Wednesday, August 15, 2007
"I haven't been on a bus since I was a child," I told Ursula, the pleasant, businesslike clerk behind the counter at the Greyhound Station at 720 W. Muhammad Ali Boulevard in Louisville, Kentucky. "What's the process?"
There was no one in line, and getting situated was easy. "That wasn't too painful, was it?" she inquired as I parted, relieved I did not need to submit to a strip and cavity search.
I had arrived well over two hours early for my bus trip from Louisville to Indianapolis, but didn't mind, because I cherish my travel time for the opportunity it provides for reading.
Normally, I would have rented a car or flown, but Indy is only a couple of hours drive from my daughter's home, and the cheapest one-way car rental available was $115 from airport to airport, plus an expensive cab ride, an expense I would have to foot myself, even though I was traveling on business.
For a little inconvenience and $28.50 for so short a ride, the bus seemed like a reasonable alternative. At least, I reasoned, there would be no cancellations and my arrival would likely be on time — not necessarily the case when flying. I wondered what happens when there is an accident or a problem with the bus, but convinced that these things are as rare as plane crashes, I put question the out of my mind.
The first thing I noticed was a long line of miserable people looking like the condemned waiting to be admitted to hell, but really only waiting to be let aboard an open seating bus to somewhere most people don't want to be. From this I ascertained that I would have to watch for a line beginning to form at door five, my door, so I would be among the first and could have my choice of seats — an amenity I've earned by being so early.
The people who inhabit a bus station are not ones who have come straight from the opera or Wallace Stevens discussion group. They are mostly either outright poor or well disguised as such, sporting a variety of weird beard and tatoo configurations, wearing torn blue jeans or hip hop attire. Three quarters are obese, tubes of Pringles and half-consumed sugar drinks in their laps, at 7:30 AM, cigarette packs visible in their shirt pockets or purses.
The second thing I learned was that the hard steel mesh seats in the waiting room are more uncomfortable by an order of magnitude than in any fast food restaurant I've ever been in, probably to discourage vagrant bums from sleeping on them. I was never comfortable the whole time I sat there.
A half hour before departure two women and a young man got in line in rapid succession, so in anticipation of a rush, I elected to do the same. The twenty minutes I stood there only one more person got in the line.
Eventually a man picked up the microphone to a sound system that reverberated throughout the building's waiting room, saying something that sounded like: "MMERJW LEENR RLJJ VMMAN WOFADEF GEFB ZZMK LLM NTSNT RT," out of which I was able to determine that persons going to Indianapolis were to line up on the right side of door five, whereupon, being already on the right side of door five, everyone else immediately picked up and moved three steps to the left to be on the left side of door five. In my scramble to get my cell phone put away and bags in order, I lost two places in line, leaving me behind a tall, bearded, pony-tailed man with a wife who could crush concrete by standing on it, who was not yet in line herself, as it was her job to carry all their luggage. The man queried hopefully: "This is the bus to Bloomington, right?" No, it's the bus to Indianapolis. Oh. Suddenly I was fifth in line.
The director of boarding stood at least six feet four inches tall in his rumpled and ill-fitting uniform, being certainly no less than 350 pounds, looking like an example of what happens to NFL linemen named Bubba when they can no longer play and discover they also have no intelligence and no life skills. We filed by him to get on the bus. Bubba waved a wand over me, which beeped, so he asked me if I had change in my pocket, which question I had to ask him to repeat because I could not understand him through his football player's dialect.
I answered that I did not have any change in my pocket, which was apparently good enough to convince him that I am not a terrorist. He went on, asking "Ticket?" Huh? Oh yeah. I handed him the envelope. "Take it out of the envelope please." Oh, sure.
"I haven't been on a bus since I was a child," I felt obliged to explain once again, "so I don't know the routine." "Mmmm hmmm," was his rumbling reply.
At least it looked as though I would get a good seat, fourth on a bus that had SEATING CAP. 55 painted near the door. Five minutes before departure we were joined by two more people, who were the last, making a total of six people plus the driver, on this "express service" ride to Indianapolis, due to pull in the station at 11:59 AM, just in time to call it still morning.
"So this is what it's like to travel when you're poor!" I thought to myself as we inched out of the station. It wasn't really that bad. I enjoy cross country driving, and now someone else would do the driving at a nominal cost, while I had opportunity to read, look out the window, and even had all the room I needed to stretch out, open my laptop, and work in privacy if I wanted. "Almost like having my own limo!" I surmised.
One thing proved to be annoying. The bus made a heck of a lot of rumbly noise. "Is this the way they all are?" I wondered. Doesn't sound too healthy to me. Must be okay, though. Every airplane gets a thorough checkup from a diligent and competent technical crew before it takes off. How much less could Greyhound care about the welfare of its passengers than the airlines?
