Singing the Blues For London's Red Buses

My son, Robert, in his insatiable quest for knowledge, asks me my favorite color. At three years old, these things are important. Sharon, Cathryn, and Sarah, his three elder sisters, have all done so - many times. I suspected from the start that the question was only a cue for me to ask them what their favorite color was.

I always answered ``green!'' of course, and in turn, it always brought on grimaces and frowns. Green is not a color to thrill or excite in their eyes. Sharon, I remember, liked blue; Cathryn preferred yellow, and Sarah thinks purple is just out of this world.

If ``the color is in us, not in the rose,'' as the American astronomer Samuel Pierpont Langley said, then what does our preference for colors tell us? Does my preference for green indicate that I am in a constant state of envy? I hardly think so. But I discovered the other day that I have a fondness for a particular color that I did not think was there.

During a recent trip to London, I sought out, as I usually do, those familiarities that defined London to me. Much was still intact. Buildings, streets, river, and suburb. And of course, there was the ubiquitous London bus. It was not long before I was in the bus queue.

But when my bus finally came, there was something wrong. It was not red. It was green with gray trim around the windows. And the one behind it was cream with a brownish-maroon skirting. I hesitated, wondering if I was at the right stop. Yes, there was the familiar bull's-eye sign that designated the official bus stop.

The number was right - 24, and the destination was correct. I went upstairs and sat down. As I gazed out the window, I saw other buses, most of them red, but in other colors, too. Some were red, but without the familiar white trim. Others were blue with a huge bright yellow stripe along their side. And yet others were blue and gray, two-tone greens, and all-over yellows.

I think single entities should have single colors (except rainbows and fall foliage, that is). John Ruskin wrote that blue is everlastingly appointed by ``the Deity'' to be a source of delight. Here in the United States, a well-known national parcel carrier sports a comforting brown. Interstate highway designations are red, white, and blue. London buses should remain red.

I read somewhere that the color red denotes passion. It is also the color of courage. Perhaps, and if so, then the new colors for London's buses are passionless. The red of the London buses symbolizes London. As I departed the country of my birth, the shops at Heathrow were full of postcards of the double-decker bus, and behold, they were all red.

Upon my return to the US, it was not too long before Sarah asked me what my favorite color was. ``Red,'' I said.

Sarah's face dropped. ``But Daddy, your favorite color is green. You always say green.''

But I could tell that I had assumed a new status in her eyes. Red! Now there was a color - much more significant than green.

My wife looked amused at the other end of the sofa. ``What happened to green? Isn't it your favorite color anymore?''

I waited for a long moment, with both my wife and Sarah staring at me, wondering how I could explain all this.

Then I spoke. ``It's as though your favorite material were cotton and then you find out that wool is disappearing because no one is wearing it.'' Sarah, of course, didn't quite get this, but Linda did.

``Does this mean that we can expect to see red in our future, such as a crimson car, or scarlet shutters on the house, or'' (she shuddered slightly as she said this) ``a vermillion sofa?''

I assured her that none of this would happen. But I would remind myself that perhaps I should choose strawberries over limes, pink lemonade over the blanched kind, and grow poppies instead of marigolds.

Now Robert sits on my lap and we pull out his favorite book. It's about the city and is full of houses, buildings, and service vehicles. As we turn the page, there is a bright yellow fire engine. It's time to get a new book.

``Ding, ding,'' he says, pointing to the lemony pumper. It's enough to make one see red. But it only says that every color is a pigment of one's imagination. And that, I suppose, depends upon one's point of hue.

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