Friday, August 27, 2010

Along the Border

If you want to know what's really happening on the southern border of our country, don't turn on Fox or CNN.  Don't read inflammatory editorial pieces.  Simply get on a bus headed for Arizona and you'll see for yourself.

I took a Greyhound from Reno southward through California, crossing over to Phoenix.  From Phoenix, Greyhound uses partner carriers to take passengers to the border.  I was instructed to take a voucher to a cab driver who would take me to this shuttle service, some 10 miles away from the Greyhound station.  The cab driver was not happy with the voucher.  I apologized and told him that was all I had to give him.  He says "prefiero efectivo (I prefer cash)".  I said, "I understand."

The shuttle station was tucked in the corner of a deserted strip mall.  The entire drive from the Greyhound station to the shuttle station was bizarre.  It was around 6 p.m. and I didn't hardly see a soul.  On the west side of Phoenix, there were signs in Spanish all over the place, but buildings looked as if they'd been closed for business for a quite a while.  It was eerily quiet.

I went to the station to catch a ride for the three hour drive to Nogales, a town on the Mexico/US border.  There was an absence of the formality and pageantry that accompanies the usual boarding process with the Greyhounds.  This was a guy behind a plastic shield in a little hut of a building telling the passengers in Spanish that it was time to go.  The room was covered with old, tan wood paneling and had a couple of old gumball machines standing guard.  It looked like a building from 1972.  The bathroom had no toilet paper or soap.  It was purely a 20 foot by 10 foot gathering space for travelers going to and from the border. 

I boarded the 15 passenger van with two other men.  On our way out of Phoenix, we stopped in a residential neighborhood to pick up another guy.  We pulled right into his driveway as he ran out, hugged his wife and got on the van.  About a half hour later, we picked up another passenger at a gas station.  It seemed disorganized to me, but everyone else seemed to know what was going on.

On our way to Nogales, I started talking to the two men seated behind me.  I had noticed that they did the sign of the cross on our way out of the parking lot.  I trusted that this was standard religious ritual rather than a sign that they were nervous about us making it there safely.  The men looked young.  Gregorio said he was 18 years old.  His friend, Francisco was 26.  They were leaving Phoenix for good.

In Spanish they detailed why they were leaving: "We've been here in Phoenix for four years.  I work as an auto mechanic.  I specialize in repairing vintage cars.  Gregorio has been working the whole time at IHOP as a cook.  Since this new law passed in Arizona, it has changed.  We've seen friends of ours, neighbors of ours, arrested while walking on the street.  They've been asked for their documents and then deported."  Francisco continued, getting more animated, "I don't understand it.  Who wants to work at IHOP?  He makes $8 an hour.  They say we're taking jobs.  Nobody wants to do those jobs.  We are supposed to be family.  We are brothers.  We share this continent.  If you go down into Nogales, Mexico, you will be well received.  But, yet in your country, you say that you don't want me?"

I didn't know how to respond to them.  They seemed angry, defeated and disillusioned.  Francisco told me that he and Gregorio were going back to Cananea, Sonora, Mexico.  They had family there.  "Do you hope to come back up here some day?", I asked them.  "Yes, but when it's better.  It's not worth getting arrested."

Francisco, left and Gregorio, right

In Nogales, I met Marlene, the manager of the Burger King on the Arizona side of the border.  She grew up in Kingman, Arizona to Mexican immigrants.  Her dad got a visa back in the 60's to come work as an engineer at a factory in Kingman, in the northwest corner of the state.  Marlene and her husband moved to Nogales in 1992 when the opportunity presented itself to purchase a Burger King franchise.

"It's changed a lot", Marlene said.  "We used to have tourists all the time, but with the media going on and on about the murders on the border, our business has taken a hit.  We hardly see any tourists anymore.  The murders aren't even happening here in Nogales.  It's like 15 or 20 miles in where they're seeing the trouble."

I asked Marlene about the impact of the new law in Arizona where law enforcement officials can request documentation without cause.  "They don't really pester people in Nogales.  It's over 95% Hispanic here and they'd have their hands full.  They're pretty much just nailing people up in Phoenix".  As I walked around in Nogales, I saw vehicle after vehicle with "Border Patrol" on the sides.  They were just driving the streets of Nogales, AZ, looking for people trying to cross through, over or under the fences that line that city.  It was an eye opener, for sure.

On a lighter note, there are multiple border crossing checkpoints on highways in the South.  They are not right at the border.  Usually, they're 30 or 40 miles in and the US Border Patrol flags vehicles down and searches them.  There are drug sniffing dogs and heavily armed agents looking for contraband and illegal immigrants. 

Our bus was stopped about an hour east of El Paso on I-10.  The beefy patrol agents got on the bus and announced, "We are with the United States Border Patrol.  Please have proper documentation available to verify that you are a U.S. citizen!"  Their voices boomed and they were no nonsense.  It was about 5:30 in the morning and they were climbing up on our Greyhound to do their job.  One agent went to the back of the bus and another stayed at the front.  They worked their way toward the middle to mitigate any possibility of confrontation or escape. 

One big agent with a crew cut and an automatic weapon strapped across his chest stopped in the row in front of me to question a 95 pound Chinese woman.  "Can I see your documentation, please?"  She just stared at him.  In a louder voice, "I NEED TO SEE YOUR DOCUMENTATION!"  Silence.  "YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND A WORD I'M SAYING, DO YOU?  YOUR PAPERS.  I NEED TO SEE YOUR PAPERS.  HABLAS ESPANOL?"  That made me smile because these guys were obviously trained to deal with Spanish speaking immigrants, but it was an awkward interaction at best with this mild woman. 

