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HELL ON WHEELS

by Rose Madeline Mula

Now that I'm retired, what do I miss most about working? The weekly paycheck. What do I miss least? The daily commute to the big city.

For many years I lived twenty miles from my jobs in Boston. Decades ago, one of the steamship lines of the day, hyped its leisurely mode of travel with a slogan that proclaimed, "Getting there is half the fun!" This definitely does not apply to commuting to Boston or any metropolis unless you happen to be a sadomasochistic weirdo.

There is no painless (never mind fun-filled) way to get from anywhere to Boston between 6:00 A.M. and noon, a 360-minute span inexplicably called the rush 'hour' — singular. The same holds true for the return trip home between 2:00 PM and 8:00 PM.

First I tried public transportation. Since I didn't live on the bus line, I had to drive to a rapid transit station with a parking lot where I left my car and took the trolley into Boston. It was not one of my favorite trips — attested to by the fact that I was never tempted to snap a picture or buy a single souvenir at any of the stops, which is very uncharacteristic of me. Because the trolley was always packed to overcapacity when I boarded, I had to stand, struggling to keep my balance every time we careened around a curve or screeched to a stop. For someone who can't sit in a rocking chair without first taking Dramamine, this was no way to travel.

So I switched to the express turnpike bus, an improvement but hardly Utopia. The fare was higher and, worse, the bus deposited me six blocks from my office. A real disadvantage in winter. To survive the icy winds and subzero temperatures walking from bus to office, I had to dress like Nanook of the North — not the ideal attire for the bus, an overheated sauna on wheels.

Summer was equally traumatic. I had a hard time keeping my cool when the passenger in front of me insisted on opening the window wide, admitting hot blasts of soot-laden air which blew not only the effects of the air conditioning, but also the ten dollars (forty bucks in today's dollars!) I had spent at the hairdresser the evening before.

Another problem was that the express bus was the business executives' special. While the trolley crowd read the compact tabloids, the bus riders (at least in public) had a penchant for The Wall Street Journal, or The New York Times, oversized papers which infringed on my space. The weaving, darting corners of my seatmate's newspaper continually threatened to dislodge my contacts and/or my corneas, while the top of the paper of the passenger behind me kept ruffling the back of my hair, completing the destruction of my hairdo.

Being young and hopeful at the time, I believed those minor discomforts were a small price to pay for the opportunity to mingle with the passengers — mostly men, and mostly affluent judging from the number of the Mercedes, BMWs, and Volvos in the parking lot. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that fraternization among my fellow riders was nonexistent. I assumed this was because the social amenities hadn't been observed. Speaking to strangers apparently is not encouraged in the tony suburbs. The solution was simple, I thought: The transit company should hire a social director for each trip to provide the necessary proper introductions and to organize mixer-type activities — maybe musical chairs to break the ice while the bus is loading, followed by bowling in the aisle, and maybe even dancing during romantic moments when the bus slows down at the toll booths or plunges into seductively-lit tunnels. And, of course, schedules should be arranged to restrict certain runs to singles only. The possibilities are limitless. All that's required is someone with a little imagination to run the transit company.

The first year I commuted to Boston, I kept hoping such a someone would materialize, so I stuck it out — until the holiday shopping season when all my ho-ho-hos! turned into bah, humbugs! It was impossible to be merry when, exhausted after a long day's work and a twenty-minute trudge through slush and cold, I had to stand up for my return bus trip because the non-working ladies who had been maxing out their credit cards all day had chosen to wait for the 5:30 PM bus home. Not only did they appropriate all the seats, but they also staked a claim on every inch of aisle space, plunking their heavy shopping bags smack on the toes of us standees.

That's when I decided that driving my car into the city couldn't possibly be worse. I was wrong, of course. I learned that to hack a path to the city through a solid mass of bumper-to-bumper metal requires nerves of steel. Poor eyesight also helps because if you can clearly see five lanes of traffic trying to maneuver into the exit ramp you're aiming for, you'll automatically hesitate and you'll be lost — your motor overheating and your gas tank draining dry as you wait in vain for another driver to let you through. They'll find you there in a few years, your bones picked clean by the ever-waiting vultures. (You think that whirling black cloud is smog?)

Of course another drawback to commuting by automobile was where to put it once I arrived. Because a garage adjoined my office building, finding a parking space wasn't a problem. Finding my car intact at the end of the day, however, was never a certainty. Threading my way through the darkened garage (keeping a wary eye out for potential muggers) I often saw a vehicle that had been vandalized during the day. It was not uncommon as I worked to hear the shrieking siren of an automobile alarm echoing from the adjacent garage. The first time this happened, I panicked — until I remembered that it couldn't be my car. I didn't have an alarm. My relief was short-lived, however, when I thought about that. Then I was nervous whenever I didn't hear a siren.

But the misery of commuting to Boston was compensated for by the pulsating excitement of being there. There are so many fascinating sights in the city! Why, during just one lunch hour, I saw three winos, in picturesque native costume, draped in doorways gulping their lunch from paper bags; a wild-eyed young man arguing violently with himself and punching the air (until a hapless passerby passed by too closely and inadvertently intercepted the attack); a hippie lying in the curb at a busy intersection with his eyes closed. Was he meditating? Stoned? Or possibly even dead? No one seemed to care. They just stepped over him. As did I since I didn't dare disobey the traffic signal that ordered, "Walk" — and I was almost picked off by a car whose driver obviously didn't share my respect for traffic signals.

But though I managed to escaped being punched out by a disturbed fellow citizen, and I beat the odds of becoming a hit-and-run victim, I still wasn't home free. I almost got high from the ever-present marijuana vapor. I developed what I feared was a terminal wheeze from the exhaust fumes and pollution. And I was almost converted and whisked away by a roving band of Hare Krishnas. I was tempted. Orange is one of my best colors. Furthermore, I would have been happy to shave my head and follow anyone who promised to take me away — preferably to a job in the suburbs.

However, I must admit there were certain educational advantages to working in the big city. For one thing, the graffiti is multilingual. A short walk of just a couple of blocks is a veritable Berlitz crash course in obscenities — ranging from Arabic to Zwahili. And for those who aren't proficient in languages, graphic illustrations are thoughtfully provided as translation aids. In less than a week, I learned that four-letter words don't necessarily have only four letters in other languages. One word I saw appeared to be Italian, but I had never heard it used by any of my relatives. I phoned my mother and asked her what it meant. She reported me to Ma Bell as an obscene caller.

But that's all behind me now. These days, when I feel like working, I commute from my bedroom to my den, where the seat in front of my computer is always available. No crowds, no traffic, no inclement weather, and no graffiti (except on my monitor when I have writer's block).

Bliss!

Editor's Note: Rose Mula's most recent book, The Beautiful People and Other Aggravations, is now available at your favorite bookstore, through Amazon.com and other online bookstores, and through Pelican Publishing (800-843-1724), as is her previous book, If These Are Laugh Lines, I'm Having Way Too Much Fun.

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