We see computers attaining consciousness as deeply troubling. Another entity entering into the exclusive domain of us intelligent apes? We may be kicked off the island, pull the alarm!
But not quite yet. I myself am not fully conscious yet, at least not when it comes to things like checking if I have food on my face, having my shirt tucked in, having my bills paid on time or generally having my shit together. For these practical activities I have the sentience level of a pug and would prefer some outside computerized help.
My wife Trish worries that I may be showing signs of (extremely) early dementia as I’m always forgetting next weekend’s plans and the third thing on the shopping list. But I reassure her my lack of awareness began from an early age. My mother’s running joke was to tell the relatives I'm so absent minded, I will be late for my own funeral. On the positive side, I might forget how to get there.
Despite these weaknesses, I have made a reasonably good career out of working for a few international companies. This has allowed me to do quite a bit of traveling which I'll get back to later. Along the way in my career, avoiding my weak points and leaning toward my strengths has helped. Fudging things back together and apologising a lot can fix most problems. But there are situations when fudging it just isn’t possible. Getting on a public bus is one of these.
The first time I ran into a problem with the whole bus check in procedure was as a student. My university was in a neighbourhood one wouldn’t want to hang out alone in after dark unnecessarily. In January, the winter darkness descends at 5:00pm and a hard wind blows in from Lake Michigan. There is a certain urgency in getting onto a warm bus and beginning the journey home.
One night after class I waited alone at the Maryland Avenue bus stop, one where I was occasionally pestered by random vagrants. At last, the bus with the correct number arrived, there was one person sitting inside toward the back. Rescued from my hardship post at the bus stop, I happily mounted the stairs and climbed aboard. Digging into my pocket, I pulled out all of my change, 45 cents. The bus fare was 75 cents. I displayed the 45 cents to the driver.
“Goddamn” the bus driver said, then slammed his hand on the counter next to the money till. I looked at him questioningly as to whether I was being kicked off or not. He pulled a lever closing the door trapping me inside and the bus began moving.
I dumped the coins into the till and sat down. After a few minutes, the other passenger got off. I was alone in the cavernous bus with just the driver. Over the next 30 minutes of driving through the dark streets, I ruminated if I was about to be murdered in an episode reverse bus driver rage. I’m not sure if such a thing has ever happened, if it has, please don't tell me.
I’m not a snob but I haven't ridden a bus in the United States for a long time after joining the workforce. Not counting those buses that take you from the airport terminal to the airplane or between different parts of the zoo. Those don’t count.
In foreign countries though, bus travel is much more common. It usually is facilitated with a special cash card. Each country has their own.
The UK has the Oyster Card, Australia the Opal Card, in Hong Kong they have the Octopus Card, Japan has the Suica card. In other places the cards have more self explanatory names, Istanbul, the Istanbulkart, and the Ath.ena card, well you can guess that one is in Athens. These cards make everything to do with having correct change and making sure one has enough money a lot easier for most people.
One would never consider riding a bus in places like England or Germany without double checking one has the right fare beforehand, so I’ve never done it. A stern lecture would be the certain outcome.
In Sydney, contrary to everyone’s preconceived image of ‘no worries’ easy going Australians from TV and films, they are also quite a stickler for rule following, perhaps stemming from their British colonial origins. People have shouted at me for crossing flashing “walk” signals.
When I was in the Sydney area, one flagrant exception I saw every few days was teen girls in high school uniform leaping over ticket gates without paying and confidently strolling out of train stations in front of everyone without breaking a sweat. They must have a special exemption from the culture of strict rule following. I’m not sure why no one chased after them.
Getting onto a bus as a middle aged man is different, firstly, there is no ticket gate to jump over, secondly, I didn’t think I could jump that high, and thirdly that is not a socially acceptable behavior at my age. Luckily I did have my “Opal card” in Australia.
So one night after leaving a client’s office, I boarded a bus and attempted to look very confident and local as I got onboard and tapped my Opal Card onto the card reader.
A digital display flashed -$1.5 and beeped aggressively.
I looked at the bus driver for help. He uttered “Sorry mate”. The Opal system had been going on for a while and there was no longer any option to pay Cash. I apologized every way I could think of and even blabbered about paying later. The bus driver said “Sorry mate” in sterner and sterner tones until I decided to get off.
There might have been applause in the bus after I left to thank the bus driver for enforcing a rule onto a potential rule breaker. I don’t know and I wouldn’t have been able to hear it within the rumble of the bus pulling away.