She nervously fidgeted around and produced something in the shape of a drivers' license but it was some sort of ID card.  The officer looked at it and just kind of shook his head.  I figure that they have a pretty swift and smooth process for when they catch illegal immigrants from Latin America, but I wasn't so sure that he wanted to deal with this case.  He just handed her the card back and said, "thank you.".  She smiled and tucked the card away.  A large, African-American woman in the seat behind the Chinese woman was amused by the whole encounter and said, "I think she knows more English than she's pretending.  He almost snatched her ass straight off the bus!"

The government is pouring millions of dollars into securing our borders, trying to get rid of tens of millions of undocumented workers, one Greyhound bus at a time.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


This is an obvious statement, but everyone on the bus is going somewhere.  Everyone has a story.  I've  noticed a few themes and commonalities, but everyone's story is unique and it's their own.  Many are running away from something.  Some are running towards what they perceive to be opportunity. 

On the bus out of Minneapolis, I met a man who had been living in a homeless shelter for three weeks.  His name was Ordell.  Ordell may be a product of what is referred to as "Greyhound Therapy".  Social service agencies in some cities find that it's easier to just ship people out of town than to deal with their problems.  So, what you end up with are buses full of wandering transients who had their bus tickets purchased by someone else.

At least Ordell had a definite destination: "I'm going back to Omaha.  My old lady and I had a fight and I thought there would be some work up here in Minneapolis.  But, there wasn't anything.  I lived in a homeless shelter for three weeks.  There wasn't nothing but schizophrenics and bipolar people.  It was crazy.  I had to get out.  So, I'm going back to Omaha and I'm gonna try and patch things up with my old lady. (Ordell is about the 20th person I've heard use the phrase "old lady" when referring to a wife or girlfriend.)"

Ordell's story is long and sordid.  He has a grown daughter he rarely sees.  His daughter's mother is a lesbian in a relationship with another woman.  He did 12 1/2 years in the state pen in Michigan for what he describes to be false, trumped up sexual assault charges with a girlfriend who had really rich parents.  He is from Detroit but says he had to get out of there because "it ain't nothin' but crackhead whores there now".  When he was 47, he married a 63 year-old woman named Dorotha.  They moved to Chicago, but only lived there for 4 days because "it ain't nothin' but crackhead whores there now".  Dorotha and Ordell moved to Houston where she had family.  But he says that her children were insane gang bangers and, after 4 years, he needed to get out. 

I asked him why he was living in Omaha.  "Do you have family there?  That's a long way from Detroit."  "Nah, man.  Here's the story.  Do you remember that tv show 'Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom'?"  I said, "yeah, with Marlon Perkins?"  "Yeah, that's the one.  I loved the theme song from that show and always thought Omaha would be a cool place to live."

I think Ordell was hoping to find Zebras and Lions in Omaha.  But, he found work housekeeping in the hospital there.  That's where he met Carolyn.  She's a nurse.  One night, he was cleaning the hospital and they started a conversation only to learn that they shared the same exact birthday: March 6, 1959.  That was much more than coincidence, Ordell believed, and they began a relationship.

It's not easy because Carolyn's children are a bit of a mess.  She has one son in prison.  At 16, he was involved in a drive by shooting.  He will get out when he's 22, but he gets furloughed on the weekends and comes to the apartment where Carolyn and Ordell live.  "That boy's out of his head.  He brings all of his homeboys over and they're smoking weed.  I told him he's stupid 'cause if they catch him doin' that stuff, he'll go away for a long time.  They kicked in the door of the apartment one night.  I don't want any part of that."

I didn't get to the heart of the argument that sent Ordell to Minneapolis, but he was ready to make things right with Carolyn.  Part of her problem is that Ordell hasn't started official divorce proceedings with Dorotha.  So, that was first on his list when he got back to Omaha.  He also said he was going to try and get a driver's license and then hopefully find a job.

Ordell drifted off to sleep for a few hours until we stopped in Marshall, Minnesota.  That's where we picked up Rachel.  Rachel is 29 years old and the oldest of 9 children from near Fort Worth, Texas.  She is a Pentecostal that said she didn't even own a pair of pants until just a few years ago.  Her mother always insisted she wear skirts and dresses.

Rachel was getting out of a four year relationship with a guy named Tyson.  She said he was a deadbeat.  "In the four years we were together he worked maybe a total of two months."  "What kind of work did he do?" I asked her.  "My dad trained him on how to repair washing machines and other appliances.  But, he's lazy.  He spends every penny he has on video games and clothes."

Rachel finally had enough and left him.  She went on a week long bender with tequila and hooked up with a co-worker before she got out of Marshall.  "Did you feel bad about doing that?" I asked her.  "Not really", she said.

She was married when she was 19 but has never had any children.  Her first marriage ended when she caught her 30 year old husband writing love letters to her 17 year old sister. 

Tyson, her boyfriend in Marshall, impregnated another woman while he was with Rachel.  But, she stuck with him and helped raise the baby.  The last straw was when she caught him cheating again.

