I've come to an interesting realization recently. Despite my relatively small stature, despite that crying at the drop of a hat thing, I'm not as much of a wimp as I originally thought myself to be. I've been in the muck. I know basic plumbing repair. I'm not afraid of sick people. If you are going to be in the hospital for more than a day or two and live within a 100 mile vicinity of me, I will come to visit you without reservation. I've been bled on, pissed on, vomited on, and didn't freak out. I used to suffer from chronic nose bleeds when I was a kid, gushers really, so blood doesn't faze me. Once when my ex was struck with a particularly violent stomach bug, I woke up to find him literally vomiting in our bed. I just managed to get him in the bathroom to finish what he had to do, then cleaned up the mess. Now, I won't go so far as to say my stomach wasn't churning the whole time, because it was, but I didn't get all "ew! gross!" about it. It is simply a bodily function, deal with it, clean it up, goodnight. If you can clean up a crappy diaper, there's no reason why you can't help someone clean themselves up after puking.

I passed a kidney stone in a moving vehicle. I went in for an appendectomy with no one waiting for me at the beginning or the end. When no one was around to wheel me down to the nursery after my c-section, I wheeled myself down. I removed my own stitches after a cut in my knee healed.

True, I am a shrieking wuss when it comes to insects and slugs, and my love of gravity prevents me from really enjoying a rollercoaster ride (though you can't keep me away from log flumes and water slides), but overall, I think I have a surprisingly solid constitution. I attribute this to one thing and one thing only...

I am a veteran of public transportation.

I say "veteran" with every intent of associating it with a combat veteran. There have been times when I've felt like Charlie Sheen at the end of 'Platoon', crying with relief and regret that I managed to survive another firestorm. I've relied on public transportation fairly steadily since I was a teenager. Every major metropolitan area I've ever visited, I've taken some form of public transportation while I was there. I've ridden a train into the spectacular Union Station in Washington, D.C. and I've ridden on a jitney in Atlantic City, which is great if you ever wanted to know what a turtle feels like when it's shaken around in its box by an overeager child. I rode in a cab down the twisty-turny Lombard Street in San Francisco, and took a New York City subway at midnight, mightily disappointed to not spot any mutant bugs or werewolves lurking in the shadows.1

Having become somewhat of an expert on public transportation, I can say that Philadelphia generally has the most efficient PT service, everything centered in one convenient block, while Baltimore, where I lived from 1997 to 2003, has the worst. Getting anywhere, if you don't want to walk seven or eight blocks, takes at least one ride on one thing, transferring onto something else, and then maybe, if you're lucky, only having to walk perhaps two city blocks to your destination. All points lead to Camden Yards, if you're not there to see a baseball game then screw you, pal, you're hoofing it for at least a few minutes. Baltimore, where the pedestrian having the right of way is a theory, not a practice.

All you folks who are into the "extreme" sports? You know, chartering a helicopter to fly you over the Andes so you can be dropped out on a snowboard? Going shark hunting armed with only a catcher's mask and an olive fork? You don't know the meaning of the word "extreme" until you've ridden a bus in Baltimore. "Extreme" is having to ask the semi-conscious man who appears to be carrying all of his worldly belongings in a brown paper bag if the seat beside him is taken. "Extreme" is being stuck behind someone who smells like they last bathed around the same time Nixon was in office, and every move they make sends a greenish-black cloud of alcohol, armpits, and Fritos wafting back in your direction. "Extreme" is discovering that the stop request strip is out of order, and gingerly trying to walk up to the front of the bus before the driver puts the brakes on and sends you hurtling through the windshield, like some 'Matrix' stunt gone awry.

Fuck you, Tony Hawk, I know extreme. I should have been in talks with Sony to create a new game for PlayStation, 'Gena Radcliffe's Extreme Bus Ride 2003'.

The subway wasn't much better. Slightly cleaner, but not much better. Fans of the Tim Robbins mindfuck 'Jacob's Ladder' always have a special affection for taking a subway anywhere. One of the best episodes of TV's 'Homicide' was entitled 'The Subway', and starred Vincent D'Onofrio as a commuter who is pushed in front of a subway train and wedged between it and the platform. If you saw that episode even once it resonated with you every time you stood down there waiting for your train, wondering where the hell those MTA cops who are supposedly always on the ready should any funny business occur are, and trying to discern which one of the people around you looked the most capable of pushing a stranger onto subway tracks. Is it you, Guy Who Left the House in His Bedroom Slippers? Or is it you, Lady Wearing Three Coats and Two Hats in June? It could be anyone, really, except you, of course.

Somehow, through the grace of whoever, I've never been raped/mugged/assaulted/insert traumatic city experience here. Well, that's not entirely true, I was spit at once while waiting for a subway in Philadelphia, that was fun. If I hadn't dodged fast enough, I would have gotten a nice wad of undoubtedly disease-ridden phlegm right in my face. I'm certain I've been scoped out by a serial killer or two, if you believe they're as prevalent as the so-called experts say they are. So far, thankfully, the prospect of my tender, yielding flesh has yet to outweigh the probability that I look like I'd put up a good fight, which I probably would. I have been in the vicinity once or twice of fellow bus riders who suddenly broke into fistfights with each other, and also sat a few rows up from a couple who, apparently so overwhelmed with the scent of exhaust, had sex right in their seat. I asked someone once, if you have sex in the bathroom of a bus, does that make you a member of the 10 Feet High Club?

Forget Mace, a pocketknife, a handgun. The two weapons most effective for the public transportation veteran are a book and a Walkman. The book is to wile away the time, and also so you have an excuse to avoid making eye contact with anyone. The Walkman, of course, is to prevent anyone from attempting to make conversation with you, a must if you're like me, who has the type of face that compels people to tell them their entire life story up until what they had for breakfast that morning. The headphones don't even have to actually be attached to anything, the cord can just go right into your coat or pocket. Unless they really are trying to determine how you would look strapped to a table and tortured with fishing knives, no one's going to look that closely. Just bob your head in time to imaginary music every once in a while, and no one will be the wiser.

I will say one thing in favor of public transportation (besides the fact that really, above all else, it is a cheaper, more ecologically and economically sound alternative to driving everywhere): I've gotten more writing ideas out of it than I dreamed possible. I've written poems inspired by sights I've seen, little snippets of dialogue, inspiration for minor and major characters. That's real life you see there, far more intriguing and story-worthy than some jackass yammering into his cell phone while cutting off a school bus in his Lexus. So in a way I'm grateful for public transportation, for the inspiration it's provided me over the years, even if inspiration occasionally appears while wearing mismatched shoes and dragging a suitcase attached to a jump rope.2

1. I have however seen someone playing the panflute, which, all things considered, is equally frightening.
2. I've actually seen this. I think he considered it some sort of pet.