Streetcar / by Sophie Johnson

Yesterday I got a rare gift. I was in the Lower Garden District (probably the most inconveniently far-away neighborhood from house in New Orleans proper), when my bike got a flat tire.

Amusing Bikes on Magazine Street could care less about my flat tire. “We’re really busy. We could get it fixed by Saturday.” I am not confrontational, but I felt like I should confront them. Saturday? It was a flat tire, not a missing tire. I could get it fixed in twenty minutes, but I didn’t have a patch kit, and Amusing Bikes didn’t want me to use their air pumps or anything. ("Sorry, but if we let you use the pump, we'd have to let everyone use the pump." Honestly, Amusing Bikes, that doesn't sound like such a bad thing.) I had that moment of utter panic that comes with being stranded. And then I decided I would walk.

When I’d put on my shoes that morning I specifically thought, “These shoes need to be worn in a little more. They are still giving me blisters on my heels. But surely a bike ride across town and back, low-impact as it is, will be good for my relationship with these shoes. It’s not as though I will be walking for miles. That would never happen. I cannot think about a single possible instance in which walking for miles in these stiff, unbroken-in shoes would be a scenario today.”

Things were not going well by the time I got to Canal Street. In addition to the blood that was oozing out of the backs of my feet, there were altogether too many bros in the French Quarter. It was like being in the Sahara during a feeding frenzy. You are excited when you see one pride of lions in their natural habitat; but at some point, the number and proximity of the lions begins to be a little scary. One bro, wearing three strings of dull Mardi Gras beads, an intentionally ripped-up Abercrombie and Fitch baseball cap, and reflective sunglasses shouted to me, "Hey! Nice tits!" I looked down at my chest. It was 46 degrees and I was bundled up in a thick jacket. There wasn't even a suggestion of tits on my body. Poor bro. He saw something vaguely female and could only figure out how to say, "Hey! Nice tits!" His life must be tiny and boring.

I decided to cut my losses and ride the streetcar from the Riverbend to City Park. It took half an hour to get there, and I danced alone in the streetcar tracks to keep warm. Sometimes you are the crazy person at the bus stop. 

It had been a while since I'd gotten on a streetcar. When I first moved to New Orleans I lived uptown, and I didn't have a car. (The first car I'd brought with me had crashed into a lake in Nebraska. The second car had exploded in the parking lot of the high school where I worked. At this point, I was pretty sure that all cars on earth had agreed to have a personal vendetta against me.) I rode the streetcar to work almost every morning, paying with spare quarters. Even then I adored it: I liked the jangle of the wheels on the rails and the different people who climbed on every day. Even then I couldn't bring myself to read a newspaper or anything on the streetcar. I just wanted to be on the streetcar. 

But then, I've always been giddy around public transportation. I think you're supposed to hate it, and long for your own vespa or something when you take the bus everywhere. In high school, in Portland, I was crazy about the bus. One summer I decided to ride every bus line in numerical order in the city. That didn't work, because it's impossible. But I did ride every bus line in non-numerical order, and it was one of the greatest summers of my life. I would put on my DiscMan (Fiona Apple usually, or a mix CD from my best friend Jessica at a time when mix CDs were coveted novelties) and throw some supplies into a backpack and spend the whole day blissfully exploring public transit.

In high school I carried around these big, cumbersome spiral bound notebooks, which I mostly used to write poems about how hard it is to be in love (I knew all too well, obviously, what with my ample love experience [this is sarcasm, reader]), and to draw sheep doodles (just add arms and legs to a cloud!). The amount that I carried a notebook around qualified it as an adult version of a security blanket (see also: a desperately alone person's version of a boyfriend).

On the bus, I fancied myself a very deep writer. I sat for hours and wrote lists of detailed descriptions of the people I watched on the bus. These lists are interminable and pointless. At the time I thought I was like Walt Whitman, but better. I was pretty sure that someday my notebooks would be discovered and people would say, "Wow. These bus lists are world-altering. If only we'd seen these bus lists years ago, we'd never have had any wars, and we'd have been able to solve hunger a lot sooner. This Sophie Johnson was a genius before her time. Let's do a statue of her."

The bus lists went kind of like this: "The woman with her mewling youth, bundled in a parka the color of eggplant eyes; the youth crouched with a balloon delicately scraping his shoe with the parched side of his thumb; the man with sunglasses, blind as a summer night in Tennessee (but aren't we all?)" THERE ARE LITERALLY THOUSANDS OF PAGES LIKE THAT. Thousands. I'm not kidding. I went home recently and found them in an old box and hated myself enough to eat an entire gallon of ice cream and watch Good Burger over it.

But really, I haven't changed much. I climbed onto the streetcar yesterday and immediately felt the warmth of the journey creep over me, just as it had ten years ago when I got on the bus. I liked staring at the people, wondering where they were coming from or where they were going to. I liked looking at a person for a while, and thinking about whoever in the world who loved them the most. What was profound or interesting or unique or bright about this person who was just passing into my life for an instant before disappearing forever? At night, what did she dream of becoming? What gnawed at her? What did she wish she could change about the world?

And out the window too, these little scenes from people's lives that fade into and out of your consciousness as you're rolling along. I liked when the car would go slowly enough that you could see inside the stores and watch the people browsing, or buying, or talking to their families. It started to get dark while I was riding, and they turned big stadium lights on underneath the construction project near Clark Street. All these men at work late at night, hovering under infrastructure; beneath a building no one works in yet. In 100 years, no one will give the construction of this building a second thought. They looked like fish lit up in an aquarium: serious and dazzling.

You get the chance to stop. The world goes past you in its steady rhythm, but you are still. You can feel the vibrations carrying you onward; you can hear the sounds of the world purring on in its constant motion. But for a while, your own life doesn't really mean anything. It belongs to the ether. No one knows where you are, or who you are, or where you are going, and the gigantic problems that seemed, maybe just minutes ago, like they were the size of the universe shrink into river rocks you can carry in your pocket.