Rachel has 9 tattoos.  She got them all in the course of a week's time.  Her mother flipped out but Rachel didn't care.  Ordell asked her, "what's the most provocative place you have a tattoo?".  "Well, I've got one on my stomach that's a butterfly.  The body of the butterfly is a penis", she told him.  Ordell was very interested in this.  He continued to ask her questions that made Rachel and me uncomfortable.  "Have you ever been with a woman?"  "If your boyfriend wanted you to be a stripper, would you do it?"  "You have a very sexy voice.  Have you ever considered being a phone sex operator?"  Rachel tired of Ordell's shenanigans before too long and started to feign sleep.

He woke her up and asked, "Hey, have you ever been on the Jerry Springer show?  You look like this girl I saw on there one time."  Then he started chanting, "Go to the pole.  Go to the pole".  Rachel just leaned her head against the window and dreamt of greener pastures in Texas.

Rachel, Mike, Ordell

Rachel and Ordell

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

You Gotta Be Hibbing Me!

Donna was right.  Hibbing was just a leisurely 3 1/2 hour drive north from Minneapolis.  The highlight of my drive to Hibbing was that the classic rock station in Hibbing was celebrating the 25th anniversary of the release of John Cougar Mellencamp's "Scarecrow" album: August 17, 1985.  Randy McIntosh was the 9th caller and won a copy of the CD.  He had to stop his tractor so that the DJ could hear him when they talked.  He went nuts.  "You guys are the best!  I can't believe I won!  I had this cassette a long time ago but I lost it."  I was jealous of Randy.

Hibbing is the home of Kevin McHale and Bob Dylan, among others.  Aside from calling those two GQ models their native sons, Hibbing also still has huge iron mines nearby and, of course, the Greyhound Museum.

I stopped in for lunch at Zimmy's, a restaurant on the main strip in Hibbing that takes its name from Bob Dylan's real last name: Zimmerman.  It was like a Cracker Barrel, with knick knacks hanging all over the wall in rustic fashion, but instead of soap boxes and old farm implements, there were guitars and Bob Dylan pictures and posters.

The menu was also a big nod to Mr. Zimmerman.  I thought about ordering the "Love and Theft" Coconut Chicken or the "Bringing It All Back Home" quiche, but I went for some fish.  It was all you can eat fried pollack and I was starving.  It was absolutely delicious, probably straight from one of Minnesota's alleged 10,000 lakes.  I shouldn't have ordered that third piece, but I always feel like I need to get my money's worth when I'm paying for it. 

Here's the marquee out front.  I'm guessing Angela was a waitress.

After lunch I drove to the museum.  I was the third car in the parking lot.  It was a Tuesday, but I'm guessing this was probably par for the course.  I immediately walked over the the brick path to see if I could find Tom and Donna's brick.  Most of the bricks there were given in memory of a deceased or retired driver or by a local business in a gesture of benevolence/advertising. 

I need to tread carefully here, because the people that run this museum are very nice.  They are all volunteers, some of whom have been working there for years.  I respect their dedication to this project, but the museum could use a little bit of a face lift. 

I met a guy named Mike who was willing to show me around the museum.  It's usually $5 for an unguided tour, but when he heard what I was doing, he just walked me around free of charge. 

Mike was quick to point out that this museum was really the brainchild of an 85 year old guy named Gino.  Gino wanted to tell the story of how the bus line got its start here in Hibbing.  He started the museum 30 years ago and has gotten donations from all over the world.  There are really old buses and replica buses.  There are conversion buses and state of the art cruisers on display.  There are drivers' uniforms (I couldn't find whatever it was that Donna said she donated) and posters all over the wall (I couldn't find the poster of Donna.  Mike said it was probably in storage).

Mike said that he works at the museum because, like Gino, he wants to see tourism increased in Hibbing.  Mike serves as the head of the parks department and some historic or zoning board.  "Gino's getting up there and he's not going to be able to run this forever.  I just kind of got tapped for this.  I didn't necessarily ask for it", he explained to me.  "So, you're kind of the heir apparent?"  I asked him.  He laughed and said, "yeah, but Gino will probably outlive me."

I will confess that I wasn't as invested in the tour as I should have been.  I was about as excited as I was during the 6th grade field trip where they took us to some farm and showed us how people used to make brooms.  As Mike talked about the iron mines, I drifted off and started thinking about how long it would take me to get back to Minneapolis.  The fried pollack didn't help with my energy level.

Mike tried to get me interested in buying a $35 book on the history of Greyhound but I told him that my project was a little more anthropological in nature.  I did buy a few things, but I don't want to mention it here because these special little gifts may currently be in a Fed Ex box headed to Nashville for Erica and the boys.  It will be like Christmas morning when that thing arrives.

One last crazy note about the museum: There is a bus out in display in the back that was used to transport workers to Saudi oil wells.  There is Arabic writing on the side and Mike explained that somebody drove the bus to Hibbing all the way from California.

Upon it's arrival, Gino, who loves woodworking, decided to make a display to put out by this bus.  He created what looked like a nativity scene out of plywood.  The Joseph and Mary figures are leading a camel around by a leash. I just looked at it and nodded as Mike was telling the story.  

Greyhound hasn't given the museum a nickel in the last five years.  But, hopefully, there will be a resurgence some day in Hibbing.   

Monday, August 16, 2010

Smoke 'em if you got 'em

After the marathon trek from New York City to St. Louis, I needed to take a sabbath day.  I felt like Jerry Lewis at 3:00 on Labor Day.  Not, the young, funny Jerry Lewis.  I felt like the old, heavy, messy Jerry Lewis.  I slept, wrote, went to a Cardinals game and ate.  Busch stadium serves a bacon wrapped hot dog.  Like most over the top sounding fair fare, it sounded gross but tasted great!

