Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Too Much Magic Bus

If one day you feel the earth jolt beneath you and a toxic black cloud rises over Pärnu Road, then you’ll know I struck a match on the No. 18 bus. For this reason, I often ride without a ticket. I can tolerate the smell of public transport, but I just can’t agree to pay for it.

On almost every bus there is at least one individual whose breath, if lit, could power the city of Tallinn for the next five hundred years. These passengers do not exhale carbon dioxide, but rather a hydroxyl group bound to a carbon atom of an alkyl: grain alcohol. Also, too frequently one will encounter a passenger who has expelled the contents of his digestive tract into his own pants.

My wife Liina argues that I’m buying a simple service. The bus carries me from point A to point B, and I should shut up, pay, and be thankful. I respect her socialist sentiments, but I just can’t agree. There isn’t one legitimate airline—even in Europe’s welfare states—who would try to make that argument. Overweight passengers are required to buy two tickets so that they’re not sitting on your lap. And drunken passengers are not allowed to board, not to mention those who have soiled their own trousers.

I realize it isn’t politically correct to criticize public transport. Tallinn has some brand new busses—even a few bus lanes—and public transport can move you around the city faster and cheaper than your own automobile. But the truth is that Tallinn public transportation is still a malodorous, depressing, and downright surreal experience.

Just last week, while waiting for one of Tallinn’s whining green dragons to whisk me to the city, a belching, farting drunk wandered into the midst of waiting passengers. He placed two bags of clanking bottles under the bus stop’s shelter, stumbled toward the street, and produced a tennis ball from his right pocket which he flung into traffic where it bounced off a dirty Ford wagon. Waiting passengers silently looked on.

Making a new series of retching noises, the drunk removed a second tennis ball from his left pocket and chucked it into traffic. The ball bounced over and between cars, coming to rest on the grass median. In the far traffic lane a speeding silver Mercedes broke the legs of a white kitten and neither slowed nor stopped to check its condition. A few seconds later a small Toyota braked, its passenger door opened, and a pair of hands scooped the animal into the car. Passengers silently trudged to the curb as the green dragon arrived at our stop and putted to a halt. Her ancient rusty doors snapped open and shut like steel leghold traps designed to pierce the flesh and restrain a mink until the trapper comes to drown it.

If a bus may be dated by the age of the poster greeting boarding passengers—a swimsuit-clad teenage Eda-Ines Etti—then this bus was at least ten years old. A child’s plastic toy badge—its dinner-plate size making it almost a true shield—mounted above the windscreen read Policeman Sea Arrest Team. The driver’s station was trimmed with red-mirrored disco flash mosaic tiles, punctuated by a techno soundtrack loud enough to be shared with passengers throughout the bus.

A Tallinn mayor once declared that public transport was meant for pensioners, alcoholics, and children. It’s improved noticeably since those days, but not so much that it’s often a service worth paying for.

Liina says that a transit experience as rich as Tallinn’s can hardly be measured by money. Where else in the world can you see such a parade of life for the price of a bus ticket? Pakistan, sub-Saharan Africa, and former Soviet republics. An elite club, for sure, but must we be proud members?

Since we may hardly rely on the drivers—a generally sheepish breed—to enforce any code of passenger conduct, and any government solution would surely be no more creative than a new tax, we must take matters into our own hands. Vote with your feet, as the saying goes.

Surely the day will arrive when it’s safe to breathe on Tallinn public transport. But until that day I’ll continue to pay exactly what it’s worth.

P.S. And yet again: May 9th, 16:27 hours, Bus No. 8 (license no. 158 TAK) broke down at the Poska stop. No information was conveyed to passengers, but all eventually figured out there would be no refunds. And they would have to walk.