Have Bus, Will Travel

“Hold on a second, wait, wait, wait, did I just hear you say that you’re choosing to travel by bus?” I asked a fella named Rudy who was speaking to another group of people behind me. I interrupted Rudy. It was rude, but I couldn’t hide my amazement. When I asked him if his decision was based on finances, the fact that he didn’t have a fully functional automobile, or a fear of flying, he said no to all of the above. “Then, I don’t get it. Why would you choose to travel by bus?” I asked.

“I want to see the country,” he said, “and I feel like I’ve never truly seen the country before.” When I mentioned that he could see the country by driving his automobile, he said, “That pesky chore of having to pay attention to the road gets in the way.” When I said he could take turns driving with his girlfriend, he said, “Long story short, I’ll be traveling alone.”

“Have you ever travelled on a bus before?” I asked him.

“I haven’t,” he said, “and that’s part of the allure for me.”

“Before you purchase a ticket go smell a bus,” I said. “Ask the company if you can have a smellment inside a bus to inhale the interior. Walk around the depot and smell some of its passengers. Have you ever smelled pungent B.O. before? Now imagine that smell crawling all over you for nine hours.

“I jabbed a stick into a bloated, roadside opossum one time, and I could smell the noxious gases that came out of it a week later on my skin, in my hair, and in the clothes I decided to pitch. Even that putrid, eye-watering scent couldn’t prepare me for the smells of the guy who sat in J-4. If we could bottle J-4’s unique combination of gangrene, attic, and a slight touch of what can be huffed on an emu’s undercarriage, after an extensive workout, I think we might make a dent in any overpopulation fears we might have.

Rudy was listening with an “Okay, but,” look on his face that told me he wasn’t convinced. 

“Trains will make stops, but not at every Podunk town junction. An extended bus ride can make what might be a seven-hour trip into nine hours, which might not seem like much of an addition, unless you’re seated next to the smells of a J-4, and you can’t sleep because you stayed up all night, the night before to sleep the bus trip away.

“We all go a little nutty when we’re sleep deprived, but the nonstop bus stops can mess with your mind, as it might take fifteen to twenty delirious minutes to find sleep, until the next bus stop arrives thirty minutes later, at which point the cycle repeats. Repeat this cycle often enough, and you’ll become intimately familiar with the term hypnagogia. 

“I see it on your face,” I said. “You’ve never heard the term. I didn’t know it either, until that bus ride. Put simply, the mind messes with you in the hypnagogic state. I’ve read scientific descriptions that suggest the hypnagogic state can occur anytime in the brief moments we transition to or from sleep. We commonly refer to this brief mental state of moving towards sleep or wakefulness without completing the transition as being half-awake or half-asleep. In my experience, the incredibly surreal hypnagogic hallucinations are most vivid when someone or something abruptly forces us out of sleep. 

“I don’t know about you, but I wake whenever I come to a complete stop, be after a car ride, bus travel, or anything that puts me in motion,” I added, “I saw most of my fellow passengers sleep through a stop, and I envy/loathed them for that ability. How do you guys escape the laws of nature, I wanted to ask. When I would wake with each stop, my sleep-deprived brain told me that J-4 was getting ready to do something awful to me. This cyclical drama continued for me throughout all the stops the bus made, until I reached a level of delirium where I wasn’t sure if the dead and undead passengers around me were products of my nightmares or participants in it. 

“As I slipped in and out of sleep, I ate, just to do something with my hands. Halfway through, I realized I must be pretty good at eating, because the guy in H-2 leaned up over his seat to watch me do it to a bag of Gardetto’s. I don’t know if this guy was graced with a unique ability to stare his way into dreams, or if he discovered those super powers during our little trip together, but a couple hours into this trip, I was convinced he was supernatural.

“I love the smell of those things,” H-2 informed me. I wasn’t sure what world he said that in, so I gave him the rest of my bag, because I suspected that his need for my Gardetto’s might afford him the ability to alter his ribonucleic acid (RNA) in the way an octopus will to formulate an attack strategy it needs to capture the unique prey it finds.