I woke up early Monday morning and hustled down to the Greyhound station in St. Louis to make sure I could get on the 7:30 bus to Kansas City, so that I could make it to Minneapolis by evening.  There was a laminated sign on the ropes by the ticket counter that says, "Sold Out: Kansas City, Denver, etc".  It struck me as odd that they would have a laminated sign that said this.  It must happen every day.  It's much more cost effective to tell a passenger, "tough cookies, you can take the next bus six hours from now" and hang a sign up than it would be to dispatch another bus.  I reasoned with the woman at the ticket counter, but she grew hostile and told me to leave.  I just took my ticket for the 1:30 bus over to gate 10 and convinced the driver to let me on.  When I got on the bus, there were about 15 open seats.

I got on my seat in the 3rd row and looked out the window only to see another potential passenger running like OJ Simpson across the parking lot, but the bus started backing out.  "Ha ha, sucker!", yelled and  out a very, very large man with many tattoos.  "We gotta get movin'"  The bus driver didn't stop.  I didn't really feel that guilty that I made it on and he didn't.  Life isn't always fair.

Tyson was the large tattooed man, who turned out the be my new friend for the next 4 1/2 hours.   "Where you headed?", I asked him.  "Out to Oregon.  I've been on the bus for two days.  My brother's out there and he's a care giver."  I later learned that "care giver" is another name for "pot grower".  Tyson's brother has two patients.  He currently grows a total of six plants.  Evidently, people with a medical card can come to Tyson's brother's "clinic" and get enough weed to ease their pain for the week. 

"I'm going to be his third patient", Tyson informed me.  "Do you have some medical problems?", I asked him.  "Oh, hell yeah.  I've got a bad back.  I've had two surgeries and I'm not having any more.  He said I could come out there and get my medical card.  I've got all my records with me, so I should be set.  And, I'm going to learn how to grow so I can become a care giver too.  The deal is, you give half your pot to the patients and get to keep half for yourself.  Then you can sell your half to other people with cards.  Anybody can get a card in Oregon.  I mean, you can't get one if your skin itches or something, but there's a guy out there that got a card because he had a bad childhood.  Post stress or something like that."

Seated in front of Tyson was Gale.  Gale was on his way to Kansas City to pick up a truck.  I have met a surprising number of truck drivers on this trip.  Gale explained that he goes and picks up abandoned trucks from truck stops, impound lots and individuals' homes.  He's a repo man of the trucking world.  He explained,  "I make between $4,500 and $6,500 per run, depending on what's in the truck.  If it's full of stuff, they pay me more.  It's a pretty nice gig.  I'm picking this truck up today and then heading to Dallas.

"Sometimes it's dangerous.  They might pull a gun, but I just call the sheriff.  Usually it's just people who are fed up with it all and quit right on the spot.  They get to some truck stop near home, drop all their keys and shit at the desk and have their family come pick 'em up.  So, I go recover the truck."

Tyson was amazed by this and said, "how can I get in on this?".  There was a long conversation about background checks and felonies and then Tyson said, "well, I couldn't handle it anyway.  My back hurts."

Gale talked for a couple of hours about everything from how Hitler got everyone to buy into the invasion of Poland to the carbon dating of wooden bridges in the Philippines.  He also was an authority on horticulture.  "One time, I had these buds that were so potent that a hornet or bumble bee or some shit flew into the bud and I looked down and he was so stoned that he was just walking in circles around the plant."

This perked Tyson up, who then relayed a story about his miniature Collie that had inadvertently gotten into his "hash balls" and lied around the house for three days.  "He way just laying by his bowl licking at his food.  He crapped all over the house too.  My mom was pissed.  'You're gonna kill my dog".

In Booneville, we picked up a guy who looked to be in his late 40's.  He boarded the bus wearing khaki shorts, a blue shirt, white socks and black shoes.  He was carrying a brown grocery sack, not very big.  Upon overhearing Tyson, Gale and I talking and learning that I was writing a book, he spoke up: "I just got out of the penitentiary this morning.  Do you think that could make it into your book?"  "Wow, it sure could", I told him.  "How long were you in for?"  "8 months", he told me.  "That must have been rough", I said.  "It was rough enough that I don't ever want to cook dope again."

Tyson and Gale educated each other on homemade tips like using cheap dog food as fertilizer.  It's way cheaper than Miracle Grow and it evidently grows healthier plants.  Bo Peep amonia, when applied in a ring around the plant will also help yield a good crop.  They one-upped each other on how to make "good stuff prison-style" the rest of the way to Kansas City.

Tyson devoured a sandwich and complained of being "cotton mouthed" after our 20 minute stop in Columbia.  I'll let you do the math...

Left to Right: Tyson, Mike, Gale

A Good Old Fashioned Love Story

Singles bars.  Speed dating.  There are just so many ways to find that perfect someone these days.  But, nothing can take the place of finding your soul mate the good old fashioned way: on a Greyhound bus. 

That's what happened to Donna Bellamy.  She is a 55 year old driver, originally from Louisiana.  She had spent most of her life in the South.  But, after an unfulfilling decade in the insurance business, she saw an opportunity with Greyhound.  She was trained about 18 years ago in Dallas, Texas, to be a driver.  That's where she met her current husband, Tom. 

