Monday, September 6, 2010

Bunny Camp

I have been amazed on this journey by how many people have done prison time.  I hear on the news about overcrowding in prisons, but I haven't met too many people who have done time.  That has changed this month. 

Most people say that prison stinks.  The food is terrible.  The people are scary.  But, that was not the case for David.  "My name's D...David", he introduced himself.  "Cool, I'm Mike."  "Can I sit next to you?", he asked.  I scooted over and let him have the window seat on the backseat of the bus.  We picked David up in Salt Lake City.  He was on his way home to Vegas after a two year stay in the Nevada State Penitentiary.  The bus doesn't run directly from Northern Nevada down to Vegas.  You have to go through Salt Lake City.

Often, prisoners are released and given a bus ticket to their hometowns.  It would be nice if family were there to pick them up on the day of their release.  But, for the men I've met, they're on their own.  David was dressed in blue pants, kind of like scrubs, blue Vans-style shoes and a blue button up shirt.  "Why did you wear your prison clothes on your way home?", I asked him.  "I left my other clothes there at the prison for the guys that really need it.

David is 22 years old, soft spoken, very nice.  He was eager to talk with me.  He had been released earlier in the day from the prison in Winnemucca, Nevada.  He did most of his two years there and said it was by far the best prison he's been in.  "It's like bunny camp there, man".  "What does that mean?", I asked him.  "There's no problems there.  People just mind their own business.  The food's pretty good.  The guards don't bust your balls too much.  It's bunny camp."  I didn't know what to make of that.  David had been in five different prisons in Nevada during his two years.  So, he had a frame of reference, I guess.

David said he did a few days in the prison in Lovelock, where they keep OJ.  "He's in PC man.  Nobody messes with him.  He's in there with child molesters and stuff."  "What's PC?", I asked David.  "Protective custody", he responded like I was an idiot.  "He's on lockdown for 23 hours a day.  I heard he's buyin' new shoes for everyone in the prison with him."

"So, if you don't mind me asking, what were you in for?"  "Burglary and larceny", he said.  I'm not sure what the difference between the two is, but David was involved in some pretty serious stuff.  He had been knocking off jewelry stores in Las Vegas for quite a while by the time he got caught.  "I was working with this other dude.  We would go into the stores and ask to see stuff out of the case and then we'd bolt.  Sometimes, we'd take girls in with us if they were asking for ID's.  The girls would ask for the jewelry out of the case and then we'd hit the girls or knock 'em down and run out of the store.  Then the girls would act like they didn't know us when the cops came.  That worked pretty well.  But, the other guy and I split up.  He started doin' his thing and I started doin' my thing.  On the night I got caught, I learned that the night before, the owner of the jewelry store he was hittin' shot him and killed him.  I didn't know that.  So, I went to do my thing and I noticed a black dude and a white dude outside the store.  They were in an unmarked Dodge Ram.  They came in and I just put my hands up.  They tried to pin that murder thing on me, but I didn't know anything, for real.  So, because I didn't have a gun, I only got two years.  It wasn't too bad."

I asked David if he was nervous about going home.  He said he was excited to take a bath and be with his girl.  They've been dating for three years and she has stuck with him.  He said he's going to go back to school to study to be an auto mechanic.  His dad in California is a mechanic and has taught David a lot.  He doesn't plan on hooking up with any of his old buddies.  I was glad to hear that.

When we separated after arriving in Vegas, David gave me a hug and a fist bump.  He seems to be on a good path.  I hope so.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Chaos in the Cascades

I've heard crazy stories from seasoned drivers and well-traveled passengers about people being arrested on the bus for things like drugs, drinking and violence.  On Thursday night, I got to experience the height of craziness.  It was a night I'll never forget.

I had thought about heading to San Diego on Thursday, traveling down the California coast.  But, when I arrived a half hour before the 1:10 bus was to depart, I was informed that it was sold out and that the next bus would be at midnight.  Instead, I opted to go to Vegas.  That bus would leave at 7:50.  So, after killing the afternoon walking around Seattle, I headed to the terminal. 

I arrived at 7 and the line was already out the door, pouring onto the sidewalk.  The Seattle Greyhound terminal is typical.  The floor is brick colored tile and it is sticky.  There are spills and stains that have been unattended for months.  About 40% of the vending machines and phones have "out of order" signs taped to them.  It is crowded and doesn't smell very good.  I went to the men's room and passed by an African American man standing in front of the sinks.  He had dirty clothes, a red mesh ball cap and was cradling a big oil can of Busch beer.  He was talking to himself and then looked at me and mumbled something.  I just proceeded to the urinal.  I walked out of the bathroom and saw a woman with a cast on her foot using her good foot to push a scooter around the waiting area.  It was a circus.

