Thursday, May 22, 2008
Okay, just kidding. This was just the first image that Google gave me for "Charlotte." Anyway -
(I was in Charlotte from May 6-7)
The thing I remember most from Charlotte was my complete frustration with the transit system. The way my tickets worked, I got in at 2 AM with nowhere to stay and ended up sleeping on the hard wooden benches at the train station 'til morning. The family I was staying with actually lived 40 minutes outside of Charlotte and couldn't pick me up until 12. So I figured I'd spend the morning traveling blissfully about the city with ease and heroic splendour. Yes, blogspot, splendour, with a u. I refuse to retype it.
Anyway, I asked the train ticket guy where the closest rail station was. He informed me that the city ran mostly on buses, and referred me to something called "CATS." CATS is short for "Charlotte's Attempt (to make) Travel Suck." "CATS" is catchier. There was a revolving display of approximately 16 jaztrialiion different packets, each including an individual map for an individual bus route for an individual bus. (There were actually just 60, but still. I'm expected to look through all that?) With no actual all-encompassing map, I had absolutely no idea where I was going, or even why. So I went to the closest bus stop and got on.
Apparently, every bus everywhere in Charlotte has one destination - this massive bus hub in the center of the city, where they supposedly came and went, but there's no way it can be reduced to that kind of simplicity. (Remember, we're throwing around figures like 16 jaztrialiion here.) I was deafened by a tinny, grating din - the droning of buses and the screeching of brakes, the chocolate lilt and rhythm of Southern voices.
It was a struggle just to buy a couple of day passes - otherwise I'd suffer some kind of DEATH at the hand of a haphazard series of $1.30 charges. No matter what bus I got on (randomly, I admit), I always ended up back in that hub. Everyone was black, which isn't really a problem, but considering where I grew up (Oregon) and have been (Utah), this was a sign of being in an alien place. Who were these people? What was this place? Why was I there? I felt like a moth in a beehive.
I got on a bus pretending to mirror everyone else's inner-city savvy and self-assurance, but it wasn't long before I understood - understood that I was headed in the completely wrong direction, out towards a local suburb, to a place and people I couldn't really know.
It was then, on that thrumming, staggering bus, that I remembered the importance of my clumsy red backpack and all it held. It was like some kind of symbol of identity for me, something tied to me that I knew and could touch.
I only got off when someone else did, keeping with my facade of belonging and understanding. I sat down at the bus stop, inhaling exhaust, and I tooted dejectedly on my harmonica.
I went on this trip with the idea that no matter where I went, I'd be able to adapt and assimilate and achieve soaring insights. It didn't feel like that on the Charlotte buses. I bemoaned the tragedy of my limp assumptions, that cultures could be crossed and languages could be learned. I bemoaned the lack of some universal, encompassing map that bridged systems of place and thought.
At that grassy, lonely suburb, I was forced to acknowledge Emerson's haunting reminder. The suburb was an unknown place, but unknown places stopped mattering because all place stopped mattering. To console myself, I didn't think fondly on the lights of Bourbon street or the skyscrapers of Chicago. I thought of having a friend among strangers, of holding her hand on the jittering bus; and then it wouldn't matter that place didn't matter.