"Our anniversary is is March 14, 1992.  That's the two year anniversary of Tom being hired as a driver.  So, he has no excuse to forget our anniversary", she told me.

"You must be the only Greyhound drivers in America that are married to each other" I remarked to her.  "Well, there are a few that I know of, but there's not many.  It's hard.  We sometimes don't see each other for days on end.  It's nice now.  We're both in St. Louis and we've got some pretty good seniority.  I do the Columbus to St. Louis run and Tom does the Nashville to St. Louis run.  It works out pretty well."

Donna gets it.  She views her job as a calling.  "I love my passengers", she explained to me.  "You know, it's hard to ride the bus.  I understand that.  I've done it.  These people deserve to be treated with respect.  I've found that I get back what I give out.  If I speak to them in a calm, inviting way, they will do anything for me.  They've got my back."

Donna's right.  I've seen harsh drivers barking at passengers.  I've seen drivers that are distant, in their own world, intent on only getting the bus from here to there, but not really viewing their mission as being any more than that.  Donna was different.  She cares about her passengers.  "I've been doing this almost twenty years and I can count on one hand the number of times that I've had people give me grief to the point that I've had to do something about it.  That's not bad.  It's better than most jobs.  Just treat people how you want to be treated" she told me. 

For the five hours between Indianapolis and St. Louis, Donna told me many a story.  I'll save them for the book.  But, I will share that Donna is special.  She's like a high school teacher that keeps after it year after year because they truly enjoy it.  I always loved teachers like that.  They never seemed beat down.

"Have you ever been to the Greyhound museum?" I asked Donna.  "Oh yeah.  Tom and I went up there a few years ago on vacation.  It's in Hibbing, Minnesota", she told me.  "Well, Donna, I was wanting to go, but in a twist of irony, the Greyhound bus doesn't run to Hibbing", I complained.  "I'll tell you what you need to do.  Just take the Greyhound to Minneapolis and then can you rent you a car?"  "Sure I can, but isn't it pretty far from Minneapolis?"  She explained, "Not really.  You just go up there and it's not bad.  It's only like 3,4,5 hours up to Hibbing."  In the world of the bus driver, 3-5 hours is considered a nice afternoon drive.  For the rest of us, it's a grueling distance we might travel to visit grandma.

But I'm headed to Minneapolis.  How can I not go to the Greyhound museum?  Am I the only one surprised that there is a Greyhound museum? 

Donna told me that she and Tom took some of their old driver's uniforms up the museum.  "You know, the kind with the legs that flared out and the boots that come up to your knees" she described.  "You mean like astronaut uniforms?" I inquired.  "No, more like German soldier outfits. 

"They also have the poster with me in it on display up there.  In the 90's, I couldn't go to a Greyhound station in the country without seeing my face plastered everywhere.  That poster was all over the place for like 2,3 years...But, it was a lot of fun.  If anyone tells you that modeling isn't hard work, they don't know what they're talking about.  I had to smile for about 8 hours straight.  But, it was a lot of fun."

So, I can wait to make it to Hibbing.  I saw that they are open from 9-5, except on Sundays, from May to September. 

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Too Much Cold!

Joe and I waddled off the bus in Breezewood, Pennsylvania.  This was about the halfway point on the Baltimore-Pittsburgh leg of our voyage west.  The bus emptied out and 40 or so weary passengers headed through the puddly parking lot of the truck stop on our way to the bathroom and to buy some food.
Shedrick, our burly bus driver was in a bad mood.  He had picked up our bus in Baltimore and got the Pittsburgh run even though it's out of his district. 

Joe explained it to me this way: "when the bus is full or if they need to get moving instead of waiting for a bus that's trying to get a connection, they'll just set up another bus with another driver to make the same run.  We lucked out with Shedrick.  We got the express route.  We don't have to stop in Frederick or Hagerstown.  That will save us over a half hour.  That's just more time for us to eat and smoke in Breezewood."

At the beginning of the ride, Shedrick, upon realizing that the PA was broken (not the first bus that's had that problem), walked toward the middle of the bus for his "no smoking, do drinking, no profanity speech.  "For the next few hours, why don't you make some new friends?", he encouraged us.  "I'M MIKE", I blurted out at the top of my lungs.  "Mike, we're not in an A.A. meeting", he said, shaking his head as he went back up to fire up the bus.

Shedrick stood guard at the foot of the stairs leading off the bus, counting heads as we stopped in Breezewood.  An Asian woman, in broken English, asked Shedrick: "Is there a bathroom here?".  Shedrick took a step back, shook his head in a cartoonish way and said, "Is there a bathroom here?  Lady, this is a f-ing truck stop.  What do you mean is there a bathroom here?"  She didn't understand him, and just kept walking toward the truck stop, falling into place in the procession.

I made a big mistake.  This particular truck plaza/gift shop/diner/night school had several food options.  We didn't have time to sit down and order off a menu, waiting for our waitress to bring us some pie.  Instead, we had to file into line at the counter which featured "Blimpie, Tex-Mex, and New York Style Pizza".  I ordered the grande burrito combo meal.  For reasons I don't fully understand, the burrito was served with a wax sleeve full of hash browns.  The grande burrito had mushy meat, cold refried beans, sour cream and a bunch of olives.  But I was starving and the picture of combo meal #8 looked really appetizing.  Wrong move.