When I joined the line, people were already agitated.  It was getting close to our departure time and the bus was nowhere to be seen.  At about 8:30, I walked up to the ticket counter.  "Do you know what the deal is with the 7:50 bus?", I asked the guy.  "No.  It's late.  The bus isn't here yet", he nonchalantly replied.  He didn't care.  Nobody really cares, except the people waiting for the bus.

On the sidewalk, there was a cluster of people just hanging out drinking and smoking.  Greyhound stations are popular gathering spots for this kind of activity.  Everyone in line was complaining about the delay.  When I reported to the interested parties that "the bus is late and they don't know when it will be here", people just shook their heads and lit cigarettes. 

I looked forward in the line and saw my friend from the bathroom holding a bus ticket.  I couldn't believe he was going to be on the bus.  He kept working his way back to everyone in line: "you got a cigarette?"  He would wobble as he stood and would stare at people for an uncomfortably long time, his eyes struggling to focus.  Everyone blew him off and he just kept trying.  I figured the security guard would stop him before he could get on the bus. 

That turned out not to be the case.  Our bus finally arrived, just before 9:00 and we started boarding.  The security guard was having a discussion with the man in the red cap, but he let him on.  We all filed on the bus and it was packed.  Before we even left Seattle, I could hear activity from the back of the bus, about 5 rows behind me.  The lady on the scooter and the African American guy were going at it, arguing about space issues.  Things calmed down, but not for long.

About 45 minutes outside of Seattle, we were climbing up toward Snoqualmie Pass and I started to smell cigarette smoke.  This is against the law, as the driver explains at the start of every trip.  "Stop smoking!  You're going to get kicked off the bus!", I heard coming from the back.  It wasn't another passenger chastising the smoker, it was the smoker herself.  The lady with the cast and scooter was yelling at herself.  She flicked her lit cigarette under the seat in front of her.  A college-aged guy picked up the cigarette and ran to the bathroom to throw it down the toilet. 

With all of the hubbub, our driver Curtis, pulled over on the side of the interstate and turned on all the lights.  He made his way to the back of the bus.  "You need to stop smoking or I'll have to kick you off the bus", he told the woman after getting a report from the surrounding passengers.  "Shut up", she told him.  "Shut up and drive the f-ing bus".  The driver just ignored her and went back behind the wheel.

The resolution didn't last long.  About five minutes later, she started kicking her feet against the wall of the bathroom, screaming:  "I don't want to go to Pasco! (Pasco, Washington was her destination)  Just drive the f-ing bus.  Shut up!  Shut up!"  She was talking to herself and getting louder by the minute.  It will forever be a mystery whether it was sheer mental illness or the influence of some strong drugs, but I've never seen anything like it.

It got worse.  "You shut up!  Get your black ass off the bus!"  She was screaming now.  Everyone started standing up and turning around to see what was going on.  She had singled out the Busch drinker and was berating him for no apparent reason.  She was yelling at him and even dropped the big word on him.  People started yelling at her: "Shut up lady!  Settle down".  She had no part of that.  Suddenly, she got up out of her seat and punched the African American man in the mouth. 

Again, the driver pulled the bus over and turned the lights on.  As he came to the back, the woman started charging at him, pushing him.  Curtis was a smallish man and was trying his best to diffuse the situation, but this woman was far gone.  She ran toward the front of the bus.  "Let me off the f-ing bus!  Let me off.  LET ME OFF!" she screamed.  As she made her way to the front gate, a man swung his cane at her head.  They decided to open the gate and let her off.  There was panic and people were screaming, "don't let her off!  She's going to run on the interstate!"  But she took off running up the shoulder of the road.  The driver called 911.

I was trying to get the best view I could, peering out the front window.  I saw the man she had punched chase her down the road and he lunged at her ankles.  Curtis was in tow behind the two of them.  The lunge was successful and all three of them crashed on the gravel berm like linebackers.  Curtis and Mr. Busch were sitting on top of the woman, keeping her from running off.  She was large and violent.  They stayed on top of her for about five minutes until the police showed up.  They immediately cuffed her.  The large officers were able to pick her up and carry her to the cruiser.  I was out on the side of the road watching this go down, at that point, unable to contain my curiosity.

She was bucking and kicking.  They shoved her head into the back of the police car, but she wasn't going in easily.  It took three officers to get her in.  Then, they gathered information for the next 20 minutes.  Everyone was eager to get off the bus to add their two cents, but mostly they were excited about this bonus smoke break.

I was able to snap a couple of blurry shots of the arrest.

