In an unfamiliar city. Alighting from a train.
Waiting at a bus stop. Not knowing whether the bus will get me there. I am anxious about it. There might be one of those systems where you have to buy a card and scan it. I don't know. This is not my city. I could always ask I suppose but there is no-one else at the stop aside from a kid, big headphones on, leaning against the stop and spitting, little blobs of phlegm, bullet like. I keep staring out from where I am, past him. I am keen to give the impression I am not avoiding his gaze as such, but equally keen not to meet it. He is thin, wire thin, one leg out straight, the other bent, foot in firm contact with the wall of the shelter. He looks like to cross him would be an object lesson in potential energy, attracting his ire releasing it like a controlled explosion. His jacket is white. So white. As is the hat pulled tight over his head. I count the cars between spits, sometime 6, sometimes 7, one time 8. I consider if anyone has built a rhythm for a symphony around the spitting of a youth at a bus stop.
Finally, in the murk there is the tired drawl of the bus engine. It looks squat in the distance, fat and square compared to sleek, low cars. I scrabble in my pocket, fingers teasing an array of coins into the palm of my hand. I worry that I might need the right change. I worry that I might need to feed the money into a machine, that somehow I am expected to know how much to put in. There are no posters, no signs, nothing to guide me. To be in a city unknown to you is to be a little bit alien as has been noted by others. Nowhere is this more evident to me than in the unspoken, often completely unexplained vagaries of purchasing a ride on the cities mass transit network.
The bus arrives with a jolting halt. In a way that seemed so futuristic only 10 or so years ago, the bus lowers the front end to the pavement. Now it seems almost unimaginable to climb up on to a bus. Despite reminding me of how the present was once the future, this isn't the newest of busses and the worn feel of the surroundings is punctuated with the sound of whooshing air and wheezing pistons and the descent of the bus to street level is more arthritic than graceful.
The kid glances up from his saliva projecting trance, acknowledging the bus. His head barely turns, his eyes swivel. He looks at the bus, then at me. He barely seems to have enough fat on his face to form an expression. I hesitate. I've stood back to let the people off. One man lurches from the bus, walking in an alarming way that could be described as jaunty if it weren't for the fact he seems to have one leg which won't fully cooperate with the speed he wants to go. A lady heaves what looks like a red and blue plastic mesh weave bag of washing that must equal her own body weight. Headscarf on and an implacable, stoic expression.
I hesitate again, I want him to get on, I want to observe how he navigates the act of ticket buying. Does he just proffer a standard fare? Does he state a destination? Does he swipe a travel card?
I really don't want him behind me, he has a kind of nervous energy, pent up. Granted he has waited for the bus with a kind of Zen like focus on the same spot of pavement, peppering it as if in target practice mode for the world spitting championships, but I don't want to be stammering and rooting for change, asking questions about what the right stop for my destination is, all with my out of town accent which I know is ridiculous, after all this is a sprawling metropolis, a cultural melting pot, a crossroads of the world, not some Devon village where heads turn if a tread they don't recognise is heard walking toward the bar door. Still, I am conscious this is not my city.
He glances at me directly, the bus driver looks out, I can hesitate no more. The kid does a lazy push off with the foot that was still tucked up against the Plexiglas wall, rubber sole kissing the spot where a lighter has been held against it till the plastic bubbled and browned.
I'm now trapped, no way out, kid behind me, door of the bus in front. I take the step quickly, gait trying to exude confidence. I mutter a request for a single to my destination. The driver nods at the coin tray. 'How much?' I enquire, disappointed to have had to break cover and speak. It's £3.20.
I drop the nearest I can manage to correct money in the tray lingering to see if he gives me change and to my surprise he does. I tear the ticket, pleased at the fact it comes away clean. I turn to see the rest of the bus, engrossed in their own world, tapping and caressing devices, staring mutely out the window or grimly at their own knees.
A kid talks too loud to a woman who looks not to be listening too intently. A fat man is wearing just a shapeless t-shirt and faded sweatpants even though it is raining and the wind blowing it in unpredictable icy squalls against the windows of the bus. Two girls sit formally and quietly as if at job interview. Neat hair and sensible clothing, I guess they must be foreign students or something. The fat man has carrier bags I have to turn side ways to get past. I wonder why he has such old carrier bags, the white plastic seems stretched and discoloured and I wonder idly why he doesn't upgrade them as this area of the city is hardly suffering from a shortage of discarded ones.
I pause for a fraction and consider the seat. I never want to sit too near the front for fear I'll take the seat from a disabled war veteran or someone with an oxygen tank struggling for breath as they struggle to a hospital appointment to try and prolong the struggle that every waking moment of their life must be.
I feel the presence of the kid behind me and decide to decide quickly. I move in what I hope is a lithe and athletic way towards the first of the raised seats above the rear wheel arch. I grasp one of the poles which extrude from the backs of certain seats and use my momentum to spin into the seat and finally relax.
The kid takes the seat two back from me on the other side of the bus, swaying as he sits as the bus pulls out into the traffic.
I lean back on a 45 degree angle, with no-one next to me, I can enjoy a view of the whole bus more or less from the raised platform. I look at the ceiling, the strip lighting which gives the bus a real feeling of warmth against the grey almost sleet weather outside. The bus is actually warm as well.
I close my eyes briefly and then struggle, almost habitually with headphones. The kid is still talking, but I drown him with sound and gaze at the adverts on sloping part of the bus, where the wall meets roof. An orthodontist, a phone card advertised partly in Arabic script. A job agency with a man in a hard hat and green body warmer and a smiling woman in a suit and a clipboard. Is she his boss or supposed to represent the job agency? Perhaps she just represents a different job and I'm not supposed to wonder if they're connected. I wonder idly if they paid for actual models or used their own staff or clients. Neither of them are unattractive but they don't look entirely comfortable in front of the camera.
I wonder if collectively as a society we are more comfortable in front of the lens since we hit an era of cameras everywhere, of documenting our every move.
The bus waits at lights then pulls out into big crossroads and takes a sweeping right, for a moment the rain stops lashing but it quickly resumes but with more focus on the other window. For a brief interlude we ride a duel carriageway and the view across the sodden city is thrilling. You could imagine from here, such is the weather, it's like being in cloud, that the city goes on forever.