I went up to Shedrick, who was standing by a rack of grey sweatshirts that read: "Pennsylvania: the Keystone State".  I told him what I was doing, riding around the country and writing a book about the people I meet.  "You're out of your damn  mind", he told me.

I followed him out to the parking lot.  He pulled a Newport from his pack, lit it and took a long, slow drag, exhaling through his nose.  "Man, I've seen it all.  I've kicked people off the bus for drinking, smoking in the bathroom.  You got fights.  Boyfriend/girlfriend fights, girl on girl fights.  But, it's a pain in the ass to call the cops.  You gotta stop and wait for 'em to come.  It slows up my whole ride.  I like to get there.  I like my hotel time."

About this time, the two Indian passengers slowly approached.  These men were on their way back to Chicago after a few days of gambling in Atlantic City.  One of the men got really close to Shedrick and said, "the bus too much cold".  Shedrick, imitating his accent, said, "what do you mean too much cold?  It's fine".  As the Indian  men walked away, shaking their heads, Shedrick said to me, "This is what drives me nuts.  These (expletive) guys are from Pakistan or some (expletive) where it's a hundred and (expletive) ten degrees.  I'm a black guy from Philadelphia.  I like it cold."

The Indian guys bundled up on the bus, ate their candy and made the best of it...

From left to right: Mr. Too Much Cold, Joe, Shedrick

I Am Not Alone

$439 to see the country for 30 days is a bargain.  For me, it's an adventure.  I'm meeting dozens, soon to be hundreds, of people who have amazing stories.  But, for Joe Penney, this is just what he does.  In fact, he buys the longest pass Greyhound offers.  His 60 day discovery pass allows him to head here and there, day after day.  It's all part of his job.

Joe lives in Elkhart, Indiana.  I met him at the Port Authority, gate 74.  He quickly informed me that there are over 400 bus slips there in New York City.  If each bus holds between 47 and 55 passengers, and there are buses pulling in and out of these things every hour or so, you can do the math and the volume is mind-boggling.

Joe works for a company called Pinnacle, based in Elkhart.  They employ about 100 drivers that do what Joe does.  Elkhart is where pretty much every RV on the road is built.  They also make vehicles like UPS trucks, ambulances, cherry pickers and fire trucks.  Then, these vehicles need to be delivered all over the country.  That's where Pinnacle, and Joe come in.  He has a dispatcher that assigns him a run and then he can accept it or turn it down.  How does he get back to Elkhart?  You guessed it.

Joe is about the fifth person I've met on this trip who has said to me, "I've seen it all".  Over the next 11 hours, I started to believe him.  I met him about three hours after he had finished delivering a UPS truck to Secaucus, New Jersey.  He then took a city bus to the Port Authority.  "I hung out in Manhattan for an hour or so.  There's a place on the corner of 38th St. and 8th Avenue that sells two slices of pizza and a can of coke for $2.75.  That's a great deal and it's a lot healthier than a burger".  With dietary advice like that, I will be needing to purchase Sans-a-belt slacks in about a week.

Joe has been doing this since January.  That's when he moved to Elkhart from Panama City, Florida where he had worked installing blinds for the last 21 years.  He wanted to be closer to his 13 year old son.  His son lives with his mother in Elkhart and Joe gets to be with him pretty much whenever he wants.  But, his crazy schedule sometimes makes that difficult.  Joe makes time for him whenever he can and he said they enjoy going to the park, the movies and riding roller coasters together.  "He was in trouble, starting to wear Goth stuff before I moved to Elkhart.  But since I've been there, he's made a 180 degree turn.  His grades are up and we have a great time with each other."

"How often do you ride the Greyhound?" I asked him.  "This is the third time this week.  I was just here in New York two days ago.  It's nice because I can sleep on the bus and then by the time I get to Elkhart, I can pick up another run and I'm back on the road.  It's only $550 for a 60 day pass.  I can't fly or rent a car for that.  I take the bus and it's just more  money in my pocket."  Joe gets paid by the mile.  He is limited to driving 11 hours at a time.  Then he has to rest for 10. "I don't have to accept a job.  I can take as many or as few runs as I like.  It's really nice."  We left NYC at 1:30 on Friday afternoon.  He was scheduled to arrive in Elkart at 7 on Saturday morning.

It was quickly apparent that Joe doesn't view this harsh, road warrior lifestyle as a burden.  He feels really lucky that he found this job.  He enjoys it.  And, surprisingly, he loves taking the bus.  He knows over half the drivers that take him from A to B.  He calls them by name.  One driver simply calls him, "Elkhart".

I sat in the seat behind Joe from NYC to Baltimore.  Next to me was a sophomore at the University of Delaware named Kate Chiseri.  She was traveling from Albany to Wilmington, Delaware because her friend had just turned 21 and they were going to party all weekend long.  She said she was taking the bus for only the second time in her life because her parents didn't want her driving her Honda Accord, that had 240,000 miles on it, down the New Jersey turnpike on a Friday afternoon.  "You're lucky you started talking to me.  I was about 10 minutes away from putting in my Ipod and you would have missed your chance", she told me. "I'm glad I didn't listen to that whole 'don't talk to strangers' advice.  This is a lot of fun", she said after I told her who I was and what I was doing.  She didn't reach into her pink, Gamma Phi Beta bag for her Ipod the whole time.  She, Joe and I shot the bull from New York to Wilmington, about a 2 1/2 hour ride.