We wound up being over 2 hours late.  People missed connections left and right.  One guy was going to have to stay in Stanfield, Oregon until two the next afternoon to catch the next bus going in his direction.  Everyone was given an incident report to fill out.  Most people wadded it up and threw it under the seat in front of them.  Some people did artwork on theirs.  A couple of dutiful people handed in the form.  I did not.  I was tired. 

The rest of the trip went smoothly, but there was a buzz on the bus, and not just the typical chemically induced buzz.  This was a night we would all remember forever.  Nobody got too upset about the delays.  It's Greyhound and "stuff happens".

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Childhood Memories

I wasn't completely honest the other night.  While the goal of this project is to ride around the country, learn about who's on the bus, listen to their stories and communicate them with the world, sometimes I need to sleep.  In the drizzling rain in Billings, Montana, I did yet another "claim and transfer".  Claim and transfer is fancy talk for, "walk out beside the bus, trample anyone in your way like you're at a Who concert, grab your bags and try not to let anyone steal anything for the next hour until you have to shove the bag into the bowels of another bus."

From Billings, we began the interminable trek across the southern belly of Montana in the dead of night.  I was exhausted.  In Bozeman or Butte or some such town, we stopped for a 10 minute smoke break.  I opted to just keep my head on the pillow, enjoying the two seats that I had eminent domained two states ago.  I tried to pretend I was sleeping as a train of 4 or 5 new passengers got on the bus.  I was wondering why people pick the seat next to me.  Why don't they sit next to the girl with the piercings?  Why don't they sit next to the college girl?  I've tried to put my bag in the seat next to me.  I've tried to rock back and forth and mumble to myself as people walk by. 

But, on this night, I had no choice.  The guy said, "I sit here?".  I huffed and puffed and moved my bag to the floor and crammed myself into the small space next to the window and then, in a moment of genius, I started coughing.  I started coughing like I couldn't stop.  Then, I said to my new seatmate: "You can sit here if you want, but I'm sick.  Really sick.  I think I have the pig flu."  He just smiled and sat down next to me.  I later learned that he didn't speak English.  Unfortunately, the father of six in the row in front of me did speak English.  "If my kids end up getting sick, so help me..."

I dropped the act and just accepted that I would be awake until I said goodbye to Jesus, when he would get off in Missoula.  I later fessed up to Carmen, the dad, that I didn't have pig flu or any kind of flu.  I just wanted to sleep.  "You gotta do what you gotta do, man", he said to me as we enjoyed a cup of coffee in St. Regis, Montana.  I explained to him that I was traveling the country writing my book about my experience.  "You are straight up crazy, man", he said to me with a smile.  "I just spent the last two weeks on this damn bus.  My kids and I went to Detroit for my grandparents' birthday.  They're 98 and we don't know how much time we got left with them.  So, I busted myself out buying these bus tickets.  I'm never taking the bus again."  Carmen is about the 50th person I have heard make that proclamation on this trip. 

His kids were really well behaved.  He was doing a great job with them, considering the required vigilance that it took to make sure that no creepy strangers talked to his kids, to make sure they were fed, to take them to the bathroom and to try and keep them from misbehaving on the bus.  Earlier in the night, Carmen went off on his daughter who raised the armrest and couldn't get it back down.  "Why would you do that?  I just put that (expletive) thing down and now you raised it up again.  What's wrong with you?"

At the coffee stop I said, "Carmen, your kids are amazing.  They are doing so well.  I don't think I could have handled a trip like this when I was 9 years old."  "Thanks, man.  It's just that they start acting squirrely and I worry they're going to bug everyone on the bus", he explained.  Carmen is a kindred spirit.  I have worried my whole parental life about that same thing.  There's nothing worse than thinking that other people believe you are a crappy parent or have no control over your kids.  You want them to behave.  "Well, you're probably the only one that's stressed at all.  It's because they're your kids.  Just relax.  You're almost home.  They're not bothering anybody.  They're doing great", I assured him.  Carmen appreciated that and was glad to have a new friend for the last three hours of his trip.  We talked about parenting, sports and life.  Carmen shared that this Friday, September 3, he was finally marrying his girlfriend of 19 years, the mother of his six children.  He was excited and had a beaming smile as he explained that they were going to get married by some lake in Eastern Washington with a large canopy of pine trees all around. 

He gladly let me snap this picture of his family when his girlfriend came to pick them all up east of Spokane.

Jean was our new driver in St. Regis.  She would take us all the way to Seattle.  The law says that drivers can only drive 10 hours at a time until they need to rest for 14.  That's probably a good law, but it means that Greyhound has carefully mapped out runs.  We said goodbye to Sean, a large Vietnamese driver who had taken us from Billings to St. Regis.  "I like driving at night.  Everyone on the bus is asleep and I don't have to deal with too much", he explained to me.