“I thought conceding might also end the cold war I was having with H-2, until I realized that when I could only smell the Gardetto’s, it only served to increase his powers,” I said. “With the advanced state of delirium I was in, I wasn’t able to tell if I was dreaming or not, but at some point in our travel together he altered into some some form of hybrid that reminded me of a Cyclops in Greek mythology. He had the same face, and the same hands were tossing Gardetto’s back to me in J-3. He fed me in such regular intervals that I came to expect them. When it took him too long to feed me, I cheeped like a baby bird, but he did not regurgitate a Gardetto into my mouth, as I feared he might. He’d just turn around and tossed one back to me. 

“Those cheeps must’ve been aloud, because when I awoke from this half-sleep, half wake state of delirium, the passengers around me were uncomfortably quiet, and a four-to-five-year-old was laughing at me over the headrest. The kid then mimicked those cheeping sounds, while laughing at me, until his mother pulled him back.

“My grievances against bus travel date back to my teen years when my dad forced me to take the city bus to school, but it didn’t dawn on me how deep seeded my bias against bus travel was, until a man named Alex informed me that he wouldn’t walk to a Walgreens with me.

“But it’s right there,” I said, pointing to the establishment.

“I had to walk everywhere I went back when I was poor,” Alex said. “Now that I have money and a car, and I don’t want to walk anymore.” I thought that was the most ridiculous thing I ever heard, and it didn’t dawn on me until later that I have a similar, deep-seeded bias against travel by bus.

“You name the method of traveling a great distance, other than walking or running, and I’ve probably tried it. Check that, I’ve yet to go anywhere by stagecoach or pack mule, but I doubt that they compare to the horrible experience you’ll have on the bus. If I were you, I would seriously reconsider another mode of transportation.”

The Complaint Cloud

When the complaint cloud approached our table at a restaurant, we didn’t need a meteorologist to tell us that conditions were ripe for a chance of complain. All we had to do was talk to the complainant for five minutes.

“There’s something wrong,” she said to introduce her complaint cloud to us, and she added the international refrain of the complainer, “I don’t want to complain, but …” She probably expected us to stop to listen to her complaint, or run for cover, but we didn’t even stop eating. In lieu of that insult, she said it again. She won’t eat. She can’t, because she’s found something wrong with her food. The rest of the table gives her the attention she requires, and we’re silent and silently screaming at her to say it, but she won’t say it, because she “doesn’t want to complain” because she “[doesn’t] want to be seen as a complainer.”

She doesn’t call the server over, because she some part of her enjoys hovering over the rest of us with her hard-earned knowledge of the steps required in the proper preparation of the onion ring. She doesn’t want to lord her industry knowledge over the restaurant, the server, or our table, but she keeps changing the subject back to her improperly prepared onion ring. It might take less than two minutes for the server to come over, address her concerns, and return with a new plate of onion rings, but she doesn’t want to explore that possibility, because she knows her complaint time in the cloud will be brief, and she enjoys the respect she attains from the uninformed for the knowledge she’s attained in the industry. She smiles a strained smile to reveal her internal struggle to us, but she now knows so much that she just can’t eat a poorly prepared onion ring anymore that she knows it isn’t a temperature that the industry requires.

She could say her onion rings are cold, but she knows that exaggerated description carries no attention-grabbing exclamation points, so she says they’re “ice cold!” to superlative her way to gathering some real attention. When she’s done with her exaggerations, we fear touching them the way we do dry ice, knowing when they’re that cold they could burn.

To bolster her characterization, and the resultant sympathy that follows, she could also add that her slightly above room temperature onion rings are, “Gross.” Would it be a gross exaggeration to say that they’re gross, yes, but that doesn’t stop anyone else from doing it. Why do they do it, because no one  challenges the gross assessment. Gross is a relative term that should never face challenge, because it’s uniquely personal, and anyone who dares challenge the assessment should prepare for blow back.

All she has to say is her onion rings are gross and her table will crinkle up their noses and sympathize with her plight. Gross can now be used to describe everything from finding live insects in our food to tasting excrement in fresh seafood, but it can also mean finding a stray french fry in a serving of pasta, or an onion ring that is less than perfect. I once thought that one of my purposes in life was to try to unseat the word from its perch atop the lexicon we use to describe poor quality. I thought if I could start a personal campaign to limit the use of the word, in my social circles, I might give it back some of its power. I made some strides in my battle against the ’ly words, literally and actually, but my battle to limit the use of the word gross, even in my inner circle, was both pointless and pitiful. The word is gone, I realized in the midst of my battle, it just is. Overuse has diluted any meaning it once had, but people still use to gain attention.