Joe told us about twenty stories that all began the same way: "This one bus I was on...".  You see, I don't personally have to witness everything.  I can hear about it from everyone else.  Stories on top of stories...

Kate and I were locked in as Joe said, "Some of these drivers don't put up with anything.  This one bus I was on, the driver made a U-turn two blocks from the station and kicked this guy off the bus."  "Why?", we asked in unison.  "Because this guy was calling her a bitch.  'Hurry the bus up, bitch!  What's taking so long, bitch?'  She tells him, 'you watch your mouth'."  "Well, what was taking her so long?" I asked Joe.  "She had gone to the back of the bus because she smelled vinegar and some guy was back there washing his feet in vinegar.  She had to tell him to stop.  The other guy didn't like it.  He was impatient and was all over her ass.  She pulled a U-ey right there in the middle of the road and told him, 'I can't tell you not to take a Greyhound, but you're not taking this Greyhound'.  And, off he went, cussing her the whole way.  It was nuts."

Kate won't hear anything that inspiring all semester, I suspect...

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Hit and Miss

You can't win 'em all.  I have picked my shots so far.  I bombed with today's driver Henry.  I decided to sit in the seat right behind the driver.  Although it's marked: "for elderly and disabled people", I knew this was my best shot to really get some quality time with Henry.  I wanted to probe his mind and heart, to find out what made him tick.  It wasn't easy.  Greyhound has put a plexi glass barrier behind the driver's head and the first seat.  This is because an unstable Eastern European passenger slit the throat of a driver near McMinnville, Tennessee right after 9/11.  People were worried that there was a terrorist connection but it turned out to just be a mentally ill guy acting alone.  It was tragic.  But, the consequence is that the days of sitting behind the driver and talking his head off are pretty much over.
I had to lean my head down and try and talk through the crack in the glass.
Me: Henry can you hear me?
Henry: silence
Me: How long have you been driving?
Henry: Too long
Me: Are you from Richmond (where our bus left from this morning)?
Henry: No
Me: Well, I'm going around the country for the next 30 days trying to get to know the passengers and drivers.
Henry: Ok.
And that was that.  Henry did a great job driving.  Unlike the last two drivers: Ken and JM, Henry kept the bus from weaving and bobbing like a cruise ship.  I kept peeking over his shoulder to monitor his speed and to make sure that the bus's PSI stayed over 75 because the sign next to the gauge said, "make sure the PSI stays over 75".  It was usually around 120.

A couple of realizations:
1) On Greyhound's website, they have been advertising this new, sleek, all black luxury liner.  It purports to have WiFi, places to plug in your cell phone and "increased leg space".  So far, I have been on crappy buses.  I haven't seen one of these new buses.  I'm not sure they exist.  The ones I've ridden so far smell bad.  The seats have a greasy film of God knows what and I want to bathe immediately.  They are dirty and look like they've already done a tour of duty on the streets of San Salvador.  I'm hoping this improves.
2) 97% of Greyhound passengers and drivers smoke.  So, at every stop, these nicotine hungry nomads file out of the bus like they're on a mission.  A plume of smoke surrounds the bus and people stand out in the rain in Monroe, Virginia enjoying their cigarettes as much as a death row inmate on the eve of his execution.

Thankfully, Henry was the exception more than the rule.  Most of the people I've chatted up have been pleasant and eager to share their stories with me.  I met a girl who was going from Memphis to Knoxville for her junior year at UT.  It made me kind of sad that her parents weren't driving her to school.  I learned that her mother recently passed away.  Her father is the assistant manager at a Piggly Wiggly in Memphis and was happy to drop her off for her freshman year, but told her, "I'll be back in Knoxville for your graduation."

The highlight of my trip thus far, hands down, was the traveling companion who joined me in Knoxville.  His name was Arthur, but told me to call him Art.  Here's Art and I in our seats, about 12 rows back:

This could be the funniest human being I've ever met.  All I said to him when he sat down next to me is, "where you headed"?  And then it began.  For the next 8 hours, until the carbon monoxide fumes took over and he passed out between Lynchburg and Charlottesville, Art didn't stop talking.
I'll save most of it for the book, but I'll share a few pearls.  Art is someone that I would call a theory guy.  He has a theory about everything.
In Bristol, Tennessee, there is a huge, roughly 15 foot tall guitar downtown.  At the bottom it says something like "Welcome to Bristol, Tennessee".  I said, "Art, look at that guitar".  "That belonged to Elvis", he chuckled.  "You know when Elvis started out, he wanted to sing gospel music.  He was good at it.  But that no good manager made him do rock and roll.  Elvis didn't want to do that.  Everybody says Elvis died on the shitter.  But you heard about that guy that dug up his grave, right?  He went out there one night and dug it up.  When he opened the coffin, Elvis wasn't in there."  Art's steadfast conviction in the Easter morning tale led him to continue: "I think the pressure got too much.  He staged his death and he's living on an island somewhere.  That's what all that fame will do to 'ya.  He's probably in his 70's now".

He also is convinced that Hillary Clinton was personally responsible for the Oklahoma City bombings because "that building they blew up is where they were keepin' all the records of her criminal investigation.  She didn't want them snoopin' around and set all that up."

Osama Bin Laden is alive and well and most likely in the custody of the CIA.  "You know they've got him.  He's their prodigal son.  The CIA taught him everything he knows.  The government just don't want you knowin' about it.  They'll hang on to him forever."