While turning my butt into a waffle in the steel mesh seats, I finished the superb John Updike novel I was reading, then began a collection of his short stories. The first was dreadfully dull. After twenty-five minutes I opted to pull out my laptop and make a thoughtful list. Despite the absence of people, I still had to lay my seat back in order to have enough space to lift the screen up. In two window frames I opened files named PRO and CON, in which I could itemize thoughts in connection with a potentially life changing decision I have been researching for several weeks, while the bus bumped along noisily.
Too noisily. Before long the vibration got to be such that my computer bounced up and down to the degree it was getting difficult to type and read. My fondness for bus travel was beginning to diminish.
Forty minutes out of Louisville, the noise in the bus became extreme. Soon I concluded not all was right with the bus. The sound changed from a hmhmhmhmhmhmhmhmhm to a sickening scrape coming from just behind and below me. The driver slowed the bus. This was not a good sign.
Next we were grinding along in the appropriately named breakdown lane. Less than a minute later, 150 yards from exit 41, we stopped. An ominous odor eminated from the vehicle. The driver ran around to look underneath, and came running back. "EVERYONE OFF THE BUS! NOW! GET OFF, GET OFF! RIGHT NOW!" he urged subtly. A woman in the back had to be awakened. Not to be rushed and seeing no imminent crisis, I put my laptop away carefully and exited, joining my busmates standing twenty-five yards up the road.
There was smoke coming from under the bus. The driver grabbed an extinguisher, hollered that someone should call 911 (sorry, not on my phone), and proceeded to empty the extinguisher on the bus engine, causing large clouds of white smoke to rise from the bus and drift across the highway, which must have been amusing to oncoming drivers.
Not to be perturbed, standing in ankle high grass with my Tumi shoulder bag, a good eight yards off the edge of the highway, and being that it was a lovely morning and I had nothing else to do, I pulled out my book began reading a second Updike short story, more boring than the first, while the driver looked at his bus in dismay as though this was all his fault and he would have to pay for the damage to the bus himself.
After emerging from a phone conference he told us that the problem was that the universal joint blew. A mechanic and a new bus were on the way, but would not be there for about an hour.
Disappointed, but in reasonable spirits, four of the other bus passengers took off at different times in pairs for the exit, where there was a truck stop with a bathroom and a source to replenish their supplies of Pringles and soda, which had apparently been on the verge of running short.
The police pulled up, but didn't stay long. They left some "accident" forms to be filled out by two witnesses and turned in. The bus driver evidently perceived from the fact that I was reading a book and therefore literate that I might also be the sort of person who is able to fill out a form; and besides I was standing right there, so he elected me as a witness, and I obediently did my best to fill it out. Did I witness the accident? Ummm, well it wasn't exactly an accident. No, I was not injured, merely inconvenienced, as I was expected at work at the Convention Center in Indy before long.
The bus driver told me: "This is amazing. That's the first time I've had a breakdown." Then after a long pause, he added quietly: "This year. First time I've had a breakdown this year." How comforting.
I responded, desperate to be sure everyone around me would be aware: "I wouldn't know how often these things happen. I haven't been on a bus since I was a child," wanting to distance myself from the experience and remain a dispassionate observer. And then I added: "I believe it will be the last time."
Before long it was deemed safe for us to re-enter the bus to wait, this time with the passengers bunched closer together.
The man across the aisle remarked: "For such a religious state as Indiana, I find it surprising to see all the ads for adult book stores along the highway. There's one almost every mile." A true statement. From the seat in front of me a young, nondescript woman wearing pedal pusher pants, sunglasses, and her hair pulled back in a bun, answered, "We aren't in Indiana. We're still in Louisville," while dropping chips from a Pringles can down her throat, stretched out on her back, legs splayed apart, her feet up on the glass window. We had in fact left Louisville and Kentucky simultaneously five minutes out of the station, as we crossed the Ohio river headed north. The young lady's comprehension of geography boggled my mind. As if being still in Kentucky would cause everyone to say, "Oh, well no wonder."
Then she popped up and asked if she could use my cell phone. I hesitated briefly. "Ummm, the account is actually my daughter's and I don't use it to call anyone except on Verizon." "Oh, my grandma is on, Verizon, has been for years!" She said it with sufficient spontaneity that I believed her. And besides, how could I resist helping out a fellow traveler in an emergency? So I handed the phone over to her, with which she made a mercifully short phone call.
An hour and a half after we stopped, another bus pulled up, this one far from empty — filled, in fact, with far more bodies with vacant faces seemingly unsympathetic to the idea of crowding the bus a little more than with vacant seats. I completed the rest of my journey next to a woman who grunted when I wished her good afternoon, then rolled over to sleep the rest of the way to Indianapolis, and across from Chatty Cathy the geography maven.
On the way off the bus she said, "Do we get our money back? I want my money back!" I responded, "They should at least offer to give you another free can of Pringles."