Exact Change

For a long time now, the bus has been my absolute last choice of transport. Before resorting to a bus, I’ll find a complex way of getting there by multiple rail connections or else I’ll walk for miles and miles in impractical shoes. Anything but the bus.

This week though, I had a tricky journey to make for which the bus was the only reasonable option. It was that or learn to swim or hang onto a car as it enters the Clyde Tunnel and hope for the best.

And you know what? It was fun. It was an adventure. I sat on the top deck, rattling and clanking along like an eerily tall Bash Street Kid, looking down at all the bald spots.

It was nostalgic. For instance, I’d completely forgotten about the experience of tree branches coming at your face to make you flinch and then dragging their claws, screeching, along all the side windows. It was ace.

What was not to like? Why had I avoided the bus for so long?

I suppose I’ve had the same negative experiences of buses as everyone else: mad people refusing to talk to you (hah!), glimpses of backseat boys stroking their nun-chucks, schoolchildren mocking your cravat. But you get all of that on trains and it doesn’t put you off.

Moreover, I’ve had some extremely positive experiences on buses. Growing up in Dudley, there were few places a young rascal could be intimate with his girlfriends so we used to just ride around together on top decks for hours on end. In hindsight this is probably how I lost my fingerprints.

No, what makes buses so awful and why I stopped using them a decade ago is the need for exact change coupled with not knowing how much it’s supposed to cost.

I mean, that’s quite a big ask isn’t it? Unless you’re a regular bus traveller and subscribe to all the latest bus literature, how are you supposed to know? And where are we supposed to get all of this change? From the excellent coin-dispensing ATMs we’ve always had? Or are we supposed to line up in a bank to ask a cashier for £1.80? And if so, how are we suppose to get there? By bus I suppose?

Are we supposed to say “don’t worry, have a fiver!” and squash the note down into the change-receiving receptacle with a ruler?

Let’s say you’ve consulted the oracle (by which I mean the designed-by-a-maniac bus company website) and used a map and some long division to work out the exact fare, the driver will probably have a different opinion. And the driver, of course, is the one you have to impress or you won’t be going anywhere. When he says “two pound twenty” and you were expecting to pay £1.80, you can’t very well say “I beg to differ, darling.”

No. What we’re supposed to do is bring along a pouch of mixed doubloons and to count out exactly whatever sum the driver feels like requesting that day.

You stand at the front of the bus, hurriedly counting out a palmful of little coins and you’re praying that you don’t drop them all over the floor because the driver has already started to roll. This while the already-seated passengers — the successful applicants — scowl at you in disdain. There might well be a queue behind you too. How could anyone cope with that, especially at 8 in the morning when your mouth tastes of hurried shreddies and you just want to be dead?

But today I learned that buses have contactless payments now. Whoa. How long has this been a thing?

This is a game changer. One might say it’s the “exact change” we’ve been looking for. Ho-ho. It could be the smartest application of modern technology since Grindr. It takes away an awful lot of pressure and the world becomes your hot, salty oyster.

The ability to touch your debit card to a pad and be on your way? Holy actual Christ. How did it us take so long to get here? (I realise “How did it us take so long to get here?” is #1 on any bus company’s FAQ, but I mean it differently.)

Did you know there was no such thing as a suitcase on wheels until 1987, before which time we all just got along perfectly well with curvature of the spine?

Anyway. The bus. Finally usable for the first time since conductors went extinct.

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