Back of the bus

I always go for it, no matter how many times I've been burned, the last row at the back of the bus, the bench row. The thinking is this: it's a row of five seats all the way at the back. Say it's empty, so you grab a window seat. The next person to sit in the back is gonna for the other window. The third person in is gonna pick the middle seat, the only seat available where you aren't sitting next to someone. From that point on, if everything goes according to plan, we're all happy. The bus will fill up, people will stand, because squeezing in to one of the two remaining seats is awkward and weird and means that you automatically have two people with their legs and elbows and no doubt odd smell on either side of you. When it works, it's the best deal going down.

But like a lot of my irrational behavior (a piece of bronze I found is a lucky charm; I'm alone in the elevator and I'll remain totally alone and it's therefore completely kosher to fart) it doesn't work so well in practice (the lucky piece of bronze has been present at several tragedies; the elevator door slides open one floor down and I have to scurry off and take the stairs the rest of the way down to avoid epic embarrassment). Because the bar is raised for who will and won't take those weird fourth and fifth bench seats, eliminating many of the more normal and reserved people on the bus, those that DO take the seat are much more likely to be exactly what I'm seeking to avoid when I cram myself into the corner. The mumbling man, the twitch-itch woman, the sweet yeasty alcoholic with a Gatorade bottle full of of electolyte-infused vodka. The loud-talking post-frat professional on the cell phone, the elbow-flaring newspaper reader, the hyphy girl with hella drama.

So what gets me home, lately, has been WNYC's RadioLab. It's essentially This American Life but more, like, science-y. It's not without its flaws: Hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich sometimes fall into Car Talk kitsch, and the show's stereo pans and dialogue overdubs can be flashy in a way that, at least on headphones, can be annoying. But it more than makes up for it when some honestly amazing little stories that manage the split the difference between gee-whiz science and human drama. For me, the moment when I really fell in love with the show was their final segment on the Zoo episode. It's the story of Alan Rabinowitz, a guy who established the first jaguar reserve on the planet, and while his story is pretty amazing and should be a movie, the part that knocked me sideways was the the beginning. Rabinowitz had a terrible stutter for the first twenty years of his life, a stutter that kept him from establishing any real human connections. Except: He could take his pets and go into a closet and there, for the only time in his boyhood, he could speak easily, fluently, breathing words at the small life in his hands, there in the dark. How this gift of language in presence of animals plays out over the next thirty years of his life is some sort of real-life Dr. Doolittle story. It's just great stuff, even if your seat mate is carefully, carefully tearing up a sheet of newspaper into a long parallel strips and eying you with suspicion.