And, my personal favorite, "Here's what I don't get about them terrorists.  They blow theirselves up and people are tellin' them that they're gonna go to heaven and get a bunch of virgins.  The only thing their gonna get is the devil's pitchfork right up their a-hole".

It was a tearful farewell in Richmond this morning.  Art was headed to Philadelphia and then to New Jersey to some godforsaken impound lot to get a tractor trailer back that had been stolen.  I was off to New York.  I scribbled as many notes as I could so that I wouldn't lose the bulk of Art's view on the world.  He may be a little, or a lot off base, but he's a funny guy.  He served our country in Vietnam.  He has a wife and two kids and he busts his rear driving a truck for 3 weeks at a time.  He only gets to go home to Michigan for "between 36 hours and 3 days" at a time.  God bless him.

I'm going to sleep like Rip Van Winkle in my Manhattan hotel room tonight.  Then, I think I'm going to start heading West.  I've had enough of New York.  It smells like Tijuana out on the sidewalks.  People are just barrelling around and not really talking to each other.  I'm ready to see what folks in Minnesota are doing.

Stay tuned...

And So Begins the Madness

After a family photo by the front steps, Erica and my good friend Pat Madden took me to the Nashville Greyhound station. 
It was quickly apparent that this was going to be everything I have dreamed of and so much more.  A half dozen port-a-lets lined the parking lot.  I went into the indoor restroom and people were bathing in the sink, applying deodorant (thankfully) and shaving.
I made a new friend right away.  His name was Marcus. 

Marcus is from Memphis.  He was taking the Greyhound back home after a successful week of work in Nashville.  He sells pre-paid photo packages for Olan Mills.  Marcus is also an authority on the Greyhound bus.  He told me that I am going to meet "all sorts of characters" and that I was clinically insane for willfully choosing to ride this vessel for 30 days.  He said, "you'll see it all.  One time, in Memphis I saw a dude get arrested.  They brought the dogs in and they sniffed out his duffel.  It was full of drugs.  I've seen people get kicked off for drinking.  One time, there was like 5 of us on the bus, and I saw these two girls and two dudes go the back of the bus and they started doing it.  The bus driver wasn't paying any attention 'cause it was stormin' out.  He was watchin' the road."
Marcus gave me some guidance on when and where to put my bag to save my spot in line.  He wished me well and posed for the photo.
After an hour delay, our bus finally rolled in from Memphis.  I got that same excited feeling I had when I took my first school bus ride in the 2nd grade.  Will I make new friends?  Will people like me?  Where is the best place to sit?
Here's a photo of me in front of the liner on my maiden voyage:

The novelty wore off about 20 miles west of Nashville, before we got to Lebanon.  There was a bad accident and some cars were spun around in the median.  Everyone on the bus pressed their noses against the window to get a good view.  We made it to Cookeville about an hour and a half late.  We dropped off two people and picked up one.   It's like a rolling progressive dinner.  The dinner guests just change.  I have abandonment issues, so this will be a challenge.  I will try not to get too attached to any of my fellow passengers so as to save me from undue heartache.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Journey Begins Wednesday August 11

20 years ago, I went off to college with little money and no car.  I was madly in love with my high school girlfriend, Emily.  We were determined to stay together, despite the fact that she was attending Wake Forest and I was going to the University of Kentucky.  We would see each other on weekends.  We would talk on the phone.  The odds were against us, but we didn't care.
Unable to stand the separation, with the help of Kelli Phillips and Crisanne Lawson, my friends from high school that went to UK with me, a plan was hatched.  Over a six pack of Milwaukee's Best, we came up with the idea of going door to door in the girls' dormitory and asking for the spare change off their dressers.  The goal was to raise enough money for me to buy a Greyhound Bus ticket that would take me to North Carolina.  The thought was that these girls would be so taken by this story of love and devotion that they would gladly fund this voyage.
We raised about $80, which got pretty close to the cost of the ticket.  I left Lexington at 5 pm on Thursday and arrived in Winston Salem at noon on Friday.  A seven hour car ride turned into a 19 hour trip from hell.  The bus was stinky.  There were drunkards and wandering souls, all heading somewhere.  They were my traveling companions. 
About a month later, I got the dreaded phone call: "I've been doing a lot of thinking.  We're in college now and I just feel like we need to see other people..."
The sting of the breakup lasted through Christmas.  But, the memory of that bus ride has stuck with me over the years.  I felt alive.  I was on an adventure.  I had no regrets.
But now, 20 years later, life has changed.  I've married the most amazing woman, Erica Stone.  I have two great boys, Russ and Mitch.  But, sometimes, I still wonder about the bus.  When I see a Greyhound barrelling down the interstate, I imagine who's inside.  Where are they going?  What are their stories?  The only way to find out, is to ride.  And ride I will.
This Wednesday, I'm starting a 30 day journey across America.  I'm buying a "Discover America" pass that will allow me to take the bus anywhere my heart desires. 
The question before me is this: Why has this 19 hour bus trip from 20 years ago stayed so fresh in my mind?  Is it an era of my life that I miss?  Am I just trying to recapture that feeling of being young and foolish, setting out on a journey?  Or, was it because of the people that I met?  Are they still out there?  Does America even know about the passengers of the Greyhound Bus? 
I'll find out, starting this Wednesday.  My first leg will take me from Nashville to New York.  I'm hoping to barge into the office of a literary agent, tell them my tale, and suddenly be represented as an author.  We shall see.
Stay tuned...