In Japan on a similar occasion, I boarded a bus, checked my wallet and realized this time I had completely forgotten to bring my “Suica card”. The bus driver waited in silence. He didn’t close the door, give any indications or offer any suggestions. “Get off the bus” this time was nonverbal.
When I looked back, fifty people turned their heads and looked out the window, pretending they weren’t staring at me and wondering when the annoyance holding up with their own bus journey would go away. I looked back at the bus driver for some sort of solution. The awkward non verbal standoff continued.
A very excited woman jumped up out of her seat and came forward to help. She apologized for her English ability as Japanese often do. Then after she figured out I didn’t have anything close to the correct change, she went through the extensive range of payment options, and asked if I had this card or that card, this or that payment program or discount plan. Finally she pointed outside at a 7/11 convenience store and told me to use the ATM machine there.
I got off, felt fifty pairs of eyes on the back of my head. The bus closed its door and drove off. In the 7/11 I bought a new Suica card and waited 45 minutes for the next bus to arrive.
In Hong Kong, I was again floundering this time on a street tram without correct change.
The driver gestured at me to get out of the way of everyone trying to get on behind me. Another passenger already on the tram offered to make change for me. He said if I had a 20 he would give me a ten and two fives. I only had a 50. He didn’t have change for a 50. We went back and forth two or three times.
He gave me the 5 hong kong dollars for the fare (about US 50 cents) and we all got moving.
In Turkey within a rush of people getting onto a bus I looked at a sign in the front of the bus. It said “6 TL”. Six Turkish Lira. I hadn’t been staying in Turkey long enough to get the “Istanbulkart” so I pulled out a handful of coins of shapes and sizes, all very new and alien. I fumbled around putting the larger looking coins into the till and checking the score on the electronic display. Obviously I was holding up the line and began to be heckled by those waiting as if I was an opposition football team.
A hand reached out, put in a few coins and completed my fare perfectly. A Turkish hipster walked past and said “enjoy Istanbul”.
The manager at the international company I had worked at for a decade was now living in Greece. He knew much of my forgetfulness. On a business flight to Miami I had browsed at the airport gift shop for too long before the flight. The boarding gate closed with him inside the airplane and his assistant in the terminal gift shop.
So when I visited him in Athens, I vowed to myself not to repeat past mistakes or do anything careless. To fill up the time one day while he was busy with his family in Athens, I took the bus to Nafplio about 3 hours outside of the city. I explored all day and delayed looking for a bus until the very last minute. Absentmindedly I had used all my small bills and only had 100 Euro notes in my wallet.
The bus driver started grumbling about having to accept a 100 Euro note. I heard him say the word for foreigner in Greek a few times. Then he pointed at a different bus and started shouting at me in a tone that obviously meant “Get Off”.
Since I had no idea where the other bus was going, or if it would accept my 100 euros either, I held my ground and we had a standoff.
A dignified looking Greek man rose up from his seat, walked to the front and said “I will pay for you” holding a 20 Euro note. That was too much to accept from a stranger so I insisted I break my 100 euro note. The man wouldn’t stand for it and insisted on paying the 20. I blocked his way to the bus driver.
Now the other bus riders became impatient and started telling the man to not be a show off and sit down.
This was all happening in a foreign language and I watched as frozen as a mannequin. The crowd started winning the debate and my potential savior began to be pulled back by the receding tide of public sentiment.
I considered the imminent need to call my old boss for help, from 3 hours out of the city and I began to watch my ongoing abandonment in horror. About to be left as flotsam on the beach of foreign tourism, I took action and smiled.
“Thank you so much! That would be a HUGE help,” and held out my hand.
The man smiled and gave me the 20 euros in and said, “You can pay for my bus ride in America!”
“I will, you should come!” I said without having any way of backing this up, but it sure sounded nice to say.
The man smiled and went back and sat down. On the drive back to Athens, he gave me a knowing glance every once and a while, as if I was a distant nephew he was proud of.
“Welcome to the metropolitan bus system. The last time you visited was 23 hours 58 minutes ago!”
Last month I registered for a powerful new technology in my hometown. After uploading 5 pictures of my face from different angles, facial recognition software now recognizes me anywhere and tickets me into buses and trains automatically and charges my credit card at the end of the month. To keep an eye on my account I just need to remember a password that must contain upper and lowercase letters, numbers and a special symbol.