When someone at the table tired of the grumblings in the complaint cloud, as a result of her carefully orchestrated drama, they called the server over. It was anticlimactic when the chef quickly arrived with a hot plate of onion rings that he informed us would not appear on our bill. Shows over folks, time to go back to our other conversations, because there’s nothing left for us to talk about in the immediate aftermath of a resolved dilemma.

“How are those onion rings?” one of the uninformed asks her.

“Eh, they’re all right.” The truth is that those onion rings are not right, because they never will be, because no onion ring can ever be right in the complaint cloud. They’ll never be as tasty as they could be, or as hot as they should be, or as crispy, or as pleasing as the industry requires. “I like a nice crunch when I bite into an onion ring, don’t you? Yeah, no, this isn’t for me. This is a fine restaurant that’s known for their food, but it just doesn’t meet my professional expectations.” She picked the restaurant, and she selected the meal she would eat on this restaurant’s menu, for which this restaurant is well-known. She knows restaurants, because she works for a competitor, and she knows what this restaurant specializes in, and she’s “always wanted to try it”. When it arrives, she takes it personal when they serve her something that is a couple of degrees below the industry standard that she knows too well.

“Do you have any idea who I am? I work down the street, and I am a manager, and there’s no way I would allow one of my servers to serve these onion rings.” She didn’t say this, but this was the subtext of her complaint, because no one knew who she was, and no one cared. Her entrance into the complaint cloud was personal, and she expounded on her virtuosity after they served her a second inferior plate of onion rings by saying (drum roll please), “I will eat them.” She was kind enough and virtuous enough to suffer through her “all right” onion rings, so we wouldn’t view her as a complainer after she spent the last couple minutes doing nothing but complaining.

Praised be the all mighty, now will you climb down and speak to the peasants, as you said you would when you invited us to try to enjoy an evening out with you dining?

Complaining is what we do. It’s what I do. It’s what I’m doing right now. I’m complaining about complainers who complain too much. We complain about our friends and family members, our politics, religion, and our place of employment. Complaining is just kind of what we do when we’re in groups, but we shroud most of our complaints in humor. Complaining can be fun, and it can provide provocative, engaging conversations. When we invite friends and family for a night out, however, most of us try to keep our complaints in check. We know some complaints bring an evening to a crashing halt. Some of us don’t even complain when we probably should, because we want to avoid bringing attention to ourselves in this way. 

“But you’re paying them for these goods and services,” complainants say to justify their complaints, “and the least they should do is try to provide you what you’re paying your hard-earned dollars for, and some of the times they don’t.” They also say such things about air travel, “You’re flying in their aircraft, and the airline should do everything they do to make you feel secure.” It’s all true of course, and it’s actually a good rationale to expect as much from our fellow man as we expect from ourselves, especially when we’re paying them, but as Malcolm Gladwell once wrote, there is a tipping point.

The tipping point arrives when everyone around you knows that you’re going to complain. You might not think you’re a complainer, and you might even say that you hate complainers, but when everyone who knows you knows that a complaint cloud will darken their table one minutes after that server puts food before you, it might be time to reevaluate your philosophy on moments like these. If it happens once or twice, it’s annoying. When it happens so often that the people at your table dread this moment, it becomes obvious that your greater complaint is not with the goods and services others provide, but with the way your life panned out. 

The Leans

“This is it,” Andrew Parizek said crouching down beside my desk. I was listening to music in my earbuds, so I didn’t see, hear, or sense his approach. By the time he said that, Andrew was so close he startled me. He was a close talker, but he narrowed his normally uncomfortable distance until I could smell the cool ranch Doritos he had for lunch. “My final farewell to you, my friend,” he added. “I’m leaving the company. I’m on my way out the door.”

“Oh shoot,” I said to a co-worker whom I considered a close associate. I don’t know how he would characterize our years-long association, but when we had a go-between, we spoke every day. When that third party changed jobs, I thought the my relationship with Andrew was over. Yet, Andrew kept coming over to my desk to talk about the stupid stuff people talk about. “It was great working with you buddy,” I told him.

