Friday, May 21, 2010

Afoot in West London.

What set me off on my multi-meme hunt (see previous entry) was a Discovery Channel documentary I downloaded about the great Routemaster-model London bus, the red double-deckers with the open rear platform, which required both a driver and a conductor. They were introduced into the world round about the time I was; and they began to be taken out of service when I left England for what turned out to be a permanent home in America. (Although the last one held on until just a couple of years ago. And this week, London mayor Boris Johnson introduced a new Routemaster, a futuristic reinvention of the classic.)

As a child, I seemed to spend half my life on Routemasters. Because of my father's profoundly limited vision and my mother's "nerves," we never owned a car, nor could we have afforded to run one anyway. I didn't acquire my first car -- a ball of rust held together by the remains of a  Fiat 128 -- until I was 22, and I never owned any vehicle during the twenty years I lived in Manhattan. (Can't blame me for global warming.)

So I was thinking about all the ways public transportation shaped my early life -- and not merely that I retain an enthusiasm for bicycles and trains (sometimes in combination) shared by many of my countryfolk.

For a start, journeys always took longer -- half an hour for a car driver was half a day for the bus traveler in the London suburbs, and I'm sure many potential outings to moderately distant parks and other sites may have been abandoned on the drawing board. I didn't see my cousins in neighboring towns very often, because we couldn't just leap into a waiting automobile and "pop over" for half an hour; to cover the five miles or so, it required at least two, maybe three intersecting bus routes and a level of planning equal to Napoleon's invasion of Russia.

And then there was the walking, the slow trudge from the inconveniently distant bus stop, often in the dark and past my bedtime because of the inconveniently elusive bus, half-asleep on my feet and rhythmically chanting "every step we take is a step nearer home." (But it made me an indefatigable walker, especially whenever I explore a new city.) And, of course, the waiting, in the damp chill of English winters, eyes fixed on that distant vanishing point along the road, where the bus would eventually appear. Or not.

When I was a teenager, the bus shrank my curfews, limited my range, cramped my style as a budding ladies man. Well, that and the acne. (Long train rides encouraged reading, though.) And I grew up without the typical male passion for the car, to the point where if you asked me now which car I'd most like to drive, I'd probably take my beloved seven-year-old Toyota nerdmobile minivan -- the Starship Minnie, only the second car I've actually owned -- over any Porsche or Stingray. (Unless a Bugatti type 41 Royale was on offer, of course; I'm not a complete wuss.)

I could go on. (And on and on and on.) I could mention the aesthetics of the world-renowned screen-printed posters on the London Underground, the elegance of its humanist typography. But you get the idea. A dependence on public transportation starts as just one cultural choice -- not to have a car -- but it's a prime example of how that single need can spread out through so many aspects of your early experience.

1 comment:

  1. I'll be moving soon, to go to graduate school, to a city that won't require a car. It's such a relief. I'll have to plan more time into things, but I'll spend oodles less on gas and insurance and upkeep, and maybe...maybe I'll slow down a bit.