Jean was completely different.  She loves to drive in the daytime.  I soon learned why.  About a half mile out of St. Regis, heading west on I-90, she asked over the PA, "would you all like it if I shared a little bit of the history about some of these towns while I drove?"  There was very little reaction from the 55 passengers.  Finally, after an uncomfortably long silence, one person yelled out, "yeah".  That was all Jean needed.  For the next eight hours, she peppered us with history, biology, geology, geography and recreational nuggets of information.  It was all included in our bus fare.  It was the first time I had seen a driver do this.  It was like having a museum docent taking us across the entire state of Washington.

Jean started in about the Tamarack trees.  "The large pine trees you see are the Tamaracks.  They only grow west of the continental divide, which is somewhere around Butte.  Their needles actually turn yellow and orange in the fall and they lose them.  They grow new needles each spring.  If you look off to the left, you'll see some trees that were snapped in half by a wind blast, WAIT, DO I SMELL CIGARETTE SMOKE?  THERE IS NO SMOKING ON THE BUS!"  "It was me", said a heavily tattooed guy about halfway back on the bus.  He had just spent twenty minutes in the bathroom.  "I pooped and so I lit a match.  Sorry". 

I think he was smoking.  But the match story was a good cover.  Jean let him have it: "What do you think they would do to you if you did that on a plane?  Would you do that on a plane?  They would be waiting to arrest you.  What made you think you could do that?..."  The offending party said "sorry" a couple more times and then just stared out the window as Jean continued her speech from behind the wheel.

After five minutes or so, Jean had cooled off and then gently resumed, "the fire of 1910 claimed many lives here in Kellogg, Idaho.  Some people survived by hiding in tunnels under the mountain.  A man named Pulaski is credited with saving scores of people.  In fact the firemen have a safety procedure now named, 'the Pulaski'.  Over to the right, you'll see the mine that was the site of the tragic collapse in 1975..."

At this point, I did some calculations.  While Jean was speaking, of the 55 passengers, I would say 15 were drunk or high, 20 were sleeping, 12 more were either arguing with the person next to them or talking loudly on their cell phones and there were maybe 8 of us remaining that were dialed in to Jean's symposium on all things Idaho, and Montana, and Washington.

At a smoke break in Moses Lake, Washington, I felt a flood of childhood memories coming back.  I felt bad for Jean.  She was bright, very knowledgeable and had been driving this bus for the last 30 years of her life.  She's had to deal with snowstorms, moose in the road and match lighters on the bus.  I wanted her to know I appreciated her efforts to inform and entertain us.  But why?  Why did I need to compliment her?  Why did I care about how Jean was feeling?  Why is it my job to feel uncomfortable that nobody on the bus is listening to this woman who is trying to give us a gift?

I think it goes back to my childhood.  My dad got his PhD in Zoology.  Every ride in the backseat of the Buick LeSabre was incomplete without comments from my dad like, "Hey kids, do you see the ruby crested nuthatch?"  "Where?"  "Over there.  Don't you see it?"  "No".  "It's a male.  He's sitting on the power line."  I rarely saw the birds.  But, my dad kept trying to get my sister and me to be interested in birds and trees and thirteen lined ground squirrels.  I never have been much interested in them.  But, I wanted my dad to love me, so I did my best.

I guess I wanted Jean to love me too.  I moved from my seat next to a guy who I was sure was suffering from tuberculosis, to the front row of the bus.  I wanted Jean to know that someone appreciated her.  I guess that was my role in the bus family.  I asked her many questions.  I occasionally regressed into being a smart ass, which was a defense mechanism growing up.  "Cle Elum is the next town we'll be passing.  It means swift water in Indian", Jean offered.  "Jean, how would the Indians even know about Swiss people?"  "No, no no.  Swift water."  "Oh, my bad."

Jean loves driving the bus.  She's had the Washington and Oregon runs for the entirety of her 30 year career.  She started the same week that Mt. St. Helen's blew up, in May of 1980.  She grew up in Massachusetts, but went out west with a friend the summer after she graduated from high school and never came back.  "It was during the John Denver craze.  There was this romance of the mountains.  I fell in love with it.  I love it out here.  Washington has everything.  Within three hours of Seattle, you can be in the mountains, on the beach, in the desert or picking apples.  What other state can say that?"

I liked Jean.  I appreciated her.  She shared about her genealogy studies, how she once "nicked an elk" with her bus (I doubt the elk felt 'nicked'), how her brother got cellulitis from accidentally eating some turkey poop on their farm in Massachusetts, and how Washington exports tons of Timothy Hay to Japan.  "I like sharing some of this stuff with the passengers.  Most people are having a bad day on the bus.  Maybe I can make it a little brighter." 

Thanks, Jean.  You sure brightened my day.

Mike and Jean