This “Final Farewell” had been in various stages for about two weeks. Two weeks prior, we discussed his departure at his going away party. One week later, he and I discussed his imminent departure in greater detail, and we also discussed his future at length. We shared brief discussions about the people we knew and the good times we shared. We also talked about how we would miss the little things we both did to brighten the other’s otherwise boring days. We didn’t hug at the end of those discussions, but we engaged in heartfelt, hearty handshakes that expressed how we felt about one another.  

I thought that those final farewells were the final farewells, but his presence at my desk informed me that those notions were premature. “It won’t be the same around here without you,” I said, as I had in the other farewells, but I felt compelled to add original material to this one. I don’t remember what I added, but it involved some sentimental junk that I didn’t mean. I was being nice, and I was trying to make Andrew feel important in my life. I liked the guy, but we weren’t what anyone would call close.

“Are you excited about this move?” I asked him, and when he told me why he was excited, and how excited he was, I said, “I’m jealous.” I wasn’t jealous, as Andrew was moving onto a career that I didn’t want to do, but it seemed like a fitting sentiment to add to this final version of our final farewell.

“You’ll succeed,” I said, “because you’re a nice guy and a hard worker.” I meant that.

“Are you a little scared about the prospect of leaving the comfy confines our company? I know it’s what you want to do, and all that, but you’re venturing out into an unknown world where the prospect of failure is greater.” He said yes to all of the above. Then he launched.

He spelled out for me, in explicit detail, this new venture of his life. He did so with magnificence and aplomb. He was also magnanimous. He spoke about how he thought that I was delightful, and the type who would succeed, and that if I stuck to it, all my dreams would come true. It was as sappy and weird as you imagine. I hid my revulsion for his word choices. He tried to be multisyllabic, and he used as many –ly words as he had in his vocabulary to instill a sense of timeless profundity to this final version of his “Final Farewell”. If it were a speech, it might have caused some emotional reactions. The audience might have been applauding at the end, some may have cried, and others may have even stood to applaud. The over the top farewell was one that often elicits such near-compulsory emotion. Andrew lit up in moments where ‘dreams can come true’ lines poured out of him. When the line “If it can happen for me, it can happen for anyone” brought him to crescendo, I might have reached for a handkerchief if I had what they call emotions.

It was so over-the-top brilliant, coupled with subtle attempts at self-deprecating humor, that I wondered if Andrew plagiarized the material he prepared for this from one of the soldiers’ “going to war” letters that Ken Burns compiled for his The Civil War documentary. If it wasn’t, I felt safe in my assumption that Andrew practiced and rehearsed this speech that day, before a mirror. Whatever the case was, I felt compelled to inform him that I thought this version of the final farewell was an “Experience for anyone lucky enough to hear it,” “Your best, final farewell since final farewell number two,” and a “Tour de Force!” I didn’t say any of this, but I felt Andrew Parizek choreographed his speech in a manner that warranted such superlatives.

We were fellow office workers who chatted almost every day for years. We got along on those levels, so receiving an invitation to his going away party wasn’t a big surprise. When I arrived and Andrew offered me relatively little attention compared to his closer friends, it didn’t wound me. I thought he offered me as much attention as our association warranted.

This Casablanca-style parting was just way beyond protocol as far as I was concerned though. Once I got past the idea that it didn’t matter that Andrew already said goodbye to me a couple times, I politely listened to his spiel as if for the first time. We exchanged email addresses so we could keep updated on each other’s lives. I knew that wouldn’t happen, but I thought it was a nice sentiment. He then concluded with another note about how he was nervous about his future, but he was just as excited by it.

By the time he began to step away, he was all but yelling good wishes to me. My mouth wasn’t open, but the display did set me back a pace. Then it happened …

Andrew Parizek entered into a wicked case of the leans with my desk neighbor, as she entered into the aisle he was exiting. He leaned left to get past her, she leaned left, and when he leaned to the right, she leaned right. Before they finally made it past one another, they performed four separate and distinct leans.

