching. I tend to take the tube in the morning but catch the bus in the evenings when I’m in less of a hurry.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t expect to be using it at the weekend but today we happened to be out meeting one of my wife’s school friends near Victoria.

New Bus for London

The bus we took today was incredibly busy. I don’t know to what extent that’s because the route is always popular on weekends, because there was a lot going on in the West End on this particular day, or just because people wanted to try out the new bus. There was certainly an element of transport geekery in the air though. I heard at least two pairs chatting enthusiastically about the vehicle we were on and some other types of bus we passed along the way.

The new bus is a nice mix of classic and modern. The outside is boldly future-looking, with an emphasis on opening it up to the outside with large (often curved) windows. It will be easy to tell this bus apart from those serving other routes, even at a distance. Inside, the colours are beautiful deep reds and gold, making the seats look almost like old theatre seats, and of course the rear stairway and corner door are taken straight from the original Routemaster from the 1950s.

The extra door seems like it will make it much more efficient to get on and off, especially in the near future before most people realise they can use any of the three doors to board the bus.

I like having the assistant at the rear door, as it makes it possible to thank someone one the way out. I grew up with Dublin buses, on which you can thank the driver on the way out. But until now London buses have always required you to board at the front and leave by the middle doors, the prospect of actually having any interaction with a person being apparently too much for native Londoners to bear.

Fear of Buses

I don’t know what prompted me to write the following account. I wrote it in the notes app on my phone about a week ago while lying awake in bed at about 4 AM. I’ve edited it a bit since then, but it’s still mostly in the rambling form in which I first committed it to silicon. I’m sure it’s more than a little too self-reflective than many people will be interested to read, but I do think it’s sufficiently removed from my life right now that it serves as a narrative rather than cheap Internet therapy. There’s some Jerry Springer philosophizing at the end, but feel free to skip that bit. Or indeed any other bit. Anyway…

I quite distinctly remember at the age of fourteen being terrified of taking a bus. It wasn’t a fear of the machines themselves, nor of the (sometimes unsavory) passengers I would find aboard, nor of the possibility of finding myself lost far from home. It was because I didn’t know what I was supposed to say to the driver when I got on. I had no idea. Was I supposed to say where I was going to, or just how many stops, or was I supposed to tell him how much i was paying? Should I put the money in the machine before I said whatever it was I was expected to say, or was the done thing to make your intentions known before offering payment? Not a clue.

I had never been taught the correct behaviour. Not in school; not at home; not from my friends, nor teachers, nor family. I hadn’t read it in my books, and I didn’t have access to the Internet to look it up there. I was totally convinced—it didn’t occur to me that it could be otherwise—that there was a single correct way to proceed, like in the complex etiquette of days past. Just as it would be a mistake to eat my starter with the wrong fork, I was sure that any deviation from that one correct way to board a bus would be perceived as an idiotic blunder worthy of scorn and laughter.

I’m sure it’s clear, but I’ll spell it out anyway: I hated uncertainty at that age.

I resented everybody—friends, family, strangers—for somehow knowing how to proceed while I was left mystified by the inscrutable social complexity of the task. How had they all learned the protocol? Had they studied it in school on a day I was absent? Surely not. I had never had difficulty in catching up with missed school. It was the other kind of knowledge—the kind that all of my friends seemed to instinctively possess, but which I hadn’t the beginnings of a clue about. Equations could be solved, science and business could be understood, even language could be learned. But people were incomprehensible. I simply couldn’t figure out the rules for how they operated.

I stood waiting at the bus stop opposite Tesco one day, just up the road from my house. My palms were sweating. I was shaking, verging on tears—a product of my worsening distress at the impending task, coupled with the shame of being so dreadfully deficient as to be unable to commute by the same mode of transport even the dumbest of my peers took in their stride. I steadied my breathing, not wanting to advertise my anxiety to the bus-full of people who were, in my mind, surely listening intently for the first sign of me straying from the script. I mentally rehearsed my lines, my best guess about what to say and do, making sure I could say them even in the terrifying heat of the moment when panic would surely strike.

The bus arrived. I stepped on. I took a deep breath, blinked back a stray tear. I said to the driver, “Bray main street, please” and dropped my exact change in the machine at the same time. I hoped the timing was ambiguous enough that, whatever the expected order of speech versus payment, I would be generously judged to have performed the two actions correctly. The driver grunted and printed my ticket. I took my seat.

I had succeeded. I had taken on the obstacle, without the benefit of whatever secret knowledge all of these othe people possessed. I had figured out the process, and I knew I could replicate it. With that one act of extreme bravery I had freed myself from the terror, and given myself free reign to travel wherever I pleased by bus in future.

For years afterward—even when the event of catching a bus had become the mundane act it always should have been—I looked back on that one day as a means to inspire myself to betterment. One day I went from not being able to take a bus, to being able. Maybe that meant that—even if I couldnt yet manage it—some day in the future I could talk to a stranger without needing a close friend by my side. Maybe I’d even talk to a girl. Or I could make a phonecall without needing days of mental preparation. The world was open to me, and all I had to do was to take a deep breath, and step onboard.

It’s weird for me to look back on this now. To some extent I react to it in the same way I imagine most people would: incredulity at how the situation could have bothered me so much. But I remember it so vividly still that there’s another part of me that can still sympathize. I like to think that it makes me better at accepting the difficulties other people have in whatever situations they might struggle with, even if I can’t understand what makes it so hard for them.

Take care of yourselves. And each other.

Take That, Blindness!

Quizzes are like buses. For one thing, it always takes me two tries to figure out how to spell the plural. Also they smell a bit funny; and it’s rare that they’re organised quite as well as you’d like; and you always try to sit at the back, even though that turns out to be much less convenient than sitting up close to the person in charge.

Oh, and you can wait ages for one and then a few arrive at once.

So it is that I was at another quiz yesterday so soon after the last one. This one was in aid of Fighting Blindness ‘Round the World with Russell Crowe (“We couldn’t find Blindness, so we’re going to fight some blind people. Take that, Blindness!”)

It was the most fun I can remember having while doing so badly at something. I mean, I’ve seen quiz teams suck before, but we were the suckiest bunch of sucks that ever sucked. We just plain sucked. It was like a re-run of the exam I once had in college when I’d forgotten to attend a course for the entire year. Only with less terror and more beer.

Still, I redeemed myself towards the end with a double whammy of full-points rounds. One of them was a six degrees–style movie association game, in which I managed to answer two of the questions before they were even asked (no bonus points for knowing the quizmaster that well, sadly).

The next was all about Irish history and geography, which is about as far from being my specialist subject as shoe care and maintenance, but with me as the only Irish person on the team we still got seven out of the ten answers right before we resorted to cheating thinking outside the box.

Maybe if quizzes come in threes like buses do then I’ll be able to drag myself back up to a more competitive place next time. Either that or I’ll just fully invest in the strategy of writing ‘Samuel L. Jackson’ as the answer to every single question.