If Andrew was extracting himself from a casual conversation, and exiting the aisle in a routine manner, he might have been able to avoid the spectacle that ended up occurring between these two. If he felt no need to execute a departure to be earmarked in the annals of time for those “who were there” to witness his ride into the sunset, I suspect he would’ve been the gentleman he always was and stepped aside to allow my female desk neighbor to pass. At worst, the two of them may have engaged in two leans, if it wasn’t Andrew’s hope that this “The Final Farewell” include women waving handkerchiefs and someone, somewhere saying, “You know what, there goes one hell of a good feller.” I assume that Andrew pictured the rest of us as side characters in his exit, left behind to chronicle the attributes of the main character of this “The Final Farewell” scene.

I don’t keep a ledger on such things, but I do believe that the Andrew Parizek v. desk neighbor case of the leans was the most intense I’ve ever witnessed. I’ve seen a number of severe cases in my day, and I’ve ever been a party to a few, but I don’t think I witnessed four separate and distinct leans prior to that day.

The one thing we know about the public humiliation that results from a case of leans is that no one gets out alive. Most people try to find some way to quell the embarrassment, but I’ve witnessed some get angry. “Get out of my way!” they shout, in an unsuccessful attempt to direct the humiliation sure to follow to the other party. I saw one person grab the other person by the shoulders and gently usher them right, so they could pass left. I’ve seen some giggle at their own foolishness, and I’ve seen some try to change the subject as quick as they can. None of it works. No one gets out alive.

The one exception to the rule I heard about involved a nondescript, middle-aged, restaurant hostess named Susan. She fell prey to three separate and distinct leans with another co-worker. She was able maintain a modicum of dignity following the episode, and she did it with three simple words: “Shall we dance?”

The witnesses to this event said she said it in the second of what would be a reported, and corroborated, three leans. Susan said it in the midst of what should have been her humiliation. The witnesses of this episode would later swear that she said those three words with a glint in her eye. The glint was faint, they would report, and it was a little insecure, but the observers suggested that they thought Susan knew exactly what she was doing.

What she was doing is subject to interpretation, of course, as this woman named Susan maintained a degree of humility that prevented her from addressing the full import of her purported casual salvo against future ridicule. Those who witnessed Susan issue this phrase swore that Susan knew that by saying this she would be setting the rest of us free from the ridicule that follows such an episode.

We can only assume that Susan suffered similar ridicule for much of her life, and that it bothered her so much that she sought to put an end to it. If that wasn’t the case, it might have had something to do with Susan’s hope that the line “Shall we dance” might provide a remedy to future sufferers. Her hope, we can only guess, was that the witnesses of this episode would spread the word to put an end to this scale of human suffering. Whatever the case was, this unassuming restaurant hostess provided those who were lucky enough to be there that day, and those who later heard about it, a shield against public scorn that we would use the rest of our lives. We might not have carried it off with the grace Susan did that day, but we would always think of her, and silently thank her, for freeing us from this ever-present spectacle in our lives.

Had Andrew Parizek learned of this antidote prior to his case of the leans, it might have spared him the humiliation. I doubted it at the time, and I still do, for I considered Susan’s humorous quip an antidote to two, and in her case three, separate and distinct leans, but I wasn’t sure that even her ingenious response could shield someone from the public fallout of four.

Four separate and distinct leans were so unprecedented, to my mind, that I doubt there is a sufficient antidote. Couple that with the fact with the Gone with the Wind-style, dramatic exit that Andrew hoped to execute preceding it, and I doubt that any clever quip would’ve permitted him to save face. His only recourse was to walk away and just hope that witnesses would forget it soon after it happened.

Andrew Parizek was an “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” fella. Everyone I knew liked him. He was a likable guy, but no one I knew liked him so much that they would hang out with him, or consider him a best friend. He was one of those guys who was always there but never the focus of the room. Andrew Parizek wasn’t the type of guy we will remember, and perhaps that’s all he wanted when he delivered so many final farewells to so many people that he accidentally said goodbye to the same people more than twice. I don’t know how much preparation he put into his final farewells, but I’m sure he did it so that he could let each of us know how important we were to him to have the sentiment returned. This is not to suggest that Andrew’s actions were intended to be self-serving, but everyone wants those around them to remember that we were here. It is possible that had Andrew escaped unencumbered by my desk neighbor, his final farewell might have had the lasting effect on me he hoped for, but the lasting memory I now have of him consists of him shucking and jiving with my desk neighbor, trying to get past her for a dramatic ride off into the sunset.